Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.

Aug. 23 2017 10:18 AM

Trump’s Cabinet Secretaries Are Innovating Government Like a Fork Innovates Soup

It has been nearly five months since Donald Trump formed the Office of American Innovation, an initiative led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to make the federal government run more like a business.

Aside from the presence of Kushner, the New Jersey housing heir who married the president’s daughter and who once demonstrated his business acumen by spectacularly overpaying for a Manhattan skyscraper, this was a classic presidential gambit. Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama all tried their hand at making the federal government more efficient, always with the rhetoric of the private sector close at hand.

The initiative was also of a piece with Trump’s strategy of nominating business leaders (or simply rich people) to Cabinet positions, several of whom signaled a break with the executive branch’s long-standing preference for expertise and experience: Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at the State Department, neurosurgeon Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, billionaire conservative activist Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education.

You had to wonder: Would these private-sector success stories reboot their respective bureaucracies as corporate-style dynamos? Would career staff push back to maintain the status quo or resign en masse? Would politically inexperienced Trump appointees be able to implement the president’s agenda?

Four new, in-depth magazine articles have offered some insight into those questions, portraying an executive branch that does look like a business—just not a very successful one. Instead, the departments in question resemble takeover targets being sold for parts, where the talented are leaving, the opportunistic are plotting their next steps, and nobody else knows what to do. More like Yahoo, less like Amazon.

Aug. 21 2017 6:24 PM

Trump Said Obamacare Would Collapse on Its Own. It Looks Like He Was Wrong.

Republicans have spent the better part of a year claiming that Obamacare was finally unraveling just the way they always predicted it would. For proof, they often pointed to parts of the country where carriers had decided to pull out of the local market, and it looked as if there might not be any insurers offering coverage through the law's exchanges in 2018. As counties in states such as Tennessee, Nevada, and Missouri faced the possibility of becoming insurance deserts, conservatives claimed vindication, and cited the problems as evidence that the Affordable Care Act needed to be replaced immediately. Donald Trump, for his part, proclaimed Obamacare “essentially dead” and ready to “explode.”

Unfortunately for the GOP, reality has refused to cooperate with their talking points. With just about a month to go before insurers have to make the final decisions on whether to participate in next year's market, Politico notes that there is just one market left in the country without an insurer lined up. The last bare patch left is Ohio's Paulding County, where only 334 residents were enrolled through the exchange next year.

While Paulding's plight is no doubt a sign of Obamacare's flaws—the system lacks an insurer of last resort to deal with market failures—the fact remains that almost every single American will have at least one insurer to choose from next year. The law has not collapsed.

Relatively few individuals were ever in real danger of going without insurance options next year. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, just 82 counties with about 92,000 Obamacare enrollees faced a serious risk of being left without a carrier (that list did not include Iowa, where, despite a great deal of anxiety and speculation that it might, the state's last major insurer never pulled out of the exchanges). We're talking about less than 1 percent of a 10.3 million-person nationwide pool of customers.

The insurers that swooped in to the handful of markets that were at risk of being abandoned generally fell into two categories. In one bucket, there were nonprofit carriers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee and CareSource in Ohio, which tend to view covering the individual market as part of their organizational mission and are willing to take a risk on sparsely populated rural counties that may turn out to be unprofitable. In the other, you largely had Centene, a for-profit insurer that picked up the slack in Missouri and Nevada while also expanding in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and Washington, even as major carriers like Aetna and Anthem chose to bail on the exchanges.

Thanks to its background as a Medicaid coverage provider, Centene has generally been confident in its ability to make a profit while serving Obamacare's lower-income, cost-conscious consumer base. Between it, other lower-cost insurance providers, and the nonprofit carriers, it seems that the exchanges may have a stable base of insurers at this point who can guarantee coverage availability for the vast majority of the country.

