"New York fines Bill Gates for defacing public property." Now there's a headline few could have predicted.

In a $300 million ad campaign to promote Microsoft's(Nasdaq: MSFT) upgraded MSN Internet service, which will now provide content from Disney(NYSE: DIS) to better compete with America Online(NYSE: AOL), the software king scattered MSN's colorful butterfly decal over New York sidewalks, streets, and other public property. The city has sent Microsoft a $50 summons for the "illegal, irresponsible, and dangerous defacing of public property."

The company may have to wait for court approval of its landmark antitrust settlement with the government, however, before it can afford to pay the ticket.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Starbucks' Hot Plans

Looking at Starbucks(Nasdaq: SBUX), you'd never guess that the economy is shaky or that consumer confidence is at a nine-year low. You'd never discern that many other retailers are struggling to maintain sales growth.

The purveyor of all things coffee has had a blistering year and doesn't intend to slow down soon.

At its biennial analyst and investor conference yesterday, the company said fiscal fourth-quarter earnings will be $0.15 a share, higher by a penny than its own estimate but in line with Street expectations. That puts year-end earnings at $0.55, excluding one-time items, and $0.54 including them.

For fiscal 2003, it anticipates earning between $0.65 and $0.66 a share. That would be right in keeping with its projected earnings-per-share annual growth target of 20% to 25%. It also plans to keep growing annual revenues at a 20% clip.

How on earth does it plan to maintain this growth? Well, let's put it this way -- if you think there are a lot of Starbucks now, just wait. You ain't seen nothin' yet.

Starbucks has said it eventually plans to have 25,000 locations worldwide, and it's sticking to it. That's a 5,000-store increase from its projection just two years ago. Clearly, it sees an expanding market, as it continues to plop down locations in places as disparate as China, Greece, and Mexico. One day, it hopes to have 15,000 overseas locations.

And the growth won't only happen abroad. The company says it has set up shop in only 150 of the largest 300 American markets. It's not leaving out the little guys, either, as it intends to add stores in rural areas. Getting a local Starbucks appears to be an equal-opportunity proposition.

Currently, there are over 5,000 Starbucks scattered across the globe. The company plans to open 1,200 in fiscal 2003 and 10,000 by the end of fiscal 2005 -- in 60 countries. That's absolutely intoxicating growth -- if the company can pull it off.

Starbucks hasn't disappointed the Street in recent memory, outside of that Internet foolishness a few years ago. Its stock has almost always traded at a P/E above its anticipated earnings growth rate, a premium investors keep paying for -- currently a hefty 45 times earnings. To maintain this in the future, it will be critical for the company to grow smartly and keep costs in check. This will be much more challenging with a monstrous store base, but Starbucks isn't known for backing down from challenges, and it's certainly not known for failing.

Quote of Note

"Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and as sweet as love." -- Turkish proverb

The Future of Stock Analysts

Last week, we told you that many major Wall Street firms were open to the idea of eliminating their ludicrous stock rating systems. In return, the companies -- such as Merrill Lynch(NYSE: MER), Citigroup's(NYSE: C) Salomon Smith Barney, Credit Suisse First Boston(NYSE: CSR), Morgan Stanley(NYSE: MWD), Goldman Sachs(NYSE: GS), and J.P. Morgan Chase(NYSE: JPM) -- would want an end to the various conflict-of-interest probes that have dogged the industry for months.

The beginning of the end came when New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer obtained internal emails showing Merrill analysts praised certain stocks publicly while denigrating them privately. Spitzer forced a settlement, but other regulatory agencies are still conducting their own industry-wide investigations.

If stock ratings disappear, what's the alternative? One suggestion, proposed by Spitzer, calls for the creation of a research consortium from which all firms could draw. But The Washington Postsays the idea has been met by "strong objections," especially from companies that would have to contribute funding even though they'd have little need for the group's research.

As the various parties continue to negotiate at SEC headquarters in New York, the most likely solution, at this point, would have the firms buy research from independent companies, which they could then distribute to clients as they wished. That would not only eliminate conflicts of interest, but also likely raise the level of research available, since only the best analysts would survive in the long run.

