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A growing economy coupled with new applications and convenience of online shopping could provide a catalyst to businesses that sell merchandise through online channels.
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Amid surging health care costs and acrimonious public debate, a new study found that a public-run system would save money over time.
(Bloomberg) -- China will curtail its consumption of single-use plastic in an effort to tackle a soaring amount of the discarded material that has quickly become one of the world’s most pressing environmental crises.Non-degradable plastic bags will be banned in places such as supermarkets and shopping malls in major cities, as well as for the country’s ubiquitous food delivery services by the end of this year, according to a plan released by the National Development and Reform Commission on Sunday.“China is catching up with the rest of world,” said Leiliang Zheng, an analyst at BloombergNEF. “The EU is the leader in solving the plastic crisis and has already passed a law to widely ban single-use plastic items in 2019, and many developing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia are also tracking the problem.”About 300 million tons of plastic waste is generated each year, and 60% of that has been dumped in either landfills or the natural environment, according to a United Nations report. Whether it ends up in the ocean, a river or on land, plastic’s durability and resistance to degradation make it nearly impossible to completely break down, causing it to persist for centuries.Regulations on single-use plastic are on the rise globally, according to a BloombergNEF report. France banned the use of plastic plates, cups, and cotton buds starting Jan. 1 with the goal of phasing out all single-use items by 2040. Thailand and New Zealand have both placed restrictions on or banned single-use plastic bags. An Indonesian ban comes into effect this June.Many countries in Africa have implemented limits on the manufacture of plastic or attempted to restrict the consumption of the material through levies. Still, India held off imposing a single-use plastic ban last year over fear the policy would trigger an economic slowdown, according to BNEF’s Zheng.Taking MeasuresThe use of plastic in China has risen as online shopping and food delivery apps have become part of everyday life, even in rural areas. Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., which organizes a 24-hour shopping marathon every year, has been criticized for shipping 1 billion packages in a single day.The new policy may increase the costs for e-commerce platforms that will need to adjust their packaging strategies, according to Zheng, who added that alternatives to plastic such as biodegradable materials or recycled plastics are still more expensive.China will ban non-degradable, single-use plastic straws nationwide by the end of 2020, it said, with the goal of reducing the “intensity of consumption” of such plastic utensils by takeout services in urban areas by 30% by 2025. By 2022, some delivery services in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai will be forbidden from using non-degradable packaging, with the ban extended to the whole country by 2025.While China’s regulations are likely to slow the flow of plastic usage and improve the country’s recycling rate, the International Energy Agency said the initiative could be a headwind for the oil industry, which is expecting plastics and petrochemicals to comprise half of its long-term demand growth through 2050.Several global oil majors, including Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and Exxon Mobil Corp., are investing in petrochemical plants in China to tap into that growing demand. Packaging accounts for more than a third of current plastics consumption.“The new policy will suppress demand for plastics, a potential risk for oil and chemical companies,” Zheng said.\--With assistance from Dan Murtaugh and Heesu Lee.To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Lucille Liu in Beijing at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: John Liu at firstname.lastname@example.org, Aaron Clark, Jason RogersFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
(Bloomberg) -- A top-performing Morgan Stanley fund is betting on cash-rich consumption-focused stocks in Asia, especially China, to manage risks in market cycles this year.Sign up for Next China, a weekly email on where the nation stands now and where it's going next.The Wall Street firm’s Asia Opportunity Fund, which focuses on equities in the region excluding Japan, returned 44% in the past year, beating 99% of its peers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The portfolio focuses on undervalued companies with low debt or net cash on their balance sheets, many of which are found in consumer sectors, said Kristian Heugh, who has been co-managing the fund since its inception in 2016.