The obvious downside here is that many counties are now stuck being served by an insurance monopoly. And some of the carriers that decided to stick around in markets that otherwise would have been left empty are requesting major price hikes in return. Iowa's last insurer, Medica, has asked state regulators for a 57 percent premium increase, for instance. Just because the exchanges will be functioning next year does not mean they are necessarily working as intended everywhere, or that prices are staying in check.

There is also plenty the Trump administration can still do to undermine the exchanges, either over the next month or further down the line. If the president wanted to rattle the insurance markets before insurers ink their final contracts in September, Trump could cut off the cost-sharing payments that compensate carriers for offering low-income customers discount coverage. While the Congressional Budget Office thinks the markets would likely absorb the blow and continue to function, such a move could certainly convince some insurers to step away from the exchanges for at least the short term. Meanwhile, the administration already seems to be undertaking a more subtle campaign of sabotage by dialing back Obamacare outreach efforts, which could lower enrollment—particularly if it also chooses to relax enforcement of the the individual mandate.

Still, even with a hostile White House throwing an enormous amount of uncertainty into the mix, Obamacare is managing to function in all but one small corner of the country. The law is a lot more resilient than Republicans claimed, or hoped.

Aug. 21 2017 6:00 PM

Craigslist Posters Are Already Trying to Sell Their Used Eclipse Glasses as Collectors’ Items

For many of us, tracking down the correct eyewear was hassle enough leading up to Monday’s total eclipse. But what about unloading them now that it’s over?

Just hours after the eclipse, people are looking to make some quick cash by selling their “gently used” protective glasses. On Craigslist sites for cities in and around the path of totality—a narrow region running across the country in which you could see the moon completely block the sun—dozens of eclipse viewers are now putting up listings for their secondhand spectacles, often for exorbitant prices. Though the best-selling glasses on Amazon are priced at around $30 to $50 for a pack, it’s not uncommon to see used glasses listed for hundreds of dollars on Craigslist.

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Enterprising vendors have come up with a variety of selling points to justify the steep costs, often describing the glasses as historical artifacts. As one $100 listing in Portland, Oregon, reads, “These glasses are a rare treat for anyone interested in space science! These glasses actually witnessed the Eclipse! Not like the ‘new’ glasses so common on the net. Why buy new when you could own EXPERIENCED glasses!” Others emphasize how prepared the buyer will be for the next eclipse, given that the eyewear had just been proven to work. A seller in St. Louis, also asking for $100, wrote, “I know the Eclipse is done and over with. But why not have a pair of glasses, for keep sake? Plus you can always have them for the next Eclipse in 2024!”

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These numbers, though outrageous, aren’t as high as the asking prices found in listings posted just before the eclipse, presumably aimed at procrastinators struck by a sudden fear of missing out. Craigslist hucksters seemed to take advantage of this desperation, often charging thousands of dollars for a pair of spectacles.

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Others highlighted the extraordinary qualities of their products:

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Glasses that let you not only see the eclipse but ­hear it? Those might be collectors’ items one day. Plain old normal eclipse glasses that happened to be in the right path at the right time? Total rip-off.

Aug. 18 2017 4:25 PM

Steve Bannon May Be Leaving the White House, but His Worst Ideas Will Live On

 

Steve Bannon was supposed to be the brains behind the Trump presidency—the “populist” ideologue who personified the the White House's xenophobic, race-baiting, protectionist tendencies. Saturday Night Live literally depicted him as the grim reaper whispering evil commands into our half-wit commander in chief's ear.

Now Bannon is out of a job, fired from the West Wing thanks to his penchant for intramural squabbling and gabbing to the press. But despite Bannon's symbolic stature as the alt-right's man in the West Wing, on a policy level it seems unlikely that much will change. There are two main reasons why. First, Bannon turned out to be a buffoonish operator whose biggest concrete policy contribution—a sloppily drafted and hastily sprung Muslim travel ban—galvanized the left and was held up in the courts. Second, there are plenty of people left in the administration who will carry the torch for most his principles (trade protectionism, hard-line immigration restrictions, Islamophobia-tinged stance on terrorism, and paranoia toward Iran), the most notable of whom is named Donald J. Trump.

