Talk about whitewash -- we're still recovering here at Fool HQ. Mother nature pounded the Washington, D.C., area with 16 to 25 inches of snow, depending upon exactly where you were situated. A few of us made it into the office today to produce your daily content, with most of our writers working remotely -- thank goodness for telecommuting.

Snow blind or not, we do want to highlight some planned changes in our investing strategies area: Today, we announced the end of our real-money portfolios. You can find out all about this programming decision in a letter from David and Tom Gardner and in an in-depth FAQ written by Jeff Fischer in our Rule Breaker Portfolio space. There is much to read there, so we'll let you take it all in, after you read today's Motley Fool Take, of course:

Options Battle Escalates

Well, this is certainly interesting. Just as the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) was set to consider forcing companies to account for stock options as an expense, 40 members of Congress are stepping forward in an attempt to quash the idea.

The lawmakers are concentrated in and around the technology-rich districts of California's Silicon Valley -- home of such firms as Intel(Nasdaq: INTC), Cisco Systems(Nasdaq: CSCO), Hewlett-Packard(NYSE: HPQ), Sun Microsystems(Nasdaq: SUNW), Oracle(Nasdaq: ORCL), and eBay(Nasdaq: EBAY). The effort is being led by Reps. Anna Eshoo and David Dreier.

Now, we're not going to suggest that the representatives are being unduly influenced by contributions from companies opposing the change. There are, after all, reasonable arguments for both sides (see Dueling Fools: Should Stock Options Be Expensed?).

But others, such as former SEC chief accountant Lynn Turner, are not being so kind. "This is the clearest indication that for certain members of Congress," he told USA Today, "their votes are for sale every day of the year.'' Ouch.

The 40 lawmakers know they're stepping into a tough brawl. They are facing pressure from their colleagues in the Senate, for instance. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have sponsored a letter urging the FASB to forge ahead and require the expensing of options.

In addition, some influential companies that once opposed the idea are now reversing course. Accounting firm Ernst & Young, stung by the disclosure it helped set up options-related tax shelters for Sprint(NYSE: FON) executives, has now told the FASB it's in favor of expensing.

The board will take up the issue during a closely watched meeting next month.

Quote of Note

"The world is wearied of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians." -- Benjamin, Earl of Beaconsfield Disraeli (1804-1881)

Wal-Mart's Winning Year

The world's hugest retailer, Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT), reported strong fourth-quarter and year-end results this morning. Despite relative same-store sales weakness over the last few months, it proved once again that it's the biggest and toughest dog in the pack.

It earned $8 billion for the year, ahead of the previous year's $6.7 billion by 20%. That's impressive growth for any company, but it's even more so for one as large as Wal-Mart. In its fourth quarter, the retailer's net income grew by 15.5% to $2.5 billion. On a per-share basis, it earned $1.81 for the year and $0.57 for the quarter. Free cash flow grew a whopping 69%.

Sales for the year ended Jan. 31 jumped 12.3% to $244.5 billion. To give that number some perspective, consider that it translates into average daily sales of around $670 million. Even by Wal-Mart's supersized standards, that's astonishing to think about.

Fourth-quarter sales grew at a slower 10.7% to $71 billion. Total comps for the period improved by 2.7%, while for the year, they were up 5.1%. Wal-Mart had difficulty meeting its own comps expectations during the holiday season, and the relatively low quarterly figure reflects that.

The Dow component hopes that comps begin to strengthen soon, starting in February. Yesterday, it said that over the last week it is "on track" to meet its comps gain of 2% to 4% for the month. Sales were boosted in February's second week by both duct tape and lingerie. Yes, you read that right. But before you get scandalous thoughts of Americans trying to emulate Joe Millionaireloser Sarah's foray into bondage flicks, remember that last week hosted both a terror warning and Valentine's Day. Stopping by to stock up on duct tape -- and grab a little something sheer and lacey at the same time -- therefore makes perfect sense.