“We seek to protect investors’ capital by focusing on high quality companies with sustainable competitive advantages and purchasing them at a discount to our estimate of intrinsic value,” Heugh said. “We remain vigilant in selling names approaching our estimate of their intrinsic value and redeploying that capital in what we believe are the next big ideas.”China is the $1.5 billion fund’s largest-weighted country, accounting for 57.7% of assets as of end-December. Heugh said the world’s second-largest economy will remain a key focus this year despite its slower growth in 2019.Asian consumer stocks provide “high returns on capital, low leverage and quality growth prospects,” Hong Kong-based Heugh said. The region offers “the highest ratio” of high-quality companies that have generated both 15% return on invested capital and 15% revenue growth over the past three years, he added. The MSCI Asia ex Japan Index has gained 3.4% so far this year. With more than 800 million people emerging from poverty since market reforms began in 1978, China is an especially attractive hunting ground for consumption names, Heugh said. Key themes he’s looking at include better quality food and drink as well as access to Internet services, health care and better education opportunities for children.As a result, the Asia Opportunity Fund’s largest positions in China focus on the education, food, beverages, restaurants and travel sectors. Food-delivery giant Meituan Dianping, distiller Kweichow Moutai Co. and soy sauce maker Foshan Haitian Flavouring & Food Co. were among the top contributors to the fund’s peer-beating performance last year.The top five performers are trading at an average valuation of more than 50 times earnings estimates for 2020, compared with about 14 times for the MSCI Asia excluding-Japan Index. All have net cash on their balance sheets.While only about 1% of the portfolio is allocated to Southeast Asia due to expensive valuations, its Asean revenue exposure is higher thanks to investments in key regional Internet stocks Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Naver Corp.“Alibaba owns Southeast Asia’s largest e-commerce platform Lazada, Tencent is the largest gaming company in this region, and Naver owns Line which is popular among Southeast Asian mobile Internet users,” Heugh said.(Updates with MSCI AC Asia ex Japan Index performance in fifth paragraph. An earlier version of the story corrected the name of the fund)To contact the reporter on this story: Ishika Mookerjee in Singapore at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Lianting Tu at firstname.lastname@example.org, Kurt SchusslerFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
(Bloomberg) -- Sign up here to receive the Davos Diary, a special daily newsletter that will run from Jan. 20-24.Emmanuel Macron’s pre-Davos summit for tech executives will hold some goodies for startups.In the third edition of his “Choose France” summit on Monday, timed to catch global CEOs in Paris on their way to the Swiss Alps’ World Economic Forum, the French president will detail measures in his 2020 budget that have improved stock options for startups in France.Macron will also plug a revamped visa regime that will give fast-track papers to tech workers for French or foreign companies and a new benchmark index, the French Tech 120, to promote the nation’s most promising ventures.Snap’s Evan Spiegel, who was given French nationality in 2018, EU digital Commissioner Thierry Breton, Netflix Inc.‘s Reed Hastings, Google’s You Tube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Lime’s Joe Kraus and other leaders from Mexico, Nigeria, Sweden, Turkey and the U.K. will attend the forum in Versailles.Entrepreneurs and executives at some of Europe’s most successful technology startups have been urging local governments to change laws to make employee stock options more attractive, in order to better compete with Silicon Valley. Macron, his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Digital Minister Cedric O and 17 ministers will present the government’s latest measures.In November 2018, about 30 chief executives of companies including iZettle AB, Funding Circle Ltd., Supercell Oy, TransferWise Ltd., Blablacar and U.S.-based Stripe Inc., signed an open letter saying a patchwork of different rules in various European countries makes it complicated and costly for employers to dole out stock options.The French 2020 budget law, voted late last year and enacted on Jan. 1, has two major measures already to make stock options of startups more attractive. First the conditions of the so-called BSPCE, an employee shareholding tool equivalent to a stock options, have been sweetened: they will get a discount compared to the price investors paid at the last fund raising.Also, employees of foreign startups with a base in France will be able to get stock options calculated on the parent company’s performance, not just the French branch, minister Cedric O unveiled in a statement late last year, as he said France seeks to attract more tech workers and companies.