On national security, Bannon was often described as an isolationist—but that's not quite right. He certainly wanted to keep Muslims out of the United States. But he also argued for killing the Iran deal, which could have easily led to new conflicts in the Middle East, and he wanted to let hired mercenaries take over operations in Afghanistan in lieu of U.S. troops. A privatized war is still war.

Hopefully, the idea of letting Academi—né Blackwater—and DynCorp go wild in Kabul is dead for good. But there are still powerful critics of the Iran deal within the administration, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo and, of course, the president himself, who has said he would be “surprised” if Tehran were to be found compliant with the agreement the next time it needs to be recertified. Meanwhile, travel-ban co-conspirator Stephen Miller, who has successfully distanced himself somewhat from Bannon, is still very much ensconced in the White House. (Thankfully, Hungarian man of mystery Sebastian Gorka may well be on his way out as well.)

How about immigration? Well, Trump still wants to build his wall and has already backed a bill that would reduce the number of legal immigrants we let in each year. Stephen “Let Me Tell You About the Statue of Liberty” Miller is, as mentioned, still on the payroll. And chief of staff John Kelly oversaw the Department of Homeland Security during the early days of Trump's term, when Customs and Border Patrol was busy detaining NASA scientists and French historians. Bannon's exit isn't going to make this administration any softer on foreigners.

The administration is also well-stocked with trade protectionists not named Steve who have already started implementing their vision. Vehemently anti-China trade guru Peter Navarro is still in action, of course—as of July, Politico reported he was literally “stalking the halls of the West Wing at night and on the weekends” in order to get private time with the president. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Rep. Robert Lighthizer are both committed to cracking down on Chinese trade barriers, and Trump has already signed an executive order that will likely lead to rare Section 301 investigation of Beijing's alleged theft of U.S. intellectual property. Meanwhile, Lighthizer has already begun renegotiating NAFTA.

Aside from hard-line xenophobia, a clash of civilizations approach to the Muslim world, and a deep antipathy for trade deals, Bannon also occasionally spouted off about populist economic ideas like infrastructure spending (he wanted to get America's shipyards and iron works “all jacked up”). But the issue has always been at the bottom of the congressional GOP's to-do list, and the administration's much discussed but never-detailed “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan” would still be on pace to pass some time after the 12th of never with or without Bannon around. His 44 percent tax rate for multimillionaires was likewise received as a joke.

Finally, it seems unlikely that jettisoning Bannon is going to cure the administration's apparent soft spot for white supremacists, given the president's apparently heartfelt response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which he suggested there were some “very fine people” wielding Tiki torches that weekend. We also still have Jeff Sessions—who Bannon credited as the godfather of Trumpism—running the Department of Justice, easing up on racist police departments and siding with states that want to crack down on voting rights.

Steve Bannon came as close as anybody to articulating a coherent Trumpist philosophy, but he was never skilled enough to implement it. Other, savvier, less colorful players were always going to have to implement his ideas. Now he'll be loudly rooting for them from the sidelines.

Aug. 17 2017 5:15 PM

We’ve Sentenced Puerto Rico to a Greece-Like Economic Catastrophe

Chances are you haven't thought much lately about the economic tragedy that's unfolding in Puerto Rico. Not with nukes in North Korea and neo-Nazis and Obamacare repeal to dwell on. But Thursday at the New York Times, Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research has written a grim reminder that, in the wake of the island's debt crisis, we've essentially sentenced it to another decade of austerity-fueled economic depression.

Puerto Rico has been in a recession more or less continuously since 2007, which helped force it into an unsustainable spiral of borrowing that ended in default last year. Congress responded to the growing crisis by passing PROMESA, an act that placed the territory under the oversight of a bipartisan financial control board. This March, that panel finally approved a fiscal repair plan meant to close Puerto Rico's budget deficit while setting aside some money for bondholders. There’s an upsetting assumption behind this road map: that it will face another full 10 years of stagnation. As this graph from the plan shows, the territory's economy isn't expected to start growing again until 2022.

