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Bob Iger's Decision to Step Down

Professor William Klepper discusses former Disney CEO Bob Iger's decision to step down two years before previously expected

William Klepper, Adjunct Professor

February 27, 2020

Bob Iger has kept his board in the loop on his decision to step down, and the ascension of his replacement, Bob Chapek, was a part of that decision. It’s clear that now Iger is hoping to energize the creative side of the business. From a governance perspective, the board needs to continue to approve the strategy for achieving the company's desired future state. Chapek must assume the implementation of that strategy in partnership with Iger and the board. Disney is in a transitional phase, which will require a congruence of the strategy, the CEO and the business system - a dynamic I discuss in The CEO'S Boss: Tough Love in the Boardroom (Columbia University Press, 2019), in what I call the “CEO Alignment Model.” 

The Rise of Bernie Sanders

Professor Shai Davidai discusses Bernie Sanders' rising popularity in terms of economic inequality, mobility, and zero-sum thinking

Shai Davidai, Assistant Professor of Business

February 28, 2020

As I see it, Bernie Sanders’ popularity is due to two major things. First, research has found that people care more about economic mobility than about economic inequality. Yet, the rise in economic inequality in the United States has not been accompanied with a similar rise in economic mobility. As a consequence, people are starting to feel the effects of reduced economic opportunities, rendering the financial obstacles they experience to economic success more salient. By talking about the rise of economic inequality, Bernie Sanders effectively leads people to focus on their lack of economic opportunity, and to view economic success as more due to luck and external forces than to the internal attributes of the rich. 

 

Second, as I show in my recent research on ideological zero-sum thinking, Bernie Sanders relies on zero-sum rhetoric about economic success. His talking points portray the success of well-off individuals and corporations as coming at the expense of lesser-off others. This kind of rhetoric about economic success is especially popular among liberals, which explains why liberal voters are so taken by it. However, my research shows that conservatives are averse to this kind of rhetoric, which casts doubt on Sanders' ability to successfully keep using this kind of rhetoric when courting moderate conservative voters. 

Green Investing and the Rise of Green Funds

Professor Bruce M. Usher discusses the challenges and opportunities of environmentally-conscious investing as green funds mark major trend heading into 2020. 

Bruce Usher, Co-Director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise; Elizabeth B. Strickler '86 and Mark T. Gallogly '86 Faculty Director; Professor of Professional Practice

January 31, 2020

The investment opportunity for green technology growth funds is both better and worse than it may appear. So-called greentech funds were very popular around 2007, but they nearly all failed because investors misunderstood the challenges specific to green technologies. To name a few sticking points, green technologies are often capital intensive and only commercially viable at scale, creating what’s known in the industry as a funding “valley of death” between early stage investors and market acceptance. Green technologies are also often physical products, which are hard to finance because they have long product development cycles and long sales cycles; they usually produce a commodity (e.g. electricity), which must compete on price, has no brand value, and often has inelastic demand; they are impacted by government policies, creating risk and uncertainty for investors; and incumbent companies (e.g. oil companies) have not traditionally acquired green technology companies, creating few exit opportunities for investors.

 

Having said all that, the opportunity today is much better than it was in 2007 for two reasons. One, green technologies are much more competitive today. For example, solar and wind can compete with fossil fuels without subsidies. Also, the demand for climate change solutions is much greater. While the federal government has dropped the ball on climate, state governments are passing legislation to support green technologies (e.g. NY State), and even more importantly, corporations are aggressively increasing their purchase of green technologies (e.g. entering into PPAs to source clean energy).

 

All in all, investing in green technologies is very challenging, but the opportunity has never been greater.

 

Jeff Bezos’ $10 Billion Climate Change Pledge

Professor Geoffrey M. Heal discusses Jeff Bezos’ pledge to donate $10 billion to fight climate change, and the criticism Amazon received in the wake of the news. 

Geoffrey Heal, Bernstein Faculty Leader

February 18, 2020

Amazon is typical of most on-line shopping entities. They are representative of how this sector operates, and the reason they are being singled out is that they are the biggest, and that means they have the power potentially to set standards. 

 

Amazon has ordered several thousand electric delivery trucks from Rivian, a start-up in which it holds a stake, and when these are in place they will clean up its local delivery operations. Both UPS and FedEX are moving to electric trucks too, and that will also contribute to cleaning up the profile of on-line shopping. The big issue then will be air transport, which is extremely hard to clean up. But remember, products always have to be shipped from maker to user, and in today's world these two can be thousands of miles apart, so a lot of long-range transport is unavoidable. This would occur even if there were no online shopping. 

