Opinion

The Great Debate

from Breakingviews:

Solving the second-class stock dilemma

By Rob Cox

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. 

Over dinner in San Francisco recently, an activist investor and an internet entrepreneur got into a heated discussion. The two men, with a gap of about two decades between them, were debating the practice of many young, growth businesses in the technology world – though it happens elsewhere too – to issue multiple classes of stock, generally one for hoi polloi investors in public offerings and another for founders and other insiders with super-charged voting powers.

This, the investor felt, violates a tenet of democratic capitalism: “one share, one vote.” It treats public shareholders of Silicon Valley’s hottest properties as second-class citizens. Not so, argued the information industrialist, now working in his second mega-startup. Visionaries need to build their businesses without the distraction of having to please uppity investors every quarter. Giving them control of their boards of directors and key corporate decisions is vital.

The protagonists sort of agreed to disagree. Investors don’t have to buy shares if they don’t like the voting arrangements – though some might say that companies often don’t have to seek money from public investors, either.

But surely there is a way to square this circle. What if a mechanism could be created that would allow founders like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or GoPro’s Nicholas Woodman to execute their plans for global domination, leavened with promises to make the world more awesome, without pesky shareholder interference – but also preserving in the long term the one share, one vote concept?

from Breakingviews:

Solving the second-class stock dilemma

By Rob Cox

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. 

Over dinner in San Francisco recently, an activist investor and an internet entrepreneur got into a heated discussion. The two men, with a gap of about two decades between them, were debating the practice of many young, growth businesses in the technology world – though it happens elsewhere too – to issue multiple classes of stock, generally one for hoi polloi investors in public offerings and another for founders and other insiders with super-charged voting powers.

This, the investor felt, violates a tenet of democratic capitalism: “one share, one vote.” It treats public shareholders of Silicon Valley’s hottest properties as second-class citizens. Not so, argued the information industrialist, now working in his second mega-startup. Visionaries need to build their businesses without the distraction of having to please uppity investors every quarter. Giving them control of their boards of directors and key corporate decisions is vital.

from Breakingviews:

Rob Cox: ITT’s ghost hangs over Silicon Valley

By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The number of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley familiar with the work of Harold Geneen would hardly fill a 140-character tweet. After all, Geneen wasn’t a technologist, the inventor of a new computing language or the founder of a seminal startup. He was the original M&A machine – the man whose deal-making 50 years ago turned ITT into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate.

As tech giants like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba, Rakuten and Google mature and canvass the globe for businesses they can buy that are a few steps removed from their core activities, Geneen’s story is becoming more relevant. These titans of the internet age are embarking on diversification strategies not entirely dissimilar from those of Geneen’s ITT and its many followers, including LTV, Transamerica and Gulf+Western.

from Breakingviews:

Rob Cox: The worry now is a brewing M&A bubble

By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Stop worrying about the tech bubble – there may be an even bigger one inflating beyond the confines of Silicon Valley. The corporate urge to merge has gone into global hyper-drive this year. Deal activity has surged as investors egg companies on and bid up the shares of acquirers well beyond mathematical explication, or prudence. As new metrics from interested parties are trotted out to justify the irrational, it’s time to exercise caution.

So far this year companies have announced some $1.3 trillion worth of transactions around the world, according to Thomson Reuters data. That’s nearly double the level of activity a year ago. European corporations have fueled even greater increases. Much of this is pent-up demand and a delayed response to the past year’s remarkable runup in stock market values.

Obama’s small steps won’t fix inequality

President Barack Obama is taking on the challenge of increasing the United States’ all but stagnant economic mobility.

He wants, he said in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, to both “strengthen the middle class” and “build new ladders of opportunity” into it. His modest plan — modest so that it does not need the congressional approval he’s unlikely to receive — includes raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers and offering workers a new workplace retirement savings account option.

It’s a nice start. But nowhere near enough.

The United States’ sluggish economic mobility is not new. According to a paper recently published by academics at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, it has been mediocre for those born in the 1970s, and it is just as bad for those born 20 years later.

California v. Texas in fight for the future

It is not a national election year, but the “red state versus blue state” wars continue. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s recent foray into California, to lure away businesses and jobs, signals more than a rivalry between these two mega-states. The Texas-California competition represents the political, economic and cultural differences driving American politics today – and for the foreseeable future.