“What France has done is fantastic, but we really need a pan-European solution,” Martin Mignot, Partner at Index Ventures, which has stakes in BlablaCar, told Bloomberg. “Currently, startups face the same problems every time they expand into a new country. Talk to any entrepreneur and they tell you it’s madness, it is slowing them down and it is putting them at a disadvantage to large companies.”Macron has attempted to lure more investors to France ever since his years as an economy minister in 2014, via taxes, visas, benchmark indexes, bilingual schools and the French way to welcome new comers.In September he created the “Next 40,” a listing of France’s top 40 startups with the strongest growth potential. While only a few of them are currently “unicorns,” with values topping $1 billion, the government said it expect more of them to scale.Read more: Napoleon, Chateaus on Display as France Seeks Venture CapitalOne of the key measures taken by Macron was a 30% flat tax on capital revenues from securities, savings, capital gains, and other sources. That measure got him into trouble with some of his citizens protesting against inequalities in the Yellow Vests movement that started in December 2018.The statistic institute Insee said the increase in inequality in 2018 was linked to a sharp rise in investment incomes, which benefited from the introduction of a flat tax the same year.Still, Macron has also toughened his stance on issues like taxes and privacy. He brought it up with Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook in his first months as president and repeatedly to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Macron is currently in a tug of war with U.S. President Donald Trump over his tax on digital giants.Amazon.com Inc., like other tech companies, will make their first payment of France’s new tax on digital giants in a few weeks. The government enacted a 3% levy on large tech groups that is retroactively effective from Jan. 1, 2019.(Updated with comment from Index ventures)\--With assistance from Natalia Drozdiak.To contact the reporter on this story: Helene Fouquet in Paris at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Giles Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org, Vidya RootFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
(Bloomberg) -- ByteDance Inc. is preparing a major push into the mobile arena’s most lucrative market, a realm Tencent Holdings Ltd. has dominated for over a decade: games.Sign up for Next China, a weekly email on where the nation stands now and where it's going next.The world’s most valuable startup has rapidly built a full-fledged gaming division to spearhead its maiden foray into hardcore or non-casual games, according to people familiar with the matter. Over the past few months, ByteDance has quietly bought up gaming studios and exclusive title distribution rights. It’s embarked on a hiring spree and poached top talent from rivals, building a team of more than 1,000. Its first two games from the venture will be released this spring, targeting both local and overseas players, one person said.Commonly compared to Facebook Inc. because of its billion-plus users and sway over American teens via social media phenom TikTok, ByteDance is looking to expand its horizons. It started as a popular news aggregator with the Toutiao app in China before setting the world ablaze with short-form video sharing on TikTok and its Chinese twin app Douyin. Now it’s looking to go beyond cheap ads and develop recurring revenue streams by taking on the Tencent gaming goliath in the chase for coveted distribution rights.“Having fully established itself as a leader in short video with over one billion users across its apps, ByteDance is now building multiple game studios by acquiring experienced game developers and talent,” said Daniel Ahmad, analyst with Asia-focused gaming research firm Niko Partners. “Its massive global user base and investment in gaming could make it a big disruptor in the gaming space this year.”Read more: ByteDance Is Said to Weigh TikTok Stake Sale Over U.S. ConcernsGaming in China has long been a Tencent fortress, with Netease Inc. a distant second. But ByteDance might be the one company capable of upsetting that status quo, having already defied convention by surviving and flourishing outside the orbit of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent, who between them have locked up much of the country’s internet sphere. Toutiao is a key channel for Chinese game publishers to acquire new users, with 63 of the top 100 ad spenders among mobile games in 2019 devoting most of their ads to the news app, according to data tracked by Guangzhou-based researcher App Growing.Representatives for ByteDance, Tencent and Netease declined to comment for this story. Shares in Tencent went down as much as 0.6% during morning trading on Monday.Read more: Snap CEO Spiegel Says TikTok Could Grow Bigger Than InstagramOver the past few years, ByteDance has churned out several casual games that have grown popular with the help of its video platforms, but those quick hits made money mostly through ads. Its new foray into gaming involves a much bigger investment and is shaping up to be a major strategic shift, targeting more committed gamers who will splurge on in-game weapons, cosmetics and other perks.It could help the company diversify its sources of revenue at a time when the Chinese economy shows signs of slowing and TikTok draws scrutiny in the U.S. ByteDance is also testing