Amazon’s Holiday Toy Catalog Is Advertising Parents Actually Want

Never underestimate the market-moving potential of a nagging child. “Mom, Dad, I want THIS for Christmas!” is a phrase that each year leads to billions of dollars of toy sales. And it’s a phrase parents can appreciate, because knowing what your kid actually wants to find under the tree helps minimize Christmas morning tears. Toy manufacturers and retailers spend millions of dollars each year to make sure their products are the ones on everyone’s wishlist, with TV and online ads, special retail displays, and old-fashioned toy catalogs.

The stakes are particularly high this holiday season, since one-time retail juggernaut Toys R Us closed all its US locations earlier this year. Even while its sales were declining, Toys R Us still accounted for around 12 percent of the estimated $27 billion total toy sales in 2017, according to Juli Lennett of NPD Group, the leading toy industry analysts in the US.

With Toys R Us gone, those sales are up for grabs, and Amazon wants them. The digital-first company was already beating Toys R Us in market share. And while it alone was not responsible for the demise of Toys R Us—poor business decisions and its sizable debt were also to blame—Amazon did put intense pressure on the toy store chain with extremely low prices, especially during the past few holidays seasons, using its familiar tactic of sacrificing profit for market share. Toys R Us couldn’t compete. Now Amazon hopes to feed from the carcass.

And so the ecommerce giant went retro this holiday season, mailing out its first-ever print toy catalog, like the one Toys R Us used to be known for. The “Holiday of Play” lookbook from Amazon is 68 pages long and features toys like the über-popular LOL! Surprise dolls, LEGO’s Star Wars Solo, and the Osmos Genius Kit for iPad. An Amazon representative told WIRED the catalog was sent it to millions of customers in November, but wouldn’t give exact numbers. It’s also available at Whole Foods and some physical Amazon store locations, or online in PDF and Kindle form.

The catalog may be made of paper, but it’s designed as a gateway to a digital transaction. What it lacks in pricing information it makes up in QR codes and stickers that kids can use to make note of presents they want their parents to buy. It also works with the Amazon app: Take a photo of the catalog item you (or your kids) want, and the app will pull up the listing and let you buy it from your phone.

“The great thing about a catalog is that it sits on the coffee table, where kids can find it,” says Steve Pasierb, CEO of The Toy Association, a trade group representing American toy manufacturers. “The catalog is a market share play. Amazon has a huge chance to win a lot of those holiday sales.”

Amazon’s top competitors for Toys R Us’ sales are Target and Walmart, according to experts—traditional retailers that have mailed out holiday catalogs for years. And in the wake of Toys R Us closing, both companies decided to devote more shelf space in their retail locations to toys, says Pasierb. With only a handful of physical stores in a few major cities, Amazon’s toy push comes in the form of a dedicated landing page for kids on its website, and its catalog.

“They’re emulating a proven method of doing business, which is the catalog, but using their muscle to engage at a particular time when there are just fewer retailers now that sell toys,” says Richard Gottlieb, CEO of research firm Global Toy Experts. Gottlieb was impressed with Amazon’s catalog, though he far preferred eBay’s catalog, full of weird and wild and expensive one-of-a-kind toys, which launched this season as well.

Amazon and eBay are joining the many other ecommerce companies still finding that print catalogs have value in the digital era. Catalogs are harder to ignore than the clutter of online ads, one footwear startup founder told Digiday earlier this year, explaining that his company gets a slightly higher return on direct mail versus digital-only marketing. Companies can also use data to target catalogs to customers they know are likely to spend more money. And they are a traditional way for families to compile gift wishlists.

“I’m old enough to remember the Sears catalog,” says Gottlieb. “I remember laying on the floor just going through it. I didn’t get much anything out of it. But you know, marking things, studying it in detail. It was wonderful and a wonderful way to communicate with your parents what you want.”

People really want and love catalogs. Take a glance at the reviews for the Kindle version on Amazon’s website. Plenty of customers posted bad reviews, not because they didn’t like the catalog but because they were annoyed that they didn’t get one.

“Why can’t we get a book and why didn’t we get one? We have been prime members for years, have 4 kids, buy lots of toys, and no book. And we can’t order one,” reads the top-rated review right now. “Would love to have the toy catalog delivered through the mail. The children love looking at it and circling what they like. I dont use Kindle. I’ve been a prime member for many years and did not get one,” reads another. A review from November 15 is even more direct: “Disappointed that I didn’t and can not now get a hard copy in the mail even though I have two small children and spend a ton on toys through Amazon Prime. I AM YOUR TARGET MARKET. Speaking of Target – I’ll be doing my toy shopping there because I am THAT petty.”

The disappointment those Amazon reviewers felt speaks to the reason catalogs have worked so well. They’re convenient, above all. Enjoyable, even. And this time of year, when millions of Americans are going to buy toys, it’s easier for children to thumb through a physical catalog that feels like a big book of wonders than a notoriously hard-to-navigate website.

Kids, especially, don’t have a great way to discover toys on the actual Amazon website. Even its dedicated toy section divided by age group is confusing to navigate. And while the site does have a wishlist feature, parents might not trust their kid to trawl through Amazon’s website on their account, since they could accidentally push one button and buy something. A print catalog is a way for Amazon to directly get its offering in front of children, while also giving parents a little bit more control over the process.

The toy catalog is a familiar marketing throwback in an otherwise rapidly evolving industry. Pasierb notes that with the growth in streaming entertainment for kids, the kinds of ads children see have changed. “Unboxing videos, the online kind of stuff is for a lot of our toy companies as important or now more important than traditional television advertising. A lot of our companies that no longer do traditional TV advertising do almost all exclusively digital,” says Pasierb. The highest-paid YouTube celebrity this year, according to Forbes, was a 7-year-old boy making unboxing videos of toys, earning an estimated $22 million in 12 months.

“[These kinds of ads] are entertainment in their own right,” says Lennett. “A lot of these kids, I don’t think they know the difference between watching a show—a real show—versus watching another kid playing with a toy on YouTube.”

“In my household, the word ‘TV’ is gone. Now it’s just ‘shows.’ Children have already fully internalized the idea of on demand, and that disrupts the ad model completely,” says David Carroll, professor of media design at the New School.

But Carroll doesn’t let his two kids watch YouTube, where they might see those ads. I don’t let my three-year-old son watch it, either. We are the exception; a recent Pew survey found that 81 percent of parents do allow their young kids to watch YouTube. Our reasons are less to do with fear of seeing ads than fear that we can’t control the algorithm and our children might get exposed to inappropriate, creepy, or ideological videos. Instead, our kids mostly watch on-demand shows on Amazon Prime, Netflix, iTunes, or Google Play—and those are largely free of ads.

“The only way [Amazon’s toy offerings] are getting in front of my children is through a catalog,” says Carroll. Only Carroll never got an Amazon catalog, despite his prolific Prime usage. Neither did I. Neither did Lennett, who says, “I’m mad I didn’t get one.” Though her kids are teenagers, she buys lots of stuff on Amazon and thought they’d receive one in the mail, as some of her friends did. An Amazon representative declined to comment on how the company decided who to send the catalog to, though the person offered to send me one. (I declined.)

For Amazon, a catalog also fits well with its bigger push into the physical world, with everything from actual store locations to Dash buttons you physically push to order goods. “[Amazon owner Jeff] Bezos has total world domination as the goal. So from that perspective it makes sense that they would not take a digital-only approach. They would take a whatever works approach,” says Carroll.

For world domination, Amazon has to be everything. And everywhere. Even in the living room, where your kid can find it and come up to you whining, “Mom! I want this!” That is, if Amazon sent you one.


More Great WIRED Stories

Kubernetes etcd data project joins CNCF

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Kubernetes: The smart person's guide

Kubernetes: The smart person’s guide

Kubernetes is a series of open source projects for automating the deployment, scaling, and management of containerized applications. Find out why the ecosystem matters, how to use it, and more.

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How do you store data across a Kubernetes container cluster? With etcd. This essential part of Kubernetes has been managed by CoreOS/Red Hat. No longer. Now, the open-source etcd project has been moved from Red Hat to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).

What is etcd? No, it’s not what happens when a cat tries to type a three-letter acronyms. Etcd (pronounced et-see-dee) was created by the CoreOS team in 2013. It’s an open-source, distributed, consistent key-value database for shared configuration, service discovery, and scheduler coordination. It’s built on the Raft consensus algorithm for replicated logs.

Also: Kubernetes’ first major security hole discovered

Etcd’s job is to safely store critical data for distributed systems. It’s best known as Kubernetes’ primary datastore, but it can be used for other projects. For example, “Alibaba uses etcd for several critical infrastructure systems, given its superior capabilities in providing high availability and data reliability,” said Xiang Li, an Alibaba senior staff engineer.

When applications use etcd they have more consistent uptime. Even when individual servers fail, etcd ensures that services keep working. This doesn’t just protect against what would otherwise prove show-stopping failures, it also makes it possible to automatic update systems without downtime. You can also use it to coordinate work between servers and set up container overlay networking.

In his KubeCon keynote, Brandon Philips, CoreOS CTO, said: “Today we’re excited to transfer stewardship of etcd to the same body that cares for the growth and maintenance of Kubernetes. Given that etcd powers every Kubernetes cluster, this move brings etcd to the community that relies on it most at the CNCF.”


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That doesn’t mean Red Hat is walking away from etcd. Far from it. Red Hat will continue to help develop etcd. After all, etcd is is an essential part of Red Hat’s enterprise Kubernetes product, Red Hat OpenShift.

Moving forward, etcd will only grow stronger. It being used by more and more companies, as Kubernetes is adopted by almost every cloud container company. In particular, Phillips said, he expects far more work to be done on etcd security.

Related stories:

Marriott Says It Will Pay for Replacement Passports After Data Breach. Here’s Why That’s Likely Baloney.

As you have no doubt heard by now, Marriott disclosed a massive data breach that exposed up to 500 million customer records. Hackers accessed information in the company’s Starwood reservation system, which affected brands such as W Hotels, St. Regis, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts, Westin Hotels & Resorts, and other properties in the Starwood portfolio, the company said. The intrusion apparently began in 2014, two years before Marriott acquired Starwood. This oversight in the M&A process calls to mind another recent, post-acquisition hacker-surprise: Yahoo, whose two mega-breaches remained undetected when the company sold to Verizon last year. Coincidentally, Marriott’s hack is the biggest suffered by a corporation, second only to those at Yahoo.

After news of the Marriott breach came out, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the hotel chain to foot the bill and replace people’s passports which were potentially compromised as part of the breach. Marriott quickly promised to cover the cost for as many as 327 million people whose passport numbers may have been exposed. At a fee of $110 per passport, that would put Marriott on the hook to pay up to $36 billion—a price tag equivalent to the value of the entire company, per its market capitalization. A devastating payout.

Here’s the thing though: While seemingly noble, Marriott’s promise is a bunch of baloney. The company said it will follow through on reimbursement only in instances where it “determine[s] that fraud has taken place.” What this caveat conveniently excludes is that Marriott’s hack likely had little to do with fraud and everything to do with espionage. In other words, if you’re a victim, don’t expect remuneration.

As Reuters reported, investigators believe the perpetrators of this attack were Chinese spies. The breach used tools, tactics, and procedures that matched Beijing’s style. The intrusion is said to have begun shortly after a breach of the government’s Office of Personnel Management, which government officials have attributed to China. The Starwood database represents a massive trove of potential intelligence: information on who is staying where, when—a bonanza for building up profiles of targets and tracking people of interest.

Geng Shuang, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, issued a statement saying the country “opposes all forms of cyber attack,” per Reuters. He said the country would investigate the claims, if offered evidence. Meanwhile, Connie Kim, a Marriott spokesperson, said “we’ve got nothing to share” about the Chinese attribution claim.

The Marriott breach—which took place quietly over years, as spies prefer—does not appear to have been a cybercriminal score. That’s why the passport payment pledge is probably bunk; nevertheless, if you think you might have been affected, it won’t hurt to follow these steps to refresh your cybersecurity hygiene and better protect yourself.

A version of this article first appeared in Cyber Saturday, the weekend edition of Fortune’s tech newsletter Data Sheet. Sign up here.

U.S. accuses Huawei CFO of Iran sanctions cover-up

VANCOUVER/LONDON (Reuters) – Huawei Technologies Co Ltd’s chief financial officer faces U.S. accusations that she covered up her company’s links to a firm that tried to sell equipment to Iran despite sanctions, a Canadian prosecutor said on Friday, arguing against giving her bail while she awaits extradition.

The case against Meng Wanzhou, who is also the daughter of the founder of Huawei, stems from a 2013 Reuters report here about the company’s close ties to Hong Kong-based Skycom Tech Co Ltd, which attempted to sell U.S. equipment to Iran despite U.S. and European Union bans, the prosecutor told a Vancouver court.

U.S. prosecutors argue that Meng was not truthful to banks who asked her about links between the two firms, the court heard on Friday. If extradited to the United States, Meng would face charges of conspiracy to defraud multiple financial institutions, the court heard, with a maximum sentence of 30 years for each charge.

Meng, 46, was arrested in Canada on Dec. 1 at the request of the United States. The arrest was on the same day that U.S. President Donald Trump met in Argentina with China’s Xi Jinping to look for ways to resolve an escalating trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

The news of her arrest has roiled stock markets and drawn condemnation from Chinese authorities, although Trump and his top economic advisers have downplayed its importance to trade talks after the two leaders agreed to a truce.

A spokesman for Huawei had no immediate comment on the case against Meng on Friday. The company has said it complies with all applicable export control and sanctions laws and other regulations.

Friday’s court hearing is intended to decide on whether Meng can post bail or if she is a flight risk and should be kept in detention.

The prosecutor opposed bail, arguing that Meng was a high flight risk with few ties to Vancouver and that her family’s wealth would mean than even a multi-million-dollar surety would not weigh heavily should she breach conditions.

Meng’s lawyer, David Martin, said her prominence made it unlikely she would breach any court orders.

“You can trust her,” he said. Fleeing “would humiliate and embarrass her father, whom she loves,” he argued.

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested on an extradition warrant, appears at her B.C. Supreme Court bail hearing in a drawing in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jane Wolsak

The United States has 60 days to make a formal extradition request, which a Canadian judge will weigh to determine whether the case against Meng is strong enough. Then it is up to Canada’s justice minister to decide whether to extradite her.

Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Friday that neither Canada nor the United States had provided China any evidence that Meng had broken any law in those two countries, and reiterated Beijing’s demand that she be released.

Chinese state media accused the United States of trying to “stifle” Huawei and curb its global expansion.

IRAN BUSINESS

The U.S. case against Meng involves Skycom, which had an office in Tehran and which Huawei has described as one of its “major local partners” in Iran.

In January 2013, Reuters reported that Skycom, which tried to sell embargoed Hewlett-Packard computer equipment to Iran’s largest mobile-phone operator, had much closer ties to Huawei and Meng than previously known.

Slideshow (9 Images)

In 2007, a management company controlled by Huawei’s parent company held all of Skycom’s shares. At the time, Meng served as the management firm’s company secretary. Meng also served on Skycom’s board between February 2008 and April 2009, according to Skycom records filed with Hong Kong’s Companies Registry.

Huawei used Skycom’s Tehran office to provide mobile network equipment to several major telecommunications companies in Iran, people familiar with the company’s operations have said. Two of the sources said that technically Skycom was controlled by Iranians to comply with local law but that it effectively was run by Huawei.

Huawei and Skycom were “the same,” a former Huawei employee who worked in Iran said on Friday.

A Huawei spokesman told Reuters in 2013: “Huawei has established a trade compliance system which is in line with industry best practices and our business in Iran is in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations including those of the U.N. We also require our partners, such as Skycom, to make the same commitments.”

U.S. CASE

The United States has been looking since at least 2016 into whether Huawei violated U.S. sanctions against Iran, Reuters reported in April.

The case against Meng revolves around her response to banks, who asked her about Huawei’s links to Skycom in the wake of the 2013 Reuters report. U.S. prosecutors argue that Meng fraudulently said there was no link, the court heard on Friday.

U.S. investigators believe the misrepresentations induced the banks to provide services to Huawei despite the fact they were operating in sanctioned countries, Canadian court documents released on Friday showed.

The hearing did not name any banks, but sources told Reuters this week that the probe centered on whether Huawei had used HSBC Holdings (HSBA.L) to conduct illegal transactions. HSBC is not under investigation.

U.S. intelligence agencies have also alleged that Huawei is linked to China’s government and its equipment could contain “backdoors” for use by government spies. No evidence has been produced publicly and the firm has repeatedly denied the claims.

The probe of Huawei is similar to one that threatened the survival of China’s ZTE Corp (0763.HK) (000063.SZ), which pleaded guilty in 2017 to violating U.S. laws that restrict the sale of American-made technology to Iran. ZTE paid a $892 million penalty.

Reporting by Julie Gordon in Vancouver and Steve Stecklow in London; Additional reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto, David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Karen Freifeld in New York, Ben Blanchard and Yilei Sun in Beijing, and Sijia Jiang in Hong Kong; Writing by Denny Thomas and Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Susan Thomas and Sonya Hepinstall

Qualcomm unveils new chip to power 5G smartphones

Visitors are seen by a booth of Qualcomm Inc at the China International Big Data Industry Expo in Guiyang, Guizhou province, China May 27, 2018. Picture taken May 27, 2018.  REUTERS/Stringer

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Chip supplier Qualcomm Inc (QCOM.O) on Tuesday unveiled a new generation of mobile phone processor chips that will power 5G smartphones in the United States as soon as next year.

The key feature of the Snapdragon 855 chip, launched at an event in Hawaii, is a so-called modem for phones to connect to 5G wireless data networks with mobile data speeds of up to 50 or 100 times faster than current 4G networks.

Mobile carriers are investing in 5G networks and are eager to sell 5G phones and data plans to recoup investment costs.

Qualcomm, the largest supplier of mobile phone chips, said Snapdragon 855 would power Samsung 5G smartphones that Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N) and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd (005930.KS) said on Monday would be released in the United States in the first half of 2019.

The modem would also enable “computer vision” to help phones recognize objects and faces, and support a new Qualcomm fingerprint sensor that can read a user’s fingerprint through the glass screen of a smartphone.

The Samsung phone would be a major challenge for Apple Inc (AAPL.O), its biggest rival in the premium handset market in the United States as the iPhone maker is locked in a legal battle with Qualcomm. Citing sources familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reported on Monday that Apple would wait until at least 2020 to release its first 5G iPhones.

Reporting by Stephen Nellis; Editing by Richard Chang

Trump panel wants to give USPS right to hike prices for Amazon, others

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States Postal Service should have more flexibility to raise rates for packages, according to recommendations from a task force set up by President Donald Trump, a move that could hurt profits of Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) and other large online retailers. The task force was announced in April to find ways to stem financial losses by the service, an independent agency within the federal government. Its creation followed criticism by Trump that the Postal Office provided too much service to Amazon for too little money.

FILE PHOTO – A view shows U.S. postal service mail boxes at a post office in Encinitas, California in this February 6, 2013, file photo. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files

The Postal Service lost almost $4 billion in fiscal 2018, which ended on Sept. 30, even as package deliveries rose.

It has been losing money for more than a decade, the task force said, partially because the loss of revenue from letters, bills and other ordinary mail in an increasingly digital economy have not been offset by increased revenue from an explosion in deliveries from online shopping.

The president has repeatedly attacked Amazon for treating the Postal Service as its “delivery boy” by paying less than it should for deliveries and contributing to the service’s $65 billion loss since the global financial crisis of 2007 to 2009, without presenting evidence.

Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post, a newspaper whose critical coverage of the president has repeatedly drawn Trump’s ire.

The rates the Postal Service charges Amazon and other bulk customers are not made public.

“None of our findings or recommendations relate to any one company,” a senior administration official said on Tuesday.

Amazon shares closed down 5.8 percent at $1,669.94, while eBay (EBAY.O) fell 3.1 percent to $29.26, amid a broad stock market selloff on Tuesday.

The Package Coalition, which includes Amazon and other online and catalog shippers, warned against any move to raise prices to deliver their packages.

“The Package Coalition is concerned that, by raising prices and depriving Americans of affordable delivery services, the Postal Task Force’s package delivery recommendations would harm consumers, large and small businesses, and especially rural communities,” the group said in an emailed statement.

A mailbox for United States Postal Service (USPS) and other mail is seen outside a home in Malibu, California, December 10, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Most of the recommendations made by the task force, including possible price hikes, can be implemented by the agency. Changes, such as to frequency of mail delivery, would require legislation.

The task force recommended that the Postal Service have the authority to charge market-based rates for anything that is not deemed an essential service, like delivery of prescription drugs.

BAD NEWS FOR AMAZON

“Although the USPS does have pricing flexibility within its package delivery segment, packages have not been priced with profitability in mind. The USPS should have the authority to charge market-based prices for both mail and package items that are not deemed ‘essential services,’” the task force said in its summary.

That would be bad news for Amazon and other online sellers that ship billions of packages a year to customers.

“If they go to market pricing, there will definitely be a negative impact on Amazon’s business,” said Marc Wulfraat, president of logistics consultancy MWPVL International Inc.

If prices jumped 10 percent, that would increase annual costs for Amazon by at least $1 billion, he said.

The task force also recommended that the Postal Service address rising labor costs.

The Postal Service should also restructure $43 billion in pre-funding payments that it owes the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund, the task force said.

