Kraft Cuts the Calories

Folk rocker Dan Bern dreamed of a new American language a while back, and Merriam-Webster is finally coming through. The company, which reprints its best-selling Collegiate Dictionary every 10 years, released its latest edition today with 10,000 brand-new words, including "headbanger," "longneck," and "Frankenfood." The new version may bring considerable relief to former "dot-commers" now searching for "McJobs." Once you're in the dictionary, you're legit. Keep your head up!

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Kraft Cuts the Calories

The maker of cheese, Oreos, and Oscar Mayer cold cuts says it will begin offering healthier products "in response to rising obesity rates around the world," but you can bet the threat of litigation is playing a role, also.

In a sweeping overhaul, Kraft Foods(NYSE: KFT) said today it would lower the fat and calorie content of many existing products and provide alternative choices where appropriate (good), as well as limit the portion size of single-serve packages (of dubious help -- we'll just eat two portions).

What may be most helpful is the company's promise to eliminate all marketing in schools and to "encourage appropriate eating behaviors and active lifestyles" in children. A healthy diet helps, to be sure, but an active lifestyle (i.e., exercise) is an essential part of curbing obesity.

Other food companies are also making the move toward healthy. USA Today says McDonald's(NYSE: MCD) will be testing the option to replace french fries with fresh fruit in its Happy Meals this summer, PepsiCo's(NYSE: PEP) Frito Lay will soon eliminate all artery-clogging trans fatty acids from its snacks, and Kellogg(NYSE: K) recently acquired Kashi, which makes cereals without highly refined sweeteners or preservatives.

Far from altruistically motivated, food makers are hoping to minimize future litigation. As USA Today says, "The nearly $1 trillion U.S. food industry has emerged as the fall guy for a coast-to-coast epidemic of obesity." Kraft's parent, Philip Morris-turned-Altria(NYSE: MO), knows all too well the cost of constant courtroom battles. And McDonald's, of course, was recently accused of misleading consumers about the healthiness of its food. Though that class action lawsuit was dismissed in January, Ronald McDonald is now Grimacing over charges that its fatty food is addictive.

No matter how you feel about the litigation, it's obviously forcing some changes.

Quote of Note

"The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit." -- Somerset Maugham, British novelist and playwright, 1874-1965

Wal-Mart Wears the Crown

Stores, the National Retail Federation's magazine, recently released its list of the top 100 largest retailers based on 2002's sales results. The usual suspects occupied the top three slots, but there was a bit of shuffling down below.

Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT), unsurprisingly, headed the list. From the looks of it, don't expect the Arkansas giant to be supplanted by another retailer anytime soon. Its 2002 sales of $246.5 billion (billion!) so outpaces the No. 2's $58.2 billion that it's difficult to imagine a scenario where Wal-Mart doesn't rule. According to an article in the same issue, its stateside sales constituted 6.8% of the U.S.'s total sales last year.

Wal-Mart has changed everything in retailing. Its influence reaches so widely that -- love it or hate it -- you can't deny its presence. In fact, because of the company, Fayetteville, Ark. (which is near Wal-Mart's Bentonville), recently surpassed Las Vegas, Nev., as the fastest-growing place in America. Making Arkansas an economic mecca? Now that's power.

Home Depot(NYSE: HD) took the No. 2 spot, while smaller rival Lowe's(NYSE: LOW) ranked 12th, up two positions from last year. Discounter Target(NYSE: TGT) bumped Sears(NYSE: S) down a notch, nabbing fourth place and dropping Sears to fifth. Target continues to stand out as a fashionable discount destination. Sears, on the other hand, grew sales at a scant 0.9% over the year before, and is trying to resolve some operational challenges.

Warehouse supernova Costco(Nasdaq: COST) leapfrogged two spots, from No. 8 to No. 6, with almost $38 billion in sales last year. It pushed Albertson's(NYSE: ABS) down to seventh place, and troubled Kmart(Nasdaq: KMRT) fell from seventh place to 10th following a 15% drop in sales to $30.7 billion.