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Even then, the island's economy will still be smaller in 2026 than it is today, even before accounting for inflation.

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Jordan Weissmann/Slate

And that's probably too optimistic. As Weisbrot writes, the plan doesn't factor in the effects of austerity,  “which would add more years of decline.” More generally, these sorts of debt-sustainability projections are notoriously too sanguine about the ability of governments to keep paying their creditors while absorbing deep budget cuts. We've seen this show play out repeatedly in Greece, where international technocrats spent years making fanciful projections about how the country could slash its spending, raise taxes, gradually bounce back from a depression, and somehow make good on its (reduced) debts. The difference is that, as John Jay College economics professor J.W. Mason notes, Puerto Rico is just now entering into an austerity plan after already experiencing an employment collapse similar to Greece's. And if you take the official projections seriously, Puerto Rico's economy—measured by gross national product—should reach Greece's recent nadir within the next few years.

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Europe's austerity politics have reduced Greece to a perpetual economic crisis. We're handing Puerto Rico the same prescription, and bizarrely expecting different results.

Aug. 16 2017 7:09 PM

This Startup Will Let You Go to the Movies Anytime for $10 a Month. It’s Probably Doomed.

Thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, Americans have gotten used to thinking about home entertainment as a $10-per-month, all-you-can-binge buffet. Now, a company run by one of Netflix's co-founders wants to bring a similar model to movie theaters—which are decidedly unhappy about it.

This week, the 6-year-old startup MoviePass announced that it was dropping the cost of its ticket subscription service to $9.95 a month. For a little more than the price of a large popcorn, users will (theoretically) be allowed to catch one flick every day at any theater in the country that accepts Mastercard. (According to the company's website, that covers 91 percent of theaters nationwide). However, the announcement drew a quick rebuke from AMC, the country's biggest cinema chain, which said in a statement that it was conferring with lawyers about whether it could block customers from using MoviePass at its theaters.

It's unclear whether AMC can do such a thing. Then again, it might not need to, since MoviePass seems to be counting on AMC's long-term cooperation to survive.

At the moment, MoviePass is poised to burn a prodigious pile of cash subsidizing the cost of its subscriptions. That's because every time a customer buys their movie ticket using one of the company's debit cards, it pays the theater for the full cost of admission. Given that the average film ticket cost $8.65 last year, MoviePass will end up losing money on every user who sees two or more showings a month. In big markets like New York, where catching the latest Avengers installment can easily cost $15, they'll come out behind on users who see just one movie a month.

This is not promising arithmetic. But CEO Mitch Lowe, the Netflix co-founder and Redbox executive who took the reins at MoviePass last year, thinks he has a vision to make his low, low price point work. He argues that his company's service gives theaters a big boost to ticket and concession sales, and eventually, theaters will feel compelled to hand MoviePass a slice of the extra profits, or maybe pay them back via advertising.

“There must be some way to make us whole,” Lowe told Variety. “We know we have to prove the value we deliver and, at that point in time, where we’re delivering value to studios and theaters, we can work together with them in a constructive manner so that everybody makes more money.”

That might not be quite as crazy as it sounds. U.S. movie ticket sales have been stagnant for about a decade now, as Americans have come to prefer Netflixing and chilling to sipping $6 Sierra Mists in an air-conditioned cavern full of strangers. At the same time, ticket prices have continually hit record highs, thus chagrining regular filmgoers, along with anybody who has ever suffered the indignity of paying out the nose to see a mediocre summer blockbuster. And while box office totals have edged up slightly over that time, they've failed to keep pace with inflation since 2009. In the era of unlimited TV and tunes, trying to lure Americans to go back to the cinema by cutting prices conceivably seems worth a try.

