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Why Carl Icahn invested in Cloudera

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Carl Icahn speaking at Delivering Alpha in New York on Sept. 13, 2016.

David A. Grogan | CNBC

The latest target of Carl Icahn, an investor famous for his activist-takeover campaigns, is Cloudera, a troubled enterprise-software company that recently combined with its biggest rival.

Icahn has taken aim at a company that’s not nearly as richly valued as other technology names. Cloudera’s market cap is less than $2 billion, and it had a price-to-sales multiple of 2.6 for its current fiscal year, according to Refinitiv, while comparable small-cap enterprise software companies MongoDB and Twilio boast multiples of 16.4 and 14.5 respectively.

Cloudera is available at a discount for a few reasons: The person who took it public has left, and big cloud companies like Amazon are picking up business on Cloudera’s turf.

Cloudera shares rose after Icahn’s position in Cloudera became public on Aug. 1. “The Reporting Persons acquired their positions in the Shares in the belief that the Shares were undervalued,” Icahn and Co. wrote in the regulatory filing revealing the ownership stake.

On Monday the company said that as a result of an agreement with Icahn, two employees of Icahn Enterprises, Nicholas Graziano and Jesse Lynn, will join Cloudera’s board. Icahn and his affiliates now own more than 18% of the company, whose market cap is below $2 billion.

Cloudera declined comment. Icahn could not immediately be reached for comment.

Nothing to break up

Founded in 2008, Cloudera sells software that companies use to store and process great quantities of different kinds of data, sometimes referred to as “big data.” It’s best known for popularizing the Hadoop open-source big data software, which was inspired by technology used at Google and put into widespread use by Yahoo. The company went public in 2017 with considerable backing from Intel.

For years, Cloudera competed with other companies selling distributions of Hadoop, including Hortonworks. Then Cloudera and Hortonworks merged in a deal that was originally valued at more than $5 billion. The two companies’ stocks didn’t react well to the news, though. As they worked on integrating, Cloudera saw public cloud vendors pick up some of its sales opportunities, said then-CEO Tom Reilly on an earnings call in June. (Reilly has since left, and Chairman Martin Cole is now the company’s interim CEO.)

Analysts have varying opinions on what Icahn is likely to do.

“Cloudera is a pure-play single platform company and there’s nothing to breakup, so we’d imagine that the compatible areas of Mr. Icahn’s historical playbook would be restricted to 1) agitating for a sale, or 2) pushing for big expense reductions to boost cashflows,” BTIG analysts led by Edward Parker wrote in a note distributed to clients after the Cloudera stake was disclosed.

“The prospect for the latter’s success is complicated by the fact that the stickiness of Cloudera’s current revenue stream is currently subject to a high degree of skepticism. Indeed, Cloudera’s future largely hinges on the success of the upcoming CDP [Cloudera Data Platform] release, which pivots the company’s big data management platform from on-prem towards hybrid and multi-cloud environments.”

Rishi Jaluria, senior research analyst at DA Davidson, believes the company is undervalued.

“While the involvement of Mr. Icahn is a surprise, the involvement of an activist is not – we do believe shares are currently undervalued and the company could benefit from an activist,” he wrote in an Aug. 2 note. With Icahn in the mix, he could contribute to the selection of a replacement for Reilly, or agitate to sell the company to IBM or a private equity buyer.

The consolidation in the industry underscores the difficulty of building strong sustainable businesses selling open-source software. Earlier this month Hewlett Packard Enterprise said it acquired the “business assets” of a smaller Hadoop player, MapR. HPE didn’t disclose terms of the deal.

Icahn is no stranger to technology investing. After investing in Lyft in 2015, he exited the position earlier this year, prior to the company’s initial public offering. Last year he exited a position in PayPal, acquired a stake in VMware and bought into the tracking stock for Dell as the company was plotting its return to public markets. Icahn has also backed Apple and Netflix.

WATCH: BTIG’s Fishbein on cloud companies targeted for takeover

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Hit China with new tariffs or hold off?

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U.S. President Donald Trump poses for a photo with China’s President Xi Jinping before their bilateral meeting during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

In this multifront, multiyear trade war, with shifting deadlines and political headwinds, it has paid for investors to beware the ides of March. May. August. October. And now, December.

In less than two weeks, President Donald Trump must decide whether to slap tariffs on $156 billion in consumer goods made in China — including toys, phones, laptops and clothes, right before the holidays — or move the goal post yet again in lieu of the comprehensive trade deal he’s been seeking.

“If enough substantive progress had been made, he might” be willing to delay, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC this week. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday the two sides were still “on track,” for a deal and still talking, but he did not say whether the tariffs would be shelved.

During the Oval Office announcement of the latest truce, Mnuchin assured the public there would be more than enough time to finish the deal and permanently avert further tariffs.

That was two months ago.

Trump now has a complicated calculus to consider: Postponing the tariffs would avoid a market sell-off and higher holiday prices — and the ire of CEOs like Tim Cook and Jamie Dimon whom Trump has come to not only trust but revere. But doing so with anything short of a deal-signing — which Trump said in October was the next step — would mark the fifth instance this year that he delayed or canceled tariffs as a gesture of goodwill, further exposing him to criticism that the “phase one” deal exists only as a talking point.

Enacting the tariffs would cause its own problems. Republicans and Democrats alike would worry the White House was gambling with a U.S. economy already seeing some cracks in its strength. American farmers, many in swing states, would see exports further shrink and endure deeper financial suffering, not to mention continued retaliation.

Washington doublespeak

And Chinese negotiators, already frustrated with Washington doublespeak and insisting that tariffs be removed would likely walk from negotiations, says Stephen Myrow, managing partner at Beacon Policy Advisors.

“Most people around President Trump are telling him that’s a big risk,” the former Treasury official told CNBC. “Throwing everything on right now would be a pretty big political miscalculation.”

Dan DiMicco, a former steel executive who shares Trump’s propensity for tariffs and often shares trade advice with him, said the president will win in either outcome.

“Going into this date, President Trump has a lot of latitude depending on where the talks are really at, which no one outside of him and his team know,” DiMicco said. “He really is in a no-lose situation.”

Since the October truce, information about the state of talks has been nearly impossible to glean. U.S. readouts of principal-level calls stopped in early November, leaving interested parties to rely on information funneled to Chinese state media.

U.S. officials have used phrases like “short strokes” and “millimeters away” to emphasize that a deal is in the home stretch — without indicating what, exactly, is left to negotiate of the deal that was announced as complete on Oct. 11.

Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic advisor, said Friday that there are a “few buttons that have to be buttoned” to wrap up talks, but acknowledged that there could be a watershed mid-month.

“The fact remains that Dec. 15 is a very important date with respect to a ‘go,’ or a ‘no-go,'” Kudlow said on Squawk on the Street.

And Trump has given mixed signals about his inclination to do a deal: Within the space of one day this week, he suggested a deal could be more than a year away, then after a 400-point market sell-off, he suggested the talks were going well.

Dan Clifton of Strategas Research Partners says Trump stands to benefit politically if a deal is reached in the near-term that solves a limited number of low-hanging issues, like rolling back tariffs and restoring export markets. American incomes would rise – and the manufacturing- and ag-heavy states would see their fortunes reverse.

“Not coincidentally, these are the states Trump needs to win the most in the electoral college,” Clifton tells CNBC.

Positive signs emerging

Business groups have leaned on their executive members to provide dispatches from the ground. Anna Ashton, director of business advisory at the US-China Business Council, says positive signs have been emerging.

“We hear from both sides that the negotiators are close to a deal, so there is reason for optimism that we will not see new tariffs this month,” Ashton said. “But as you know, they’ve been close to a deal before, only to have intractable differences resurface.”

Officials have acknowledged the pain this particular round of tariffs could exact on the U.S. economy. Originally set to go into effect Sept. 1, White House officials urged Trump to delay them to limit the economic impact going into the Christmas season. They are now set for Dec. 15.

The list includes items that were excluded from prior tariffs primarily because of a potential impact on consumers and voters. In May, Mnuchin told lawmakers that the U.S. economy had been largely insulated from the tariffs because of this structure but acknowledged that would change if the goods in the December list were hit by tariffs.

“The way these tariffs were designed was, the last tranche is really the consumer issue,” Mnuchin told the House Financial Services Committee. “The last tranche is subject to the president’s approval.”

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Oil rises as OPEC and allies announce deep production cut

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Oil moved higher on Friday as OPEC and its allies agreed to deepen oil production cuts to 500,000 barrels a day through to March 2020. This brings the total production cut to 1.7 million barrels a day.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures gained 1.2% to trade at $59.13 a barrel. Brent gained 1.5% to trade at $64.31 a barrel.

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told reporters on Friday that the oil-rich kingdom’s quota would be an additional 167,000 barrels per day. He also said that the kingdom would continue to exceed its quota by 400,000 barrels a day, which means the overall production cut will actually be closer to 2.1 million barrels a day.

