October was a good month for jobs. U.S. payrolls added 337,000 new ones last month, up from 139,000 in September. It was the best growth in new jobs we've seen since March.

The unemployment rate was up slightly to 5.5%, from 5.4% last month. The Labor Department said the reason for the increase was that an additional 367,000 people entered the U.S. work force.

Stocks held steady on the news, with the major indexes spending much of the day in positive territory.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Pixar Looks Incredible


Rick Aristotle Munarriz (TMF Edible)

A family of superheroes comes out of retirement to help save the day. For Pixar(Nasdaq: PIXR) it will be just another day at the box office as The Incredibles kicks off its theatrical run.

The movie will open on nearly 4,000 movie screens today, making it the fourth-widest domestic opening in history. That should help drum up some stellar opening-weekend figures, even though it should be noted that two of the three movies that made their debut in more multiplex screens were Shark Tale and Shrek 2 from rival DreamWorks Animation(NYSE: DWA).

DreamWorks will factor prominently here. In a sinister move, the company is also releasing Shrek 2, the highest-grossing animated film of all time, on video and DVD today. It is no coincidence. New home releases typically go out on Tuesdays. DreamWorks obviously thinks that if enough parents gobble up copies of Shrek 2. their kids will be too distracted to tug at their sleeves and motion toward the Pixar marquee.

Disney (NYSE: DIS) will be distributing the action flick. It is the next-to-last original release in the contract with Pixar that finds the two companies splitting the production budgets as well as the profits. While Disney and Pixar may hook up on sequels to existing properties come 2006, each is clearly looking forward to seeing other people. Disney has a pair of upstart computer-animation studios to mentor, while Pixar has the cash to fully fund its independence.

However, both companies can't look too far ahead because they need each other right now. Disney needs Pixar's new feature to help salvage what has been a dud of a year for its movie studio, while Pixar needs a strong showing to quell whispers that DreamWorks is now the dominant force in animation after producing two hits since Pixar's last release.

Another company that will be banking on a strong run is THQ(Nasdaq: THQI), the video game publisher behind The Incredibles console games. THQ has actually succeeded where Disney has not in that it has already secured a licensing deal with Pixar for the next four movies beyond next year's Cars.

As a successful Motley Fool Stock Advisor stock recommendation, Pixar's quality track record makes it easy to expect big things of today's new addition to the studio's attractive resume. Pixar's first five films grossed an average of $239 million at the domestic box office during their theatrical runs. We won't leave you hanging on this one. Steven Mallas will break down how the film fared next week.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns all of the Pixar releases on DVD. Yes, he owns shares of Pixar, too -- and in Disney.

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Fundamental Flaws at Wild Oats


Salim Haji

Claiming that its weak third-quarter results were an "aberration" due largely to the long-lingering effects of the Southern California strike, Wild Oats'(Nasdaq: OATS) management hoped to convince analysts on its quarterly earnings call yesterday that its underlying business remains strong. If management is right, there's a strong case to be made that the stock, which has fallen significantly in recent months, could be a real bargain.

The problem is that the long-term competitive advantage of the business model is questionable. Two fundamental strategic issues particularly stand out to me.

The first issue is focus and consistency. The company operates about 100 stores under at least four different formats: Wild Oats Natural Marketplace, Henry's Farmers Market, Sun Harvest Farm, and Capers Community Market. Critical to success in retail is execution, and it is hard to imagine how the company can optimize processes across these different brands and formats. In addition, the company is further diluting management's focus by pursuing other, marginal strategies -- sales through Internet grocer Peapod and a store-within-a-store concept with Stop & Shop.

The second fundamental issue is customer selection and the value proposition to those customers. Industry leader Whole Foods(Nasdaq: WFMI) has positioned itself with high-end, gourmet customers. It has a clearly differentiated offering for those customers, which results in significant pricing power and gross profit margins of over 34%. In contrast, Wild Oats claims that it is targeting a more mainstream shopper who also shops in traditional grocery stores and discount stores like Costco(Nasdaq: COST), and is attracted by the natural foods and produce at Wild Oats.

