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Brands on #blackouttuesday
Instagram was filled yesterday with users’ posts featuring black squares, meant to convey solidarity with the protests that have erupted after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Companies joined, too, reflecting the challenge of trying to embrace their customers’ strongly held values without giving offense.
Blackout Tuesday started in the music industry, the brainchild of two insiders who wanted a pause to business as usual by staying quiet and letting conversations about racial injustice come to the fore. And companies like Apple, Spotify and music labels took the day to cease many operations in deference to the protests.
• Warner Music took a different route, delaying its I.P.O. pricing from yesterday to today.
It prompted criticism that companies were using the black squares as a superficial — or even cynical — way of demonstrating support for the protesters’ cause. Messages from brands like Adidas, which has many young black customers, are scrutinized particularly closely.
• One brand that has won praise is Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream maker with a history of social activism. The company recently called on President Trump to denounce white supremacists and urged lawmakers to pass a bill studying options for reparations for slavery.
Our DealBook Debrief call tomorrow will feature special guest Kara Swisher, one of the most plugged-in reporters in the technology industry, discussing how the tech giants are dealing with the turmoil over free speech, the pandemic, antitrust regulation and more. R.S.V.P. here for the call on Thursday at 11 a.m. Eastern, and send your questions for Kara to email@example.com.
Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘pretty thorough’ policies
The Facebook co-founder defended his company’s hands-off approach to inflammatory posts by President Trump on a contentious call with employees yesterday. The Times’s Mike Isaac, Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel listened in.
A “tough decision” that was “was pretty thorough” is how Mr. Zuckerberg described his decision to leave the posts alone. Employees’ unease with the policy, and in some cases public revolt, has been described as the biggest challenge in the Facebook founder’s career, as we detailed in DealBook yesterday.
“In trying to placate everyone, Mr. Zuckerberg has failed to appease almost anyone,” Mike, Cecilia and Sheera write. “One persistent feeling shared among Facebook’s rank-and-file came out in a direct moment between Mr. Zuckerberg and another employee during the call,” they note. “ ‘Why are the smartest people in the world focused on contorting and twisting our policies to avoid antagonizing Trump?’ the employee asked.”
“Promoting free speech shouldn’t be used as a get out of tough choices card,” Barry Schnitt, a former Facebook director of corporate communications and public policy who left the company in 2012, wrote in an open letter to the social network’s employees.
Take Note: Big Tech asks for approval
Michelle Leder is the founder of the S.E.C. filing site footnoted*. Here, she looks for trends in the votes at big technology companies’ latest shareholder meetings. You can follow her on Twitter at @footnoted.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, will hold its annual shareholder meeting today. Like most meetings these days, it will be virtual to avoid packing people into a crowded auditorium during the pandemic. Still, judging by other tech giants’ gatherings, shareholders aren’t likely to let current events dampen their appetite for voting.
Take Facebook, which on Friday disclosed its voting results for its annual meeting held earlier in the week. This year, there were far fewer “broker nonvotes” — investors who didn’t vote on resolutions — than in 2019.
Shareholders at Facebook and other big tech companies largely followed management’s recommendations, though in many cases, founders personally control so much of the vote that opposition is largely symbolic. Still, shifts in the strength of opposition can reveal what other investors think about a company:
• Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s C.O.O., received far fewer “votes withheld” — effectively, votes against her re-election to the board — than she did last year; 10 percent of votes were withheld last year, versus only 1 percent this year. Last year, advisory and advocacy groups urged shareholders to withhold votes for Ms. Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, in an effort to push for an independent board chairman. In March, the company appointed Robert Kimmitt, a former top Treasury Department official, as lead independent director, making the issue moot.
• Amazon also disclosed far fewer broker nonvotes than in 2019 as well. Surprisingly, Jeff Bezos received nearly twice as many votes against his re-election to the board this year than he did last year — though we are talking about 2 percent of votes against or abstaining this year, versus 1 percent last year.
• Apple held its annual meeting in-person at its office in Cupertino, Calif., in late February, a few weeks before the pandemic shut the world down. Broker nonvotes were down by nearly a quarter at the meeting versus last year.