a new paid music app in Asia, adding to its swelling portfolio of ventures. Steady revenue sources would help position ByteDance for an eventual initial public offering.While the move into serious gaming is very much at an embryonic stage, ByteDance is making up for its inexperience by poaching veteran staff from rivals, said the people, who asked not to be named because the plans are private. One of the gaming division’s creative teams is led by Wang Kuiwu, who joined from China’s Perfect World, a major game developer and esports tournament organizer. Yan Shou, ByteDance’s chief of strategy and investment, oversees operations, the people said. The unit runs independently from existing efforts to create casual mobile titles, they said.Read more: TikTok Owner Is Testing Music App in Bid for Next Global HitByteDance is making a global push that includes hiring publishing and marketing staffers based overseas, according to job descriptions viewed by Bloomberg News. One post seeks people to work with influencers and internal platforms to promote games, while another asks candidates to be responsible for “managing indie mobile game publishing projects throughout their life cycle.” This hiring spree is also evident in postings this month for more than a dozen game-related positions on Chinese career site Lagou.com, ranging from product managers to 3-D character designers based in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.Acquiring talent also means buying up studios wholesale. Game studios acquired by ByteDance over the past year include Shanghai Mokun Digital Technology and Beijing-based Levelup.ai, as shown in public company registration information. The company also hired the core developer team from a Netease outfit called Pangu Game, after China’s second-largest gaming firm canceled the studio’s existing projects, according to people familiar with the matter.ByteDance’s game pipeline will include massively multiplayer online games with Chinese fantasy elements, said two people. Its newly acquired studios have pedigree in the genre: Pangu Game’s 2017 hit Revelation is a PC online role-playing game where warriors and sorcerers slay Chinese mythological beasts, while Shanghai Mokun has created several similar titles since its founding in 2013.The challenge of invading Tencent’s turf will nevertheless be immense. Tencent has three of the world’s most popular multiplayer mobile titles in PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty: Mobile and Honour of Kings. They are the blueprint for games that are free to play but rich on in-game purchases -- which accounts for a huge swath of mobile revenues -- that rivals like ByteDance try to emulate. More broadly, Tencent’s locked in a billion-plus users across Asia into a WeChat app that mashes elements of payments, social media, on-demand services and entertainment.Read more: China Will Drive Mobile Spending to Record $380 Billion in 2020Tencent and Netease also enjoy the advantage of having long-established relationships with Chinese regulators, who in 2018 began a campaign to root out gaming addiction that drastically constricted the number and variety of games allowed to be published in the country. Tencent saw hundreds of billions of dollars wiped off its market value as a result and is still recovering. Getting into gaming potentially exposes ByteDance to more regulatory scrutiny domestically, even as it battles U.S. lawmakers’ accusations that TikTok can be used to spy on Americans.Still, ByteDance can’t call itself a true internet giant without a substantial presence in gaming. Last year, 72% of all consumer spending on mobile came in games, according to App Annie, and the market is fiercely competitive. ByteDance’s critical advantage is that it already has a vast and engaged audience among the all-important teenage demographic: it can leverage Douyin/TikTok to channel users toward its games. That mirrors the winning approach Tencent took more than a decade ago when it exploited the reach of its social media platforms to enter gaming. ByteDance will have to prove that the strategy still works.“Gaming is a strategic vertical for tech companies in China as it is a key way to generate additional revenue from a large audience,” Ahmad said. “While they may be able to develop a number of hit titles in the China market, we believe it will still be difficult for them to truly challenge Tencent.”(Updates with analyst comment from fourth paragraph)To contact the reporter on this story: Zheping Huang in Hong Kong at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Elstrom at firstname.lastname@example.org, Edwin Chan, Vlad SavovFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
The PBoC left LPRs steady this morning, with some time likely needed to asses the impact of recent cuts and the phase 1 agreement.
Now, Amazon is beginning to embrace them. Amazon said on Saturday it has partnered with thousands of neighborhood stores -- locally known as kirana stores -- across India to use them to store and deliver goods. “It’s good for customers, and it helps the shop owners earn additional income,” tweeted Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos .
(Bloomberg) -- Sonos Inc. Chief Executive Officer Patrick Spence accused Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Amazon.com Inc. of using their market power to thwart competition a week after filing a lawsuit against the world’s largest search engine.“Today’s dominant companies have so much power across such a broad array of markets and continue to leverage that power to expand into new markets that we need to rethink existing laws and policies,” said Spence Friday at a congressional antitrust hearing in Boulder, Colorado, led by Representative David Cicilline, the Rhode Island Democrat who is investigating competition in the technology sector.Sonos, a 1,500-person company, sued Google Jan. 7 for allegedly infringing five patents covering multi-room audio technology. Spence said Google’s dominance enabled it to violate the speaker company’s intellectual property. He said that Google tries to prevent customers from using its voice assistants alongside another company’s on Sonos speakers. While Amazon doesn’t go that far, he said, it has used its power to “to subsidize the conquest” of the booming smart-speaker market, particularly by under-pricing its offerings.Sonos has worked with the committee since before it decided to file the lawsuit, according to a person familiar with the discussions. It has also responded to questions that the committee sent to customers of the large technology platforms.Google has disputed Sonos’ claims and said it will defend itself. The search giant, which faces antitrust probes by 48 state attorneys general as well as the U.S. Justice Department, says it faces robust competition. Cicilline is using the hearing to air grievances by smaller companies, following a series of Washington meetings that focused on the tech giants.“It is apparent that the dominant platforms are increasingly using their gatekeeper power in abusive and coercive ways,” Cicilline said in his opening statement.The panel also heard from David Barnett, the founder of Boulder-based PopSockets, which makes phone holders and stands. He alleged that Amazon frequently engaged in “bullying,” including deliberately selling counterfeits, threatening to go to unauthorized resellers and dropping prices without consulting. “We have $10 million less to innovate this year” because of PopSockets’s decision to end its relationship with Amazon even though it’s more difficult to sell elsewhere, Barnett said.“It seems like Amazon is so dominant that there is no alternative,” said Representative Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican on the committee.Amazon said in a statement that PopSockets is a “valued retail vendor” and added: “We’ve continued to work with PopSockets to address our shared concerns about counterfeit, and continue to have a relationship with PopSockets through Merch by Amazon, which enables other sellers to create customized PopSockets for sale.”The company said it refuses to work with some resellers to ensure low prices, and rejects the notion that it’s dominant, saying it represents just 4% of U.S. retail.The panel also heard from Kirsten Daru, general counsel of Tile Inc., which makes devices that pair with phones to help people locate lost items such as keys or purses.Apple Inc. is reportedly preparing to unveil a competing service, and Daru’s 100-employee company alleges the phone maker has started putting up roadblocks to Tile’s business, such as burying permissions that allow the phone and Tile devices to communicate and prompting users to disable permissions that have been set.“You’re playing up against a team that owns the field, the ball and can change the rules at any given time,” Daru said in an interview before the hearing, adding that a majority of the company’s customers are on Apple’s operating system.Apple said that its treatment of permissions, which focused on location, were designed to protect user privacy and that it’s working with developers whose customers may want particular apps to be able to track them at all times.Daru said Apple also removed Tile devices from its retail stores, and that it bid on search terms related to the would-be rival to drive up the cost of advertising 50% each week during the fall.Cicilline has said his goal is to develop a final report with recommendations for Congress this year. He told reporters on Tuesday that he wants to wrap up his probe by the end of March and said he’s hopeful the tech giants will cooperate with requests for chief executives to give information without subpoenas, preferably in public hearings.“It’s hard to imagine that we’d conclude the investigation without hearing from some of the large technology CEOs, particularly in companies whether there’s such really centralized decision making,” he said.(Updates with comments from PopSockets CEO from eighth paragraph)\--With assistance from Mark Gurman, Rebecca Kern and David McLaughlin.To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Brody in Washington, D.C. at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Sara Forden at firstname.lastname@example.org, Paula DwyerFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
Shares of Google parent Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL) have jumped 9% in 2020 to help it ascend into the $1 trillion market cap club. Is it time to buy?