 

Bezos's $10 billion is a huge donation, and if well-used can make a massive difference to the area. We just have to wait and see how he will manage such a vast sum. 

The Threat of Rising Corporate Debt

Professor Mark Cohen discusses the threat of rising corporate debt, specifically in retail. 

Mark Cohen, Director of Retail Studies

February 24, 2020

More and more retailers are closing stores and going bankrupt. This trend can be attributed to decades of excessive expansion of square footage that have finally caught the industry in a deepening productivity crisis, too many undifferentiated stores (and malls), and creeping expense inflation concurrent with deflationary pressure on retail prices that have created a deadly margin squeeze. Additionally, e-commerce has siphoned off a substantial amount of brick and mortar sales rendering even more of a productivity problem for many, customer acquisition and fulfillment is increasingly expensive, and, e-commerce returns are much higher than returns from brick and mortar stores. Beyond these factors, apparel and accessories volume has stagnated in the face of a marked shift in consumer spending on all things “tech.”

 

Sears comes to mind as a prime example of retail’s debt crisis. Under Eddie Lampert’s control, Sears was never run as a legitimate enterprise. His modus operandi was and always has been to load the company up with as much debt as necessary to keep it solvent while he systematically stripped its assets for cash largely for his own benefit.

 

There is no question that low interest rates and QE has created an environment in which enormous sums of money have been easily and inexpensively deployed by private equity firms to acquire and load up retailers’ balance sheets with debt. The melt down already taking place for some highly leveraged retailers will only accelerate if interest rates begin to climb.

China’s Plans for a State-sponsored Cryptocurrency

Professor R.A. Farrokhnia discusses China's state-sponsored crypto-currency in the wake of the news of Facebook's Libra Project 

R.A. Farrokhnia, Executive Career Coach

October 18, 2019

In a way, China already has already come quite close to having a "digital currency," given the widespread use of WeChat, Alipay and a few other similar services. Given the high-levels of consumer adoption when it comes to such forms of digital money, it is not much of a stretch for the Chinese government to begin nudging and moving usage toward a bonafide, state issued, digital currency (a PBOC-coin, our equivalent of a FedReserve coin). 

 

But such digital coin will not be anything like Bitcoin or even Libra, as it would be a sovereign currency highly-controlled by a central authority (more so than Libra), in line with Chinese government general policies and past practices. This would allow for better tracking of how money gets spent in the hands of consumers (a dream set of data for a macro economist!), with a lot of potential benefits that such tracking may entail (e.g. anti-money laundering or proper disbursement of social safety net funds so to ensure the equivalent of Chinese food stamps are used to buy nutritious food as opposed to junk food or alcohol). 

 

But at the same token and on the same spectrum of possibilities, tracking and surveillance will be an issue, and not just in China. In my view, how the consumer habits and cultural tolerance and views of such matters play out will be jurisdiction-specific to each country to some extent, which will have a downstream effect on global adoption and usage (if that's one of the goals). 

 

So overall, the matter is beautifully complex, with competing and opposing objectives driving development, launch and eventual adoption of a state-issue digital coin/currency. 

The US and France's Digital Tax Temporary Truce

Professor Robert Willens discusses the US and France's temporary tax truce following news of a potential agreement between the two countries 

Robert Willens, Adjunct Professor

January 22, 2020

The digital tax is a major threat and this temporary hiatus does not lessen the threat one iota. Our only hope here is that other countries that want to impose such a tax will be "persuaded" by the threat of retaliatory measures emanating from the U.S. to rethink their desire to impose such a tax. The tax would fall heavily, and disproportionately, on U.S. companies who, allegedly, have not been paying the "proper" amount of tax to the governments of countries in which they do business. That's debatable, but my sense is that these countries have brought the problem on themselves by providing these multinationals with tax incentives and "tax holidays" to encourage them to conduct business in the host country. At the end of the day, the notion of a digital tax will wind up in the hands of the politicians who will, hopefully, come up with an equitable solution to the problem.