Cowen & Co, in a May report, said the Postal Service and Amazon were “co-dependent,” but that Amazon went elsewhere for most packages that needed to arrive quickly.

Cowen estimated that the Postal Service delivered about 59 percent of Amazon’s U.S. packages in 2017, and package delivery could account for 50 percent of postal service revenue by 2023.

The American Postal Workers Union warned against any effort to cut services. “Recommendations would slow down service, reduce delivery days and privatize large portions of the public Postal Service. Most of the report’s recommendations, if implemented, would hurt business and individuals alike,” the union said in a statement. 

Amazon, FedEx Corp (FDX.N) and United Parcel Service Inc (UPS.N) did not return requests for comment.

Reporting by Diane Bartz and Jeffrey Dastin; editing by Bill Berkrot

Google workers demand end to censored Chinese search project

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – More than 200 engineers, designers and managers at Alphabet Inc’s Google demanded in an open letter on Tuesday that the company end development of a censored search engine for Chinese users, escalating earlier protests against the secretive project.

FILE PHOTO: Google’s booth is pictured at the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) 2017 in Beijing, China April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

Google has described the search app, known as Project Dragonfly, as an experiment not close to launching. But as details of it have leaked since August, current and former employees, human rights activists and U.S. lawmakers have criticized Google for not taking a harder line against the Chinese government’s policy that politically sensitive results be blocked.

Human rights group Amnesty International also launched a public petition on Tuesday calling on Google to cancel Dragonfly. The organization said it would encourage Google workers to sign the petition by targeting them on LinkedIn and protesting outside Google offices.

Google declined to comment on the employees’ letter on Tuesday as Alphabet shares fell 0.35 percent to $1,052.28.

Google has long sought to have a bigger presence in China, the world’s largest internet market. It needs government approval to compete with the country’s dominant homegrown internet services.

An official at China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, who was unauthorized to speak publicly, told Reuters on Tuesday there was “no indication” from Google that it had adjusted earlier plans to eventually launch the search app. However, the official described a 2019 release as “unrealistic” without elaborating.

About 1,400 of Google’s tens of thousands of workers urged the company in August to improve oversight of ethically questionable ventures, including Dragonfly.

The nine employees who first signed their names on Tuesday’s letter said they had seen little progress.

The letter expresses concern about the Chinese government tracking dissidents through search data and suppressing truth through content restrictions.

“We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be,” the employees said in the letter published on the blogging service Medium.

The employees said they no longer believed Google was “a company willing to place its values over profits,” and cited a string of “disappointments” this year, including acknowledgement of a big payout to an executive who had been accused of sexual harassment.

That incident sparked global protests at Google, which like other big technology companies has seen an uptick in employee activism during the last two years as their services become an integral part of civic infrastructure.

Reporting by Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown

How Galia Lahav's CEO Got His Fairy Tale Ending

How did an e-commerce entrepreneur who came late to the social media revolution become an internationally celebrated innovator and build one of the world’s top luxury bridal brands? For Idan Lahav, CEO of Galia Lahav House of Couture, it took both serendipity and a social-centric strategy.

Galia Lahav’s story reads like both an entrepreneur’s field guide for the digital age and an old-fashioned fairy tale. When I recently sat down to talk with Idan, I found him to be a walking case study of a brand leader whose success has been driven by a deep understanding of the connected consumer.

A new vision.

Galia Lahav is a luxury bridal and evening wear brand with a network of 70 stores across 40 countries that for almost a decade has achieved 40 percent year-over-year growth. Though Galia Lahav was founded in 1984 in Tel Aviv, it was only about ten years ago that the current chapter in its story began.  

At that time, Idan was helping his mom with some Galia Lahav tech issues. As he went through the company’s email, he was shocked to discover something that would forever alter the course of the business. Eighty percent of consumer inquiries were coming from locations outside of Israel where the brand didn’t do business (namely, from the U.S. and Europe). It was then Idan realized that Galia Lahav was destined to be a global brand.  

Making up for lost time.

As a self-proclaimed data geek, Idan immediately set about determining what was driving the international traffic since the brand wasn’t investing in ads or PR. As Idan dug deeper, he quickly came to three realizations. First, that the traffic was being sourced through social media. Second, that he was late to the e-commerce revolution. Last, that he had to act now.

Though Idan had virtually no experience with ecommerce or social media, he immediately began to actively feed the social media platforms that were driving traffic to the Galia Lahav site and sold his first couture wedding gown that very day.

As I learned more of the story behind Galia Lahav’s brand ascendency, I heard Idan speak to three key themes for succeeding in the digital age:

Find and focus on your niche.

“A new business that wants to build a brand has to start within a niche or a well-defined product and be very precise with the message it’s sending out,” says Idan. Galia Lahav found and focused on this niche by being among the first brands to understand that today’s brides wanted more curve-accentuating silhouettes and updated designs than those traditionally available on the market.

But in the early days of the brand’s current incarnation, almost no stores would carry its designs, believing them to be too “sexy” or “fashion forward.” After nearly a year of failed tradeshows on multiple continents, funds were nearly depleted and the brand was in danger of folding. But then serendipity struck. At Galia Lahav’s final trade show in New York, three buyers fell in love with the collection. From there, it wasn’t long before the brand’s designs were available in Bergdorf Goodman, Browns, Takami group and other luxury retailers.

Leverage a clear, consistent, agile social strategy.

Idan realized that social media was the brand’s primary link to global clients, and moved quickly to assemble a multi-disciplinary team to develop a clearly defined campaign that was highly consistent across channels.

“The world is flooded with content, so in order to succeed you have to invest in a strong social media team —  a team of experienced trendsetters and active social users, who specializes in creative, conceptualization and content,” says  Idan. “There is also the image specifications for each channel. Everything is constantly changing so you have to adapt quickly and correctly in each platform as well.”

Listen to and learn from connected consumers.

“It would be shameful to receive free feedback and not take it into account when creating new designs,” Idan told me. In creating its collections, Galia Lahav relies heavily on social media for direct feedback.

It’s this commitment to listening to and learning from connected consumers that keeps the brand constantly evolving.  

Idan also spoke to the crucial role of influencers. “Our biggest and most effective source of exposure is through the presence of digital influencers on social media. Real brides and other customers who share their own imagery and experience online are priceless and give the brand another layer.”  

The meteoric rise of Galia Lahav is a testament to what’s possible for brands who are driven by an understanding of the connected consumer and the rules of engagement for the digital age. Though serendipity opened a new chapter for the brand, it was Idan’s social-centric strategy that saw its story through to a fairy tale ending.  

Risk Off Intensifies: As These Attractive Opportunities Fall, The Flight To Omega Healthcare Grows

This week’s Blue Harbinger Weekly digs into specific investment ideas following the powerful market-wide “flight to quality” since October, including a detailed review and trading idea for big-dividend (7.3% yield) REIT Omega Healthcare Investors (OHI), which is now up 44% year-to-date while the S&P 500 is essentially flat (do you think Omega is Overbought?).

We also review the names on our Income Equity watchlist, as well as the results of an attractive Growth Equity stock screen. We provide an update on our market-wide health monitor, and we conclude with some ideas about how you might want to position your investment portfolio going forward.

When Will The “Flight To Quality” End?

As we can see in the above chart, the markets have been selling off since October, and there has been a subsequent “flight to quality” as low-beta high-income sectors (such as REITs) have performed better than high-beta, high-growth sectors such as tech stocks. And as Dr. Brett Steenbarger asks and answers in his recent excellent blog post Oversold In An Oversold Market:

The assumption seems to be that because we’ve seen weakness in stocks, oil, high yield bonds, etc., we are in danger of an outright bear market.

According to his data, the answer to that notion is:

Maybe.

However, look at to REIT expert, Brad Thomas: Realty Income Is A Flight-To-Quality Trade. Specifically, Brad explains:

Mr. Market sees some clouds forming on the horizon and that’s what’s driving the flight-to-quality trade.

Realty Income’s (O) recent strong performance is certainly consistent with the current “risk off” environment, and that’s exactly why many people own high-quality REITs in the first place.

But is the flight to quality trade overdone? Is it time to move some of your chips around? We absolutely advocate sticking to your personal long-term investment strategy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be opportunistic on the margin.

According to Ariel Santos-Alborna, The Great Rotation (from Growth To Value And Risk-Off) may be underway. Ariel provides lot of good data to support his thesis, and it’s something we keep on our radar for risk management purposes.

And depending on your individual situation, we’ve highlighted some attractive stock-specific opportunities, and dramatic recent stock price moves, in the next section, for you to consider.

Stocks For You To Consider:

1. Watchlist: High-Income Equities…

The following table includes a list of high income securities that we follow (many of which we have written about, in great detail, in the past). These securities generally offer large dividend yields, and many of them have sold off over the last month as the market has sold off (although they haven’t sold-off nearly as much as the names on our Growth Equity list, which we will share later).

One of the first thing to note about this list is the large dividend yields. For example, we’ve had success owning 12% dividend yield New Residential (NRZ), which has recently pulled back in price. We’ve written about NRZ previously here, and encourage investors to consider the big risks before investing. We also currently own Omega Healthcare (a top performer in the table), which we cover in detail later in this report.

2. Watchlist: Contrarian Growth Ideas…

Also worth considering, we ran the following list of more growth-oriented stocks that had been performing so well this year, that they’re still up sharply year-to-date, even after selling off dramatically in recent months as part of the market-wide flight to quality.

The list includes big movers in the technology, consumer cyclicals, and information services sectors (because they tend to contain many of the higher beta growth stocks), but we’ve also been sure to include the FANGs. It’s still hard for us to believe names like Netflix (NFLX) won’t continue to grow rapidly and experience some powerful price reversion back much higher in the future (Netflix is still up 36.6% year-to-date, even after selling-off 22.5% over the last three months. For perspective, the S&P 500 is at the bottom of the table, and shows just how much more volatile the other stocks have been relative to the overall market.

Also, if you’re wondering, the “Money Flow Index” in the table is a technical measure of price and volume, or money flow over the past 14 trading days with a range from 0 to 100. A MFI value of 80 is generally considered overbought, or a value of 20 oversold.

Omega Healthcare Investors:

3. Stock of the Week: Is Big-Dividend REIT Omega Healthcare Overbought?

Big dividend yield (7.3%) REIT Omega Healthcare Investors has been on fire this year, gaining over 44% year-to-date. Granted, the shares have been rising from a low base (related to distress among many of its large operators). However, the company’s recent upbeat earnings announcement, combined with the market-wide “flight to quality,” has benefited the shares significantly. And by many measures, the shares are now approaching “overbought” levels in the short term, irregardless of your views of the stock over the long term (for the record, we like Omega as a long-term income-investment, and we continue to own the shares).

As long-term investors, and before we get into the details of our recent short-term income-boosting Omega options trade (spoiler alert: we sold very attractive covered calls), it’s worth reviewing the current fundamentals behind Omega’s business.

Omega Overview and Recent Challenges:

Omega is a healthcare REIT focused on skilled nursing facilities (“SNF”), and despite favorable long-term demographics, many of its SNF operators have been struggling financially, to put it mildly. As a result, Omega has temporarily halted dividend increases, and has been focused on disposing of certain properties to generate near-term cash flow instead of focusing on long-term growth. As a result, many of Omega’s critical financial health metrics have reached precarious levels as shown in the following table.

And as a result of the precariously high dividend payout ratios and negative Funds From Operationsgrowth (see above table), the shares had understandably sold off dramatically (before the recent sharp rebound).

Specifically, many Omega analysts and pundits were expecting the worst, however Omega remained positive and upbeat in its last two quarterly earnings announcements, and the shares have rebounded dramatically. For example, here’s a very encouraging statement from Omega’s CEO during its most recent quarterly earnings call.

With the bulk of our asset sales and repositioning behind us, we expect that in 2019 acquisitions will meaningfully outpace dispositions, as we return to our historical growth model.

However, in perhaps a new chapter to the recent Omega drama, the shares are becoming dramatically overbought by many technical measures. For example, the 200-day moving average and two-week Money Flow Index show Omega’s overbought levels are increasing sharply while much of the rest of the market (e.g. the S&P 500 (SPY) and Nasdaq (QQQ)) is moving in the other direction and becoming oversold.

Our Omega Trade:

Because we remain bullish on Omega’s long-term prospects (we own shares), but recognize the potential short-term headwinds, we have elected to sell income-generating call options on our existing Omega position. This generates attractive income for us now, and if the shares continue to rise significantly (before our options contract expires on January 18, 2019), they’ll get called away from us (our strike price is $38) at an even larger profit than we already have in the position.

And if they don’t get called away from us before the options contract expires, then we’re happy to keep holding the shares for the long -term, plus we get to keep the attractive premium income we just generated for selling the calls, no matter what.

And worth mentioning, the premium income currently available is higher than usual because market volatility and fear also is higher than usual, as evidenced by the heightened VIX (more on the VIX, and overall market health, later). For perspective, if the shares get called away from us within the next two months (when the contract expires) that’s an extra 35% income for us on an annualized basis (((($38+ $0.40) / 36.28) -1) x (2/12 months) = 35%).

We believe Omega remains an attractive long-term investment despite the climbing near-term technical levels. And as a long-term investor, we view now as an attractive opportunity to boost near-term income with covered calls. Further, if you enjoy the idea of boosting your income with covered calls, Dr. Jeff Miller has been running an outstanding series on boosting your income with calls, and his latest is available here: Boost Your JM Smuckers Dividend Yield.

Overall Market Health:

We view long-term market conditions to be healthy and constructive, whereas near-term conditions warrant caution. Here’s a look at some of the data that goes into our assessment:

Despite the recent spike in volatility and fear (as measured by the market “fear index,” the VIX, aka CBO Volatility Index), and despite the recent market-wide sell off (which has been more pronounced for technology, growth and momentum stocks versus “fight to quality” stocks – such as REITs), long-term market conditions remain healthy. However, in the short term, volatility is persistent, and risk is elevated.

Remember, the risk versus reward trade-off is one of the most basic tenets of investing. Specifically, if you take more volatility risk – you should be compensated, over time, with higher returns. Therefore being a contrarian and “buying low” after/during a sell-off is often a better opportunity if you are a long-term investor. However, there’s certainly no guarantee that the market won’t go much lower in the short- and mid-term. And if you cannot handle the shorter-term volatility (or if you are in a comfortable financial position where you don’t need to take on the volatility risk), then there’s really no need to take on that risk with your investments.

Worth noting, from a short-term standpoint, negative indicators include an elevated Volatility Index (VIX), and an uptick in credit-spreads (which are still low by historical standards), which are both indicators of near-term risk as volatility is persistent. Also interesting to consider, @AlphaGenCapital reminds us that there have never been so many investment grade bonds approaching junk status.

From a long-term standpoint, positive market health indicators include an increasingly attractive S&P 500 forward P/E ratio, low unemployment, low interest rates (even though they are rising), and continuing GPD growth.

Overall, despite elevated near-term risks, the market remains relatively healthy and attractive from a long-term investment standpoint.

Conclusion:

The risk-off flight to quality in recent weeks has been quite pronounced as fearful investors ditch volatile high-growth stocks in favor of lower-risk, lower-beta securities including REITs such as Omega Healthcare. Not only has the market’s preference for REITs helped Omega’s share price, but so too have the company’s last two earnings announcements which were both very positive, especially relative to the dire operator challenges the company has faced (and been working through) over the last year. We like Omega over the long term, and we continue to own the shares. However, we recognize the increasingly overbought technical indicators for Omega in the short term, and we’ve elected to sell income-generating call options against our shares for the reasons described in this article.

More broadly speaking, near-term market volatility has created some attractive investment opportunities across the market, such as those described in this article. It makes sense for investors to be opportunistic around the margin (i.e. pick up a few attractive shares at discounted prices if it’s consistent with your investment time horizon and goals), but don’t ever do anything crazy like ditching your long-term plan out of fear or greed. Be smart. Stick to you plan.

Disclosure: I am/we are long OHI.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Insiders Just Bought A 15% Yield At Below Book Value: USA Compression Partners LP

Looking for a dependable high-yield vehicle? The management at USA Compression Partners LP (USAC) have maintained the company’s $.52 quarterly through previous boom and bust cycles:

(Source: USAC site)

If you’ve ever researched how natural gas gets pulled out of the ground, you’ve already discovered that compression is an increasingly important part of the operation. Compression also is a vital element in shale fracking production, which requires more compression than traditional techniques.

Although you wouldn’t know it from its current low price, which is near its 52-week low, USAC is in a good place now – demand for its large horsepower units is robust, and the major acquisition it made of the assets of CDM in early 2018 put it into a dominant position in its industry.

Management referenced this on the recent Q3 ’18 earnings call:

“The overall market for compression services remains very strong, driven by solid natural gas fundamentals and the continually midstream infrastructure buildup, which does not just combine to one region, but rather it’s taking place across the country in areas which we operate. We continue to take advantage of the strong market to push through rate increases while prudently investing capital in the business. Our utilization metrics demonstrate the current strength of the market and we expect continued strength throughout 2019, based on the current visibility for compression services demand.”

Natural gas has multiple drivers – increasing utilization as a replacement for coal at power plants, LNG exports, exports to Mexico, and demand as a feedstock for petrochemical companies, which continue to ramp up their presence in the US, in order to take advantage of larger natural gas supplies:

(Source: USAC site)

Many have posed the age-old question, “Does size matter?” with advocates on both sides of the argument.

However, when it comes to the scintillating world of compression, size does matter, and here’s where USAC has a distinct advantage over its competitors. The trend is toward outsourcing, particularly for large equipment, which tends to be “sticky” – it’s expensive for a customer to demobilize this type of equipment, ($60K – $200K plus), which promotes longer contracts and increasing prices for USAC.

“The market for large horsepower equipment has remained very tight as we’ve experienced throughout the entire year. Demand continues to be especially strong for the very largest horsepower categories in which USA Compression specializes.”

“Compression – the way forward continuing to outsource actually is trending to accelerate. So, I think you’re actually in a very unique time right now that you’ve got limitations on access to capital, you’ve got limitations on access to people and you have limitations on access to new equipment. So, all of those three things together can provide for a perfect storm which we think plays well to our strength of large horsepower infrastructure equipment and will allow us to re-price our book upward over time.”

“We’re in the equivalent of a seller’s market right now where there is a lot of demand and not a lot of supply.” (Source: Q3 call)

(Source: USAC site)

Looking forward, USAC should be able to capitalize on a better pricing environment: “When we look at the spot pricing on the new units we’re deploying, 120,000 some odd horsepower for next year, these are extremely attractive new unit economics, effectively five-year or less cash on cash type of payouts, low 20s, IRR on an levered type of basis.” (Source: Q3 ’18 call)

Distributions:

USAC’s next distribution should have an ex-dividend date sometime in early February. It pays in the usual Feb/May/Aug/Nov LP cycle for LPs, and issues a K-1 at tax time. At a $13.50 price/unit, USAC yields 15.56%, with trailing coverage of 1.02X.

DCF coverage was just 1.01X in Q3 ’18. However, moving forward, management sees additional cost savings synergies from the CDM deal kicking in for 2019, as it finalizes the transition. The entire 900 employees of the company are now using the same customer, contract and asset data systems. This should improve coverage going forward, in addition to forward price increases.

No More IDR’s:

USAC closed on the CDM deal on 4/2/18. CDM was the compression services arm of Energy Transfer Partners LP, and Energy Transfer Equities, which merged into Energy Transfer LP (ET). CMD was valued at ~ $1.8B.

This deal included the following:1. The contribution of ETP’s subsidiaries, CDM Resource Management LLC and CDM Environmental & Technical Services LLC, to USAC.2. The cancellation of the incentive distribution rights in USAC.3. The conversion of the general partner interest in USAC into a non-economic general partner interest. As part of the transaction, ETE acquired the ownership interests in the general partner of USAC, and approximately 12.5 million USAC common units from USA Compression Holdings.

(Source: USAC site)

Earnings:

This table illustrates the impact that the CDM deal has had on USAC’s operations. It was transformative, ramping up revenue and EBITDA by well over 100% and DCF by over 54% in Q3 ’18, while Q2 ’18 saw even larger increases.

USAC had a larger than normal number of legacy CDM field technicians after the CDM deal closed, and also used outside parties to perform routine maintenance on some compression units, which was much more expensive than using internal personnel. It took a while to find the right caliber of technicians, due to a strong marketplace environment, but they’ve fixed the situation, and upgraded their staff talent level.

USAC’s coverage has improved dramatically over the past four quarters, rising from a sub-par .87x (when the GP was relinquishing IDR rights to support the payouts, up to 1.09X in Q2 ’18, and averaging 1.02x over the past four quarters).

Looking forward to 2019, if we use an average of the post-CDM deal Q2 and Q3 2018 DCF figures of $47.5M and $51.4M, respectively, that gives us an average DCF of ~$49.45M/quarter.

We compared and extrapolated that $49.45M DCF average to the Q3 ’18 total cash distributions of $47.02M, which were higher than the Q2 ’18 total of $43.5M.

If USAC’s DCF and total distributions stay flat, we should see 1.05X coverage in 2019. This is without the benefit any cost savings, or additional revenues from price hikes.

Fleet Utilization:

Fleet horsepower was over 3.6M, as of 9/30/18, an increase of more than 53,000 horsepower vs. Q2 ’18. Active horsepower increased 61,000 to over 3.2M, up ~2% over Q2 2018.