(Bloomberg) -- Major technology and internet companies have long fueled the U.S. stock market’s climb to record levels, but that trend has come with one notable exception: Amazon.com Inc., which has languished in a fairly narrow trading range for months.Amazon shares haven’t notched an all-time high since September 2018, in contrast to mega-cap peers like Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet and Facebook, which have been hitting records on a near-daily basis. Many of these names experienced pronounced draw-downs over the past year and a half, mostly due to disappointing earnings reports or outlooks. But they regained their momentum last year, as their growth assuaged investor caution. Amazon, however, remains about 8.5% below its own peak.Because of its long-term prospects, Amazon is about as close as a stock can be to a consensus choice among Wall Street firms. Over the near term, though, it is “the most hotly debated among investors” as “debates persist on both AWS and next day shipping efforts,” according to UBS analyst Eric Sheridan, referring to its Amazon Web Services cloud-computing business.Since the start of 2019, Amazon shares are up about 24%, below the 32% rise of the S&P 500, as well as the much larger gains seen in other bellwethers. Microsoft and Facebook are both up more than 60% since the start of last year, while Apple has doubled. The rally resulted in trillion-dollar valuations for Apple, Microsoft and Google-parent Alphabet, a milestone that Amazon briefly eclipsed in 2018.The underperformance reflects concerns over Amazon’s earnings trends, even as it has continued to grow revenue at a double-digit clip. Major investments into initiatives like one-day shipping are seen as headwinds, and shares “may be range bound ‘tactically’” given the impact of this spending, Morgan Stanley wrote on Thursday. The firm added that “near-term profitability is likely to still disappoint” because of these investments, even as it sees the effect as temporary and one-day shipping deepening Amazon’s competitive moat within e-commerce.Another key issue is the waning dominance of Amazon Web Services, which has long been a major driver for earnings and margins, but has faced growing competition from rivals like Alphabet and especially Microsoft. According to Bloomberg Intelligence, which cited IDC data, Amazon Web Services was 12 times larger than Microsoft’s cloud business in 2014. By 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, it was just four times larger.James Bach, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, wrote that Amazon was particularly facing “stiffer competition” with government contracts. “Microsoft’s extensive sales experience, installed base within U.S. agencies and broad range of edge-computing products all make a compelling offering,” he wrote. Microsoft is “uniquely positioned to claim market share as federal agencies upgrade and secure IT systems.”In October, Microsoft beat out Amazon for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud contract, a deal Amazon had been seen as the favorite to win. The company subsequently claimed it lost the contract because of political interference by President Donald Trump, and filed a lawsuit challenging its validity.Amazon earlier this week named a new sales chief for AWS. Deutsche Bank wrote that the “magnitude of personnel changes” at AWS, along with rising competition, underscored the “increased risk of further deceleration” at the business.Separately, Morgan Stanley this week wrote that a quarterly survey of chief investment officers suggested some cause for caution about AWS growth. “Quarterly survey results can be volatile, but AWS saw a notable [quarter-over-quarter] drop in net expected budget share gains” over the next three years, analyst Brian Nowak wrote. “It will be important to continue to monitor these metrics going forward as we think about AWS forward growth.”Amazon is expected to report fourth-quarter results later this month. According to data compiled by Bloomberg, Wall Street is looking for revenue growth of nearly 19% and expecting net income to fall by nearly a third. AWS revenue is seen growing more than 30% on a year-over-year basis, according to a Bloomberg MODL estimate.Wall Street remains almost unanimously positive on the stock. According to data compiled by Bloomberg, 53 firms recommend buying the stock, compared with the four with a hold rating. None advocate selling the shares.To contact the reporter on this story: Ryan Vlastelica in New York at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Catherine Larkin at firstname.lastname@example.org, Steven Fromm, Janet FreundFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
(Bloomberg) -- Scott Bluestein has a favorite type of debt investment: companies with no profits, no cash flow, and in some cases even no revenue.While that may seem like a recipe for disaster for most fixed-income money managers, it’s perfectly normal in the world of venture debt. And few companies in the space have been more successful in recent years than Bluestein’s Hercules Capital Inc., the largest nonbank lender in the business.The market for venture debt operates largely in the shadow of venture equity, the segment of startup financing famous for providing early funding for technology giants such as Facebook Inc. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Winning wagers tend to not produce the sort of eye-popping payouts the equity side has become renowned for, but they’re also less risky, relatively speaking. Flying under the radar also has its benefits, according to Bluestein.While investors have plowed hundreds of billions of dollars into direct-lending funds over the past few years amid a global hunt for yield, the $15 billion venture debt market has yet to see the same influx of cash. As a result it’s largely avoided the intense competition, record dry powder and pricing pressures seen in other corners of private credit. In fact, the Hercules chief executive expects core loan yields to keep pace with the long-term average of about 12% going forward.“Venture debt has historically mystified the direct-lending market,” Bluestein said in an interview. “We have the opportunity to partner with and help finance some of the most exciting growth-stage technology and life-sciences companies in the world.”Hercules’s current borrowers include rare-disease drug developer BridgeBio Pharma Inc. and fake-meat producer Impossible Foods Inc.Lending to such companies requires a unique blend of credit, equity and industry expertise, according to Bluestein. The ability to assess why the companies are burning cash is critical.