As I have argued, this mainstream shopper is under attack -- from one side by gourmet stores like Whole Foods and local specialty stores, and from the other side from Costco, Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT), and Target(NYSE: TGT). Traditional grocery stores are fighting tooth and nail to hang on to their customers by discounting heavily, particularly in Southern California. As a result, prices and gross margins are being squeezed. Wild Oats' gross margin for the quarter was a weak 27.5% of sales. Not only is that much weaker than Whole Foods' margin, but it is also below gross margins reported by traditional grocers such as Safeway(NYSE: SWY), which most recently posted gross margins of 29%.

In addition, both traditional grocery stores and discounters are increasing their offerings of natural foods and organic produce. Unless Wild Oats focuses on a niche customer segment and is able to provide it with a differentiated offering, its strategy is unlikely to succeed.

Although management believes that recent results are due to short-term factors, I'm unconvinced that Wild Oats has a business model that will win over the long term. Until the company addresses a couple of fundamental issues, the stock remains a risk.

For related Fool analysis, see:

Fool contributor Salim Haji lives in Denver and owns shares of Costco and Whole Foods. He does not own shares in any of the other companies mentioned.

Discussion Board of the Day: Pixar

Will you be heading out to catch Pixar's latest release today? Where do you think it will rank among the company's past winners? Will a Hollywood release schedule loaded with big holiday flicks slow it down? All this and more -- in the Pixar discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Are Your Taxes Ready for 2005?


Roy Lewis (TMF Taxes)

If you're like me, you're stunned to look at the calendar and find that the Thanksgiving holiday is right around the corner. Holiday songs will soon be in the air, and before you know it, another new year will be celebrated. So the time has come to take one final look at your tax situation and make any last-minute moves to minimize your 2004 taxes. Here is a very brief overview of some of the moves to consider before the ball drops in Times Square.

Investment planning
Lower taxes on dividends: The more favorable tax rates (15% or 5%) might make dividend-paying stocks more attractive than ever. You might want to reconsider the makeup of your current portfolio by investing in stocks that throw off a dividend. You'll want to be careful, since there are holding period restrictions on those dividend-paying stocks. Additionally, not all dividends are given the favorable tax rates, so you'll want to make sure that the dividend-paying stock selected for your portfolio pays a qualified dividend.

Offset gains and losses: If you decide to rebalance your portfolio before the end of the year, or if you simply decide to sell some shares at a profit, don't forget the pent-up power of your capital losses. You can use your losses to offset your gains. And, if you find that you have more losses than gains, you can deduct up to $3,000 of those losses in one year. Any losses in excess of $3,000 will be required to be carried forward (but not back) to be used against future gains or future ordinary income. But don't overlook the wash sale rule. This rule requires you to defer your loss if you purchase a "substantially identical" security within the period beginning 30 days before and ending 30 days after the date of the loss sale.

Long-term capital gains: To be eligible for the new, lower (15% or 5%) capital gain rate, the capital asset being sold must be held for more than one year. So when selling or otherwise disposing of your stocks, bonds, investment property, rental property, or other capital assets, pay close attention to your holding period. If you find that your holding period is less than one year, consider putting off the sale until a later date so that you can meet the long-term holding period rules.

Education planning
Tuition deduction: In 2004, you can deduct up to $4,000 of college tuition and related expenses if you meet certain income limits. Generally, your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) can't be greater than $130,000 for married filers or $65,000 for other filers. But even if your AGI is greater then these limits, you can still claim a $2,000 deduction as long as your AGI doesn't exceed even higher limits ($160,000 for joint returns and $80,000 for all others). Unlike many of the other provisions in the tax code, this is not a "phase out" provision based upon your income. It's an "all or nothing" deduction. So if you have qualified tuition payments in 2004 (for yourself, your spouse, or dependent children), consider monitoring your AGI if at all possible in order to keep it under the limits.