It’s hard to draw firm conclusions from this year’s crop of annual meetings, given how different this spring has been. But with many companies having held virtual meetings without any meaningful drop in participation — if anything, it’s been the opposite — holding in-person events may become the exception, not the norm.
Crisis programs under scrutiny
• Harvard economists found that major government relief programs exclude many companies with big debt loads, The Times’s Jeanna Smialek reports.
• The Fed’s Main Street lending initiative to help midsize companies is “too late and not enough,” some of the intended recipients told Politico.
• ProPublica published an investigation into Justin Muzinich, the Treasury Department official managing the department’s economic aid measures who still retains ties to his family’s investment firm, which has benefited from the bailout.
• A group of bipartisan lawmakers are taking a look at the role that BlackRock, the asset management giant, is playing in overseeing Fed bailout efforts, Politico reports.
• Private equity titans like KKR and Apollo used a little-known loan program run by the Department of Health and Human Services to help some of their health care portfolio companies, according to Bloomberg.
The fight over digital taxes heats up
The Trump administration warned that it may investigate proposals by other countries to impose special taxes on American internet giants. That risks igniting another trade war, The Times’s Jim Tankersley and Ana Swanson write.
At issue are levies on the revenue of companies like Facebook and Google that generate significant sales but don’t report large taxable profits in many countries where they operate. France, Britain and India have been imposing these taxes for months.
• There’s a clear incentive for countries to do this, writes Paul Donovan of UBS: “With rising borrowing, governments have a politically easy target in technology companies with global operations and limited tax payments — regardless of where they happen to be headquartered.”
The U.S. inquiry could imperil international talks to create a global framework for such taxes, Jim and Ana write. But the administration’s pushback is supported by several American business concerns, including a major Silicon Valley trade group and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
It’s Zoom’s world now
Zoom, the videoconferencing service that has become a staple for many homebound workers, reported its latest quarterly results yesterday. The numbers were, in a word, astounding.
The company blew away expectations, with quarterly revenue up 169 percent, to $328 million. It earned $27 million, versus only about $200,000 in the same quarter last year. It doubled its previous guidance for sales this fiscal year, and tripled its profit forecast. Zoom’s market cap is now nearly $60 billion, after tripling in value since the start of the year.
• The few downsides in the report were related to its explosive growth, with the cost of extra bandwidth — which it buys from Amazon and Oracle — eating into margins. A peak of 300 million average daily users in April also came down “a little bit” in May.
It was the most upbeat earnings calls you’ll hear in a while. Executives acknowledged the solemnity of the pandemic and “shocking” social unrest, but the mood brightened considerably when the discussion shifted to the company’s finances.
• Analysts often give a perfunctory “great quarter, guys” to executives before asking questions. But Aleksandr Zukin of RBC uncorked this at the start of the call’s Q.&A. section: “You just delivered one of, if not the greatest, all-time quarters in enterprise software history.”
• It was the birthday of Zoom’s C.F.O., Kelly Steckelberg, and she said that presenting the results was “the best birthday present I could ever have.”
• The call, held on Zoom (naturally), had over 3,000 participants, said Eric Yuan, the C.E.O. His opening remarks were delayed slightly when — like millions of other Zoom users every day — he forgot to unmute his mic.
The speed read
• SoftBank plans to create a $100 million fund to invest exclusively in start-ups founded by entrepreneurs of color. (Axios)
• Facebook and PayPal were among the investors in the latest funding round for Gojek, the Indonesian ride-hailing company. (CNBC)
Politics and policy
• The Times reconstructed how President Trump’s desire for a photo op at a Washington church led to armed officers, agents and troops aggressively clearing out a park near the White House. (NYT)
• An organization backed by Silicon Valley giants sued President Trump over his move to curb social networks’ legal immunity over user-generated content. (WaPo)
Best of the rest
• New York financial regulators may punish Deutsche Bank over its dealings with the deceased financier Jeffrey Epstein. (NYT)
• The pandemic has opened the door to a resurgence of the Italian mafia, experts warn. (The Crime Report)
• Meet the biggest players in the tear gas industry. (Axios)
Correction: Yesterday’s newsletter misstated the name of the health care company that bought back control from the investment firm Cerberus. It is Steward Health Care, not Stewart Health Care. You can read more about the deal here.
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