“Venture lending is a pretty esoteric, specialized part of the market,” Bluestein said. “It requires significant domain expertise. It requires an achievement of scale from a performance perspective.”Hercules originally provided BridgeBio a $35 million secured term loan in June 2018. The financing had grown to $75 million by the time BridgeBio went public a year later. Since then, its market capitalization has ballooned to $4.3 billion.As for Impossible Foods, Hercules closed a $50 million commitment in the second quarter of 2018. A year later, the meat-substitute company reached a $2 billion valuation. In both deals, Hercules made equity investments alongside the loans. In others, it often receives equity kickers in the form of stock warrants.Of course, the lender’s record isn’t spotless. Portfolio company Sungevity Inc. filed for bankruptcy in 2017, and the debt was subsequently converted into equity of the company that bought some of its assets. BIND Therapeutics Inc. went bust in 2016, though Hercules says it was able to fully recover its outstanding commitment.Last year, the company’s main challenge was unrelated to its investments. Founder and then-CEO Manuel Henriquez was forced to step aside after being charged by federal prosecutors in March for participating in the college-admissions cheating conspiracy.Wall Street was quick to cut its expectations for publicly-traded Hercules’s shares, worried that access to capital and origination growth may be hurt. The stock has since recovered, and the company said earlier this week it had surpassed more than $10 billion in committed debt capital since its inception in 2003. Assets under management stood at $2.3 billion as of Sept. 30.Niche PlayOthers are also growing in the space. Avenue Capital has sought to raise about $500 million for a venture debt fund, Reuters reported in November. Specialty lenders in the business also include TriplePoint and Horizon Technology Finance, while Silicon Valley Bank is seen as an industry pioneer.Still, the strategy isn’t for everyone. Direct-lending giant Ares Capital Corp. exited the space in 2017, offloading its $125 million portfolio of venture loans to Hercules. CEO Kipp deVeer at the time attributed the exit to the overwhelming challenge of overseeing so many small and complicated financings.Along with being relatively small, maturities on the loans tends to be short. That makes for a fast-churn, research-intensive business. The average tenor of a Hercules loans is 36 to 48 months, but the actual average duration is just a year-and-a-half, according to Bluestein.“Our portfolio turns about every 18 months,” Bluestein said. “The treadmill is set at 10, and you can’t stop.”While recent high-profile venture-capital stumbles such as WeWork may make investors wary of startup financing broadly, Bluestein welcomes the greater scrutiny and caution, acknowledging there have been a number of so-called unicorns where valuations reached extreme levels.“It’s a positive. It puts more focus on fundamentals,” Bluestein said. “Anything that makes the market more realistic is good for business.”(Updates with Hercules assets under management in 13th paragraph.)\--With assistance from Lisa Abramowicz.To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lee in New York at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Natalie Harrison at firstname.lastname@example.org, Adam Cataldo, Boris KorbyFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
(Bloomberg) -- European Union privacy watchdogs are gearing up to police digital assistants after revelations that Amazon.com Inc. workers listened in on people’s conversations with their Alexa digital assistants.Bloomberg first reported in April that Amazon had a team of thousands of workers around the world listening to Alexa audio requests with the goal of improving the software.Similar issues have been raised over Google and Apple Inc.’s digital assistants, triggering privacy fears across the world, as intimate conversations in some users’ homes were laid bare to technicians fine-tuning the technology.EU regulators are now working on a common approach on how to police the technology, said Tine Larsen, head of the data protection authority in Luxembourg, where the U.S. retail giant has its European base and employs a staff of more than 2,000.“Because it’s a question of principle, the members of the EDPB should work out a common position in line with the consistency mechanism to apply data protection rules in a harmonized way for this type of treatment,” she said, referring to a panel of regulators from across the 28-nation EU.The revelations of the snooping into people’s homes came after regulators across Europe were handed beefed-up powers with its General Data Protection Regulation in May 2018, including the right to levy fines of as much as 4% of a company’s global annual sales for the most serious violations. But the move toward common guidelines for digital assistants means companies should avoid fines -- for now.Larsen’s comments echo those of Helen Dixon, head of the Irish watchdog, responsible for overseeing the likes of Apple and Google.She told Bloomberg in November that the regulator first has to “bottom out fully on whether it’s true” when companies say they need to do transcripts of people’s interactions with the assistants. That’s why a focus will be first on coming up with guidelines, instead of investigations or inquiries, she said.Amazon said in a statement that “to help improve Alexa, we manually review and annotate a small fraction of 1% of Alexa requests” and that “access to data annotation tools is only granted to a limited number of employees who require them to improve the service.”EU regulators are working on a common position on the privacy issues surrounding voice assistant systems, said Johannes