Another positive is that management has been able to redeploy ~353,000 horsepower of idle horsepower from the combined fleets at nominal additional capex costs. (CDM’s fleet had a lower utilization rate.) Most of its idle equipment is in the small horsepower category – long before the CDM deal, management had been shifting USAC’s emphasis toward large horsepower equipment.

USAC has had a very stable fleet utilization rate of ~93% for more than a decade:

(Source: USAC site)

Guidance vs. Performance:

Management narrowed its full-year 2018 adjusted EBITDA guidance range to $310 – $320M, and its 2018 DCF guidance range to $170m – $180M.

We pro-rated this 2018 guidance to three quarters to get an idea of USAC’s actual Q1 ‘3 ’18 results compare to the guidance. So far, EBITDA looks roughly in line with the low end of 2018 guidance, while DCF is ~4% above it.

Risks:

Natural Gas downturn – If there’s another protracted downturn in the energy patch, this could lead to a cutback in rigs, and potential demand for compression services, even the large units, which are in tight demand now.

Unlike crude oil, which has had a rough go of it in 2018, natural gas futures are up 34% over the past month, and 46% year to date in 2018. However, producers need compression to get their product out of the ground, which gives USAC a cushion in energy cycles, as its fleet utilization has had a strong, long term record of 93% utilization.

IRA Holders – Holding an LP in an IRA may result in tax complications for IRA holders due to UBTI. You’ll also get more tax deferral advantages from investing in USAC in a taxable account. You should consult your accountant about these aspects of investing in LPs.

Valuations:

At $13.50, USAC is less than 5% above its 52-week lows – its price hasn’t been this low since April 2016. It’s also selling at .85x of book value, and its price/DCF is one of the lower valuations we’ve seen recently.

Analyst’s Price Targets:

That $13.50 price puts it nearly 26% below analysts’ lowest price target of $17.00, almost 44% below the $19.43 average price target.

Insiders Are Buying:

Management just upped its skin in the game last week – they bought 45,000 units at a price range of $13.40 to $13.90.

(Source: finviz)

Financials:

Due to negative net income, which includes heavy non-cash depreciation and amortization charges, USAC has negative ROA and ROE valuations.

The interest coverage factor of just .69X looks poor, when compared to the 1.45X average, but, again that includes a great deal of non-cash depreciation and amortization charges.

USAC’s EBITDA/Interest coverage factor for Q1-3 ’18 was 4.49X.

Debt and Liquidity:

“As of September 30, 2018, the Partnership had outstanding borrowings under the revolving credit facility of $1 billion, $578.2 million of borrowing base availability and, subject to compliance with the applicable financial covenants, available borrowing capacity of $309.7 million. As of September 30, 2018, the outstanding aggregate principal amount of the Partnership’s 6.875% senior notes was $725 million.”

(Source: USAC site)

USAC’s Credit Agreement has an aggregate commitment of $1.6B, with a further potential increase of $400M, and has a maturity date of April 2, 2023.

Its 6.875% senior notes Senior Notes mature on April 1, 2026.

Options:

We have options picks for USAC in our Double Dividend Stocks service, which we can’t divulge here, but you can see trade details for over 25 other option-selling trades in our Covered Calls Table and Cash Secured Puts Table.

Summary:

We rate USAC a long-term buy. Demand for its natural gas compression services isn’t going away any time soon, just the opposite. USAC has a strong position in its niche industry, and is well-positioned to benefit from increasing demand for large-scale horsepower compression.

All tables furnished by DoubleDividendStocks.com, unless otherwise noted.

Disclaimer: This article was written for informational purposes only, and is not intended as personal investment advice. Please practice due diligence before investing in any investment vehicle mentioned in this article.

CLARIFICATION: We have two investing services. Our legacy service, DoubleDividendStocks.com, has focused on selling options on dividend stocks since 2009.

Disclosure: I am/we are long USAC.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Gadget Lab Podcast: Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann on Visual Search

Holidays are supposed to be about presence, not presents, right? It’s about spending time with family and friends and re-prioritizing…right? (Right?) That’s certainly true, but it’s also that time when there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on people to buy gifts for their loved ones, which can be stressful. Fortunately, the Gadget Lab team has some fail-proof gift ideas, and they’re more than happy to share on this week’s podcast.

Later on in the show, Lauren sits down with Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann for a conversation about the future of visual search, as well as Pinterest’s financial future. Spoiler alert: The company plans to IPO, Silbermann says.

Show notes: If you’re looking for more gift recommendations for the holiday season, check out our annual Wish List; as well as our buying guides for laptops, Android phones, travel-friendly items, and STEM toys. There are also some great deals to be found here.

Send the Gadget Lab hosts feedback on their personal Twitter feeds. Arielle Pardes can be found at @pardesoteric. Lauren Goode is @laurengoode. Michael Calore can be found at @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. Our theme song is by Solar Keys.

How to Listen

You can always listen to this week’s podcast through the audio player on this page, but if you want to subscribe for free to get every episode, here’s how:

If you’re on an iPhone or iPad, open the app called Podcasts, or just tap this link. You can also download an app like Overcast or Pocket Casts, and search for Gadget Lab. And in case you really need it, here’s the RSS feed.

If you use Android, you can find us in the Google Play Music app just by tapping here. You can also download an app like Pocket Casts or Radio Public, and search for Gadget Lab. And in case you really need it, here’s the RSS feed.

We’re also on Soundcloud, and every episode gets posted to wired.com as soon as it’s released. If you still can’t figure it out, or there’s another platform you use that we’re not on, let us know.

Chinese online shopping sites ditch Dolce & Gabbana in ad backlash

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese e-commerce sites have removed Dolce & Gabbana products amid a spiralling backlash against an advertising campaign that was decried as racist by celebrities and on social media.

The ads – released earlier this week to drum up interest in a Shanghai fashion show the Italian brand later canceled – featured a Chinese woman struggling to eat spaghetti and pizza with chopsticks, sparking criticism from consumers.

The blunder was compounded when screenshots were circulated online of a private Instagram conversation, in which the brand’s designer Stefano Gabbana makes a reference to “China Ignorant Dirty Smelling Mafia” and uses the smiling poo emoji to describe the country. The brand said Gabbana’s account had been hacked.

Amid calls for a boycott, the furore threatened to grow into a big setback for one of Italy’s best-known fashion brands in a crucial market, where rivals from Louis Vuitton of LVMH to Kering’s Gucci are vying to expand.

Chinese customers account for more than a third of spending on luxury products worldwide, and are increasingly shopping for these in their home market rather than on overseas trips.

China’s Kaola, an e-commerce platform belonging to China’s NetEase Inc confirmed it had removed Dolce & Gabbana products while luxury goods retailer Secoo said it removed the brand’s listings on Wednesday evening.

On Yoox Net-A-Porter – owned by Cartier parent Richemont and a leading online high-end retailer – the label’s wares were no longer available on its platforms within China. The company declined to comment.

Checks done by Reuters on Thursday morning also showed pages that previously linked to Dolce & Gabbana items on the e-commerce sites hosted by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and JD.com Inc were no longer available and searches for the brand returned no products.

Alibaba and JD.com did not respond to requests for comment, and Dolce & Gabbana did not comment on the retailers’ moves.

RESPECT

After its China missteps quickly went viral on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, it apologised in a statement on the site.

Celebrities including “Memoirs of a Geisha” movie star Zhang Ziyi criticized the brand, while singer Wang Junkai said he had terminated an agreement to be the brand’s ambassador.

An airport duty fee shop in the southern Chinese city of Haikou said on Weibo it had removed all Dolce & Gabbana products from its shelves.

The Communist Party Youth League, the youth wing of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said on Weibo “we welcome foreign companies to invest and develop in China … companies working in the country should respect China and Chinese people”.

The gaffe is not the first by Dolce & Gabbana in China, even as it pushes to increase its appeal there. It came under fire on social media last year for another series of ads showing the grungy side of Chinese life.

The unlisted firm does not publish earnings or disclose how much revenue it derives from China.

Other uproars have come and gone in China without appearing to cause lasting damage, including at brands like Kering’s Balenciaga, which apologised in April amid a backlash over how some Chinese customers had been treated in Paris.

But there was an increased chance such controversies could affect sales as buyers became more discerning about brands, some analysts said.

FILE PHOTO: People walk past a Dolce & Gabbana store at a shopping complex in Shanghai, China November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

“It’s a different market now – Chinese customers are more savvy, and there’s so much more choice,” said Sindy Liu, a London-based luxury marketing consultant.

“A lot of western brands don’t really understand China that well when it comes to cultural sensitivities. But most brands are quite careful, they don’t do things that are humorous.”

Controversial comments by designers can be devastating for luxury brands. In one of the worst fallouts from in the fashion world, Christian Dior, now fully part of LVMH, fired designer John Galliano in 2011 after a video of him surfaced hurling anti-Semitic abuse at people in a bar in Paris.

Reporting by Pei Li and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Additional reporting by Sarah White in Paris and Claudia Cristoferi in Milan, Editing by Himani Sarkar

Sticking to Your Morals Benefits Your Company, Study Says (But There's a Catch)

That little twinge of temptation to cheat. Fudge. Lie. Play favorites. Maybe you’ve felt it. And as hundreds of headlines show us, companies veer off of the rules all the time. But according to research, if you want your business at the top, the one thing you shouldn’t skimp on is your ethics.

Better ethics from leaders, better performance

In a study published in Academy of Management Annals, researchers reviewed more than 300 books, studies and other texts on moral leadership published between 1970 and 2018. They found that the organizations with the highest performance had leaders who prioritized morality. Those companies had employees were more satisfied, engaged, creative and proactive.

But why does sticking to a moral path get this result?

Coauthor Jim Lemoine, assistant professor of organization and human resources at the University of Buffalo, says that the employees tended to see ethical leaders not only as more effective, but also as more trusted. When workers know you stand for something, that you’ll do what you think is right, they feel protected and stable. This subsequently frees them to focus on their jobs better, be more creative and interact with others in a relaxed way.

The big catch: Who decides what’s moral?

As Lemoine points out, what’s “right” can be subjective. As an example, consider the decision to open a new coal plant. One leader might say this is ethical because it provides jobs and relies on a natural resource. Another leader might say it’s not ethical because of the harm to the environment or because there are more cost-effective forms of energy now available.

What’s more, the research study asserts, different approaches to ethics can get different outcomes. For instance, leaders who focus on norms and standards can excel at keeping companies out of hot water legally or politically. But they might twist the rules to their own benefit.

At the end of the day, Lemoine says, there’s no best moral philosophy. Just make sure you have a philosophy you live by. Even as you abide by a particular approach, you should recognize that others might have a way of looking at a situation or the world that’s different than you. This doesn’t make them right or wrong, but it does require that you communicate as openly as possible to avoid conflicts and work better together.

An Obscure Concealed Carry Group Spent Millions on Facebook Political Ads

Among the biggest spenders on Facebook political ads during the midterms are some names you’d probably expect. There’s Beto O’Rourke, who lost to Ted Cruz in Texas’s recent Senate race. There’s President Trump—both his campaign and his Super PAC. There are billionaires like JB Pritzker, incoming governor of Illinois, and Tom Steyer, the environmentalist leading the campaign to impeach Trump. And of course, there’s a multi-billion dollar oil giant, ExxonMobil. But tucked into that list, rounding out the top ten, is one name few have heard of: Concealed Online, a for-profit company that offers an online course and sells online certifications for concealed carry permits in Virginia.

Since May, it’s shelled out more than $2 million on Facebook ads—just slightly less than ExxonMobil, and far more than well-known groups like Planned Parenthood. Its ads warn about the “blue wave.” “MOB RULE IS COMING!” read one series of ads before the midterms. And after: “IT’S ALMOST OVER! The Gun Control Dems are IN.” The ads are laced with heated political rhetoric, but they don’t advocate for political action. Instead, they seem squarely designed to make the company money. They urge Facebook users to “certify online for free to carry concealed” through their website. (The certificates cost $65 to download.)

Concealed Online doesn’t share much more information about who’s behind it. The company’s website gives no indication of who the owner is. Its address as of early November was a virtual office in Burbank, California, but after WIRED inquired about it, the company changed the address listed on its site to Walnut, California. There’s no Concealed Online registered with the California Secretary of State, and the company’s website is registered to a business that buys domains on behalf of clients who don’t want their information disclosed. A legal complaint filed in the Northern District of California in February 2017, however, identifies OrionClick LLC as the parent company of Concealed Online.

WIRED reached out to Concealed Online through an email address on the company’s website. After WIRED received a response from Concealed Online’s lawyer, Karl Kronenberger, the company’s owner agreed to an interview if WIRED did not publish his name. The owner says he chooses to keep his identity private in part because he fears attacks by “crazies,” and in part because his personal politics are “the opposite” of the ones reflected in his ads. He insists he’s not a partisan actor, but an internet marketer, capitalizing on political events to make money.

“We’re opportunistic marketers, sure,” he says. “The point of the ad is to effect a purchase, not influence policy.”

Digital political ads exist in a regulatory no-man’s land. Where political advertisers on radio or television must file disclosures with the Federal Election Commission and include disclaimers about who paid for the ad, no such rules exist in the digital space, though some have been proposed. Even on television, for ads that aren’t purchased by candidates or PACs, the FEC only requires disclaimers on so-called “electioneering communications,” which must be publicly distributed shortly before an election and include clear references to a specific candidate. But the digital gap allows anyone, regardless of motive, to run highly targeted, politically divisive ads, with next to no oversight. With its ad archive, Facebook has tried to institute some transparency into the process. But Concealed Online’s multi-million dollar ad campaign raises questions about how transparent that system really is.

Concealed Online launched in 2016, three years after Virginia started allowing people to take online courses to qualify for concealed carry permits. Those permits are recognized in states across the country, and even non-Virginia residents are eligible. The company’s owner saw a business opportunity in that. So he developed an online training course, where people can watch a video on gun safety, take a test, and instantly download a certificate of competency with a handgun for a fee. You can take the test as many times as you need, making it nearly impossible to fail. I passed without watching the training video and with no firearms experience to speak of. I purposely got questions wrong and still passed.

Once you pass the test, you can download a certificate for a fee, which can then be used by Virginia residents and non-residents as part of an application for a concealed carry permit in Virginia, one of the only states that allows online certification. On its website, Concealed Online specifies that the Virginia permit isn’t recognized in all 50 states and notes that it’s the customer’s responsibility to heed the laws where they live. But the ads WIRED saw don’t include those caveats.

Instead, they feature urgent warnings, like, “The election is just DAYS AWAY and Gun Control Lawmakers could do a FULL STOP 🛑 on your 2nd Amendment rights! FAST-TRACK your Concealed Carry Certification ONLINE! It’s FREE, EASY, and STILL LEGAL! IGNORE AT YOUR OWN RISK.” And yet, Concealed Online’s owner rejects the idea that this is in any way a political ad. “It all depends on the intent of the ad. What’s the call to action? 100 percent of the time our call to action is: Click here to buy our product,” he says. “The intention is to cause a sense of urgency to achieve more sales.”

Concealed Online via Facebook

The Better Business Bureau gives Concealed Online an F rating, in part because it has received 25 complaints, primarily from people who paid for the certificate only to find out that Virginia’s permits aren’t recognized in their state. The most recent complaint was filed last month. The Better Business Bureau opened an investigation into Concealed Online’s ads but received no response. The company’s owner says Concealed Online sells certificates to people living in states like California and Colorado, which don’t accept Virginia permits, because they can use them when they travel to states that do.

Kronenberger, Concealed Online’s lawyer, stresses, “My client didn’t do anything wrong. They followed the law.”

Concealed Online is not the only company leveraging the Virginia permit as a business model. Others like National Carry Academy and US Concealed Online have popped up in recent years offering similar online certifications. The Virginia State Police confirmed the state accepts online certifications, but doesn’t endorse any particular program. But Concealed Online appears to be the only one that spent so substantially on ads in Facebook’s political ad archive. From May through November 10, the company ran 12,961 ads at a cost of $2,185,554, according to the archive report.

Concealed Online’s ads are included in Facebook’s political ad archive because they address an issue of national importance, namely, guns. The company’s owner, however, says his ads shouldn’t be listed alongside super PACS and political campaigns in Facebook’s ad archive, because their purpose is purely commercial, not ideological. In fact, he says business was better when it looked like Hillary Clinton was going to win the presidential election, because people were afraid that “everybody’s going to come take their guns.”

That may be, but in Facebook’s eyes, any ad that talks about guns—or immigration or abortion or any number of other political issues—is considered a political ad. There’s a reason for that. During the 2016 election, Russia’s infamous troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, ran ads focused on divisive political issues, like race and immigration, often, without mentioning a candidate at all. One page, called Black Fist, even posed as a commercial venture offering self-defense courses to black Americans.

Such ads wouldn’t trigger an FEC disclaimer, even if they appeared on television. But the backlash against Facebook and other platforms has been so fierce since 2016, that in its efforts to combat future manipulation, Facebook decided to include both candidate and issue-specific ads in its archive, which stores information on the advertisers and the ads themselves. The company requires these advertisers to go through an authorization process, which includes submitting their government-issued ID and a residential mailing address.

Concealed Online’s owner says he had no choice but to register as a political advertiser when Facebook instituted its new policies. Facebook wouldn’t run his ads until he completed an authorization process, which included sending a letter to his home to prove he was a US resident. But he considers Facebook’s new system to be an overreach. “Facebook made the rule. It’s not a law,” he says.

Facebook confirmed that Concealed Online is an authorized political and issue advertiser. A spokesperson for Facebook said the company has looked into Concealed Online’s ads and they don’t violate Facebook’s policies.

Concealed Online via Facebook

In a lot of ways, the ad archive does make political ads on Facebook more transparent. Before it, there was no way to see everything an advertiser was publishing, who they were reaching, or how much they were spending. Without the archive, Concealed Online’s ads would remain, well, concealed, except to those users who saw them in their News Feeds. Concealed Online is far from the only for-profit business swept up in the archive. Both Ben & Jerry’s and Penzeys Spices are also authorized political advertisers on Facebook. But the opacity of Concealed Online’s business also exposes a blind spot for Facebook and for the regulation of digital political ads in general, says Ann Ravel, a UC Berkeley law professor and former FEC commissioner under President Obama.

Despite all of the noise about protecting elections in Washington and Silicon Valley over the last two years, digital political ads remain largely unregulated. “The law doesn’t cover them,” she says. “My opinion is that it should. This is the essence of where campaigning has gone now.”

Ravel says Facebook’s archive is “not sufficient.” As the case of Concealed Online shows, Facebook’s database can tell you what entity placed the ad, but it reveals little about who’s really behind it. That’s an issue that’s hardly specific to Concealed Online. ProPublica recently reported on a dozen ad campaigns that appeared to be backed by oil giants hiding behind Facebook Pages of different names. And reporters have proved how easy it is to deceive Facebook’s authorization system. Vice News recently tried to buy Facebook ads that were marked as “paid for by” 100 different senators. The ads never ran, but Facebook approved the disclaimers.

With millions of ads being placed in any given election cycle, it’s just tougher for tech platforms to vet each advertiser thoroughly. That makes the problem of transparency, which exists offline, too, all the more difficult to address online. Democratic senators Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner and the late Republican senator John McCain introduced legislation last year that would impose new disclosure standards on digital political ads, including ads related to “a national legislative issue of public importance,” like the ones Concealed Online runs. But that bill, the Honest Ads Act, hasn’t progressed.

“None of this is covered on the internet by any laws or regulations, no one has even attempted to consider the Honest Ads Act, and the FEC has done nothing,” Ravel says. “It’s really a bad portent.”

Instead, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all devised their own systems of disclosure. But those systems operate differently and include their own, distinct databases, which are still works in progress. They’re no substitute, Ravel says, for unilateral standards on a federal level.

Facebook, for its part, says the fact that people are asking questions about what they find in the archive is a step in the right direction. During a meeting with reporters at Facebook’s New York office late last month, the company’s global politics director Katie Harbath, was asked about ProPublica’s big oil investigation. “Before this they would never have even seen those ads,” Harbath said. But she, too, noted that the issue of transparency in political advertising is a problem Facebook can’t solve alone. “There’s not a legal structure around some of this yet, particularly when it comes to issue ads and what they’re required to disclose,” she said. “We’re going to be limited somewhat in terms of what we, as Facebook, can do.”

Facebook is rolling out changes to reduce the spread of sensationalist content, which has traditionally gotten the most engagement on the platform. Whether that will have any impact on the effectiveness of ads like the ones Concealed Online runs is unclear. For now, Facebook remains a main source of customers for the company. As Kronenberger put it, “They’re using this language because it’s working.”


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China's Xiaomi swings to net profit in third-quarter on robust sales in India, Europe

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Inc said on Monday it swung to a net profit in the third quarter, beating analyst estimates, driven by robust sales in India and Europe.

Xiaomi branding is seen at a UK launch event in London, Britain, November 8, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Profit for the three months through September reached 2.48 billion yuan ($357.23 million), versus an 11 billion yuan loss in the same period a year earlier. That compared with a 1.92 billion yuan average of five analyst estimates compiled by Refinitiv Eikon.

Xiaomi also said operating profit sank 38.4 percent to 3.59 billion yuan in the third quarter. Revenue rose 49.1 percent to 50.85 billion yuan.

The mixed results come amid a slowdown in smartphone purchases both in China, where Xiaomi once was the top-selling handset brand, and overseas.