No matter which solution is finally agreed upon, the Post says each brokerage would likely retain its own in-house research team -- if only to advise the investment-banking department. Whatever happens, we'll be happy to say goodbye to the world of "buy," "sell," and "hold," along with the conflicts of interest it generates.

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Dot-Com Survivors

Have you noticed something different about the Internet stocks that survived the dot-com bubble?

Last night, Amazon(Nasdaq: AMZN) reported a stronger than expected 33% uptick in revenue on the way to raking in $120 million in free cash flow over the past year. It also upped its guidance for its seasonally potent December period. That follows search provider Overture(Nasdaq: OVER), which topped analyst targets on Tuesday with revenue up a whopping 138% on record profits of $0.28 a share. Last week, Netflix(Nasdaq: NFLX) raised the bar on its video rental outlook for the holiday season, after Yahoo!(Nasdaq: YHOO) and eBay(Nasdaq: EBAY) smoked projections earlier this month.

The Internet sector has logged more hits than the Anaheim Angels lately, with Amazon's shares nearly tripling over the past year. Yahoo! and AOL Time Warner(NYSE: AOL), whose stocks dipped into the single digits over the summer, trade in the mid-teens now.

What gives? Like a cheesy B-movie, are these the horrific beasts that can't be killed? A couple of years ago, dot-com upstarts sucked down venture capital like plasma, and it bled out of their collective pores for a while. Now they seem to be self-sustaining, profitable survivors, with the intriguing distinction of hitting Wall Street numbers out of the ballpark at a time when many other sectors are striking out.

Ironic, ain't it?

Somewhere out there, eToys and Webvan are kicking themselves. If only they could've outlived the hype, maybe -- just maybe -- they would be giants walking through the ruins today. They banked on a never-ending supply of subsidies without ever formulating a workable operating model.

The Internet is a viable business format now, and those left standing are doing so unassisted. Pity the carnage.

Discussion Board of the Day: Amazon

What did you think of Rule Breaker Amazon's earnings yesterday? Have the recent stock gains been warranted? What's up with that gold treasure chest on the site, anyway? All this and more -- in the Amazon discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Quick Takes

It appears a divided SEC is set to name former FBI chief William Webster to head the newly formed national oversight board. That agency will regulate the accounting industry in the wake of various corporate scandals that have rocked Wall Street over the past year. The three Republican members of the SEC selection panel are backing Webster, but the two Democrats bitterly oppose him because of his ties to the accounting profession. SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt has been the subject of withering criticism after he apparently withdrew support for front-runner John Biggs, allegedly because of pressure from the accounting industry.

Shares of Cigna(NYSE: CI) dropped about 40% this afternoon after the health insurer warned of drastically lower earnings in 2003. This came one day after it lowered third-quarter and full-year 2002 targets.

Saying it has "concerns about the adequacy of restructuring measures being implemented... to restore the competitiveness of its core automotive operations," Standard & Poor's today cut Ford's(NYSE: F) credit rating to two notches above "junk." The downgrade could make it more difficult and costly for the auto maker to borrow money.

Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) reported a confusing array of third-quarter earnings-per-share numbers, but the bottom line is this: The defense contractor grew its free cash flow for the nine months ended Sept. 30 by 24% over the same period last year.

It looks like Carnival(NYSE: CCL) will make off with the princess after all. P&O Princess Cruises(NYSE: POC) originally rejected Carnival's takeover bid because it had agreed to merge with Royal Caribbean Cruises(NYSE: RCL) almost a year ago. Once the pot was sweetened, however, Princess no longer viewed Carnival as a clown.

And Finally...

Today on Fool.com: Bill Mann says the American economy would benefit from more bankruptcies.... In our Tax Center, read why you may not have to file a separate form for interest and dividend income.... In Fool's School, should you buy a new or used car?... And the Post of the Day: Apple.

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Jackie Ross, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim