What tech earnings say about the economy
The long-booming bottom lines of major tech companies are all of a sudden smaller than expected. That might be a good thing. Big Tech sailed through the pandemic with its profits mostly intact. The fact that some firms’ results are now flagging could be a positive sign for the Federal Reserve, which is trying to engineer a slowdown as it fights the nation’s worst bout of inflation in four decades.
The big question for investors, and perhaps the Fed, is whether the profits from Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and the other tech giants, along with corporate America in general, have fallen enough.
Microsoft and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, kicked off what appears to be a disappointing round of quarterly reports for the US’s largest tech companies yesterday. Meta will release its results this afternoon, with Apple and Amazon rounding out Big Tech’s earnings announcements tomorrow.
Microsoft’s profits, while below expectations, were still up. Sales of its signature software products, like Office, rose 13 percent. Its cloud services were up 40 percent. And LinkedIn, the professional social network Microsoft bought in 2016, grew 26 percent from a year ago, continuing to benefit from the tightest job market in decades.
Alphabet’s sales rose 13 percent. In another good sign for the economy, the jump was driven by better-than-expected sales in its core Google search engine business, while results were mixed elsewhere. A jump in expenses and an exit from its Russian-related businesses caused profits to slump 14 percent.
The results were positive enough for investors. Alphabet’s shares rose nearly 5 percent on the earnings news to $110. Microsoft’s shares jumped $10, or nearly 4 percent, to $262. Executives at both companies said they saw evidence of a weaker economy. “We are not immune to what is happening in the macro broadly,” Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said on a call with analysts. Alphabet’s chief financial officer, Ruth Porat, told analysts that a pullback in spending by some advertisers reflected “uncertainty about a number of factors.”
Few are betting that the earnings reports will change the Fed’s approach. Its policymakers are meeting this week, and they are widely expected to continue raising benchmark interest rates. While central bankers “will likely acknowledge a recent weakening in economic momentum, the Fed will likely feel the need to appear resolute in battling inflation until there are clear signs that it is abating,” wrote David Kelly, the chief global strategist of JP Morgan Asset Management, in a note to clients earlier this week.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
Kraken, the crypto exchange, is under investigation for possible sanctions violations. The Treasury Department is looking into whether Kraken illegally allowed users in Iran and elsewhere to buy and sell digital tokens. Shares of Coinbase, a larger crypto exchange, plunged yesterday after reports that the SEC was investigating whether it allowed trading in unregistered securities. Cathie Wood’s Ark funds reportedly dumped Coinbase shares yesterday for the first time this year.
Antitrust legislation aimed at Big Tech may be off the table for now. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, told donors at a Capitol Hill fund-raiser yesterday that the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which he had promised to bring to a vote this summer, lacks the support needed to get it to the Senate floor , Bloomberg reported. The bill’s bipartisan backers have been pressuring Schumer to act fast, before midterm elections that could change the balance of power in Congress.
One America News, once a dependable Trump promoter, is struggling to survive. The network is being dropped by major carriers and faces a wave of defamation lawsuits for its outlandish stories about the 2020 election. OAN’s most recent blow is from Verizon, which will stop carrying the network on its Fios television service this week. It is now available to only a few thousand people who subscribe to regional cable providers.
Florida’s largest utility secretly funded a website that attacked its critics. Florida Power & Light bankrolled and controlled The Capitolist, a news site aimed at Florida lawmakers, through intermediaries from an Alabama consulting firm, an investigation by The Miami Herald found. The site claimed to be independent, but it advocated rate executive hikes and favors in efforts that were directed by tops at the utility.
BlackRock downshifts on ESG
BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, slashed its support for shareholder proposals on environmental and social issues this year, backing only 24 percent of such resolutions in the proxy season that ended in June, down from 43 percent in the previous period. The firm, which has long led the conscious investing movement, said this year’s proposals were “less supportable” and cited new regulatory guidance that opened the door to a broader range of policy-related proposals.