Nevertheless Xiaomi, along with fellow low-cost handset makers Oppo and Vivo, accounted for around a quarter of the global smartphone market in the first half of 2018, showed data from researcher IDC.

Xiaomi’s fastest-growing markets are India, where it has had success with its budget Redmi phone series, and Europe, where it entered in 2017 with launches in Russia and Spain. Earlier this month it released its flagship Mi 8 Pro device in Britain.

But to weather the global market slowdown, analysts said Xiaomi needs to expand to new markets and also sell more higher-priced devices with wider profit margins.

The firm has been adding new brands to its smartphone portfolio to target niche consumers. Concurrent with today’s earnings, it announced a partnership with Meitu Inc, a maker of a photo app popular with young women, to sell phones under its brand. Earlier this year it launched Black Shark, a phone targeted at gamers, and Poco, a value-for-money device aimed at India.

Mo Jia, who tracks China’s smartphone makers at research firm Canalys, said attempts to sell more expensive devices requires changing its brand perception.

“It’s still very hard for Xiaomi to change its perception of being a low-end device manufacturer as the majority of its smartphone shipments are the Redmi series.”

Xiaomi also aims to transform itself from a smartphone firm into a software company. As the firm prepared for its IPO, founder Lei Jun touted internet services – namely advertisements placed on the firm’s in-house apps – as its future and key differentiator from other handset brands.

In the third quarter, Xiaomi’s smartphone division grew revenue by 36.1 percent while its internet service division grew 85.5 percent. But phones made up 64.6 percent of total sales, while internet services made up 9.3 percent.

The results are the second set released by Xiaomi since the smartphone maker raised $4.72 billion in an initial public offering (IPO) in June, valuing the firm at about $54 billion – around half of some earlier industry estimates of $100 billion.

Its shares have fallen roughly 20 percent since they started trading in July amid a broader Chinese stock market sell-off and concern about a slowdown in China’s tech industry.

Reporting by Josh Horwitz; Editing by Christopher Cushing

With 1 Simple Move, Google Showed Yet Again Why It's Not the Company You Thought It Was

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

They hope, though, that you don’t notice when those promises become, well, a little diluted over time.

It’s the thought that counts, after all.

One thought offered by Google when it committed itself to your health was that Deep Mind, its profound subsidiary that uses AI to help solve health problems, was that its “data will never be connected to Google accounts or services.”

Cut to not very long at all and Deep Mind was last week rolled into, oh, Google.

In an odd coincidence, this move also necessitated that an independent review board, there to check on Deep Mind’s work with healthcare professionals, was disappeared.

This caused those who keep a careful eye on Google — such as NYU research fellow Julia Powles — to gently point out the company’s sleight of mouth.

This is TOTALLY unacceptable. DeepMind repeatedly, unconditionally promised to *never* connect people’s intimate, identifiable health data to Google. Now it’s announced…exactly that. This isn’t transparency, it’s trust demolition. 

This is, though, the problem with tech companies. 

We looked at them as if they were run by wizards doing things we could never understand.

Any time we became even slightly suspicious, the tech companies murmured that we should trust them. Because, well, we really didn’t understand what sort of world they were building.

Now, we’re living in it. A world where everything is tradable and hackable and nothing is sacred.

A world where the most common headlines about the company seem to begin: Google fined..

I asked Google whether it understood the reaction to its latest Oh, you caught us, yes, we’re going to do things differently now move. 

The company referred me to a blog post it wrote explaining its actions.

In it, Google uses phrases like major milestone and words like excited

It also offered me these words from Dr. Dominic King a former UK National Health Service surgeon and researcher who will be leading the Deep Mind Streams team: 

The public is rightly concerned about what happens with patient data. I want to be totally clear. This data is not DeepMind’s or Google’s – it belongs to our partners, whether the NHS or internationally. We process it according to their instructions – nothing more.

King added:

At this stage our contracts have not moved across to Google and will not without our partners’ consent. The same applies to the data that we process under these contracts.

At this stage.

Oh, but you know how creepily the online world works.

You know, for example, that advertising keeps popping up at the strangest times and for the strangest things.

Within minutes, certain apps on my phone were full of ads for Google’s new Pixel 3 phone. Which I could buy most easily, said the ads, at a Verizon store. 

Who would be surprised, then, if personal health data began to be linked with other Google services, such as advertising?

Too many tech companies know only one way to do business — to grow and wrap their tentacles around every last aspect of human life. 

The likes of Google operate on a basis of a FOMO paranoia that even teens and millennials might envy.

They need to know everything about you, in case they miss out on an advertising opportunity.

You are not a number. You are a lot of numbers. 

And your numbers help Google make even bigger numbers.

Will that ever change? Probably not.

Cloud security: The essential checklist

Cloud security is one of those things that everyone knows they need, but few people understand how to deal with. I

The good news is that it’s actually pretty simple, and somewhat similar to security for your enterprise systems. Here’s a checklist of what you may need and how to make these features work.

  1. Directory service. If you use identity and access management, you need a directory to keep the identities. Although Microsoft’s Active Directory works just fine, any LDAP-compliant directory will work. Note that you need to deal with security at the directory level as well, so the directory itself does not become a vulnerability.
  2. Identity and access management. IAM is needed to ensure that you can configure who is who, who is authenticated, and what devices, applications, or data they can access. This gives you complete control over who can do what, and it puts limits on what they can do. These IAM tools are either native to the public cloud platform or come from a third party.
  3. Encryption services. What specific encryption you needwill largely depend on where you are in the world and the types of things you need to encrypt, as well as if you need to encrypt data at rest, in flight, or both. I say “services” (plural) because you’ll likely ise more than one encryption service, including at the file, database, and network levels.
  4. Security ops. Often overlooked, this is the operational aspect of all of security. Security ops, aka secops, includes the ability to proactively monitor the security systems and subsystems to ensure that they are doing their jobs and that the security services are updated with the latest information they need to keep your system safe.
  5. Compliance management. Another often overlooked security feature, this is where you deal with those pesky rules and regulations that affect security. No matter if you need to be GDPR-compliant or HIPAA-compliant, this is where you have a console that alerts you to things that may be out of compliance and lets you take corrective action.

Of course, you may need more security features than these five types, based on who you are, what sector you’re in, and your own enterprise’s security requirements. However, this checklist provides a solid foundation for security success. Chances are that you’re missing one or two of them.

How Did the 'Freedom From Facebook' Campaign Get Its Start?

In July, executives from YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter testified before Congress about their company’s content moderation practices. While Facebook’s head of global policy Monika Bickert spoke, protesters from a group called Freedom From Facebook, seated just behind her, held signs depicting Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg’s heads atop an octopus whose tentacles reached around the planet.

Freedom From Facebook has garnered renewed attention this week, after The New York Times revealed that Facebook employed an opposition firm called Definers to fight the group. Definers reportedly urged journalists to find links between Freedom From Facebook and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a frequent target of far-right, anti-semitic conspiracy theories. That direct connection didn’t materialize. But where Freedom From Facebook did come from—and how Facebook countered it—does illustrate how seemingly grassroots movements in Washington aren’t always what they first appear.

The point here isn’t to question Freedom From Facebook’s intentions. Their efforts seem to stem from genuine concern over Facebook’s outsized role in the world. But the labyrinthine relationships and shadowy catalysts of the efforts on all sides of that debate show just how little involvement actual Facebook users have in the fight over reining the company in.

Since the 2016 presidential election, Facebook has confronted an onslaught of scandals, many of which drew scrutiny from federal lawmakers. First, Russian propagandists exploited the social network, using duplicitously bought ads to sway US voters. This March, journalists revealed data firm Cambridge Analytica had siphoned off information belonging to tens of millions of users. In the wake of this second controversy, Freedom From Facebook was born.

The initiative wasn’t formed by everyday Facebook users. It’s instead the product of progressive groups with established records of opposing tech companies, whose own relationships illustrate just how tangled these connections can be.

Specifically, Freedom From Facebook is an offshoot of the Open Markets Institute, a think tank that operated under the auspices of the New America Foundation until OMI head Barry Lynn publicly applauded antitrust fines levied against Google in Europe. Google is a major New America donor; Lynn’s entire team studying tech market dominance and monopolies got the ax, and spun out Open Markets as an independent body.

Earlier this year, former hedge fund executive David Magerman approached Lynn’s group with the idea to start to start a campaign in opposition to Facebook. Magerman poured over $400,000 into what became Freedom From Facebook, according to Axios. His involvement wasn’t known until Thursday. The connected between Freedom From Facebook and OMI was also not entirely explicit.

Freedom From Facebook has done more than stage protests on Capitol Hill. During Facebook’s annual shareholder meeting in May, the group chartered an airplane to fly overhead with a banner that read “YOU BROKE DEMOCRACY.” When Sandberg spoke at MIT in June, Freedom From Facebook took out a full-page advertisement in the student newspaper calling for the social network to be broken up. On Thursday, the group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to investigate a Facebook breach disclosed in September that affected 30 million user accounts.

Freedom From Facebook also formed a coalition with a diverse set of progressive organizations, like Jewish Voice For Peace, which promotes peace in Israel and Palestine, and the Communications Workers of America, a labor union that represents media workers. The coalition now comprises 12 groups, who “all organize around this fundamental principle that Facebook is too powerful,” says Sarah Miller, the deputy director of Open Markets Institute. Confusingly, according to Freedom From Facebook’s website, the coalition also includes Citizens Against Monopoly, a nonprofit Miller says was set up by Open Markets itself.

Eddie Vale, a progressive public affairs consultant, also confirmed in an email that Open Markets hired him to work on the Freedom For Facebook Initiative. He led the protest in July featuring the octopus signs.

Definers began lobbying journalists, including those from WIRED, to look into Freedom From Facebook’s financial ties this past summer. The effort was led by Tim Miller, a former spokesperson for Jeb Bush and an independent public affairs consultant, according to The New York Times. “It matters because people should know whether FFF is a grassroots group as they claimed or something being run by professional Facebook critics,” Miller wrote in a blog post published Friday. He added that he believes the push to connect the group to Soros does not amount to anti-semitism, especially if it contains a modicum of truth. Facebook itself asserted much the same in a statement it released Thursday.

The extent of the Soros relationship seems to be that the billionaire philanthropist does provide funding to both Open Markets and some of the progressive groups who constitute the Freedom From Facebook coalition. There’s no indication, though, that he has any direct involvement with the initiative. Open Markets’ Miller says the think tank wasn’t aware Facebook was paying an opposition firm to ask journalists to look into its work. “I just think knowing Facebook as we do, I don’t know that I would say that we were surprised, but I do think the Soros angle was surprising,” she says.

After The Times published its report Wednesday evening, Facebook severed its ties with Definers. “This type of firm might be normal in Washington, but it’s not the sort of thing I want Facebook associated with,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on a call with reporters Thursday. Both Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg claim they didn’t know Facebook was working with Definers until the The Times published its story. This is not the first time Facebook has employed an opposition research firm. In 2011, the social network hired a public relations firm to plant unflattering stories about Google’s user privacy practices.

By distancing itself from Definers, Zuckerberg and Sandberg are putting space between themselves and how the sausage gets made in Washington. As they have grown more powerful, tech organizations including Facebook, but also Google, Amazon, and others, have poured millions into lobbying on Capitol Hill. Those efforts include fighting back against well-funded and sometimes secretive campaigns, like Freedom From Facebook. Meanwhile, the social network’s over two billion users mostly sit on the sidelines, watching the high-stakes battle unfold.


More Great WIRED Stories

These 3 High-Yield Blue-Chips Are Retiree Dream Stocks

(Source: imgflip)

All income investors can agree that safe and rising income is a top priority when choosing dividend stocks. That’s especially true for retirees or those near retirement, who are counting on steady passive income to help pay the bills during their golden years.

This is why most conservative high-yield investors generally stick to non-cyclical industries when looking for good investment candidates. However, even cyclical industries such as energy can sometimes offer great high-yield income growth opportunities that shouldn’t necessarily be ignored. In recent weeks, the price of oil has crashed into a bear market, causing several readers to ask me to offer some top picks for taking advantage of the rapid decline in crude.

So, let’s take a look at not just what’s causing oil prices to dive off a cliff, but why Exxon Mobil (XOM), Chevron (CVX), and Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) (RDS.B) are three of the best high-yield choices for conservative income investors.

Not just have these three oil giants proven they can deliver safe income (and good total returns) for decades in all manner of oil price environments, but there are five reasons I expect them to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. What’s more from current prices, all three are likely to deliver market-beating returns as well, though Exxon Mobil is my top pick among these three blue-chips for new money today.

What’s Causing Oil Prices To Fall

In recent weeks, the global oil standard, Brent, has flirted with bear market territory.

Chart

Brent Crude Oil Spot Price data by YCharts

West Texas Intermediate, the US oil standard, has had it even rougher. On Monday, November 13th its price plunged nearly 8%, the worst single-day decline in over three years. And that previous decline was during the second worst oil crash in over 50 years, in which crude eventually plunged as much as 76%. In fact, WTI has now fallen for 12 consecutive days, which is the longest losing streak ever, or at least since oil futures began trading in 1983. WTI is now at $56, off $20 or 26% from its recent four-year high of $76. That places US oil firmly in a bear market. What’s causing oil prices to tank so hard and fast? Three things mainly.

In the short-term, there are the Iranian sanctions that were supposed to go into effect on November 5th. Previously some analysts had warned that these could take up to 2 million barrels per day or bpd off the global oil market in a matter of weeks. To offset this, Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed to increase daily production by 1 million bpd to stave off a sharp spike in oil prices. However, thanks to President Trump granting six-month oil importation waivers to eight major oil importing countries (ironically enough that includes China), that big supply disruption hasn’t occurred.

Now, Saudi Arabia has said that it will cut production next month by 500,000 bpd to help stabilize crude prices. However, that decline in supply is being offset by continuing strong growth in US shale production, which the EIA just reported hit a record high of 11.6 million bpd. That’s up 2 million bpd in the past year and is putting the US on track to potentially exceed the EIA’s 2019 US year-end production forecast a year early. According to OPEC’s latest forecast, US shale is expected to drive 2.23 million bpd of new supply in 2019.

Finally, you have rising fears of less rapid oil demand growth next year over concerns that the world economy is slowing. For instance, OPEC’s latest 2019 oil demand growth forecast is down 70,0000 bpd to 1.29 million. That might not seem like much but what has the oil market worried is that it’s the fourth straight monthly growth forecast decrease. Back in July, OPEC said it expected 2019 global demand for crude to rise by 1.45 million bpd. That 11% decrease in expected demand growth has the oil futures market concerned since crude is priced at the margin, thus the reason for its extreme volatility.

So, does this current short-term supply glut, which Wall Street fears might become protracted, mean another oil crash in coming?

Why Another Oil Crash Is Unlikely

Most likely not. That’s because there are major differences between today and the events that led to the oil crash of mid-2014 to early 2016. Most notably back then OPEC threw open the taps to try to drown US shale producers in an ocean of cheap crude. That was because at the time US oil & gas companies were spending not just all of their cash flow to ramp up production but also taking on mountains of debt (because of record low interest rates). At the time, OPEC (and most analysts) estimated that break even shale oil production prices were about $80. So, OPEC gambled that it could quickly bankrupt the industry that was blindly hiking production and stealing its market share.

Today, despite continuing to raise production, most oil companies (who have spent the last four years aggressively deleveraging) are committed to funding production growth with operating cash flow and maximizing returns on investment, not growth for its own sake.

(Source: Pioneer Natural Resources investor presentation)

In addition, breakeven prices for US shale have proven to be far lower than earlier forecasts (as low as $27 for some formations). OPEC now realizes it can’t bankrupt the US shale industry, at least not unless it also guts its own finances. That’s why Khalid al-Falih, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, said on November 13th. that OPEC (and Russia which has effectively joined it via the so-called “Vienna Consensus”) might cut production 1 million bpd. Note that this 1 million bpd cut would be enough to totally offset the supply glut caused by next year’s non-OPEC production increase. This shows that the world’s major oil producers are NOT looking to repeat the oil price war they kicked off in 2014.

But what about soaring US supply? Well while that has indeed been impressive, consider this. According to the International Energy Agency or IEA 52% of the world’s oil supply is currently coming from legacy fields that are, on average, seeing 6% annual decline rates. This means that just to maintain global supply at current levels requires about 3 million bpd of new production to come online each year. And according to some analyst estimates, the total amount of new production set to come online each year from currently announced oil projects between 2019 and 2022 is just 1 million to 1.5 million bpd.

OPEC estimates that, due to pipeline constraints, US total production, driven mostly by shale, will hit 13.4 million bpd in 2023. That amounts to long-term US oil production growth (over six years) of about 1 million bpd. Which means that even US shale, as might as it is, probably won’t be enough to even close the necessary production gap just to keep current global production steady. Factor in continued (though slower) oil demand growth over the coming years and you get a scenario where another oil crash (to $30 or below) is extremely unlikely.

In fact, taking a longer-term view another major oil crash also seems even less likely. That’s because, according to the EIA, 80% of all new production growth through 2040 will merely offset the natural decline rates of legacy oil fields. As a result, Exxon estimates that the oil industry will need to invest $400 billion annually over the next 22 years ($8.8 trillion in total), just to allow supply to match demand. That is far less spending than what’s currently planned meaning that the long-term outlook for oil prices remains higher, not lower.

However, let’s say I and most analysts are wrong. After all, the oil market has been befuddling nearly all attempts to forecast prices for nearly 150 years. Say that we do have another oil crash. Even then, there are numerous reasons that Exxon, Chevron, and Shell are likely to prove great sources of safe and even rising income for retirees.

1. Exxon, Chevron, And Shell Have Great Dividend Track Records

The first thing income investors should look at with any long-term investment is the dividend track record. You at least want to see a company, even an oil major, able to sustain its payout in all economic, industry, and interest rate environments. Better yet, you’d like to see dividends grow every year, which can help you sleep well at night no matter what the stock price or commodity prices are doing.

Shell’s dividend track record is the third best in the industry, with the company maintaining or growing its payout every year since WWII. Note that Shell did pay part of the dividend in stock during the oil crash, but in late 2017 returned to full cash payouts. However, considering that most oil companies were slashing or eliminating their payouts at this time, this is still a very impressive long-term track record. Especially given that a repeat of the last oil crash isn’t likely anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Chevron’s dividend track record is even better, thanks to 32 consecutive years of dividend increases that makes it one of just three oil industry dividend aristocrats. Exxon is also an aristocrat, having raised its dividend every single year since 1983. That 35-year payout growth streak is the second longest in the oil industry (HP has been raising since 1973) and is but one reason that the stock is so trusted by conservative income investors.

Chart

Brent Crude Oil Spot Price data by YCharts

These three companies’ dividend track records are even more impressive when you consider the context in which they were created. Specifically, they have been maintaining, or growing dividends every year even during prolonged periods when oil averaged about $15 (much of the 1990s), interest rates were as high as 12%, and when financial markets almost completely froze up during the Financial Crisis.

This shows that, barring an even worse recession than 2008-2009, none of these companies is likely to cut its payouts or break its dividend growth streaks. That’s due to their industry leading balance sheets, which for oil companies is the most important dividend safety factor.

2. Industry Leading Balance Sheets Are The Key To Riding Out Downturns

Because oil is a depleting asset, even during commodity crashes, when revenue, earnings, and cash flow fall off a cliff, oil companies must continue to invest billions into growth projects. This means that maintaining or growing dividends, plus growth capex, must be largely funded by debt. As a result, the number one thing conservative income investors need to focus on is an oil company’s balance sheet.

Specifically, five key metrics are important to know, which shows how likely it is that an oil company can ride out a protracted industry and or economic downturn. These are the debt/EBITDA (leverage) ratio, the interest coverage ratio (operating cash flow/interest), the debt/capital ratio, the credit rating, and the average interest cost.

Company Debt/EBITDA Interest Coverage Ratio Debt/Capital S&P Credit Rating Average Debt Cost
Exxon Mobil 0.9 62.6 10% AA+ 1.8%
Chevron 1.0 50.3 17% AA- 2.0%
Royal Dutch Shell 1.2 23.0 26% AA- 4.3%
Industry Average 1.8 11.5 24% NA NA

(Sources: Morningstar, Gurufocus, Fast Graphs, CSImarketing)

Royal Dutch Shell has the highest leverage ratio of these three blue-chips, but still far below the industry average. Chevron and Exxon, not surprisingly, maintain the most conservative leverage ratios in the industry.

Shell’s relatively high debt (among these three) is mostly due to the 2015 $70 billion acquisition of BG, which included a lot of debt assumption but also made Shell the world’s largest liquified natural gas or LNG company. Management has stated it’s making paying down its debt a priority and is targeting a long-term debt/capital ratio of 20%. The company has managed to steadily pay down its debt, which it began to do as soon as oil prices started to recover.

(Source: Shell investor presentation)

But even at current levels, Shell’s cash flow is sufficient to cover its interest costs 23 times over, more than double the industry average.

Chevron and Exxon’s interest coverage ratios are sky-high, which is why each enjoys such strong credit ratings. Shell’s rating was just upgraded by S&P to match Chevron’s for the second strongest in the industry. As a result of their strong balance sheets, all three companies can borrow at low interest rates. However, Chevron and Exxon have been the best at minimizing interest costs thanks to taking advantage of foreign bonds because interest rates overseas are still near zero.

