There was trouble on Mars today as NASA's $400 million Spirit rover has stopped effectively transmitting data back to Earth. No one is sure what the problem is, but we understand trading on the Mars stock exchange was halted on the news, and Donald Trump indefinitely put on hold his planned sequel to The Apprentice, tentatively titled The Apprentice on Mars. Potential contestants were seriously bummed.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

eBay's Stellar '03

What else can you say about eBay(Nasdaq: EBAY), except that it was another great year for the world's top online marketplace? The fourth-quarter and full-year results released after the bell yesterday show a company still in hyper-growth phase, with great promise for the future.

In fact, eBay's sales are growing faster than revenues did at Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT), Microsoft(Nasdaq: MSFT), Dell(Nasdaq: DELL), and Cisco(Nasdaq: CSCO) at comparable ages, according to CEO Meg Whitman.

Looking at the fourth quarter, revenue climbed 57% to $648.4 million. That translated into GAAP earnings of $0.21 per share, a 50% jump over the same period last year. Excluding the effects of an accounting change and other unusual items, the company earned $0.24.

The strength of the business shines through in the 2003 numbers. Here's a look at the growth in various key areas:

  • Gross merchandise sales, the value of all items sold on the site, totaled $23.8 billion in 2003, a 60% increase over 2002.

  • International users generated $3 billion in gross merchandise sales, up 85%.

  • Gross merchandise sales on eBay Motors jumped 75%.

  • Registered users grew to nearly 95 million, an increase of 54%.

  • Active users increased to 41.2 million, up 49%.

  • More than 970 million items were listed, which is a 52% increase.

  • There are now more than 40 million PayPal accounts, 73% more than last year.

  • Total payment volume at PayPal reached $12.2 billion, an increase of 73%.

  • Net revenues totaled $2.2 billion, up 78%.

  • Free cash flow of $508.8 million represents a 49% increase over 2002.

On top of these key metrics, one out of every three Internet users logged on to eBay during the holiday season. "We had 51 million unique visitors come to the site in December," said Whitman in a conference call, "which is a record for eBay. It makes us the No. 1 shopping destination in the United States." (Transcript provided by CCBN StreetEvents.)

What lies ahead? With all the momentum, management is raising pro forma earnings guidance for 2004 to $1.04 per share on approximately $3 billion in revenue. The news has driven the stock price up about 6% today to more than $68 -- some 70% higher than its trading price last January.

The bottom line on the company is the same as it has been for nearly every quarter since it went public: Still firing on all cylinders, still trading at a hefty premium.

Rex Moore, who wrote this story, owns shares of eBay.

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Kodak Clicks

Shares of photography company Eastman Kodak(NYSE: EK) were up significantly this morning on heavy volume. The news contained in the company's press release was mixed, but underlying it all was hope for this historic company's fight to avoid becoming a corporate relic.

Kodak, which released Q4 and full-year results today, is still very much in cost-cutting mode. The company plans to cut 12,000 to 15,000 jobs in the next three years. That's on top of job cuts previously announced. Remarkably, the company could end up setting free more than 20,000 of its people by the time all (future announcements notwithstanding) is said and done.

Cutting jobs can save money in the long term. But if that's the only way a company can keep its profits up, it's difficult to support its business from an investor's perspective. Kodak's history of free cash flow, admittedly, makes it easier. (Kudos are also due Kodak, by the way, for including balance sheet and cash flow information in its earnings release.)

But Kodak appears fully committed to reenergizing itself. The company's made some difficult decisions lately, such as cutting back its 35mm business and reducing its dividend in order to devote more resources to the burgeoning digital business.

There were some good signs today, among them a 10% year-over-year pop in Q4 sales. Kodak's photography operation saw sales increase 9%, with digital cameras showing strong growth (though operating profits for the division fell -- perhaps unsurprising given the price competition in the market). Kodak's health and commercial imaging businesses, meanwhile, saw sales and operating profits grow.

There's plenty more uncertainty ahead for Kodak, its employees, and its investors. To the company's credit, however, it looks like it is finding its footing. It's not long ago that many believed even that was too daunting a task.

Quote of Note

"Falling in love with stocks in a portfolio is very easy to do and, I might add, very perilous." -- John Neff

Starbucks: Still Shakin'

It seems we've become a Starbucks(Nasdaq: SBUX) nation, judging by the company's caffeinated first-quarter numbers. As usual, it whipped up another excellent quarter, proving again that it's an entrenched part of many people's holiday indulgences.

Starbucks has continually delivered increasing earnings to investors, but this time, the holiday season looked merrier than ever. Jeff Fischer recently pointed out that the company's had ongoing success living up to what many saw as too-high valuations, and LouAnn Lofton predicted that this would be a robust first quarter due to some of its growth strategies.

The gift card that had such a high profile over the last holiday season was a popular item for the coffee purveyor, and the company's still ringing in the benefits in January as recipients continue to guzzle down those lattes and espressos through the plastic. Holiday promotions and seasonal drinks also added to the coffee maker's success. (Don't forget the odd story of the Seattle restaurant launching Starbucks coffee-flavored steak -- just another sign of the appeal of the substance.)

If you're wondering just how much of a jolt of java we're talking about here, Starbucks' first-quarter earnings rocketed 41% higher. It reported net income of $110.8 million for the quarter or $0.27 per share, compared to $78.4 million or $0.20 a share in the year-ago period. Same-store sales were 10% higher. The company said it expects its year's earnings to come in on the high side of earlier guidance, at $0.86 to $0.87 a share.

Coffee breaks at Starbucks seem to have become a national pastime; news agencies report that the company's CEO has found that the chain is attracting a much more diverse demographic than the firm had originally anticipated. Meanwhile, a recent store opening in West Virginia means Starbucks has its foot in all 50 states.

As far as taking over the world is concerned, its international operations are expected to travel their way to profitability this year. Its move into Paris had many people abuzz, and while the company did not want to specify what its next international move will be, it mentioned possible growth opportunities in the Middle East and China.

With Starbucks' continued growth, an increasingly ubiquitous presence, and a firm grip on our caffeine cravings, it doesn't sound even close to investors finally saying "when."

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