But it's also easy to guess why a company like AMC would recoil at Lowe's plan. In its statement, the chain argued that MoviePass' pricing was economically unsustainable, and “only sets up consumers for ultimate disappointment down the road if or when the product can no longer be fulfilled.” That's probably a valid concern. But more broadly, AMC can't be happy about the idea of a digital middle-man inserting itself into its industry, ultimately angling for a cut of the profits from each moviegoer even as it puts downward pressure on the price of an individual ticket. (AMC and MoviePass actually launched a pilot program together a few years ago when the startup's subscription prices were much higher, but the relationship has clearly soured.)

The sort of odd thing about MoviePass is that it's trying to become a middle man without asking permission first—or securing any payment for its services. Online ticketers like Fandango strike deals with theaters for the right to sell their seats, then market their service to the public. MoviePass is going to the public first, and hoping to gin up so much business that theaters will eventually strike a deal. The reason it can go that route is that its product is essentially just an app with movie times and a subscription debit card that customers can use to charge tickets to the company's account. Lowe argued to Bloomberg that for AMC to block his service from their theaters, they'd have to start declining Mastercard. Still, he's not going to make any money until he wins them over.

And if he can't? It's possible MoviePass could find other paths to profit. Eventually, it wants to use data on its users' moviegoing habits to sell targeted advertising. (How lucrative that could really be seems like an open question.) Or, it's possible that at $9.95, hordes of would-be film buffs will sign up for the service, then fail to see a movie each month. Milking money from subscribers who don't actually use the service was the company's original plan back when it was founded in 2011 and charged $30 a month, Bloomberg notes. But becoming the AOL of movie tickets doesn't seem like a recipe for long-term success.

It's a rather daring plan, all in all, made slightly less daring by the fact that MoviePass has already offloaded some of the risk: It sold a majority stake to a data-analytics firm on Tuesday to finance the scheme. If it succeeds, Lowe will have pulled off the impressive feat of fixing theaters' business model against their will. If it crashes and burns, at least savvy moviegoers will get a few cheap flicks out of the deal.

Aug. 15 2017 5:55 PM

Donald Trump’s Plot to Blow Up Obamacare Would Backfire Spectacularly, Says the CBO

If Donald Trump tries to go nuclear on Obamacare, the effort might just fizzle.

For what feels like eons now, the president has been publicly hinting that he might cut off important subsidies to insurers that keep the Affordable Care Act's exchanges up and running as intended. These funds, known as cost-sharing reduction payments, are worth billions to carriers, and it's been widely assumed that halting them would have a disastrous impact on the market, forcing insurers to either bail or drastically hike premiums (which is why health wonks dubbed it the “nuclear option”). Trump has tended to lash out and threaten the subsidies whenever he's felt frustrated with his inability to repeal Obamacare. Last month, after the Republican health push sputtered to an inglorious late-night end in the Senate, he tweeted that “BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies” would “end very soon” if Congress couldn't pass a bill.

After today, however, it might be time to stop worrying and learn to love Trump's bomb threats. According to the new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, ending the cost-sharing subsidies would likely backfire badly for the administration, costing the federal government $194 billion over a decade without fatally undermining Obamacare's exchanges. In fact, the move could even allow some Americans to obtain insurance coverage for free while modestly reducing the number of uninsured by 1 million.

Let me repeat that. Trump's plot to critically sabotage the Affordable Care Act could actually lower the uninsured rate while blowing nearly $200 billion.

Now, before we get into the findings, here's a brief refresher on how the cost-sharing subsidies work, and why they're vulnerable. Under Obamacare, insurance companies are required to reduce out-of-pocket costs like co-pays and deductibles for low-income customers who buy silver plans through the law's online exchanges. (ACA plans come in three color tiers: gold, silver, and bronze.) In return, the government pays carriers money directly to cover the expense. However, last year a federal judge ruled that the payments were illegal, because Congress had never properly appropriated funding for them. The Trump administration is now debating whether to appeal that ruling.

Insurance companies are required to offer the reduced-cost silver plans whether or not the government compensates them, so if the subsidy money suddenly vanishes, they'll be on the hook for the difference. Of course, carriers could and would raise their premiums to make up the losses. But many analysts fear health plans would simply choose to exit the market, rather than deal with the additional chaos brought on by Trump's move.