Ultimately this means that Chevron, Exxon, and Shell should have no trouble maintaining and growing their dividends, while still investing in future growth. That’s great news because all three companies have solid long-term growth plans that should ensure years, if not decades, of generous, safe, and rising dividends.

3. All Three Companies Have Solid Growth Plans To Deliver Safe And Rising Dividends In The Future

Exxon Mobil has frustrated investors for years, thanks to upstream (oil & gas) production being essentially flat at 4 million bpd over the past 10 years. However, Morningstar analyst Allan Good actually has a very different take on the company.

We continue to rate Exxon as the highest-quality integrated firm, given its ability to capture economic rents along the oil and gas value chain. While its peers operate a similar business model with the same goal, they fail to do so as successfully, as evidenced in the lower margins and returns compared with Exxon.” – Allan Good, Morningstar (emphasis added)

I happen to agree with Mr. Good and consider Exxon my favorite oil major. That’s for several reasons including the strongest balance sheet in the industry, the second best dividend growth track record, and its superior historical returns on capital.

(Source: Exxon Investor Presentation)

Despite what investors might have thought of former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson (CEO until early 2017), the man did lead Exxon to the best long-term returns on capital of any oil major. And under his watch, despite some botched acquisitions (which all oil companies occasionally make), Exxon reported the smallest impairments (losses on investments) of any of its peers.

But new CEO Darren Woods (a 27-year company veteran) has a very different vision for Exxon. He still plans to focus spending on the highest return projects, but unlike Tillerson, is very much pro production growth. That’s thanks to what management calls the best long-term investment opportunities in 20 years. During the Q2 conference call, Woods told analysts that Exxon was on track for its extremely ambitious growth plans.

Key projects in Guyana, the U.S. Permian Basin, Brazil, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea are positioning us well to meet the objectives we outlined in our long-term earnings growth plans.” – Darren Woods, Exxon CEO

What are those growth plans? Well to take advantage of the industry’s deeply inadequate capex spending, Exxon is being contrarian and plans to jack up its growth spending in a big way.

  • 2016: $19 billion in capex
  • 2017: $23 billion
  • 2018: $24 billion
  • 2019: $28 billion
  • 2020-2025: Average of $30 billion per year

By 2020, Exxon might be spending the most of any of its peers on growth. But in keeping to the company’s historic focus on maximizing returns on capital, it plans to spend those massive amounts wisely. Here are Exxon’s 2025 goals:

  • Increase production 25% from 4 million bpd oil equivalent to 5 million bpd oil equivalent.
  • Increase chemical production by 30% (40% in North America and Asia).
  • Achieve 20%, 20%, and 15% ROIC on production, refining, and chemical, respectively.
  • Double earnings from refining and chemical.
  • Triple earnings from oil & gas production (at $60 oil).

Overall the company thinks it boosts the company’s returns on capital from 7% in 2017 to 15% in 2025. While that’s slightly below its 10-year average, it would still make Exxon the second most profitable oil company (based on this important metric) behind Chevron. More importantly for income investors, it would mean a massive increase in cash flow.

(Source: Exxon Investor Presentation)

Even should oil prices fall to $40 by 2025, Exxon anticipates that its operating cash flow would increase by 50% and thus generate $15 billion in free cash flow. That’s good enough for a 93% dividend payout ratio at the current rate (which was raised 6.5% for 2018). And if oil prices come in at higher levels than Exxon will become a money minting machine:

Oil Price In 2025

Exxon Annual Free Cash Flow

FCF Payout Ratio (Current Dividend)

Annual Retained FCF

$40

$15 billion

93%

$1.1 billion

$60

$31.5 billion

44%

$17.6 billion

$66 (Current Price)

$34.7 billion

39%

$19.4 billion

$73 (Analyst Consensus)

$38.3 billion

36%

$21.9 billion

$80 (My Best Estimate)

$52 billion

27%

$38.0 billion

(Sources: Exxon guidance, Morningstar, GuruFocus)

Retained FCF is free cash flow (what’s left over after running a company and investing in future growth) minus the dividend cost. Even accounting for Exxon’s likely 6% to 7% dividend growth through 2025 ($20 billion annual dividend cost in 2025) the company will still likely have enough to meet its ambitious future spending plans while maintaining a fortress-like balance sheet.

But how exactly does Exxon plan to achieve such impressive and profitable growth? One strategy is to increase production from its US shale acreage.

(Source: Exxon Investor Presentation)

Exxon estimates that it has about 10 billion barrels of reserves locked up in US shale that can generate 10% or better returns even at $35 oil. In fact, thanks to fracking 3.0 technology (which includes AI driven real-time drilling analysis), Exxon thinks it will be able to lower its break-even cost on US shale to just $20 per barrel over the next six years.

A big reason for that is the superior economics of the Permian Basin, where multiple layers of oil-bearing rock are tightly stacked on top of each other. In 2017, Exxon spent $6.6 billion to acquire Bass Energy Holdings, which doubled its Permian reserves to about 6 billion barrels. Since then both further bolt-on acquisitions, as well as organic discoveries, have increased those reserves a further 66%. Exxon expects that by 2025 its Permian production will have increased five-fold, and all while generating exceptional returns on capital (30+%). But the Permian is expected to account for just 60% of Exxon’s 1 million in daily oil production growth. The remaining oil increases are coming from several of its very promising global growth projects.

One of the most exciting is Guyana, the small South American country. Exxon had previously announced eight major oil discoveries off that country’s coast totaling four billion barrels of recoverable oil.

(Source: Exxon Earnings Presentation)

That figure is actually likely to rise since Exxon just announced a 9th major Guyana offshore discovery. Management is so confident that even more oil pockets remain to be discovered that it has deployed a second exploration ship to the country to keep looking for even more offshore deposits.

Now it’s important to note that Guyana is still an early project for Exxon. Production is expected to start in 2020 and hit just 100,000 bpd by the end of that year. But by 2026 (beyond Exxon’s current mega-growth plan) Guyana production is expected to rise 700% to 800,000 bpd. And if the company keeps finding new deposits that figure could ultimately rise to 1 million bpd or more over time. For context remember that Exxon’s entire seven-year growth plan calls for 1 million bpd in extra production meaning that Guyana alone would be enough to get the company the majority of the way there, even account for ongoing natural depletion from existing wells.

The next major growth opportunity is Brazilian offshore.

(Source: Exxon Earnings Presentation)

Since the oil crash, Exxon has managed to lower production costs for offshore drilling that even at $40 oil (40% lower than current price) it expects to be able to generate at least 10% returns on its Brazilian operations.

But as if the Permian, Guyana, and Brazil weren’t enough Exxon is also planning to give Shell a run for its money in terms of trying to become the world’s largest producer of LNG.

(Source: Exxon Earnings Presentation)

Exxon is currently working on two major LNG projects in Papua New Guinea and Mozambique that could potentially boost its 2025 LNG capacity to double that of its nearest rival today.

The bottom line is that Exxon today offers investors a great opportunity to benefit not just from a generous, safe and growing dividend, but also has the long-term vision to deliver some of the industry’s best dividend growth long into the future.

Chevron: Growth With Laser-Like Focus On Maximizing Returns On Capital

Chevron is my second favorite oil major and might one day even top Exxon for my number one pick in the industry. That’s because, like its slightly larger aristocrat cousin, Chevron has a proven shareholder friendly track record of dividend growth, but also excellent long-term capital allocation resulting in great returns on investment.

New CEO Mike Wirth (who took over in 2018 and has been with Chevron for 26 years), has outlined the most conservative capex plans of any of these three companies, just $18 to $20 billion per year through 2020. However, thanks to putting that money to good use (75% of capex will be producing cash flow within two years) in its best growth opportunities in the Permian Basin, Gulf of Mexico, West Africa, and Western Australia, the company expects that to drive industry-leading production growth of 4% to 7% annually.

(Source: Chevron Investor Presentation)

Chevron has been killing it in 2018, thanks to superior execution allowing it to update its 2018 production growth guidance to 7%, the top end of its medium-term plan. And that’s even accounting for continued non-core asset sales. Chevron’s Q3 production soaring 9%, mostly thanks to the company’s booming Permian operations.

(Source: Chevron Annual Report Supplement)

Chevron owns 1.7 million net acres in the Permian, which is the crown jewel of its shale assets. Those assets include an estimated 17.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil equivalent, about 25% of the company’s total reserves. Chevron has been steadily adding to its Permian acreage, including 70,000 acres in 2017 and plans to buy 90,000 more in 2018.

Chevron’s love of the Permian is for the same reason that Exxon is so bullish on the formation. Massive, low-cost reserves that allowed the company’s Permian production to grow by 80% YOY in Q3. In fact, Chevron’s Permian production of 338,000 bpd in the last quarter was over 100,000 bpd more than its previous guidance back in March. The oil industry has high amounts of execution risk (bringing projects in on time and on budget) and so far, the Permian is allowing big oil to not just meet expectations, but exceed them by a country mile. Analysts currently expect Chevron’s Permian assets to be able to more than double in the coming years, to 700,000 bpd.

But Chevron is far from purely focused on US shale oil in the Permian. It also owns 873,000 net acres in the hyper-prolific Marcellus/Utica shale of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

(Source: EQT Midstream Investor Presentation)

Production in both formations is growing like a weed and that’s expected to continue for the foreseeable future. While natural gas is not nearly as profitable as oil, the reason that Chevron still invests heavily in it is that gas has a much longer growth runway than crude.

(Source: US Energy Information Administration)

According to the EIA, US oil production is expected to peak in 2030 and then start declining around 2043. But thanks to strong export demand growth from emerging markets like Mexico (gas), and India and China (LNG), US gas production is expected to keep growing steadily through at least 2050.

But it’s not just US gas that Chevron is planning to grow its production in. Like Exxon and Shell, Chevron is betting big on the future of LNG. After several years of costly delays and cost overruns, the Australian Gorgon and Wheatstone LNG projects are now complete and ramping up quickly. By the end of the year, Chevron expects these two projects to be generating the equivalent of 400,000 barrels of oil. Those projects are price indexed to oil (thus higher margin) and expected to see minimal depletion rates over the next 20 to 25 years.

But production growth for its own sake is worthless to income investors. Cash flow, especially free cash flow, is king. Which brings me to the other major reason I like Chevron so much.

(Source: Chevron Investor Presentation)

Chevron has been among the most aggressive cost-cutters among the oil majors and by 2020 expects to lower its average production cost 50% compared to 2014. Combined with strong medium-term growth in production that equates to very strong growth in operating cash flow, and even better growth in free cash flow.

(Source: Chevron Investor Presentation)

Even assuming just $60 oil by 2020, Chevron estimates that its free cash flow will increase 30% between 2017 and 2020. That’s the biggest FCF increase of any oil major and Chevron is currently beating that impressive guidance by a wide margin. Specifically, higher oil prices have allowed it to generate $14.3 billion in FCF in the past 12 months, compared to just $9.2 billion forecast for the end of 2020. The company’s river of FCF is what allowed it to pay down $2.4 billion in debt in Q3 while also buying back $750 million in stock (part of a $3 billion buyback authorization).

Ok, so maybe Chevron is having a great year, but what about if oil prices crash below $60 and stay there? Well the good news is that, even without asset sales, Chevron’s lean operations can sustain the dividend at $50 oil. That’s a level that the Russia and Saudi Arabia won’t likely allow it to fall below.

(Source: Chevron Investor Presentation)

And since oil is likely to go higher in the coming years, not lower, that bodes well for Chevron returning to its former industry leading dividend growth rate.

(Source: Chevron Investor Presentation)

Beyond 2020, Chevron is going to need to accelerate capex spending, since the strong production growth is mostly being driven by earlier projects and the Permian. But even over the long term, analysts expect Chevron to deliver 4% production growth and industry leading 20% returns on capital (by 2020). If Chevron can indeed pull that off, it will overtake Exxon as the highest-quality oil blue-chip you can own.

Shell: Betting The Future On LNG

Shell is still an oil company and so part of its $25 billion to $30 billion in annual capex spending over the coming years will be focused on increasing oil production by 1 million bpd or 25% above 2017 levels.

(Source: Shell Investor Presentation)

However, while that kind of production growth is impressive enough for an oil major, Shell’s biggest growth efforts are focused on boosting its LNG capacity by 50%. That’s because, while oil demand growth is expected to continue rising for decades, gas demand is expected to rise much faster.

(Source: Shell Investor Presentation)

The reason that Shell is so gungho on LNG specifically is that it’s the most cost-effective way for transporting large amounts of gas around the world (LNG is 1,000 times denser than natural gas in its standard form). Asian gas demand is expected to grow 3% annually through 2035, which is three times the growth rate of energy in general.

(Source: Shell Investor Presentation)

In fact, Shell expects that global LNG demand will be the fastest growing part of the fossil fuel industry, courtesy of Asia’s enormous demand growth, mostly due to emerging markets like China and India.

(Source: Shell Investor Presentation)

Shell’s LNG focused growth strategy began in 2012 when it began construction of the $12 billion Prelude floating gasification ship (Shell owns 68% of the project).

(Source: Shell Investor Presentation)

The Prelude is 1601 feet long, displaces the equivalent of six US supercarriers and is now complete and generating LNG 300 miles off the coast of North Western Australia. Shell expects to keep the ship there for the next 20 to 25 years where it will feed off cheap natural gas and produce 5.25 million tons per annum or MTA of LNG, gas condensates, and liquefied petroleum gas. This will then be shipped to export markets in Asia, mostly via Shell’s own LNG tanker fleet (it owns 20% of the world’s LNG tankers).

Which brings us to the second part of Shell’s LNG pivot. That would be the BG acquisition which made Shell into the world’s largest producer and shipper of LNG. While that deal involved a lot of stock, Shell has said it will buy back $25 billion worth of shares between 2017 and 2020 to neutralize that dilution.

Ultimately, the BG acquisition is likely to prove a big win because it has made Shell the top name in global LNG (for now). The company plans to pad that lead via even bolder investments by recently announcing it will be going forward with LNG Canada. This joint venture is already included in the company’s annual capex budget and expected to generate 14 million MTA of low-cost LNG. That will then be exported to Asia, at about 5% lower overall cost (including shipping) which gives Shell a major competitive advantage over rival LNG shippers operating from America’s Gulf Coast.

(Source: Shell investor presentation)

Shell expects to generate about 13% returns on capital from this project, which is above its 2021 target of 10% return on capital company wide (up from 8% in 2017).

(Source: Shell investor presentation)

As a result of its strategic growth plan, Shell expects to be able to average $25 billion in annual free cash flow between 2019 and 2021 at $60 Brent oil, and $30 billion at $65 crude.

Today, Brent is $66, and most analysts think it’s likely to average around $73 over the next few years. Note that assuming Shell’s forecasts come true its dividend payout ratio will fall to 47% to 56% during the next few years. However, should Brent indeed average $73, then Shell is likely to enjoy even greater FCF, courtesy of its impressive cost discipline (production costs are down 35% since the oil crash and overall capex spending is 40% lower). That potentially greater FCF would then be funneled into larger dividend hikes (though still modest) and more aggressive share buybacks.

Note also that Shell has stated it plans to invest $1 to $2 billion per year into alternative energy, as it starts planning for a post-fossil fuel world. Management expects its “new energies” segment to generate 8% to 12% returns on capital, in line with its overall company profitability.

The bottom line is that all three of these oil blue-chips have ample financial resources to fund aggressive growth in their businesses, all while also delivering generous, safe and rising income over time. That in turns should also allow them to generate marketing-beating total returns.

4. All Three Offer Generous, Safe Income And Good Return Potential

The most important part of any income investment is the dividend profile which consists of three parts: yield, safety, and long-term growth potential. Combined with valuation it’s what tends to drive total returns.

Company Yield TTM FCF Payout Ratio 10 Year Projected dividend growth Projected 10 Year Total Return (From Fair Value) Valuation Adjusted Expected CAGR Return
Exxon Mobil 4.2% 81% 6% to 7% 10.2% to 11.2% 13.3% to 14.3%
Chevron 3.9% 59% 6% to 7% 9.9% to 10.9% 10.4% to 11.4%
Royal Dutch Shell 6.0% 85% 1% to 3% 7% to 9% 7.5% to 9.5%
S&P 500 1.9% 38% 6.4% 8.3% 0% to 5%

(Sources: Morningstar, Simply Safe Dividends, Fast Graphs, BlackRock, Vanguard, Yardeni Research, Multpl.com, Gordon Dividend Growth Model, Dividend Yield Theory)

All three oil giants offer very attractive yields, at least double that of the S&P 500. More importantly, those dividends are low-risk thanks to sustainable FCF payout ratios and fortress like balance sheets.

Over the long term, Exxon and Chevron are likely to continue their historical 6% to 7% dividend growth rates, courtesy of their robust FCF. Shell on the other hand, represents a tradeoff. You get a much higher yield today, but much slower historical long-term dividend growth. Given management’s priorities (deleverage and buybacks first through 2020), I don’t expect Shell to deliver more than about 2% payout growth, essentially offsetting inflation.

Combining yield with long-term dividend growth (Gordon Dividend Growth Model, effective for dividend stocks since 1956), we can estimate what each company’s long-term total returns will likely be from fair value. Exxon and Chevron are pretty evenly matched with Shell bringing up the rear with about 8% return potential. That’s below the S&P 500’s 9.2% historical total return, but likely to beat the market over the next five to 10 years. That’s because Morningstar, BlackRock and Vanguard expect just 0% to 5% CAGR total returns from the market over that time.

However, those expected total returns are from fair value, and when we adjust for valuations we find that, Exxon, among these three blue-chips, becomes the best stock you can buy today.

5. Valuation: All Three Are Buys But Exxon Is The Place For New Money

Chart

XOM Total Return Price data by YCharts

Thanks to the recent plunge in crude prices, all three stocks are underperforming the S&P 500 over the past year. But for value investors such underperformance merely presents better buying opportunities.

There are many ways to value a stock, but for dividend blue-chips, one in particular has proven highly effective since 1966. It’s called dividend yield theory or DYT, and it’s been what asset manager and newsletter publisher Investment Quality Trends has been exclusively using to beat the market for decades (and with 10% lower volatility to boot).

(Source: Investment Quality Trends)

DYT works well for stable dividend stocks whose business models (and growth rates) don’t change much over time. It compares a stock’s yield to its long-term historical norm to determine whether or not a stock is overvalued, undervalued, or fairly priced. That’s because dividend stocks tend to have mean reverting yields that cycles around a relatively fixed point over time. Thus, their historical yields can be thought of as a “fair value yield” at which buying a quality company is a good idea.

Company Yield 5 Year Average Yield 13 Year Median Yield Estimated Fair Value Yield
Exxon 4.2% 3.5% 2.6% 3.1%
Chevron 3.9% 3.9% 3.5% 3.7%
Royal Dutch Shell 6.0% 6.0% 5.4% 5.7%

(Sources: Simply Safe Dividends, Gurufocus)

For my fair value yield, I take the midpoint between a stock’s five year average yield and 13 year-median yield. That gives you a more accurate sense of what the market values each company at across various economic, industry, and interest rate environments.

Today, Chevron’s and Shell’s yields are trading slightly above their fair value yields indicating both are good buys. However, Exxon’s yield is far above its historical yield meaning it’s the most undervalued of the three.

Company Discount To Fair Value Upside To Fair Value 10 Year CAGR Valuation Boost Expected CAGR Total Return
Exxon 26% 35% 3.1% 13.3% to 14.3%
Chevron 5% 5% 0.5% 10.4% to 11.4%
Royal Dutch Shell 5% 5% 0.5% 7.5% to 9.5%

(Sources: Simply Safe Dividends, Gurufocus, Dividend Yield Theory)

At today’s prices, I wouldn’t expect much valuation boost from Shell and Chevron, but Exxon is likely to outpace its cash flow and dividend growth significantly (about 3% CAGR over the next decade). Add in this long-term valuation boost to the current yield and long-term dividend growth rate (valuation adjusted Gordon Dividend Growth Model) and Exxon offers the best total return potential by far. That’s not to say that Chevron and Shell won’t generate decent returns as well, but for new money today I consider Exxon the best option for conservative high-yield investors.

Of course, that’s only if you’re comfortable with the rather complex risk profile that comes with owning any oil stock.

Risks To Consider

While Exxon, Chevron and Shell are the lowest risk dividend blue chips in the industry that doesn’t mean they don’t still have a complex set of risks that investors need to be comfortable with.

The first is, of course, that their sales, earnings, and cash flow are highly dependent on oil & gas prices, which as we’re seeing now is extremely hard to predict.

(Source: ConocoPhillips Investor Presentation)

And given the capital-intensive nature and long lead times for major production growth projects, that can make profitable long-term capital allocation decisions challenging. For example, ConocoPhillips’s (COP) proprietary long-term oil forecast model shows that oil could realistically average anywhere from $40 to $82 per barrel by 2025. The actual price will depend on hundreds of factors including long-term growth rates in the global economy, the rate of alternative energy adoption, and how quickly US shale production ramps up and for how long. And that’s just a few of the things that oil companies must guesstimate when making their long-term investing plans.

Analyst and government agency models are similarly volatile and uncertain. For example, last year, analyst firm McKinsey, in its long-term (through 2050) energy industry report, estimated that peak global oil demand might come as early as 2030. That’s far quicker than most large oil companies (and government agencies) expect (the 2040’s). This year’s updated report now puts that peak oil demand estimate at 2036. While that’s closer to the current industry consensus, the point is that long-term demand forecasts can be nearly as volatile as the short-term price of crude itself.