Looking ahead, Wal-Mart predicts earnings for the current fiscal year will be $2.00-$2.05 a share. That would mean earnings growth between 10.5% and 13%. Should the economy pick up, it is likely to do even better, though, and that's reason to celebrate. Someone pass the skimpy nighties and duct tape, please.

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Reuters Buys Multex

Investment research consolidator Multex(Nasdaq: MLTX) is being acquired by reporting giant Reuters(Nasdaq: RTRSY) at a 60% premium to yesterday's share price. Multex shares leapt from $4.50 to above $7 this morning on news that Reuters would pay the equivalent of $195 million for the 94% of Multex shares it doesn't already own.

Today's buyout price gives Multex a market value of about $235 million, but it also holds $50 million in cash, giving the deal an enterprise value of $185 million. That's about two times its $92 million in 2002 sales, and 16 times its 2002 EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) of $11.5 million. Multex lost $7.4 million last year, and is expected to be slightly above breakeven this year.

Reuters, meanwhile, is suffering declining sales, recorded its first annual loss, and warned today that the first half of 2003 would not usher in a recovery. It now expects to cut 3,000 jobs (rather than 1,000) by 2005. Today's acquisition offers a small ray of sunshine. Multex will give Reuters lucrative access to the investment research community at a time when the industry is undergoing change. Change means opportunity. Investment firms may soon be required to provide third-party research and Multex is angling for a piece of that large pie.

It does not appear that Reuters is overpaying for Multex, implying that the stock was undervalued -- at least to an acquiring company -- at $4.50 per share. Reuters can scale Multex to increase its value. So, could peers be "cheap" as well? TheStreet.com(Nasdaq: TSCM) and MarketWatch(Nasdaq: MKTW) have improving financials and substantial cash, but they continue to suffer depressed share prices. Questions remain: How long before earnings would make the stocks attractive? And would a company want to acquire either before then?

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Quick Takes

Does anyone have some "Get Well" greeting cards handy? Despite this being the industry's seasonal peak, American Greetings(NYSE: AM) is down in the dumps. With the stock trading near its 52-week low, it's time for a new Valentine. The company named a new CEO and a new president, along with cost-shaving initiatives that could save the greeting-card giant between $50 million to $75 million over the next two years. Looking to inject some youth into an aging sector, both new leaders are in their late '30s.

It's getting chilly in here. At least, that was the reason communication specialist Bowne(NYSE: BNE) gave for calling off this morning's conference call to discuss its fourth-quarter results. It's hard to blame the New York company for rescheduling a third time, given the recent blast of snow in the area. Flights weren't the only things delayed and grounded. The firm will, hopefully, release its results after tomorrow's market close.

Uniform maker Cintas(Nasdaq: CTAS) was dressed down today after warning that it will miss Wall Street's target calling for $1.55 a share this year. This really shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The economy is still uncertain and as long the workforce is contracting rather than expanding, there is no need to hit Cintas up for bigger orders in uniform rentals.

M'm! M'm! Done! Looking to use microwaves to make some waves in the soup space, Campbell Soup(NYSE: CPB) is rolling out a new line of microwaveable eats to follow its initial success with last year's launch of "Soup at Hand." Now the company's three major brands -- Chunky, Select, and Campbell, of course -- will launch new soups with easy-to-open lids and come microwave-ready.

When your products deal in industrial whitewashing and pest elimination, you better make sure no one smells a rat in your financials. Ecolab(NYSE: ECL) pulled through with a 30% rise in its fourth-quarter profits. The company sees earnings of $2.05 a share in the New Year, a penny ahead of analyst consensus. While it has been able to grow through acquisitions, it also posted healthy, organic growth as well. Now that's a clean report!

And Finally...

Today on Fool.com:

  • For updated stories throughout the day, bookmark our ever-changing News section.
  • Broken Bonds: Mathew Emmert says looking for love in the bond market could leave you brokenhearted.
  • Joe Millionaire's New Million: Advice for the new couple on what to do with their sudden windfall.
  • Mall Brawl: Taubman, Simon battle. Shareholders are caught in the crossfire.
  • In Fool's School, calculating gains and losses. Don't forget to factor in commissions!

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