The CBO thinks that, indeed, some insurers would decide to flee in that scenario. But it believes the damage to the market would be limited and temporary. In 2018, about 5 percent of Americans wouldn't have any insurers to buy individual coverage from. But within a couple years, carriers would figure out how to operate in the strange, new, subsidy-free landscape, and “people in almost all areas would be able to buy nongroup insurance.”

Killing the subsidies would also cause insurance premiums to rise. According to the CBO, the cost of a  silver plan purchased through the exchange would likely jump 20 percent in 2018 compared with current law (the Kaiser Family Foundation came to the same conclusion back in April). The happy catch is that almost nobody, except for the government, would actualy have to pay much of the extra cost. Americans who earn less than 400 percent of the poverty line would still receive tax credits that cap their premium payments as a percentage of their income. So, a single person making $18,900 a year would end up paying $500 total for a silver plan, up from $450.

Meanwhile, the federal deficit would swell by $194 billion over a decade, since the government would be stuck subsidizing more expensive insurance.

What about the people who don't get subsidies? Many analysts and health care writers, myself included, have assumed that those upper-middle-class families would be the real victims in Trump's plot. However, the CBO thinks they might come out financially unscathed as well, because insurers are unlikely to raise prices on the health plans they sell to consumers outside of Obamacare's online marketplaces, which aren't affected by the cost sharing subsidies. Millions of Americans already buy their coverage either directly from an insurer or through a broker. If the prices on the exchanges shoot up as predicted, more of the unsubsidized population will likely foresake healthcare.gov and just call their carrier instead.

Now, here's where things get extra weird. If Trump kills the subsidies, it's possible that same insurance shoppers could actually end up with cheaper, or even free, coverage. The theory goes like this: With the subsidy payments gone, insurers won't hike premiums on all of their insurance offerings. Instead, they'll pile the cost onto the silver plans, in order to cover the cost of offering discounts on them to their low-income customers. Because Obamacare's tax credits are all pegged to the cost of silver coverage, their value will shoot up. In some cases, subsidies will more than cover the cost of a bronze plan. (The CBO isn't alone on this prediction, by the way; the consultants at Oliver Wyman made the same prediction in May.) And even people who aren't lucky enough to get insurance for nothing may be able to buy a gold plan for less than before. With subsidies shooting up, the CBO finally concludes that about a million more Americans will end up insured than if Trump hadn't tried to bring the market crashing down.

If the CBO is right, what it means is that Trump really does not have a nuclear option on Obamacare. He can try to gradually undermine it by choosing not to enforce the individual mandate, or scaling back the government's efforts to sign people up during open enrollment. But there isn't a button he can simply press to send the whole law into oblivion. This should come as a relief to Republicans and Democrats alike who feared Trump might attempt to sabotage the American health care system for political gain. Instead, they just have to worry he'll light $200 billion on fire out of spite.

Aug. 14 2017 11:23 AM

CEOs Are Running Out of Reasons Not to Bail on Trump

Want to listen to this article out loud? Hear it on Slate Voice.

CEOs of large public companies have faced something of a conundrum in the age of Trump. On the one hand, here was a historically unpopular president who lost the popular vote, who is actively hostile to many of the values to which their companies are committed—diversity, inclusion, reckoning with climate change, globalization, free trade, and all the other Davos virtues. Put aside whatever their feelings as individuals are. As leaders of companies with huge global operations and large employee bases, CEOs of large firms have to be careful not to publicly side with someone who is openly antagonistic to their modus operandi.

On the other hand, the federal government—as a policymaker, as a procurement agency, as a customer, as a dispenser of favor and tax breaks, as a rule- and standard-setter—has a great ability to impact the short-term fortunes of many companies. Trump has been in favor of much of what businesses generically want, from lower taxes to lighter regulation. And this window in which Republicans control the White House and Congress presents a rare opportunity for achieving some long-desired goals. (Global companies would really, really like to be able to repatriate all the profits they’re holding overseas on a tax-favored basis.) So the general consensus of CEOs was to not take any rash or immediate action. While it might anger their employees or spouses or children, publicly breaking with and attacking Trump wouldn’t pay any immediate dividends.