Now, of course, the good news is that oil giants are not just in the oil business, but the gas business too. And even with the rapid adoption of electric vehicles or EVs, rising demand for baseload electricity from gas-fired power plants is expected to still see natural gas (and LNG) demand increase through at least 2040 and potentially 2050.

(Source: Exxon Mobil investor presentation)

But here too we must remember that these long-term projections are merely current best guesstimates that can change over time. Improved renewable energy (including low-cost storage) technology might end up disrupting natural gas power far quicker than most analysts, government agencies, and oil companies currently expect. For instance, one analyst at Credit Suisse thinks that renewable energy might “effectively be free” by as soon as 2030.

Now I track both the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries closely and while I agree that renewables + storage prices will drop substantially over time, I consider such a forecast to be highly unlikely. But the point is that even if natural gas isn’t made obsolete within the next decade, today’s oil & gas investors are relying on a far longer growth runway that might actually exist.

And of course there are plenty of other risks that oil companies and investors need to contend with including:

  • cost overruns and delays on new projects (between 1993 and 2003 13% of global oil projects ended up 40% over budget)
  • complex regulatory environments all over the world (including in unstable emerging markets)
  • investment losses due to sanctions (such as against Russia)
  • seemingly never-ending lawsuits filed by US cities and states over climate change in an attempt to recreate a tobacco industry-style class action mega-settlement.

With so many risk factors to content with conservative income investors are better off sticking with time-tested blue-chips like Exxon, Chevron and Shell. These companies have not just the enormous financial resources to deal with inevitable setbacks but are also the most likely to be able to eventually transition to a renewable energy-focused future. Or to put another way, while most oil stocks are unlikely to be “buy and hold forever” investments, these three giants are the most likely to be able to eventually pivot and not just survive in the coming decades, but thrive and continue delivering solid income quarter after quarter.

Bottom Line: The Oil Industry Is Volatile But Exxon, Chevron And Shell Are Three High-Yield Stocks You Can Rely On

The oil industry is known for its volatility and complex risk profile. That’s why for conservative income investors it’s generally a good idea to stick to time-tested high-yield blue-chips. Companies like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell have proven over decades that even oil stocks can make great dividend stocks. That’s because all three companies have:

  • industry leading balance sheets that let them maintain dividends and invest in growth even during oil crashes
  • shareholder-friendly corporate cultures dedicated to safe and growing dividends over time
  • good long-term growth plans that should allow all three to deliver strong total returns in the coming years

And thanks to the most recent oil bear market, all three of these high-yield blue-chips are once more trading at attractive valuations that make them good buys today. However, Exxon is by far the most undervalued which makes it my top recommendation for conservative income investors looking for direct exposure to the oil industry.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Netflix Subscribers Will Pay Less (Or Possibly More) Depending on Where They Live, According to 2 Surprising Reports. Here Are the Details

It’s releasing 700 new shows this year. Think about that. It’s almost two new shows per day, counting new seasons of existing series.

And it turns out many subscribers absolutely love it. In fact, a new study by a Wall Street firm says a majority of U.S. Netflix users would be willing to pay a lot more for the service –40 percent or more than they currently pay.

That has to be tempting to Netlix, which simultaneously has spent $8 billion to produce and license new shows.

And it’s why the same Wall Street firm, Piper Jaffray, is predicting that Netflix will “bump pricing up across many of its markets in 2019,” according to Business Insider, because a “primary determinant in the ability of Netflix to raise price is subscriber perception of content quality.”

Or to put it a bit more plainly: people like it, so they’re willing to pay more, so you can expect Netflix to charge more.

That makes sense. But the news comes in the context of another report–one that says Netflix is actually playing around with an idea to charge less in other parts of the world.

Last week, a Malaysian news site called The Star Online reported that Netflix was trying a somewhat stripped down, mobile device-only subscription plan that goes for 17 Malaysian ringgit a month–which works out to about $4.25 in U.S. currency, and is less than half what a regular Netflix subscription costs in Malaysia.

Netflix confirmed to TechCrunch and USA Today that it’s running these cheaper, mobile-only subscriptions “in a few countries,” but didn’t provide further details. But it’s in keeping with what CEO Reed Hastings told Bloomberg last week, about want to experiment with different pricing strategies around teh world.

Of course, as Netflix users know, the content that you see in one part of the world isn’t always the same as what you’ll see in other parts of the planet. And Netflix has been emphasizing local content recently in Asia, where it faces stiff competition from lower-priced streaming services.

Besides meaning that Netflix, not Apple or Alphabet, keeps the customer data, it also means Netlix doesn’t have to pay a 15 or 30 percent cut to those companies to reach its own subscribers.

That could free up more opportunity to drive prices down in some markets. But not, analysts predict, in the United States and perhaps other wealthier countries. 

It might literally be a first world problem, but if these analysts’ predictions are right, we’ll likely be paying a bit more before long. Either way, you’ll probably keep watching.

By the way, I contacted Netflix via email to ask them for comment on these reported price fluctuations, but I haven’t heard anything back. If they do reply I’ll update this column. 

Amazon picks New York City, Washington D.C. area for new offices

SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) picked America’s financial and political capitals for massive new offices on Tuesday, branching out from its home base in Seattle with plans to create more than 25,000 jobs in both New York City and an area just outside Washington, D.C.

The world’s largest online retailer plans to spend $5 billion on the two new developments in Long Island City and Arlington, Virginia, and expects to get more than $2 billion in tax credits and incentives with plans to apply for more.

The prize, which Amazon called HQ2, attracted hundreds of proposals from across North America in a year-long bidding war that garnered widespread publicity for the company. Amazon ended the frenzy by dividing the spoils between the two most powerful East Coast U.S. cities and offering a consolation prize of a 5,000-person center in Nashville, Tennessee, focused on technology and management for retail operations.

Losers said they learned from the process, while winners said it was costly but worthwhile.

“Either you are creating jobs or you are losing jobs,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told a news conference on Tuesday.

With more than 610,000 workers worldwide, Amazon is already one of the biggest employers in the United States and the world’s third-most valuable company, behind Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O).

Still, it faces fierce competition for talent from Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google and other companies working to build new technologies in the cloud. Those rivals routinely offer free food and perks in sunny California, seen by many as a better draw than Amazon’s relative frugality in rain-plagued Seattle. Google also has a growing footprint in New York City.

Already marketing its forthcoming location in the New York City borough of Queens, Amazon talked up Long Island City’s breweries, waterfront parks and easy transit access. Rents there are typically lower than in Midtown Manhattan, which is just across the East River. The former industrial area also has a clock counting down the hours until the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s first term in office.

The choice of Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington D.C., could hand Amazon greater political influence in the U.S. capital, where it has one of the largest lobbying shops in town. Locating close to the Pentagon may also help Amazon win a $10 billion cloud-computing contract from the U.S. Department of Defense, said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive and the world’s richest person, privately owns the Washington Post, which has written critical articles about Trump. In turn, Bezos’s companies have been a frequent target of broadsides from the president. The newspaper maintains full editorial independence from its owner.

Amazon’s choice largely bypassed the middle of the United States, where many cities had hoped for an economic boost and bid for the new jobs. The company already had large corporate workforces in greater Washington and New York.

“My heart is broken today,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said.

A couple walk past an office building at 1851 S. Bell St. in Crystal City where Amazon may place some of its workforce after announcing its new headquarters would be based in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

TAX BREAKS

At the outset of its search last year, Amazon said it was looking for a business-friendly environment. The company said it will receive performance-based incentives of $1.525 billion from the state of New York, including an average $48,000 for each job it creates.

It can also apply for other tax incentives, such as New York City’s Relocation and Employment Assistance Program that offers tax breaks potentially worth $900 million over 12 years. What benefit the company would actually get was unclear.

In Virginia, Amazon will receive performance-based incentives of $573 million, including an average $22,000 for each job it creates.

These rewards come on top of $1.6 billion in subsidies Amazon has received across the United States since 2000, according to a database from the Washington-based watchdog Good Jobs First.

Amazon says it has invested $160 billion in the country since 2010 and that the new offices will generate more than $14 billion in extra tax revenue for New York, Virginia and Tennessee over the next two decades.

It expects an average wage of more than $150,000 for employees in each new office.

Slideshow (10 Images)

HOUSING CRISIS

Amazon’s emphasis on new, high-paying jobs earned publicity as it faced criticism for low wages in its sprawling warehouses.

The company got $148 million worth of media attention across the English-language press in the two months following the launch of its search last September, according to media measurement and analytics firm mediaQuant Inc.

Amazon received 238 proposals and New York and Virginia beat out 18 other finalists from a January short list, which included Los Angeles and Chicago.

New Jersey made headlines early in the contest by proposing $7 billion in potential credits against state and city taxes if Amazon located in Newark and stuck to hiring commitments.

Others with less money to offer took a more creative approach: the mayor of the Atlanta suburb of Stonecrest, Jason Lary, said he would create a new city from industrial land called Amazon and name Bezos its mayor for life.

In evaluating its options, Amazon looked at the quality of schools, meeting with superintendents to discuss education in science and math. Amazon also wanted helicopter landing pads for the new sites, documents it released on Tuesday show.

The company has already had to navigate community issues at its more than 45,000-person urban campus in Seattle. An affordable housing crisis there prompted the city council to adopt a head tax on businesses in May, which Amazon helped overturn in a subsequent city council vote.

Some critics had pushed for more transparency from cities and states in the bidding process, warning that the benefits of hosting a massive Amazon office may not offset the taxpayer-funded incentives and other costs.

“Our subways are crumbling, our children lack school seats, and too many of our neighbors lack adequate health care,” New York State Senator Michael Gianaris and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer said in a joint statement. “It is unfathomable that we would sign a $3 billion check to Amazon in the face of these challenges.”

Amazon shares closed down 0.3 percent at $1631.17, giving the company a market value of almost $800 billion.

Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco and David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Arjun Panchadar and Supantha Mukherjee in Bengaluru, Angela Moon, Hilary Russ and Laila Kearney in New York, Suzannah Gonzales and Karen Pierog in Chicago; Writing by Nick Zieminski; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Bill Rigby

​Red Hat blends Kubernetes into Red Hat OpenStack Platform 14

Featured stories

There was a bit of fear when IBM acquired Red Hat that Red Hat might abandon the OpenStack Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) cloud. Nah!

In Berlin at OpenStack Summit, Red Hat introduced its latest OpenStack distribution: Red Hat OpenStack Platform 14. It comes with a generous helping of Kubernetes container orchestration via Red Hat OpenShift Container Platform.

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Red Hat’s new OpenStack is built on top of the OpenStack “Rocky” community release. This version is noted for its significant bare-metal improvements in Ironic, its bare metal provisioning module, as well as in Nova, its compute instances provisioning program. Red Hat makes use of both improvements by automated provisioning of bare metal and virtual infrastructure resources in its OpenShift Container Platform.

To manage those containers, no matter if they’re on bare metal or in a Virtual Machine (VM), the new OpenStack Platform 14 is more tightly integrated than ever with Red Hat OpenShift Container Platform, Together, OpenStack Platform 14 aims to deliver a single infrastructure offering for traditional, virtualized, and cloud-native workloads.

This combination also provides new capabilities:

  • Automated deployment of production-ready, high-availability Red Hat OpenShift Container Platform clusters, helping to provide a path toward continuous operations without a single point of failure.
  • Integrated networking enabling OpenShift container-based and OpenStack virtual workloads from the same tenant to be connected to the same virtual network (Kuryr) increasing network performance.
  • Automated use of built-in OpenStack load balancer services to front-end container based workloads.
  • Use of built-in OpenStack object storage to more efficiently host container registries.
  • Director-based scale-out and scale-in Red Hat OpenShift nodes, enabling businesses to expand or retract resources as workload requirements change.

Red Hat OpenStack Platform 14 also extends its integration with Red Hat Ansible Automation, Red Hat’s DevOps tool. This makes deploying OpenStack — always tricky — much easier than in previous versions.

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The latest version also includes:

  • Processor scalability for emerging and extreme workloads like artificial intelligence (AI) and graphics rendering through a Technology Preview of NVIDIA GRID Virtual PC (vPC) capabilities. This enables the sharing of NVIDIA graphics processing units (GPUs) across virtual machines and applications, making it easier to scale resources to meet the demands of intensive applications.
  • Improved storage availability, management, data migration, and security through enhanced integration with Red Hat Ceph Storage including the ability to share the same Cinder storage volume across multiple VMs.
  • Inclusion of Skydive, a innovative, layer-independent network analysis tool that simplifies the validation, documentation, and troubleshooting of complex virtual network topologies as a Technology Preview.

Finally, Red Hat continues to support not only x86 processors, but IBM Power architecture as well. Yes, this means you could set up an OpenStack cloud, which could run across both Commercial off-the-shelf x86 servers and mainframes.

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In a statement Joe Fernandes, Red Hat’s Cloud Platforms vice president concluded:

“As the de facto standard in Linux container orchestration, Kubernetes adoption is often a key part of the technology mix for enterprise digital transformation, but this can require a scalable, flexible foundation for organizations to realize its full potential. By more tightly integrating the industry’s most comprehensive enterprise Kubernetes platform in OpenShift with the latest version of Red Hat OpenStack Platform, we’re providing a robust, more reliable foundation for cloud-native workloads.”

Red Hat OpenStack Platform 14 will be available in the coming weeks via the Red Hat Customer Portal and as a component of both Red Hat Cloud Infrastructure and Red Hat Cloud Suite.

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Trade war and censors blow chill wind through China's giant tech scene

BEIJING (Reuters) – Wang Miaoyi’s small one-bedroom apartment, which doubles as her design studio, is overflowing with game magazines, figurines and boxes of sci-fi novels.

Game developer Wang Miaoyi works in her studio that is located in her appartment in Beijing, October 29, 2018.REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The 30-year old game developer is a child of the county’s tech boom: she studied at one of China’s top universities and her company hit it big with an award-winning game that was published on Nintendo’s Switch console and the PC gaming platform Steam, with plans for roll-out on other game platforms.

Now her ambitions – and those of many others across China’s giant tech industry – are facing a reckoning, amid rising state control over the sector, tightening regulation and a biting trade war with the United States stymieing growth.

“(In 2015) doing a start-up was popular. So many young people set up small businesses, like developing games, and dreamed of making big money as well as being free,” she said. “But they found out now it’s really unrealistic.”

Wang says she has had to abandon for now hopes of releasing the game on new platforms in China, closing the original studio that developed it and working instead on updates with a skeleton crew of freelancers. She has moved from the Beijing tech hub of Zhongguancun to the city’s cheaper far-west outskirts to cut costs.

She is not alone. Reuters interviewed a dozen tech industry insiders, from gig economy workers to investors, who said that the boom days of easy returns looked to be over.

Until last year, China’s tech industry had enjoyed years of breakneck growth. Firms including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Tencent Holdings Ltd almost doubled in value in 2017 alone, making big-ticket investments as part of a multi-billion dollar expansion into cloud, offline retail and finance.

But now the market is feeling the pinch. Hiring numbers are down, company margins are thinner and tumbling technology stocks have wiped nearly half a trillion dollars this year from the value of China’s top listed tech firms.

The biggest names in tech have flagged concerns, including Alibaba and Baidu Inc, who revised down their full-year sales forecasts in recent weeks on the weaker outlook.

“Investments into the tech space have definitely cooled down, measured by almost every metric: number of deals, deal size or fund raising,” said Zhang Chenhao, Shanghai-based Managing Partner at technology-focused Prometheus Fund.

“I think this year is the first time over the last 30 years when greed yields to the fear.”

HAND OF THE STATE

The technology sector is facing challenges on all sides.

A broader economic slowdown saw China’s third quarter GDP slow to its weakest pace since the global financial crisis. The currency has slid against the dollar and domestic markets are down sharply.

Alongside a series of tit-for-tat trade tariffs, the United States has accused China of stealing technology, barring tech acquisitions by Chinese firms and blacklisting others.

At home, tech companies from social media to gaming and fintech have seen tightening regulation and a heavier hand from the ruling Communist Party.

Gaming and social media giant Tencent has seen its stock price dive by more than 25 percent this year amid a temporary ban on licenses for games, its top revenue driver.

At the country’s top internet forum in Wuzhen this week, officials signaled they would look to rein in the country’s tech giants.

“They can be big but we should also be well-regulated,” said Gao Xiang, vice minister of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on Thursday.

China’s regulators have already cracked down on everything from rude joke apps to livestream bloggers disrespecting national anthem – sending a chill through the free-wheeling and innovative online arena.

“The people who worry about technology is first older people, second government and third successful people, they hate it and worry about it,” Alibaba’s billionaire executive chairman Jack Ma said at an event in Shanghai last week.

“Normally businesses do innovation and governments talk innovation. In order to protect yesterday’s interests… they will say please don’t do it.”

This year Alibaba has lowered its revenue forecast for the first time since listing in 2014.

Meanwhile, local ride-sharing giant Didi Chuxing, backed by Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp, has cut the subsidies it pays to drivers after being forced to shutter its car-pooling services under a plan agreed with regulators following criticism over the murders of two young female passengers in separate incidents.

“(In 2015) I bought my first vehicle because you could earn almost 800 yuan a day with the subsidies,” says Huang Sun, who used to drive full-time for the company but now says he only takes rides when he is bored. “Now maybe you can’t even earn 200 yuan if you drive all day.”

HIRING FREEZE

The chill across the tech industry is reflected in hiring data.

According to statistics released by leading local job website Zhaopin.com, job demand in the IT and internet sector has dropped by 51 percent as of September compared with a year earlier.

Companies have slowed hiring in certain fields, including sales and software development, recruiters and human resources staff at Alibaba and Tencent said, asking not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to press.

Tencent did not respond to a request for comment. Alibaba had no immediate comment.

“In general, they are all reducing headcount, or they’re not preparing a very big budget for headhunting,” said Mocca Wang, who is the director of the IT industry unit at international recruitment firm Spring Professional, which works with companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu.

Smaller start-ups, a key driver of growth in the sector, are also being squeezed by tighter access to credit.

“These companies can’t get capital and can’t invest,” said Wang. “They’re going bankrupt.”

China’s tech firms are, to be sure, still posting sales growth rates above overseas peers.

Tencent chief Pony Ma told state television in a recent interview that there was still “tremendous potential” in the market, though admitted “there are challenges of various kinds right now”.

But the numbers suggest tougher times lie ahead – a worry for China’s steeply-valued private tech start-ups and newly-listed firms such as smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp and Tencent-backed food deliver giant Meituan Dianping.

“Before the feeling was that anyone can get funding, that if you throw out words like blockchain, AI, big data and machine learning that would get you funding,” said Benjamin Speyer, managing director at Hangzhou-based consultancy Serica.

“Now everyone is a bit more nervous about potentially making a mistake with their money.”

Alibaba, whose China commerce sales growth dropped to its lowest rate since 2015 in the last quarter, said it would take less income from its platforms for the near future, effectively subsidizing merchants, in an effort to retain brands on its platform.

Competitor JD.com Inc, which posted a loss last quarter, is seeking to revive profits by outsourcing some of its 2.5 million square meters of warehouse space.

The country’s upstart technology workforce are even more keenly aware of the slowdown.

Even as property and living costs continue to rise sharply in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, tech workers say salaries can’t keep up.

Game developer Wang Miaoyi works in her studio that is located in her appartment in Beijing, October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Beijing-based Liu Wangwei works as a software engineer at one of the country’s highest-valued start-ups and rents a two-bedroom apartment because his partially-disabled mother often stays with him.

He said his rent has risen by almost 50 percent since they moved to the area in 2014 and says he is considering moving to another of the company’s offices in a smaller city where the government subsidizes housing for technology workers.

“I always thought I could join the well-known tech companies and never worry about money,” said Liu. “When I was in university our teachers gave us encouragement to be like (Steve) Jobs and Jack Ma. It’s not the same as we were promised.”

Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Alex Richardson

The US Is the Only Country Where There Are More Guns Than People

Americans could be forgiven for becoming numb to the swarm of stories reporting gun massacres. In the last five years, ordinary Americans have been murdered in mass shootings in a synagogue, in churches, at elementary and high schools, at a nightclub, at a bar, at a music festival, at a center for people with developmental disabilities, among countless others. After a shooting in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, The Onion wrote, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”

The Onion got it right—at least for the “only nation” bit. The US is the only country where this keeps happening. And the US also claims the dubious distinction of being the only rich nation to see so many deaths from firearms, as the chart below shows. (We kill ourselves even more than we kill each other: Worldwide, the US ranks second only to Greenland in the rate of suicides by firearm; when you remove suicides from the equation, the US falls to number 28 worldwide for deaths from firearms, both from violent acts and accidents. But even subtracting suicides, the US’s death rate from guns remains far ahead of every single European nation and nearly every Asian one.)

Most countries that see high rates of gun violence are also economically depressed; El Salvador, for example, which claims the world’s highest rate of deaths from gun violence, has a per capita GDP of around $4,000—roughly 7 percent of the earnings per citizen in the US. The chart below shows that, generally, it’s the poorer countries that see high rates of violence, while rich countries—Luxembourg tops the list—tend to lose very few residents to gunfire. The US, again, stands alone for having a relatively high GDP per capita (number 8 worldwide) and a high level of gun violence (number 12 worldwide).