The country is OPEC’s de facto leader, and has been adamant that those who were previously overproducing — such as Iraq and Nigeria — comply with the group’s quota. Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said that the country’s additional and voluntary cut would be contingent on other countries abiding by their allocation.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Moscow’s quota would be 300,000 b/d during the first three months of 2020. This measurement excludes gas condensate — a high-value light crude extracted as a by-product of gas production.

The energy alliance said it plans to review the policy at an extraordinary meeting on March 5-6.

Ahead of the decision

On Thursday the 14-member cartel, as well as its allies, which is known as OPEC+ and includes Russia, agreed in principle to reduce output by an additional 500,000 barrels per day.

But as day two of meetings in Vienna kicked off Friday, there were still many questions, including how the quota would be allocated, and how long the agreement would stretch for. Friday’s meeting followed a tumultuous and marathon session Thursday. Talks stretched on for hours, and the customary press conference held after the meeting wraps was abruptly cancelled.

The duration of the deal was one of the key unknowns. On Friday OPEC said it would meet again on March 5-6. The cartel typically meets every six months, so the announcement had led some on the Street to believe the increased cut would only extend through the first quarter.

“It remains unclear what would occur in 2Q20, potentially reflecting Saudi’s new stance that they could walk away from this deal if other countries did not comply fully,” Goldman Sachs analyst Damien Courvalin said in a note to clients Thursday.

Another key factor was compliance. Currently several members including Iraq, Nigeria and Russia are over-producing. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, exceeds its current target cut, and signaled ahead of OPEC’s meeting that stricter rules should be implemented.

“The Saudi message is compliance,” Mizuho managing director Paul Sankey said in a note to clients Friday.

The deeper-than-expected cut might not have all that much of an impact on oil prices, however, since ahead of Thursday’s meeting OPEC+, as a whole, was not even pumping as much as allotted.

“While we await full details from OPEC and non-OPEC, we think a 0.5MMbls/d announced cut relative to existing quotas is just enough to keep markets balanced for 2020,” Bernstein analyst Neil Beveridge said Friday. “Overall, a satisfactory outcome but investors will likely want to see evidence cuts are being delivered before getting too excited.”

Russia had also reportedly asked that condensates no longer be quoted as part of output for countries, a move which would reduce the total impact of the cuts.

“Everyone’s starting to do math. Between the condi [condensates] exemption and the current rate of over compliance, it’s not really a new larger cut,” Again Capital’s John Kilduff said to CNBC Thursday.

– CNBC’s Brian Sullivan, Patti Domm, Michael Bloom and Sam Meredith contributed reporting.

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Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz defends US shale producers

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Saudi Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman shakes hands with staff during his visit to an Aramco oil facility one day after the attacks in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia September 15, 2019.

Saudi Press Agency | Reuters

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman played down any rivalry between U.S. shale producers and more established oil producers in the Middle East.

Speaking to CNBC’s Hadley Gamble following an OPEC decision in Vienna, Austria, on Friday, Abdulaziz said: “They (U.S. shale producers) didn’t do anything wrong, they produced more barrels, they put the U.S. on the map in terms of its energy requirements, they are growing the economy, they are creating jobs.”

The U.S. is now the world’s largest oil producer hitting 12.3 million b/d in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, up from 11 million b/d in 2018. It now produces more oil than Saudi Arabia and Russia, although there are signs that production growth is slowing in the States.

Due to the boom in U.S. shale production, alongside other factors, the OPEC energy alliance was prompted to act after global oil prices tumbled in mid-2014. U.S. shale producers were not part of that deal and shale oil supply grew exponentially as OPEC producers curbed output.

“They did a remarkable job,” Abdulaziz told CNBC regarding the U.S. energy industry. He spoke of “legal limitations” when asked whether there could be pact with shale producers in the future, but said that Saudi Aramco — his country’s state-owned oil firm — “would go more and more international.”

In May, Aramco signed an agreement to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas from San Diego-based utility Sempra Energy, which helped to advance its ambitions to become a player in the growing international gas market.

Rampant shale supply and faltering demand due to a global economic slowdown have threatened to unbalance oil supply and demand dynamics. OPEC and non-OPEC allies, often referred to as OPEC+, decided on Friday to implement even tighter oil production policy at the biannual meeting in Vienna.

The new deal, which is much larger than many analysts had expected, will see OPEC+ reduce total oil output by 1.7 million b/d. However, Abdulaziz told reporters on Friday that his country — the de facto leader of OPEC — would also extend a voluntary cut of 400,000 b/d, saying that the energy alliance’s total cuts would effectively amount to 2.1 million b/d.

—CNBC’s Sam Meredith and Holly Ellyatt contributed to this report.

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