Education credits: Don't overlook either the HOPE or Lifetime Learning credits. These credits reduce your taxes dollar for dollar (a credit is much more valuable than a deduction). But the credits begin to phase out when AGI exceeds $85,000 for married filers and $42,000 for all others. The credits are completely eliminated when AGI reaches $105,000 for married filers and $52,000 for other filers. The HOPE credit is available during the first two years of college and equals 100% of the first $1,000 of tuition and 50% of the next $1,000 for a maximum credit of $1,500 per student. The Lifetime Learning Credit is available for any year of study but is a "per return" rather than a "per student" credit. It's computed at the rate of 20% of up to $10,000 in qualifying expenses for a maximum annual credit of $2,000. Again, it may be to your advantage to monitor your AGI to remain under these limits if at all possible. And it might also be advantageous for you to accelerate qualified education expenses into 2004 in order to maximize your credits if you find that your AGI will be under the phase out limits.

Business planning
Section 179 depreciation expensing: This deduction allows business owners to deduct up to $100,000 of the cost of qualifying property placed in service in 2004. The property can be new or used and includes "off the shelf" computer software. If you have plans to purchase business furnishings, equipment, computers, or other business assets, consider doing so before the end of the year to maximize your deductions.

50% bonus depreciation: This allows for an additional 50% bonus depreciation on qualifying assets put into service in 2004. This 50% bonus provision was set to expire at the end of 2004, but the recent passage of the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 extended the bonus depreciation provisions until the end of 2005.

Personal planning
Watch the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): More and more individuals are subject to the AMT each and every year, especially those living in high income tax states. There are other deductions that could trigger the AMT, such as the exercising of Incentive Stock Options, large capital gains, or the deduction of miscellaneous itemized deductions (such as employee business expenses). You really should know your current exposure to the AMT since many of the strategies used to reduce your regular taxes will backfire when it comes to the AMT.

Accelerate deductions and defer income: This is an all-time favorite. While it might simply defer taxes, that deferral actually saves you money in the long run. So take steps whenever possible to move income into later years and deductions into earlier years.

Manage your AGI: As pointed out above, many tax breaks are available only to taxpayers with AGI under certain limits. Make yourself aware of the breaks that might apply to you, and attempt to manage your AGI to keep it under the various phase-out limitations.

Watch those sales taxes: The American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 also added a new twist for those of you living in low (or no) income tax states: a new itemized deduction for sales taxes. This is a brand-new deduction for 2004 and allows you to deduct sales taxes from an IRS table supplemented with "large ticket" items. So if you bought a car, boat, furnishings, or any other big-ticket items, dig out those sales receipts now for your deduction.

Charitable contributions: Remember that donations charged to credit cards are deductible in the year charged, not in the year paid. So charging donations to your credit card before the end of the year will increase your 2004 deductions even if you're a bit short on cash. Additionally, if you're thinking about making a substantial charitable contribution before the end of the year, consider doing so with appreciated stock. You'll avoid taxes on the gain and receive a deduction for the full fair market value of the stock.

Retirement contribution credits: If you're a mid- to lower-income earner, you're allowed a credit against your taxes for making contributions to a retirement plan such as an IRA or your 401(k) plan at work. If you fall into the proper income categories and have the funds to save for your retirement, you'll be able to reduce your taxes at the same time.

These are but a few of the many moves that you can make to reduce your taxes before the end of the year. Don't overlook them.

Roy Lewis lives in a trailer down by the river and is a motivational speaker when not dealing with tax issues, and he understands that The Motley Fool is all about investors writing for investors. You can take a look at the stocks he owns as long as you promise not to ask him which stock to buy. He'll be glad to help you compute your gain or loss when you finally sell a stock, though.

Quote of Note

"You are not here merely to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world. You impoverish yourself if you forget this errand." -- Woodrow Wilson

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