Rich countries that see virtually no deaths from firearms include Japan, the United Kingdom, Singapore, and South Korea, according to data from the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease survey.

Unsurprisingly, firearm deaths are correlated with firearm proliferation. American companies manufacture millions of guns each year and import many more. Domestic firearm manufacturing increased dramatically during President Barack Obama’s first term, in part because of fears that, after eight years of a Republican White House, a pro-gun-control president would take away citizens’ weapons.

That didn’t happen. By 2017 the number of handguns, shotguns, and rifles available in the United States was nearly three times higher than it was two decades earlier, according to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Today, the US boasts more firearms than residents.

Canada, for its part, may have a lot of guns as well, as the chart below shows, but its citizens don’t often die from gunfire; the country ranks 72nd in the world for deaths from firearms. Despite having one firearm per every three Canadians, the country’s death rate from gun violence is about one-tenth that of the US (though still four times that of the UK). While mass shootings have been on the rise in Canada, only 223 Canadians died from firearm violence in 2016, compared with more than 14,000 in the US. Prospective gun buyers in Canada must pass a reference check, background check, and a gun-safety course before receiving a firearm license; the country also imposes a 28-day waiting period for new gun licensees. The AR-15 rifle—which was used to kill high school students in Parkland, Florida, moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, and worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, among many others—is a “restricted” firearm in Canada, meaning owners must pass an additional test and obtain a special license.

If Barack Obama had succeeded in passing stronger gun laws, would it have helped save lives? Maybe. On a state-by-state basis, there’s a general correlation between stronger gun laws and lower rates of firearm deaths. A May 2018 paper in JAMA Internal Medicine that sought to evaluate whether strong gun laws resulted in fewer deaths concluded, “Strengthening state firearm policies may prevent firearm suicide and homicide, with benefits that may extend beyond state lines.” Still, a February 2018 analysis by The New York Times found that most weapons used in mass shootings had been obtained legally.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives the states of Alaska and Louisiana a failing grade for their gun-safety laws; those states also claim the nation’s highest per capita rate of deaths from firearms. Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey all receive higher marks for their laws and have comparatively lower death rates from guns.

But as long as it’s easy for firearms to be transported from, say, a gun-friendly state (like Nevada) to a state with strong gun laws (like California), as long as lawmakers fail to enact strong policies to restrict sales to people with mental illnesses or a history of violence, as long politicians continue to take money from the gun industry, as long as the gun lobby continues to pressure medical doctors to stop advocating for their patients with bullet wounds, and as long as a box of ammunition for an AR-15 rifle costs $20 for 50 rounds, the shootings will no doubt continue.


More Great WIRED Stories

Weighing The Week Ahead: Market Storm Averted?

We have another normal economic calendar. The election is behind us. The Fed decision is behind us. What next?

Some of the punditry convened after Wednesday’s rally to say that it was time to get “back to reality.” Others are wondering about a year-end rally. Since everyone keys off what happened the day before (!) the preponderance of commentary might go either way.

In either case, I expect pundits to look back at recent volatility, technical support levels, and headline risk. They will be asking:

Has the stock market storm been averted?

Last Week Recap

In my last edition of WTWA I guessed that the punditry focus on the continuing market pressures and warning technical signals. There was some validity in this until Wednesday. My suggestion that the end of the election would be a market positive proved to be correct. We do not know, of course, the exact reason. Some insisted on a “gridlock” interpretation, but the outcome was in line with expectations. My guess was “OK, but not great.” It was a tough week to call and we stayed on the right side of the trade.

The Story in One Chart

I always start my personal review of the week by looking at a great chart. This week I am featuring Jill Mislinski. She includes a lot of relevant information in a single picture – worth more than a thousand words. Read the full post for more great charts and background analysis

A close up of a map Description automatically generated

The market gained 2.1% (added to last week’s 2.7%) and the weekly trading range was 3.4%. The range was lower than in recent weeks, but it did not feel that way for those closely watching the market. I summarize actual and implied volatility each week in our Indicator Snapshot section below.

Noteworthy

Will a robot take your job? Jenny Scribani at Visual Capitalist pulls together the evidence.

The News

Each week I break down events into good and bad. For our purposes, “good” has two components. The news must be market friendly and better than expectations. I avoid using my personal preferences in evaluating news – and you should, too!

New Deal Democrat’s high frequency indicators are an important part of our regular research. This week reflects some softening in the long leading indicators, although his rating remains “neutral.”

When relevant, I include expectations (E) and the prior reading (P).

The Good

  • Earnings forecasts are showing surprising strength. Brian Gilmartin tracks the quarter-by-quarter changes, generally not showing the declines we often see. Company reports are also mentioning tariffs less frequently on earnings calls. John Butters illustrates the pattern, sector by sector. See also Avondale’s excellent article summarizing conference call notes.

  • Initial jobless claims dipped to 214K, continuing the streak of low readings (Bespoke).

  • The Fed decision of no policy change was expected by all and the accompanying language was not worrisome.
  • Foreclosure inventory falls to the pre-recession average. (Calculated Risk).
  • ISM non-manufacturing registered 60.3 E 58.8 P 61.6.
  • Rail traffic improved but the pace of improvement is decelerating. Steven Hansen does a comprehensive analysis with special emphasis on what he calls the “economically intuitive sectors.” This is a valuable element, not seen in other sources.
  • Mortgage credit availability is increasing. “Davidson” (via Todd Sullivan) explains why this is significant for the economy, construction, and lenders.
  • The JOLTS Report continues to reflect employment strength. I especially like the chart below from Jill Mislinski. It shows the improvement of all key elements of the series, compared with a flat line for layoffs. This interesting survey only goes back to 2001, so we do not have many business cycles to analyze. Read the entire post for a collection of other charts and interesting business cycle analysis. Hint: No sign of labor market weakness.

But a look at JOLTS requires examining the Beveridge Curve!

The Bad

  • Individual investor sentiment becomes more bullish, viewed as a contrary indicator. (Bespoke)

  • Hotel occupancy declined a bit. Calculated Risk analyzes the seasonal components and comparisons with prior year. YTD 2018 is slightly ahead of the record in 2017.
  • PPI ran hot with core final demand up 0.5% MoM. (Jill Mislinski).

The Ugly

Forgetting veterans. Some Chicago politicians are proposing raising desperately needed cash by selling naming rights to various public holdings. I don’t mind City Hall, if they can find a buyer, but the airport idea is repugnant.

O’Hare Airport began as a military installation, Orchard Field. It is still designated as ORD, but was renamed for Edward “Butch” O’Hare, the Navy’s first flying ace and the first WWII naval recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Midway Airport opened in 1926 and was originally called Chicago Municipal Airport. It was renamed for the Battle of Midway in 1949.

These names should be untouchable.

The Week Ahead

We would all like to know the direction of the market in advance. Good luck with that! Second best is planning what to look for and how to react.

The Calendar

The calendar is normal in significance. The CPI will be watched closely, especially after the PPI report. Retail sales are expected to show a sharp rebound – important to confirming economic strength. The Philly Fed attracts interest as the early read on November data.

And of course – continued tweets, leaks, and speeches.

Briefing.com has a good U.S. economic calendar for the week. Here are the main U.S. releases.

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Next Week’s Theme

Last week I opined, “It will require a major surprise for a market reaction to the election.” Unless many were surprised by the expected result, that was a bad call! Eddy Elfenbein always provides a simple, concise, and meaningful interpretation of such events. He writes:

On Tuesday, Americans went to the polls and they voted for gridlock. Or more accurately, the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives while the Republicans increased their Senate majority.

What does this mean for us as investors? Eh… not much, really. Sure, I know how partisans like to jump and holler, but the long-term impact on the markets is pretty small. Historically, bull markets have done just fine while there’s been gridlock in Washington. If anything, Wall Street seems pleased that the uncertainty of the election has passed.

But Eddy is not willing to signal “all clear” and neither am I.

We were on the edge of a storm, with many danger signals. Last week’s trading has improved the technical picture. This shifts the question to the headline risk, referred to as “the fundamentals” by some who are uncomfortable with math. I expect pundits of all stripes to be wondering:

Has the storm been averted?

I have recently offered some bearish viewpoints and suggested some flaws. This week, let’s try it the other way around, starting with a list of what might go right.

Briefing.com publishes both stock and bond commentary, part of their free services. Patrick J. O’Hare’s market assessment, “From the Midterm to the Final Exam,” is interesting and balanced. I will take a closer look, once again intermingling my comments in cases where there is something important to add. I’ll put my thoughts in italics. While data-based, these represent my own conclusions. I act on them, but you should make your own decisions!

There are a number of reasons the punditry is making a case for the stock market to finish this year with a bang:

• The uncertainty surrounding the midterm election is over and investors can feel good that a split Congress means there won’t be a legislative unwinding of market-friendly policies. [The split Congress has little effect on market-friendly policies. Nothing was going to be repealed over a veto. What it means is no tax-cut 2.0 and a likely fight over debt limits.]

• November marks the start of the best six-month return period for the stock market, so this is typically a seasonally strong time. [True, but the seasonal effects have not been very important in recent years. The end of the year does encourage everyone to start thinking about next year’s earnings, so stocks seem a bit cheaper. They should, of course, always be looking forward, but most do not.]

• There is going to be performance-chasing by fund managers who have underperformed their benchmark. [There is not much to chase so far! Lagging results have come mostly from under-owned FAANG stocks. I don’t see how “chasing” will help the overall market.]

• Corporate share buyback activity will pick up in earnest now that the third-quarter reporting period is mostly behind the market. [True.]

• Valuation is more attractive in the wake of the October correction. The S&P 500 trades at 16.1x forward 12-month estimates – a slight discount to the five-year historical average and versus 18.3x at the start of the year. [This is the biggest factor, reflecting improved fundamentals. Eventually, attractive pricing trumps negative sentiment.]

• They expect President Trump and President Xi to convey some trade tension detente after meeting at the G20 Leaders’ Summit Nov. 30-Dec. 1. [This is the single biggest factor. Most do not realize how much trade negativity is reflected in current stock prices. My estimate is 10% in the overall market, and much more if you own the right stocks. Saying that it is important is quite different some “expecting” some policy shift.]

• The Federal Reserve could signal that it might not raise interest rates as much as it currently projects. [Don’t hold your breath. It would take a real economic reversal at this point.]

Possible catalysts?

Mr. O’Hare sees two possible catalysts – a trade agreement with China and a Fed decision to slow the planned rate of rate hikes. He does not see either as especially likely, leaving the outlook uncertain.

[I continue to see trade negotiations as the most important catalyst. The tariff impact has been important throughout GOP states, including the Trump base. His key contributors and congressional supporters will be feeling some pain. Some of the asserted executive power is subject to legislative challenge. The real-time economics lesson is playing out. The intra-party pressures could not surface before the election, but I expect to see some signs of change.]

There is a third possible catalyst – the breaking of the bogus recession narrative. This has a surprising grip, even among sophisticated investors. So many believe that Mr. Market wisely forecasts recessions and they should take cover. This is precisely backwards.

Urban Carmel, in an economic assessment packed with charts and data, concludes as follows:

Equity prices typically fall ahead of the next recession, but the macro indictors highlighted above weaken even earlier and help distinguish a 10% correction from an oncoming bear market. On balance, these indicators are not hinting at an imminent recession; new home sales is the only potential warning flag (its most recent peak was 11 months ago) but it has the longest lead time to the next recession of all the indicators (a recent post on this is here).

This is an excellent, comprehensive article. It addresses many of the skeptical points often raised by the “reliably bearish” pundits.

I have included most of my key ideas, but the Final Thought will focus on some scenarios for investor planning.

Quant Corner

We follow some regular featured sources and the best other quant news from the week.

Risk Analysis

I have a rule for my investment clients: Think first about your risk. Only then should you consider possible rewards. I monitor many quantitative reports and highlight the best methods in this weekly update.

The Indicator Snapshot

Short-term trading conditions remain at high alert. The identification as “very bearish” is a reaction to volatility, not a prediction of market movement. There is always a risk/reward balance to consider in your trading. When conditions are technically challenged, we watch trading positions even more closely. Each of our models has a specific exit strategy. The technical health rating may drop enough for a complete trading exit. It got close to that level twice in the last two months, but has now improved slightly.

Long-term trading has improved a notch on a technical basis. The big post-election rebound helped the technical picture – for us, and for others. Our methods did not “stop out” at the bottom, an important consideration. When your approach tells you to exit on a technical basis, a key question is when to get back in.

Fundamental analysis remains strongly bullish. Earnings are great, prices are lower, and there is even less competition from bonds. We reduce fundamental positions (as we did in 2011) when we get a warning from the recession or financial stress indicators, not merely as a reaction to technical signals.

The Featured Sources:

Bob Dieli: Business cycle analysis via the “C Score.”

Brian Gilmartin: All things earnings, for the overall market as well as many individual companies.

RecessionAlert: Strong quantitative indicators for both economic and market analysis.

Doug Short and Jill Mislinski: Regular updating of an array of indicators. Great charts and analysis.

Georg Vrba: Business cycle indicator and market timing tools. None of Georg’s indicators signal recession. Here is the latest chart on the Business Cycle Index.

Guest Commentary

Nick Maggiulli explains how stock touts convince you of their prowess, finding winners week after week. Hint: There are some other letters to non-winners!

He then enlightens us with this valuable analysis of whether McRib is available. I recommend reading the full post before trading on these results.

Insight for Traders

Check out our weekly “Stock Exchange”. We combine links to important posts about trading, themes of current interest, and ideas from our trading models. This week we asked traders: Do you trade binary events? One inspiration for this was the election, of course, although it was not completely binary. Drug trials are another good example. As usual, we also shared advice by top trading experts and discussed some recent picks from our trading models. Our ringleader and editor, Blue Harbinger, provided fundamental counterpoint for the models, all of which are technically-based.

Insight for Investors

Investors should have a long-term horizon. They can often exploit trading volatility.

Best of the Week

If I had to pick a single most important source for investors to read this week it would be Ben Carlson’s valuable and delightful account, “Things You See During Every Market Correction.” It takes special skill to achieve the simultaneous goals of informing and entertaining. Ben provides an accurate list of what you can expect to hear from so many pundits. Here is one of my favorites (but choose your own):

…people will start making recession predictions even though the stock market is a poor predictor of recessions because no one remembers that when stocks are in the midst of a downfall. Eventually, someone will be right about this but most of the time these predictions are based on luck.

And then he has the list of clichés from professional investors on TV. Each is designed to portray the speaker as both informed and properly positioned for what just happened. Here are two of my favorites:

• We see Dow 26,104.3487 as a key level of support. If it breaks that level, watch out below. …

• The technical damage to the stock market is much worse than investors realize.

Victor Niederhoffer’s site, Daily Speculations, is also a source of humor and inspiration. The commentators are quite good, but this one is “Anonymous.”

Peter Schiff was the first one where I realized there is an actual gloom-and-doom industry full of people who consistently predict disaster, and then every X years there is a big market downturn, and they can claim to have been right all along, and the cycle starts again.

Stock Ideas

Chuck Carnevale provides a cornucopia of twenty high-quality, attractive dividend growth stocks – diversified by sector. This is a great list of ideas. I am including the list to whet your appetite, but it is no substitute for reading the full post and watching the video.

Continuing my series on boosting your dividend yield, I described how the system could be used with General Mills (GIS). This is a good approach for those whose principal need is income.

Ray Merola provides a thorough analysis of Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) (NYSE:RDS.B), which he likes very much. This article is another good combination of an idea and a lesson on how to do your homework.

Can Celgene (CELG) rebound from the biotech sector doldrums? Stone Fox Capital sees a buy signal.

Delta Air Lines (DAL) reported earnings a week ago, encouraging D.M. Martins Research.

Volkswagen? The company with the Beetle and the emissions problems? Barron’s thinks the “stock is cheap and has lots of horsepower.”

Personal Finance

Seeking Alpha Senior Editor Gil Weinreich’s Asset Allocation Daily is consistently both interesting and informative. Each week he highlights stories of interest for both advisors and investors. He also provides insightful commentary on important topics. Be prepared for something that cuts against the grain!

My favorite this week was his discussion over the supposed “oil bear market.” Most people are accepting this uncritically. Gil urges a deeper look and nudges us in that direction.

Abnormal Returns is an important daily source for all of us following investment news. I read it religiously. His Wednesday Personal Finance Post is especially helpful for individual investors. As always, this week there are several great choices. My favorite was Tony Isola’s analysis of the effect of inflation on retirement plans. This is not something you can ignore!

Watch out for…

Square (SQ). Stone Fox Capital is concerned about elevated valuation and “exploding” share counts.

Emerging markets. “Not yet” says Eric Basmajian. [Jeff: I agree with his conclusion, but I’d like to chat with him about some of the argument. For one thing, I don’t trust global PMIs.]

Final Thought

Here are a few ideas about the election aftermath and near-term trading. In each case I have more confidence in what I expect to happen than in the market reaction.

Scenario One: Escalation of the Trump Investigation

This is a near-certainty. Democratic committee chairs will have subpoena and investigative power. Trump is threatening that use of these powers threatens policy compromise. Even if the Democratic leadership bought that argument (and they won’t) they cannot control all the individual Committee Chairs – all fiefdoms. In my class on legislative behavior I cited a source saying that it was nearly always right to refer to someone as “Mr. Chairman” (in those days they were nearly all men) because the number of subcommittees awarded a chairmanship to nearly everyone.

The Democrats will launch various investigations. If the Mueller probe is threatened, it will become even more aggressive.

Investment implications:

  • Cooperation on an infrastructure bill is unlikely.
  • The President may need to reach out more to supporters already in office instead of voters.

Scenario Two: Death to Initiatives Requiring Cooperation

Democrats are unlikely to accede on any key proposal requiring Congressional support. This raises the implementation of the NAFTA replacement is a key worry. We might also see another round of debt-limit debates, with a possible bad ending. Expect the partisan roles to be reversed. The Trump-led GOP has not demonstrated a successful record of reaching across the aisle. That will now be essential on the budget and debt issues.

Investment Implications:

  • A crisis of confidence like what we saw in 2011. The economy runs on confidence.
  • A delay in the crucial North American trade agreements would affect many industries and have a ripple effect.

Scenario Three: Impeachment and/or Constitutional Crisis

This still seems unlikely, but Democrats will not accept firing of Mueller. Some Republicans will agree. I don’t want to get into what substance there is behind the various allegations but suppressing whatever it is will not work.

Investment implications:

  • Another type of crisis of confidence. The US would be weakened in global affairs and development of fresh domestic policies would halt.
  • The specific effects would depend upon which policies – Iran, tariff, immigration, debt ceiling, etc. – had already been implemented.
  • The market will not like uncertainty, but it should not rival 1974.

[There is a lot resting on your current investment decisions – risk, traps, assuring income, and seizing opportunity. Write to us for my free papers on each of these topics.]

I’m more worried about:

• The gradual effect of the trade war. As I have often noted, it is a real-time econ lesson. The effects are more obvious each week – lower growth, higher inflation.

• Additional crippling of compromise.

I’m less worried about:

• Earnings growth. It is a strong positive, supported by a strong economy.

• Debt issues. This is a staple complaint of those struggling to find something wrong. I have often said that this is an important problem, but not currently urgent. It must be addressed, but not right now. Read this piece from David Kotok.

We have another normal economic calendar. The election is behind us. The Fed decision is behind us. What next?

Some of the punditry convened after Wednesday’s rally to say that it was time to get “back to reality.” Others are wondering about a year-end rally. Since everyone keys off what happened the day before (!) the preponderance of commentary might go either way.

In either case, I expect pundits to look back at recent volatility, technical support levels, and headline risk. They will be asking:

Has the stock market storm been averted?

Disclosure: I am/we are long GIS, CELG.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Additional disclosure: GIS vs short calls

A Phony Elon Musk Scam, Foreign Malware Samples, and More Security News This Week

Did you hear? There was an election this week! Not only does that mean the 2020 campaign has officially started (help!) but also that we saw a ton of misinformation trying to affect the vote. That includes from the secretary of state of Georgia, who accused his Democratic opponent of hacking the state’s voter roles, even though all evidence strongly suggests that’s not the case. At least, though, law enforcement had a massive coordinated effort to protect the election from actual hacking.

While it was mostly election coverage this week, some non-political news popped up as well. Popular drone company DJI had a vulnerability that would have allowed attackers to take over user accounts, giving them access to flight paths, photos, and more. We took a look at how to control what permissions websites can access on your computer. And we had a long, on the record conversation with Sue Gordon, the second-highest ranking official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Also, sorry, one more voting story: You can’t do it online, unless you’re military or live in one of a handful of states that allow it. Which honestly is probably for the best.

And there’s more! As always, we’ve rounded up all the news we didn’t break or cover in depth this week. Click on the headlines to read the full stories. And stay safe out there.

A Fake Elon Musk Scammer Scored $180K in One Day

There’s a popular Twitter scam that you may have seen—but hopefully not fallen for—where imposter accounts posing as someone famous ask people for a little bit of bitcoin, promising lots more bitcoin in return. Tale as old as time! But a recent campaign proved more successful than others, thanks to taking the extra step of hacking into verified accounts like those of Pantheon Books. By switching the user name and profile picture to Elon Musk, they made it seem like it was the billionaire’s verified account. They took home $180,000.