There was another reason that CEOs were circumspect. If you run a large, publicly held company, there are norms about the types of things you say. Everyone deserves a chance. We respect the office. When the president of the United States calls and asks you to come to a meeting or to serve on an advisory board, you show up. It’s part of being a public statesman or stateswoman. And with a president who insulted his way to an election victory, there was an extra reason to show up. Those who cross him are likely to be targets.

So you can understand why CEOs like Ken Frazier of Merck and Elon Musk of Tesla and so many others agreed to serve on Trump’s advisory council on manufacturing. They all had specific—and general—needs and asks. Trump would almost certainly be the president for at least the next four years. As one Trump-hostile billionaire put it to me, “He’s got the gavel now.”

But seven months into the Trump administration, we’re seeing that showing up and uttering pro forma support may not be a viable PR, business, or personal strategy for CEOs who want to lead their companies while being true to themselves.

Some CEOs have discovered that mouthing even anodyne support for Trump can have a really negative impact on their business relationships and stock price. In February, Kevin Plank, the CEO of apparel-maker Under Amour and a member of the manufacturing council, said "to have such a pro-business president is something that is a real asset to this country." In response, some of the company’s leading endorsers, including Stephen Curry, expressed their anger, customers rebelled, and the stock was ultimately downgraded.

Other CEOs have discovered that while the policies of Trump and the GOP may be theoretically good for “business,” they are really bad for their particular business. Duh. Musk was the first to bail from Trump’s manufacturing council after Trump announced the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Meanwhile, companies are coming to two collective realizations. First, while the Trump administration is delivering favorable policy to energy companies, Wall Street, and for-profit colleges, the prospects for broad-based tax reform (or even tax cuts) aren’t particularly good. Second, given Trump’s unpopularity, his power to inflame the public against any single company has diminished.

Still others have concluded that, regardless of whatever pressure their business might come under, they simply can’t abide sitting quietly while Trump rampages his way through his term. That was the conclusion that Ken Frazier, the CEO of drug giant Merck, apparently reached over the weekend, as a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly and Trump condemned the violence only in broad, ambiguous terms. On Monday morning, Frazier announced over Twitter that he was resigning from the manufacturing council.

Why? “Our country’s strength comes from its diversity and the contributions made by men and women of different faiths, races, sexual orientations and political beliefs. America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal. As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscious, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

Frazier’s move—and note that this is precisely the statement that Trump should have made on Saturday—now puts the other CEOs on the manufacturing council in a tough spot. Each will likely face questions as to what they think about Trump’s response to last weekend’s events and why they remain on the council now that its only black member has resigned.

Frazier has given them all an out if they want it. Sure, Trump responded in typical fashion, immediately attacking Frazier and his company on Twitter:

But it’s not likely Frazier or his firm will suffer any immediate damage. In early trading Monday morning, Merck’s stock was up .8 percent.

Aug. 11 2017 5:56 PM

New Fidget Spinner Safety Guidelines Prove We Can’t Have Nice Things

Along with “decline of civilization,” add “danger” to the list of reasons fidget spinners are bad for the youth: Two recent incidents reveal the mindfulness tool and classroom distraction can burst into flames and explode.

Michelle Carr of Fenton, Michigan, told an NBC outlet in May that her Bluetooth fidget spinner caught fire while it charged on her bookshelf. Another incident in June in Gardendale, Alabama, ended with a screaming child dousing a flaming fidget spinner in the sink. Like the Samsung Galaxy Note 7s of flammable products past, the culprit seems to be the batteries: In both cases, the spinners were Bluetooth-enabled and were charging when they caught fire.