Drugstores Walgreen(NYSE: WAG) and CVS(NYSE: CVS) didn't budge, keeping their 11th and 13th spots, respectively. Also staying put was Kroger(NYSE: KR), in the No. 3 position, and Best Buy(NYSE: BBY) with its 15th place ranking.

Three of the main movers -- Target, Lowe's, and Costco -- all share innovation as a common trait for success. They've all differentiated themselves, their products, and their approaches from their larger competitors. Wal-Mart may remain entrenched at the top, but expect these three to keep shaking things up below as time goes on.

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Fat Pay Harder to Hide

Around 6,200 publicly traded companies will have to put all equity compensation plans to a shareholder vote -- including stock option plans -- under new rules passed yesterday by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The rules apply to material changes to existing plans, such as repricing of stock options.

The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the Nasdaq proposed the rules, which are requirements for listing. The NYSE had a pilot program that exempted broad-based equity compensation plans from the shareholder approval requirement, but the new rules boot the exemption.

The rules come on the heels of heated battles between shareholders and managers at such companies as Hewlett-Packard(NYSE: HPQ) over poison pills, executive severance packages, and expensing stock options. Shareholder proposals are up 200% this year, according to the Investor Responsibility Research Center.

Will this benefit investors? Probably, but we can't sit on our hands.

Everyone wants to pay managers properly and to align their interests with shareholders, but it has been hard to find the information. Huge institutional stockholders such as CalPERS, the $130 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System, are exercising more of their shareholder muscle and publicizing more pay details that are sometimes buried in company filings -- and sometimes not even buried anywhere.

CalPERS cites plans of companies such as JDS Uniphase(Nasdaq: JDSU) and TiVo(Nasdaq: TIVO) that it says automatically boost the number of shares in options plans by a specific amount each year, and others such as Juniper Networks(Nasdaq: JNPR) and PMC-Sierra(Nasdaq: PMCS) that allow executives to reprice their own underwater options.

If the new rules not only subject these plans to a vote but also make the information more easily available, informed investors can decide whether to join the fight or vote with their feet. That will be the best way to hasten the end of what John Wasik calls today's corporate twist to Harry Truman's "The buck stops here": The bucks never stop.

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Quick Takes

Video game software company Activision(Nasdaq: ATVI) has sued Viacom(NYSE: VIA) for failing sufficiently to promote the Star Trek franchise. Activision, which licenses the brand from Viacom for video games, says that Viacom has breached its contract to promote it.

More and people are signing up for satellite radio service from XM(Nasdaq: XMSR), which today reported a total of 692,253 subscribers, after adding 209,178 in Q2. The Q2 gain is 55% higher than the 135,000 snagged in Q1. The company's goal is 1 million by the end of the year. XM's competitor Sirius Satellite Radio(Nasdaq: SIRI) continues to lag. In May, it announced 68,000 subs for Q1 and seeks 300,000 by year-end.

Yes, Virginia, there are IPOs. Bermuda-based insurer Axis Capital Holdings(NYSE: AXS) went public today, its shares climbing 19% by mid-day. Axis, founded in November 2001, was part of a group of insurers founded after the Sept. 11 attacks to meet the need for new insurance not subject to huge claims losses.

Traditional food producer Dean Foods(NYSE: DF) said it would buy 87% of groovier Horizon Organics(Nasdaq: HCOW) for $256 million in cash and debt, which translates to $24 a share and a 27% premium over its prior close. Dean acquired 13% of Horizon when it purchased Suiza Foods last year.

And Finally...

Today on Fool.com:

  • For updated stories throughout the day, bookmark our ever-changing News section.
  • World Tech Domination?: Tom Jacobs looks at a risky tech company with great potential.
  • Stop Saving Blindly: Autopilot can keep you in the air, but you need to take the controls to land.
  • Millennium Pharmaceuticals signs a cancer drug agreement with J&J.
  • The closely watched Purchasing Manufacturers' Index comes in below expectations.
  • In Fool's School, what does it mean to "buy the dividend" in a mutual fund?

Contributors:
Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Mathew Emmert, Jeff Fischer, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Reggie Santiago, Kate Southerland, Dayana Yochim


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