Uber and WeWork’s Major Losses and WeWork’s IPO Announcement

Professor Len Sherman discusses Uber and WeWork's major losses and WeWork's IPO in the lead up to WeWork's major valuation cut

Len Sherman, Adjunct Professor of Business

September 8, 2019

I couldn't think of a worse day for We to go public with its S-1, as the stock market is strongly signaling a global recession on the horizon. It obviously should be deeply concerning to investors that We has been losing buckets of money during the longest bull market in US history. We's financials will undoubtedly get even uglier than they've been if/when the recession hits.

 

As for Uber, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi shows no sign of changing his tune on growth at all costs, despite his dismal Q2 earnings report, which exhibited decelerating growth and deepening operating losses. 

 

The common link between Uber and We is Softbank, who has invested over $20 billion into these two companies. Investing too much, too soon into startup ventures is often disastrous, as I documented in a recent story in Wired. This will not end well for either company or its investors.

New U.S. Tariffs on Chinese Goods

Professor Mark Cohen discusses the consequences of new U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods for consumers 

Mark Cohen, Director of Retail Studies

September 1, 2019

US importers moving their production away from China will invariably incur high transition and logistics costs which may very well rival the tariff burden they seek to avoid. And then of course they have no way of knowing whether Trump will wind up imposing tariffs on the so called “safe harbor” countries like Vietnam or Bangladesh where they may move production. 

 

There is no doubt that trade inequities and other egregious trade behaviors are long overdue for remedy with regard to China, the EU and the NAFTA countries: Mexico and Canada, but conducting a public "school yard" like fight against them all in the manner in which Trump has proceeded is completely unworkable.

 

Trump can’t afford to lose face in the eyes of his base in the same way that the Chinese leadership is unlikely to. They, in fact, may be willing to stone wall and play hardball with Trump betting that this depresses the US economy and causes Trump to be thrown out of office in 2020 in favor of a more reasonable and reliable Democratic candidate.

 

Trade wars have never succeeded. Never. Why? Because countries that are hit with tariffs retaliate with tariffs of their own. Always. China, quite clearly is capable of retaliating as they are now doing.

 

Tariffs often result in unintended consequences. The “tit for tat” Common Market imposed tariffs on US poultry products in the 1960’s (The Chicken Tariffs) resulted in the US retaliating by imposing tariffs on Common Market manufactured trucks. Now, 50 years later, the chicken tariffs are gone but the truck tariffs remain, resulting in unwarranted high prices that US Consumers continue to pay to this day.

 

Consumers always, always, bear the burden of tariffs in the form of higher prices and or lesser quality and/or less appealing merchandise.

 

Finally, there is no reality to large scale needle trade and metal bending industries returning to the US. Why? Because though the US has extraordinary technology and logistics resources available, the US is an extraordinarily expensive place to manufacture goods. Goods brought back to the US for US manufacturing will necessarily become far more expensive than they have been based upon offshore production.

LVMH’s $14.5B Offer to Take Over Tiffany

Professor Mark Cohen discusses LVMH's bid to take over Tiffany

Mark Cohen, Director of Retail Studies

October 28, 2019

Tiffany should never have become a public company. Frankly, no luxury fashion business that is non-promotional can ever satisfy the demands that the public markets make for regular quarterly performance and growth. Tiffany has two options: One to go private which would entail taking on significant debt, or, two sell to a strategic buyer. 

 

LVMH would be a perfect strategic buyer, as a large and profitable luxury player that is essentially controlled by a single shareholder.

Boeing ex-CEO’s Congressional Testimony

Professor Bill Klepper discusses Boeing ex-CEO’s Congressional Testimony on 747 MAX planes

William Klepper, Adjunct Professor

October 28, 2019

Muilenburg should be prepared to take responsibility for the deaths due to the crashes and pledge Boeing's promise to live up to its stated safety standards in cooperation with US regulators. He should also have his Corporate Counsel with him at the hearing to advise him since Boeing's shareholders' interests are in play along with its other stakeholders. In my book, The CEO's Boss: Tough Love in the Boardroom, I call for a Social Contract between companies and their stakeholders. It is time for a renewal of that Social Contract at Boeing.

 

Their operational problems are systemic and bring into question the way they do things around Boeing—their culture. Knowing their new CEO who is arriving next week was the board chairman and has had as his fiduciary responsibility duty-of-care for over a decade, it’s probably time to reevaluate the membership in both the C-suite and on the board. The shareholders ought to be the deciding voice.

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