Caspar, head of the watchdog in Hamburg, Germany. “We urgently need common and reliable industry standards on this to better regulate” privacy protections, he said in an email.Caspar’s office initiated a number of probes into the issue, including one into Facebook over audio transcriptions from its Messenger users, he said. The questions his office has asked of Facebook have been discussed within the EDPB, the EU body of national regulators. The plan is to use the results to have a more coordinated approach by all European regulators affected by the issue, he said.Europe Mulls New Tougher Rules for Artificial IntelligenceThe U.K., which is set to leave the EU at the end of the month, will soon publish the results of a consultation into security features for smart speakers and other connected devices, with proposals for mandatory industry requirements that could lead to potential new regulation, U.K. Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan told Bloomberg Wednesday.Siri ChangesApple, whose Siri virtual assistant is embedded in its operating phone and desktop computer operating systems, pointed to an August blog post about the issue.“We know that customers have been concerned by recent reports of people listening to audio Siri recordings as part of our Siri quality evaluation process — which we call grading,” it said. “We heard their concerns, immediately suspended human grading of Siri requests and began a thorough review of our practices and policies. We’ve decided to make some changes to Siri as a result.”Google, which offers similar technology, referred to its September announcement that it would add new security protections to the way its workers listen to audio snippets, meant to help improve the product’s quality.In a blog post in September, Google said it would tell users that their audio may be listened to if they opt in to a feature that also improves audio quality. “We believe in putting you in control of your data, and we always work to keep it safe. We’re committed to being transparent about how our settings work so you can decide what works best for you,” the company said.While Amazon is escaping penalties over Alexa, Luxembourg, which is the company’s main privacy watchdog in Europe, is probing the company for other potential breaches.This follows complaints from activists that the online retailer is illegally tracking and profiling internet users without their permission, as well as not providing full access to users’ data.Amazon ‘Cooperating’The company says it’s “cooperating” with the authority, “which is at an advanced stage of its fact finding,” according to an emailed statement. The data commission declined to comment on any probes, citing local rules.French privacy activists La Quadrature du Net, filed one of the complaints on behalf of more than 10,000 customers. They urge regulators to crack down on “behavioral analysis and targeted advertising” by Amazon and levy a fine that is “as high as possible” due to the “massive, lasting and manifestly deliberate nature” of the alleged violations without the consent of its users.None of Your Business (Noyb), a group created by Austrian activist Max Schrems, followed up with a separate complaint last January over data access concerns, accusing Amazon of violating EU law by not handing over all personal data requested by a user of its Amazon Prime service.Arthur Messaud, a lawyer with La Quadrature du Net, and Schrems said they’d had no updates from the Luxembourg regulator, which is bound by strict secrecy provisions under national law, meaning it can’t reveal details until after any fines have been levies and all avenues of appeal have been exhausted.(Updates with Google response from 15th paragraph)\--With assistance from Natalia Drozdiak.To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Bodoni in Luxembourg at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at firstname.lastname@example.org, Peter Chapman, Giles TurnerFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.
A sturdy labor market, rising income and improving confidence certainly encouraged consumers to spend more. While bargain hunters did hit the streets, enthusiasm for online shopping was palpable.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos rubbing shoulders with Bollywood's best and brightest stars on his tour of India, but his plans to expand influence in the country haven't been met with enthusiasm by all. Indian Trade Minister Piyush Goyal has been unimpressed with Amazon's announcement of a $1 billion dollar investment, saying the online delivery service hasn't done India any big favors. (SOUNDBITE) (English) INDIAN TRADE MINISTER, PIYUSH GOYAL, SAYING: "They may have put in a billion dollars, but then if they make a loss of a billion dollars every year then they jolly well have to finance that billion dollars. So it's not as if they're doing a great favor to India when they invest a billion dollars." Bezos announced the investment on Wednesday (January 15) saying it would bring small businesses online in the country, and would be adding to the $5.5 billion the company had committed since 2014. That was followed on Friday by a proposal to create 1 million jobs in India by 2025. But despite repeatedly reaching out for a meeting, three Reuters sources suggest Bezos is unlikely to have talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit, as he looks to allay antitrust concerns. On Friday (January 17) Modi's ruling party took a swipe at the Bezos-owned Washington Post, saying there were problems with the paper's coverage of India. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. Amazon and Walmart owned Flipkart are facing mounting criticism from India's brick-and-mortar retailers, which accuse the U.S. giants of violating Indian law by racking up billions of dollars of losses, to fund deep discounts and discriminating against small sellers. The companies deny the allegations.