The firm has criticized overly “prescriptive” resolutions. In a May memo, BlackRock signaled that Russia’s war in Ukraine was straining global energy supplies and shifting its calculations. “Many climate-related shareholder proposals seeking consumer dictate the pace of companies’ energy transition plans despite continued demand,” wrote the firm’s global head of investment stewardship, Sandy Boss. She noted that shareholders generally supported fewer environmental and social proposals this year as well, voting for 27 percent of resolutions, down from 36 percent in the previous proxy period.
Opposition to ESG is mounting. The environmental, social and governance investment push has been labeled “woke capitalism” by critics and is under fire from executives like Tesla’s Elon Musk, major investors like Bill Ackman and Republican politicians. In a speech yesterday, former Vice President Mike Pence, a possible 2024 hopeful, said that big government and big business were together advancing a “pernicious woke agenda.”
ESG supporters say critics may have a point. Andrew Behar, CEO of the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow, agrees that many supposed ESG investments don’t reflect true sustainability — with ever more capital directed toward the idea and many funds failing to live up to their promises. Behar argued that more corporate disclosures — which anti-ESG groups oppose — would help to ensure that green investing actually works. He argues that critics also ignore a key financial incentive driving investor interest: knowing and lowering the costs of environmental issues throughout company operations, including risks from changing weather and the transition to more sustainable models. “We don’t have an ESG problem,” Behar told DealBook. “We have a naming problem.”
“I quit Starbucks. I had to. I just didn’t feel like that was justifiable. It’s like a small car payment.”
— Fontaine Weyman, a 43-year-old songwriter from Charleston, SC, on changing her coffee habits. Many Americans are dealing with the fastest inflation of their adult lives across a broad range of goods and services.
Instagram tries to explain itself
Instagram responded yesterday to criticism from some of its most popular users, including Kylie Jenner, about new features that made it more like its top rival, TikTok, the fast-growing video app owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.
Adam Mosseri, Instagram’s head, said that it was experimenting with several changes, and that he knew users were unhappy. “It’s not yet good,” he said of some of the tweaks in a video post. He stressed Instagram’s commitment to photos, the app’s original focus, but said, “I’m going to be honest, I do believe that more and more of Instagram is going to become video over time.”
Reels, a short-video product, is one of the six main investment priorities at Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, according to an internal memo last month from Chris Cox, the company’s chief product officer. Cox said that users had doubled the amount of time they spent on Reels year over year, and that Meta would prioritize boosting ads in Reels “as quickly as possible.” Last week, Instagram announced that almost all videos in the app would be posted as Reels.
The changes come as Meta heads into a new phase. Mark Zuckerberg, its founder and chief executive, has cut costs, reshuffled his leadership team and made clear that low-performing employees will be let go, writes The Times’s Mike Isaac. “Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here,” Zuckerberg said on a call late last month. In recent months, profit at Meta has fallen and revenue has slowed as the company has spent lavishly on augmented and virtual reality projects, and as the economic slowdown has hurt its advertising business.
The high-profile complaints about Instagram’s revamp started in recent days, when Kylie Jenner, the beauty mogul with 361 million Instagram followers, shared an image on the site that read: “Make Instagram Instagram again. (stop trying to be tiktok i just want to see cute photos of my friends.) Sincerely, everyone.”
“PRETTY PLEASE,” Kim Kardashian, Jenner’s half sister and the seventh-most-followed Instagram user, echoed in a later post. Yesterday, Chrissy Teigen, a model and author with 39 million followers, responded to Mosseri in a tweetsaying, “we don’t wanna make videos Adam lol.”
Companies have reason to listen when social media stars speak up, writes The Times’s Kalley Huang. In 2018, after Snapchat overhauled its interface, Jenner tweeted: “sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me….” Within a week, Snap, the app’s parent company, had lost $1.3 billion in market value.
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