A.I. and cost cuts lift Big Tech
Earlier this week, Mark Zuckerberg of Meta endured a grilling on Capitol Hill and publicly apologized to relatives of victims of online abuse. Little more than a day later, he had a lot to crow about, as his business delivered some of its best quarterly earnings in years.
Meta’s results illustrate how the most recent earnings season has gone for Big Tech: a mostly positive period in which companies that could claim the benefits of artificial intelligence and cost-cutting were hailed the most on Wall Street.
Meta shot the lights out. After years of facing questions about its ad business and its ability to cope with scandals, the parent of Facebook and Instagram reported that fourth-quarter profits tripled from a year ago. A.I. was credited for some of that, with the technology helping make its core ad business more effective. So too was cost-cutting, which included tens of thousands of layoffs as part of the company’s self-described “year of efficiency.”
Meta’s profit was so good that the company will soon start paying stock dividends for the first time (which could total $700 million a year for Zuckerberg alone) and announced a $50 billion buyback. It’s a sign that the tech giant is “coming of age,” according to one analyst, joining Microsoft and Apple in making regular payouts to investors.
Zuckerberg pledged more investment in A.I. — “Expect us to continue investing aggressively in this area,” he said on an earnings call — and the company said it had largely concluded its cost cuts. But some analysts said that Meta will eventually have to show a return on that spending.
Amazon also touted its A.I. initiatives. Much of its earnings call was spent talking about Rufus, a new smart assistant intended to help shoppers find what they’re looking for. (It may also allow Amazon to reduce ad spending on Google and social media platforms.)
It’s part of a bid by the e-commerce giant to show it’s not just playing A.I. catch-up to Microsoft and Google. Amazon reported steady growth in cloud computing, a proxy for selling A.I. services to corporate clients, with the division growing 13 percent in the quarter. That met analysts’ expectations, but that growth is less than half that reported by competing divisions at Microsoft and Google.
Apple resumed sales growth, though China weighed on its results. Revenue rose 2 percent in the quarter, the first quarterly increase in a year, powered by sales of iPhones and services like Apple Music. But shares in Apple fell in after-hours trading, as investors worried about slowing revenue growth in China, the company’s second-biggest market, where it’s confronting resurgent competition from Huawei and a struggling economy.
Even though Apple’s product du jour is its new Vision Reality Pro, it teased the rollout of new A.I. initiatives this year, amid concerns that it’s late to the game. “I think there’s a huge opportunity for Apple with generative A.I. and with AI, without getting into many more details,” Tim Cook, its C.E.O., told analysts.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
Senators accuse consulting firms of withholding information on their Saudi work. The C.E.O.s of four advisory businesses — Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, M. Klein & Company and Teneo — are scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill next week, after the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations said they failed to comply with congressional subpoenas. The subcommittee is examining Saudi Arabia’s efforts to exert influence through its investments in the U.S.
Commercial property troubles weigh on banks worldwide. Shares of lenders — New York Community Bancorp, Aozora Bank in Japan and Julius Baer in Switzerland — fell on Thursday after each detailed their exposure on soured loans to real estate companies. It’s the latest sign of a reckoning among lenders with the decline of the commercial property market, as office vacancies remain well below prepandemic levels.
A missing Chinese deal maker resigns. Fan Bao, who was detained by Beijing authorities last year, has resigned as chairman and C.E.O. of China Renaissance, the investment bank disclosed today. The disappearance of Bao, one of China’s most important and well-connected deal makers, shocked the country’s business community and raised questions about how far Beijing would go to bring the private sector to heel.
Volvo cuts funding to its electric car joint venture. The Swedish automaker essentially plans to cut ties to Polestar, a start-up it created with Geely of China, amid ongoing losses at the business. The move further raises questions about how major car companies are dealing with a slowdown in sales of electric vehicles, which are weighing on their earnings.
Are there lessons for Shein from Amer’s I.P.O.?
Amer, the Chinese-owned parent group of the sportswear brands Wilson and Arc’teryx, made a muted debut on the New York Stock Exchange this week, raising less money than it had hoped.
But its struggles raise questions about the prospects of a bigger company linked to China: Shein, the fast-fashion giant that is also planning to go public in the U.S.
Amer priced its I.P.O. at $13 a share, well below its $16 to $18 target range, raising about $1.4 billion. Although the Americas and Europe account for a bigger share of sales, unidentified I.P.O. investors told Reuters that they were worried about the company’s reliance on China: The country accounted for nearly 20 percent of Amer’s sales last year, up from 8 percent in 2022.
Shein filed for an I.P.O. late last year. It was most recently valued by private-market investors at $60 billion. At that level, it would be the biggest company to go public in the U.S. since Uber in 2019.
Though Shein is now headquartered in Singapore, the company was founded in China — and, perhaps more important, makes many of its garments there.
The companies are vastly different. Shein operates almost like a social media app, while Amer is closer to a luxury company. But Shein also faces a raft of challenges linked to China, from being accused of allowing copied designs to proliferate on its platform to use of forced labor in its supply chains.
All that bad news is weighing on its backers, some of whom are reportedly trying to sell their shares at a 30 percent discount.
There are some parallels between Shein and Amer, according to Matt Kennedy, a senior strategist at the research firm Renaissance Capital. “Both are apparel companies with the China angle, he told DealBook.
Still, there are big differences between the two businesses, including price points between the items they sell. A Wilson tennis racket can cost $200, while a Shein dress can cost as little as $10, meaning the fast-fashion retailer could better survive belt-tightening by consumers.
“I don’t think this decision is going to threaten very many corporations.”
— John Coffee, a professor at Columbia University Law School, on why a Delaware judge’s ruling to void Elon Musk’s pay package worth more than $50 billion won’t lead to an exodus of companies from the state. Following the ruling, Musk said companies shouldn’t incorporate in Delaware.
McKinsey stands by its man
McKinsey partners have re-elected Bob Sternfels as the consulting giant’s global managing partner — but only just, after he was thrust into a runoff following two rounds of voting.
His hard-won victory on Thursday shows the level of internal dissatisfaction at McKinsey and raises questions about how the firm is governed.
Sternfels beat out Rodney Zemmel, the head of the firm’s fast-growing digital practice. First elected in 2021, Sternfels had replaced Kevin Sneader, who was ousted after just one term amid controversies over McKinsey’s work on opioid makers and other divisive clients.
McKinsey has had to retrench in the past year, cutting 1,400 back-office jobs, reducing the number of new partners it appointed, curtailing some of its bankruptcy business amid scrutiny over its work and delaying the start of new M.B.A. recruits.
Some McKinsey partners have been unhappy with how Sternfels has managed those challenges, accusing him of mishandling the restructuring and layoffs and relying too much on a small team rather than the broader partnership.
There may be a bigger problem for McKinsey: its partnership. The firm’s upper ranks now total about 750 partners, making it harder to reach consensus on major issues — especially in turbulent times.
THE SPEED READ
In activist-investing news: Elliott Management gained a board seat at Etsy, reportedly after amassing a 13 percent stake. And Barington Capital is calling for changes at Mattel, including the sale of the Fisher-Price and American Girl brands. (Bloomberg, WSJ)
India’s rising stock market is driving a surge in I.P.O. filings there, but some investors are worried about how those offerings will perform. (FT)
Allen Weisselberg, the Trump family company’s former C.F.O., is in talks to plead guilty to committing perjury during the former president’s recent civil fraud trial. (NYT)
“Inside The Israel Lobby’s New $90 Million War Chest” (The Lever)
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