Executive Business Briefing

Feb. 13, 2002 at 9:46 AM

Here is a look at more of Wednesday's top business stories:

Viacom posts loss

NEW YORK, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- Entertainment giant Viacom Inc. said it posted a fourth quarter loss of $43 million, or 2 cents a share, compared with a net income of $30 million, or 2 cents a share during the same period a year earlier.

Viacom said excluding one-time items, it posted a loss of $140 million, or 8 cents a share.

Analysts on Wall Street were expecting the compnay to post a net loss of 11 cents a share, according to Thomson Financial/First Call.

The company, which owns the CBS television network, MTV and the Paramount film studios, said its revenue declined to $6.04 billion from $6.36 billion a year ago.

Sumner M. Redstone, chairman and chief executive officer, said, "Viacom's results clearly demonstrate our ability to excel under unprecedented negative economic conditions.

"Despite the continuing soft economic climate, we are committed to pushing ahead to aggressively generate internal growth and to pursuing accretive acquisitions in our core competencies as demonstrated by the creation of our eighth television station duopoly with our agreement to acquire KCAL-TV in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest broadcast market," he said.

The company said revenue at its cable networks slipped to $1.16 billion from $1.20 billion a year earlier, principally reflecting the decrease in advertising revenues due to continued softness in the advertising market.

Television revenues increased 5.0 percent to $2.0 billion from $1.92 billion a year earlier, supported by double-digit revenue growth at the CBS Network.

Entertainment revenues rose to $785 million from $701 million in the prior year period.

Video revenues at Blockbuster rose to $1.36 billion from $1.34 billion a year earlier. Blockbuster ended the fourth quarter with 7,981 company-owned and franchise stores, a net increase of 304 stores over the fourth quarter of 2000. Viacom owns approximately 81 percent of Blockbuster.

Looking ahead, the company said it believes if current economic conditions continue, Viacom will achieve double-digit pro forma EBITDA growth for the full year 2002.

While economic trends in the first quarter of 2002 continue to mirror the soft conditions experienced in the fourth quarter of 2001, the company said it believes there is potential to outperform its current 2002 projection should the economic climate improve materially.

Johnson & Johnson to buy back $5 billion of stock

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J., Feb. 13 (UPI) -- Health care giant Johnson & Johnson said its board of directors has approved a stock repurchase program of up to $5 billion.

The company said repurchases will take place on the open market from time to time based on market conditions, and there is no time limit on the program.

Johnson & Johnson, which is a component of the Dow Jones industrial average, had about 3.1 billion shares outstanding at the end 2001.

Office Depot posts profit

DELRAY BEACH, Fla., Feb. 13 (UPI) -- Office Depot Inc., the nation's largest office products retailer, said it posted a fourth quarter profit of $40.3 million, or 13 cents a share, compared with a net loss of $168.3 million, or 57 cents a share during the same period a year earlier.

The retailer said its earnings before unusual charges related to store closures and other items was $58.1 million, or 19 cents a share, in the latest quarter.

Total after tax charges of $17.8 million were related to an increase in estimated net lease obligations for a number of the 70 non-performing stores closed in the first quarter of 2001, closure costs for eight additional non-performing stores and the write-down of certain investments in Internet companies.

Analysts on Wall Street were expecting the company to post a net income before unusual charges of 18 cents a share, according to Thomson Financial/First Call.

Office Depot said its sales fell to $2.80 billion from $3.05 billion a year earlier.

Comparable worldwide sales in the 849 stores and 39 delivery centers that have been open for more than one year declined 3 percent in the fourth quarter reflecting a continued weak economy.

Bruce Nelson, chairman and CEO, said, "These results reflect the tremendous improvement we have seen across all channels of our business throughout the year both in customer service and operating performance.

"North American Retail had its fourth sequential quarter of comparable store sales improvement, despite continued weakness in technology. Strong gross margin performance coupled with continued control on expenses resulted in this segment exceeding its operating plan for the quarter," he said.

Looking ahead Nelson said, "Based on our very early view of the overall economic outlook for 2002, which is critical to our success, we now believe we can grow earnings per share in 2002 to a range of 97 cents to $1.03, a more than 23 percent increase over our 2001 performance.

Analysts on Wall Street are expecting the company to post results for 2002 of 87 cents a share, according to Thomson Financial/First Call.

"Our performance in the first six months of 2002 will primarily be driven by gross margin improvement over last year and continued emphasis on efficiency and cost controls, and we believe we can achieve continued success in these areas," he said.

The retailer said based on trends through the first full week of February, it now expects first quarter fully diluted earnings per share to be in the 30 to 32 cent range.

Applications to refinance mortgages rise

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- The Mortgage Bankers Association of America said applications to refinance mortgages rose 13.3 percent in the week ended Feb. 8.

The MBA said its refinancing index rose to 2,134.9 in the week, its highest level since the week ended Jan. 18, 2002.

Refinancing last week helped drive the MBA's market index, an index of overall mortgage application activity, to 581.7, a 2.5 percent increase over the previous week and its highest level since the week ended Jan. 18.

Applications for mortgages to purchase homes fell 7.7 percent in the latest week, bringing the MBA's purchase index to 314.7, its lowest level since the week ended Dec. 28.

MBA surveys 20 to 35 firms each week to derive its mortgage applications indexes. The survey covers about 40 percent of all applications processed by mortgage lenders, and monitors purchasing, refinancing and overall market activity.

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