Dutch Cops Compromise IronChat Crypto App

End-to-end encrypted messaging services offer great protection against potential snoops, even if they’re not invincible. If law enforcement gets your phone, for instance, they can still see any messages you haven’t erased. But Dutch police appear to have recently managed to actually compromise the encryption of a service called IronChat, leading to the arrest of the alleged owner of the company and his partner, who have been accused of money laundering. Most of which is just a good reminder that you should just be using Signal.

Flaw in Crucial and Samsung SSDs Leave Encrypted Data Vulnerable

Researchers this week revealed several critical issues in popular solid state drives. Poor password set-ups let them be unlocked with relative ease, and Microsoft’s BitLocker encryption protection apparently did little to act as a backstop for Windows machines. The researchers derided the home-grown cryptography deployed by the affected companies, noting that open-source software tends to be safe, since it can be vetted by a wide number of parties.

US Cyber Command Will Start Sharing the Foreign Malware It Finds

Few organizations have as much insight into exotic malware as US Cyber Command, a branch of the Department of Defense. Now, instead of keeping that intel to itself, the group’s Cyber National Mission Force will upload samples of foreign malware to VirusTotal, a popular malware repository. They seem to be sharing legitimately useful code already, including new details about the LoJack malware that Russia’s Fancy Bear hackers recently used as part of a so-called UEFI rootkit attack.

Is Realty Income Getting Too Big For Investors' Own Good?

Source: Shutterstock

REITs depend more heavily on their ability to raise capital than most other companies because unlike companies that have discretion to reinvest the cash they generate, REITs are required to distribute much of their cash flow in the form of dividends.

It’s not surprising then that if a REIT has difficulty raising capital, it will potentially stop growing, and depending on their operational abilities, could wither away and fade. As a REIT gets bigger, therefore, it must raise higher and higher amounts of capital to fund additional growth opportunities – which include either acquiring another REIT or buying additional properties.

The darling of the REIT world and perhaps the REIT with the lowest cost of capital is Realty Income (O), which as most readers know, owns triple-net lease single-tenant properties and rents them out to the likes of Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), CVS Healthcare (CVS) and others.

With a market cap of $16 billion and a portfolio of about $15.6 billion in real estate assets at cost, the amount of capital it needs to continue to grow seems daunting. But investors are accustomed to quarterly dividend increases and if that streak gets broken – a streak I poked fun at in a previous article – investors might get concerned – even if for no legitimate reason.

The growth bogey becomes even more difficult when prior investments – good investments I might add – might actually hurt future results.

Above Market Leases

One of the tables that jumped out at me when looking at Realty Income’s Q3 10Q is a table that shows its In-Place Lease Intangibles. This table highlights the impact of above or below market leases on potential future revenue and amortization expenses. In this case, the tables show a net decrease to revenues in future years because current leases have lease terms that are above market rates. In 2019, rental revenue is expected to decrease by $15M and amortization expense is expected to be $97.6M higher. This results in lower net income in 2019 if all other variables are held constant. The table also shows the impact on above-market leases for each subsequent year on revenues and amortization.

Source: Realty Income 10Q – 2Q2018

The increase to amortization expense is the amount that must be amortized each year due to the difference between current market rates and in-place lease terms. When properties are acquired, the acquirer takes on the in-place lease terms, barring any clause that will allow a tenant or new landlord to change them. Whether they are considered above or below market depends on the calculation of the discounted value of the current contract versus that of the discounted value of a contract at prevailing market rates and includes vacancy, re-leasing costs, etc. in the calculation.

When those values differ, there is the potential for an asset or liability to be created. That is, when an above-market lease is acquired, as in this case, the current leases are considered assets and must be amortized. But while the landlord benefits from above-market rates, when those leases come up for renewal, there is a possibility that lease terms rates might be adjusted downward.

Realty Incomes Above Market Leases – acquisitions needed

With a net decrease to revenues due to resetting of above-market leases, I wondered, how many properties does Realty Income need to acquire to maintain the same FFO, or better yet, meet analyst expectations for 2019 and 2020?

In the table below, I used the YTD data through 2Q and annualized it to arrive at a full year forecast for 2018. The FFO/share forecast is in line with management’s guidance but on the lower end of the guidance range.

For 2019 and each subsequent year, I assumed a reduction in rental revenue per the table above, as well as an increase in amortization, which leads to an estimate for net income. The FFO figure is based on adjustments to 2018’s FY forecast, and accounting for the revenue differences expected in each subsequent year, assuming margins remain consistent. A brief analysis using a more robust model with varying margins revealed comparable conclusions.

In this example, I assumed no new shares outstanding, which I briefly address later in the article.

Source: Realty Income 10Q – 2Q2018

With the reduction in revenue and increase in amortization expense, FFO per share would decline to $3.11 per share. That’s a decline of FFO of about $0.05 per share, which translates into $15M of FFO and $21M of revenue.

Based on Realty Income’s current FFO margins, it would need another $263 million in acquisitions to make up for the impact of above market leases in 2019 and then another $250 million to compensate for the impact of above market leases in 2020.

Source: Realty Income 10Q – 2Q2018

Not a big deal considering it is looking to invest $1.75 billion for full year 2018 and has already invested about half of that amount YTD through June 2018.

Acquisitions needed to meet FFO expectations

But analyst expectations at the time this analysis was completed are for FFO to reach $3.27 per share in 2019 and $3.37 per share in 2020. If maintaining the status quo looks easy, what would it take to meet analyst expectations? Again, the amount of acquisitions needed look reasonable, but the numbers certainly start to look daunting.

To meet analyst estimates of $3.27 FFO per share, my estimates show that Realty Income needs an additional $783 million of acquisitions – preferably towards the beginning of the year, to reach $3.27. Since the company has been investing at a $1.5B to $1.75B rate annually, the estimates still look well within reach.

The same analysis shows that it would need another $500 million in 2020, or $1.2 billion over the two-year period – to meet consensus forecasts of $3.37 in 2020. Still not a big deal.

Source: Realty Income 10Q – 2Q2018

Capital needed to fund acquisitions

The challenge is increasingly becoming the need to raise capital. Not that Realty Income has any issues raising capital. But issuing more equity dilutes current shareholders and issuing more debt requires higher interest payments.

Realty Income only has about $30M in cash on the balance sheet so it must raise most of the capital needed for the acquisitions or use its current revolvers. At an estimated FFO per share of $3.27, Realty Income must generate approximately $931M in FFO in 2019, according to our calculations. That’s another $30M in FFO above the current annualized FFO rate of $902M before the impact of above market leases. How much capital does it need to raise to generate $931MM in FFO?

The company paid out $373M in dividends through June 2018. If they don’t raise the dividend again this year – I know, not likely – it would pay out another $373M in dividends. Net cash provided by operating activities was $477M for the six-month period so we can assume it will be similar during the 2H of 2018. Once dividends are paid, the company is left with $104M in additional cash, bringing its total cash on the balance sheet to $134M.

For $783M worth of acquisitions and $134M in cash, it would need to raise approximately $648M.

An Equity Raise

To raise $648M, the company would need to issue an additional 11M common shares at a price of $57. No big deal, but that figure is actually higher if we consider per share metrics. With an additional 11M shares, the FFO for 2019 of $931M would be $3.15 per share – and here we go again, calculating the amount needed to get to $3.27 FFO per share. In fact, by only issuing additional shares, the math just doesn’t work.

A Debt Issuance

What if the company issues $648M in debt? For starters, it would cost roughly 4%, which translates into a reduction in net income and FFO of about $25.6M, which results in a higher level of acquisitions to make up for the additional interest costs.

Again, quite possible, but as you can see the figures are daunting and at some point we will be extremely concerned that growth can continue at attractive rates.

Our Take

There were plenty of assumption in my calculations. But the reality is that Realty Income’s acquisition nut is starting to get pretty big. Even if market lease rates increase to the point where lease rates can be re-priced much higher when tenants re-sign, the amount of new properties needed to drive growth will have to come increasingly from new properties.

Re-leasing Rates

We do believe re-leasing rates will compensate some of the loss of rental revenue from above market leases and contribute to the expected growth in FFO. For example, the rent recapture rate for expired leases has been 104.7% through June 2018, indicating that lease renewals for those leases not included as assets on the balance sheet could be favorable. In other words, some leases have been fully amortized and may now have below-market lease rates that could be increased at expiration – They make up a greater share of the total leases under contract.

Dispositions

Even though we are calling for the need for a greater level of acquisitions, however, if returns are favorable, dispositions could enhance returns and be another form of raising capital. Selling underperforming assets could improve the metrics and lead to a more conservative yet higher value-add acquisition strategy that results in a smaller incremental acquisition figure.

Risks

  • Selectivity – The table below highlights the volume of deals sourced and the percentage of deals completed as a percentage of total volume. The declining selectivity percentage is an indication of a robust opportunity set. But I wonder, with the acquisition requirement getting increasingly large, will management be able to remain as selective even if the opportunity set deteriorates. At some point, the investment parameters may have to be loosened in order for more investments to be approved.

  • Margins – Despite the size advantage provided by economies of scale, Realty Income’s G&A costs are already well below the net lease peer median. Over the last couple of years, they seem to have turned upward, which could have a negative impact on net income, FFO, and AFFO even though they remain the lowest in the industry.

Valuation

From a P/FFO perspective, the stock does look fairly valued at a P/FFO of 18.9.

But with an increasingly challenging growth goal and some short-term headwinds as we’ve described above, we are reducing our rating to Neutral. That means, we will continue to hold the stock in the portfolio for its 4.6% dividend, stability of FFO, and low stock price volatility.

Note: Since this analysis was completed, Q3 results have been announced and while positive, we also note that consensus estimates for AFFO per share have been raised further to $3.30 and $3.46 in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Disclaimer: This article is meant to identify an idea for further research and analysis and should not be taken as a recommendation to invest. It does not provide individualized advice or recommendations for any specific reader. Also note that we may not cover all relevant risks related to the ideas presented in this article. Readers should conduct their own due diligence and carefully consider their own investment objectives, risk tolerance, time horizon, tax situation, liquidity needs, and concentration levels, or contact their advisor to determine if any ideas presented here are appropriate for their unique circumstances.

REITs, Opportunities, & Income (ROI)

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Disclosure: I am/we are long O.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

How Alibaba Made Singles’ Day the World’s Largest Shopping Festival

Valentine’s Day can be a lonely time if you don’t have a partner. But, at least in China, there’s a holiday that celebrates singledom too. Aptly named Singles’ Day, the unofficial holiday is a multi-billion dollar sales event bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined, and it’s happening this weekend.

The annual celebration is always on November 11 – or 11/11, a date chosen for its likeness to “bare sticks”, which is Chinese slang for bachelors. Although it was conceived in the 1990s by a group of college students protesting traditional couple-centric festivals, the event’s exponential growth is all down to China’s number one e-commerce site, Alibaba.

In 2009 the retail giant took Singles’ Day and promoted it as an opportunity for consumers to splurge on gifts to themselves, offering steep discounts through its consumer shopping site, Tmall.

That first year, the gross merchandise value (GMV) of goods ordered during the sales period clocked in at $7.5 million. Even though GMV is a questionable metric, since it doesn’t necessarily reflect net revenues, the figure’s sensational growth is worth noting.

Within eight years, Singles’ Day GMV had ballooned to over 3,000 times its 2009 level, hitting $25.3 billion in 2017 with Chinese consumers racking up $1 billion of purchases in just the first two minutes of Singles’ Day. For comparison, it took Amazon 30 hours to cinch that same value during its Amazon Prime Day sales the same year.

Alibaba combines online shopping discounts with offline entertainment to give its Singles’ Day sales a boost. Since 2015, it has hosted extravagant annual galas to launch the day’s festivities. These televised events draw in an audience of around 200 million viewers, who tune in to catch product launches, win prizes, and witness A-list celebrities make bewildering appearances.

Highlights from last year’s gala include Pharrell Williams performing an original ode to Singles’ Day, Jessie J offering an unironic rendition of her hit song Price Tag, and Nicole Kidman introducing a short kung-fu film starring Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma. That film itself was bursting with martial arts royalty, with Ma sparring against opponents like Jet Li and Donnie Chen.

Underpinning the festival’s success is Alibaba’s logistics network, Cainiao, which boldly handles the deluge of orders surging throughout the day. In 2017 over 331 million boxes were dispatched on Singles’ Day, with the first order taking just 13 minutes to reach its destination (a customer in Shanghai had bought some snacks).

Achieving such fluidity in a nationwide logistics network is certainly a marvel. Last month Cainiao unveiled an almost fully automated warehouse in preparation for another blockbuster Singles’ Day. The warehouse can supposedly process orders 50% quicker than entirely-manned facilities.

But each additional package processed adds strain on the environment. Last year parcels from Singles’ Day generated an estimated 160,000 tons of packaging waste, only 10% of which is recyclable.

Also, for all its bluster, the sales event is not necessarily a windfall for merchants. Sellers have complained of being pressured into offering excessive discounts during the event, slashing prices over 50% and occasionally shipping items at a loss.

With Alibaba suffering one of its worst performing years, whether Singles’ Day continues its strong performance this weekend will be closely watched. The company’s stock has crashed 21% since January and reports from the previous two quarters have been troubling, warning of weaker sales to come.

But there’s a bigger picture too. Analysts see Alibaba’s performance as a bellwether for the Chinese economy, which is driven by consumption. A weak Singles’ Day could signal a loss of confidence in the economy as China is battered by tariffs and burdened with debt. So whether it’s for the razzle-dazzle of the gala or the data behind the sales, all eyes will be on Alibaba this November 11.

This Famous Airline Thought It Would Offer Veterans Special Pre-Boarding. The Reaction Was Shocking

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Some things are, though, universal, aren’t they?

That must be what the bosses at Virgin Australia thought when they offered veterans priority boarding.

But Australia isn’t necessarily like, say, America.

Frankly, nowhere is. 

When you’ve lived in different countries on different continents — guilty as charged — you garner a wider perspective on how people think and, just as importantly, the nuances that go into their feeling processes.

So, instead of a gloriously positive reaction, some veterans rather thought Virgin should take its offer and shove it back in the cargo hold it was stored in.

Oh, and “faux American bollocks.”

Instead, she suggested: “Spend more on suicide prevention and health support.”

Neil James, the head of the Australian Defence Association also suggested there were better ways to help. 

“There’s a fine line between embarrassing them and thanking them and, in some cases, where they’re suffering a psychological illness, effusively thanking them in public might not necessarily help them,” he said of veterans.

On Twitter, many piped up with similar feeling.

Sample, from John H. Esq.: “Jeez! Do veterans really want this type of peurile [sic] Americanised faux recognition of their service?”

The airline seemed so stunned by the reaction that its CEO John Borghetti issued this statement: 

Over the coming months, we will be working consultatively with community groups and our own team members who have served in defense to determine the best way forward.

In America, there’s considerable — and, some might say, superficial — support for veterans.

Indeed, our nation has many curious, vaguely militaristic and nationalistic habits that other nations find curious. Flag unfurlings and national anthem renditions before every single sporting event, for example.

In Australia, though, perhaps veterans want tangible benefits, rather than being used for marketing purposes.

Interestingly, one of Virgin’s rival airlines, Qantas says it has no intention of offering veterans priority boarding.

It offered this statement: 

We carry a lot of exceptional people every day, including veterans, police, paramedics, nurses, firefighters and others, and so we find it difficult to single out a particular group as part of the boarding process.

Doesn’t that seem wise?

Clever Tech Keeps America's Disabled Farmers on the Job

In 1982, Ed Bell was 21 years old, owned 1,000 hogs, and was running his parent’s farm in Hagerstown, Indiana. He was just beginning to get serious with a girl named Debbie. But Debbie had a jealous ex-boyfriend, who had a .44 caliber revolver.

“I was shot, and paralyzed from under my arms all the way down,” he says. After three months in the hospital, Bell came home in a 28-pound stainless steel wheelchair that he could barely navigate through his family’s log cabin home. His dreams of hog farming fell apart. His parents nearly lost the farm.

It was technology, coupled with his tenacity, that got him back to work. Bell now has two electric wheelchairs, one with treads for off-roading through his fields and another that allows him to stand up. Mechanical lifts made by a company called Life Essentials get him in and out of his tractors, the controls of which have been modified so he can operate them solely by hand. The only reason he had time to talk to me in the middle of harvest was because a storm had rolled in.

Bell’s story is unusual. But its narrative arc—farmer gets hurt, technology helps farmer get back to work—is not. A recent study published in The Journal of Agriculture Safety and Health suggests as many as one in every five US farmers suffers from a disability that impacts their physical health, senses, or cognition. Offsetting that statistic and keeping Americans fed are technologies like four-wheel-drive golf carts, auto-locking tractor hitches, and even boring old smartphones.

For nearly 30 years, a federally funded program called AgrAbility has been central to connecting disabled members of the ag community with whatever help fits their need. Yet its future is uncertain. President Trump has redlined it from both budget proposals he’s sent to Congress. Legislators from rural states added it back, but the program’s precarious fate makes clear that mishap is always on the horizon for farmers.

Spring Awakenings

Bell was at a farm show in Kentucky when he came across a booth for a new Purdue University program called Breaking New Ground. Its director, a physical therapist named Bill Field, was handing out ear plugs as conversation starters about disabilities and ag. Field got into this space in 1979, when a farmer, paralyzed after his truck rolled over, called Purdue University’s USDA Extension to see if they had any folks who could help him get back into his tractor. The university passed the message along to Field, who gathered up some engineering students. Together, they rigged up a mechanical wheelchair lift and modified the tractor’s cab so the farmer could operate the machine solely by hand.

Inspired by the success, Field established Breaking New Ground. At first, it was just one of many similar ad hoc state-level initiatives that had been around for decades. But Field was persistent, and the program built up steam. Bell rejected Field’s help at first—“My pride was in the way,” he says—but before long his was a regular face at the program’s many workshops and conferences. In 1990, Congress added a line item to the Farm Bill mandating the Department of Agriculture fund an “Assistive Technology Program for Farmers with Disabilities.” This became AgrAbility. Purdue’s Breaking New Ground was selected as the headquarters for the national program.

In his 2017 and 2018 budget proposals, President Trump eliminated AgrAbility from the USDA’s finances. It was up to members of Congress to ensure the program kept going.

Paul Jones

Despite its hands-on origins, AgrAbility today acts as a facilitator and, when needed, funder of technology, services, and other social resources for disabled members of the ag community. One of its premier resources is its Assistive Technology Database, an index of more than 1,400 vetted solutions for myriad problems. Each submenu is a cornucopia of mobility tech. Has arthritis put a cramp on your shop work? Check out the plethora of easy-grip hand tools. Blown out knees or creaky hips? Telescoping technology can help you tend your fruit trees. One submenu features a variety of lifts for tractors and other farm equipment—customized forklifts, modified cranes, homebuilt cherrypickers, commercial cranes and lifts.

“When I got hurt, the doctor told me: ‘It’s sad you got neck broken, but you couldn’t pick a better country and a better time in history to have it done,’” says Bell. His doctor wasn’t just referring to medical science, mobility tech, or even compassionate care. The US is one of the most progressive nations in history when it comes to legislation for disabled people. AgrAbility has been part of the annual Farm Bill (the current version of which is wallowing in the widening congressional gyre) since 1990. Barack Obama was the first president to include it in his budget, earmarking more than $4.5 million for the program. In his 2017 and 2018 budget proposals, however, President Trump eliminated AgrAbility from the USDA’s finances, “to direct funding to higher priority activities.” Once again, it was up to members of Congress to ensure the program kept going.

If AgrAbility does somehow wind up on this administration’s cutting room floor, it won’t be for lack of need. The ag industry is worth about $1.37 billion—a full percent of the US GDP. It’s hard to calculate how much of that is propped up through assistive care and technology. However, another trio of studies released this year confirms AgrAbility’s effectiveness for improving mental health, physical independence, and overall quality of life.

Disability doesn’t have to be as debilitating as paralysis to curtail a person’s ability to farm. Bad vision or hearing can be debilitating. And many in this profession struggle with mental illness—farming is a low-margin industry with lots of year-to-year uncertainty. “The largest percentage of our clients don’t suffer from injuries, they have what we would call chronic conditions, like arthritis and lower back impairments,” says Paul Jones, the project manager at the National AgrAbility Project in Indiana. “The average age for farmers now is 57, so there’s a lot of wear and tear on the body,” he says.

Ed Bell is now 57, and he can attest to that. “When I was younger, even in a wheelchair I had endless energy,” he says. “I don’t do anything fast anymore. I delegate. I hire help. I maybe don’t work as hard every day, but I still get it all done.”


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Ford Truck Sales Slowing

Many economic data points have been tapping the brakes recently indicating slower economic activity. One data point that we like to look at is Ford (NYSE:F) truck sales. Trucks are typically purchased by small businesses and contractors, so they provide a good read on the health of the small business sector. Based on these sales totals for October, small businesses took a little bit of a step back.

Last month, sales of Ford F-series trucks totaled 70,438, which was down over 7% from last October’s total of 75,974. Although one caveat to this decline is that in 2017 sales totals were boosted by repurchases of vehicles flooded in the hurricanes making for a tough y/y comparison. Outside of 2017, this October’s sales were the highest since 2004, which also lends some credence to that argument even if this year did have an extra day of selling compared to last October (26 vs. 25).

On a YTD basis, sales of F-Series trucks have totaled 749.5K, which is still up slightly from last year’s pace and is the strongest YTD reading through the first ten months of the year since 2004.