On Thursday, Ann Marie Buerkle, acting chairwoman of the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission, released a statement addressing reports of “fires involving battery-operated fidget spinners” and providing guidelines for usage. The regulations recommend being present when the batteries are charging, only using the charger provided with the spinner, and unplugging the spinner as soon as the batteries are fully charged—the “do not look into the sun” of safety recommendations. If their recommendations on the obsolescing toy seem uninspired, well, we’ve been here before.

The CPSC has also released guidelines in response to reports of children choking on nonbattery spinners. The most notable of these accidents happened in May, when a 10-year-old girl from Texas needed surgery to remove a bearing from her throat. The CPSC reasonably recommends not putting fidget spinners in your mouth. You can imagine the eyeroll that accompanied the writing of that sentence.

Fires and choking kids undoubtedly give ammunition to humbugs and culture critics. But the CPSC disagrees, noting “they can be fun to use,” and giving a list of ways to stay safe. Maybe instead of knocking fidget spinners, pick one up and let loose. Just make sure not to mistake it for a snack.

Aug. 10 2017 6:55 PM

Snapchat Is Doing Even Worse Than Everyone Thought

On Snap Inc.’s second earnings call as a public company, CEO Evan Spiegel started with the good news. Users visited Snapchat more frequently in the latest quarter, and spent more time on it “than ever before,” Spiegel said Thursday.

It’s the sort of generic superlative that tech executives reach for when they need to put a positive gloss on a discouraging trend. Snapchat did add 7.3 million daily active users in the past three months, which sounds like a lot—until you realize it added 8 million in the three months before that. Investors were hoping for a number closer to 9 million or 10 million, which would have suggested that growth was rebounding rather than slowing.

For a company in Snap’s position, rapid growth is expected. What people really care about is: Are you growing faster than before? Or are you heading for—gasp—a plateau? In Snapchat’s case, it’s beginning to look like the latter. That’s why, as of about 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, the company’s stock had tumbled a precipitous 17 percent in after-hours trading.

That disappointing user growth was actually worse news than the ugly-sounding $443 million net loss Snapchat posted. Those investing in it were hoping for a rocket ride to global ubiquity, similar to the ones Facebook and Google enjoyed in the years following their IPOs. They would have been happy to tolerate plenty of big losses along the way, as long as the future looked bright. (Just ask Amazon.) Instead, they’re hearing whispers of dirty words like “Twitter,” whose growth began to flatline almost as soon as it went public.

Snapchat was supposed to be the hip teen that made Facebook look old and out-of-touch. Instead, Facebook is pushing it around like the class bully and stealing its lunch money. Mark Zuckerberg’s company, whose acquisition bid Spiegel once famously spurned, has copied Snapchat’s key features—not just once, but on nearly every platform it owns—and the competition appears to be taking its toll.

Spiegel sounded embattled and a little irritable on the earnings call, which at one point featured a hot mic snafu in which an analyst could be heard mocking Spiegel for failing to answer his question. That question came after Snap executives excused the company’s lackluster growth by saying that Snapchat doesn’t rely on “growth-hacking” tricks like some of its competitors do. What specific growth-hacking tricks, the analyst asked, does Snapchat not engage in? “I think there are plenty of examples online if you want to go for a Google,” Spiegel replied.

As poorly as things are going for Snapchat, there are still a few factors working in its favor. Growing by 7 million active users may be a disappointment given its previous trajectory, but the 4 million that it added in North America suggests that there is room for more even in its home market. It would be worse if Americans were fleeing and all of the growth was coming from low-hanging fruit overseas.

More importantly, those who do use Snapchat still seem to use it a lot. Daily users under 25 spend an average of 40 minutes per day on the app, Spiegel said, while those over 25 average 20 minutes. Such deep engagement has been a key to Facebook’s long-term success. Then again, Twitter has loyal users too—it’s attracting the casual ones that has given it fits.

It’s too soon to write off Snapchat, which is still by most standards a young and fast-growing company. But when your competitive edge is being the trendy upstart, it’s never good to see the trends turning in the wrong direction.

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