Texas and California are robust political and economic competitors. We don’t know which will be the template for the future. As California emerges from its economic and fiscal doldrums and some of Texas’ vulnerabilities become evident, it is now far from certain that Texas will emerge the victor.

California is a global hub for trade, tourism, culture and the manufacture of ideas and intellectual property. From high tech and biotech to entertainment, travel and logistics, the state’s brand transcends national boundaries. The Golden State tops the nation in agriculture. It also sets the pace on green energy development, which could lead to a dramatic increase in the state’s energy production.

The NBA has America’s model migrant worker program

If you’ve watched the NBA playoffs, you’ve seen the Oklahoma City Thunders’ rangy Swiss guard, Thabo Sefolosha, and his courtmate, human basketball swatter, and Spanish national, Serge Ibaka. To get to the finals, Sefolosha and Ibaka beat Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, two international anchors for the very American San Antonio Spurs. In the finals, Sefolosha and Ibaka are facing off against Ronny Turiaf, the Miami Heat’s erstwhile benchwarmer, who hails from France, to see who gets to take the NBA Finals trophy away from German forward Dirk Nowitzki, the MVP of last year’s championship.

This seems like common sense – the best in their field want to come ply their trade in America, so why wouldn’t we let them? The increased competition has improved revenue for teams and created a better product for fans. But other sectors of the economy can’t follow the example of professional sport leagues. The government won’t let them.

The NBA is not alone in investing in importing the best human capital from around the world to maintain its edge. The Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings were powered by the goal scoring of Yugoslavian center Anze Kopitar; Ichiro’s arrival in Seattle to play for the Mariners was accompanied by a crush of Japanese advertising.

How home prices helped kill the first tech boom

By Ryan Avent
The opinions expressed are his own. 

The late 1990s was a wild time in Silicon Valley. The NASDAQ was soaring, and seemingly anyone could start a company, stick a .com at the end of its name, put together an IPO and retire a millionaire. The great boom ultimately took on a speculative character that led to wasted investments and the collapse of many poorly-grounded operations. But it was rooted in a surge of not-unrealistic optimism about the potential of the internet to change the world of business.

Among the striking features of the era, one of the most startling is this: the rate of high-tech entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley seems to have been below the national average from 1996 to 2000, according to a recent analysis of business creation during the tech boom. And from the late 1990s to the early 2000s — after the bust — Silicon Valley’s rate of high-tech entrepreneurship actually increased. How can this be? How is it that during the first great boom of the internet era, Silicon Valley was less of a hotbed for new firm formation than the country as a whole?

Economists Robert Fairlie and Aaron Chatterji suggest that the answer lies in the extremely tight labor market conditions that prevailed at the time. The tech boom was remarkably good for Silicon Valley workers. Average earnings rose by nearly 40% from 1997 to 2000 — more than twice as fast as the increase for the country as a whole. Non-salary compensation also soared, thanks to the popularity of stock options and the skyrocketing value of equity in tech firms. These generous pay increases made it unattractive for workers to leave established companies to strike out on their own. Entrepreneurship fell because life on salary was too lucrative to risk self-employment.

Can sleeping giant Skype reinvent itself?

eric_auchard_thumbnail2.jpg – Eric Auchard is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Do once-hot Internet start-ups who miss a date with destiny ever truly get a second chance? History says no, even for once-great names like Netscape, AOL and MySpace.

Skype hopes to be the exception. On Tuesday, a group led by top Internet financiers in Silicon Valley and Europe agreed to pay eBay $1.9 billion in cash for a 65 percent stake in the one-time web calling sensation.

HP has to look beyond cost cuts soon

EricAuchard.jpg– Eric Auchard is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

The stock price seems to be the only thing growing at Hewlett-Packard, the world’s largest computer company. HP shares have risen 75 percent this year, despite few signs of a revival in technology spending.

The company, best known as a supplier of computer printers, has suffered a 19 percent drop in sales of hardware and ink supplies. In good times, this produced the bulk of HP’s profits, but it’s the financial engineering under Mark Hurd, the company’s chairman and chief executive, that seems to be the main driver now.

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