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Microsoft hunts for big acquisitions as antitrust spotlight on rivals

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CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella gives a lecture about dream, struggle and creation at Tsinghua University on September 25, 2014 in Beijing, China. Nadella visited China for the first time on Thursday.

Visual China Group | Getty Images

Twenty years ago, the United States government filed suit against Microsoft for abusing its market power. Today, Microsoft is empire building because the country’s regulatory focus is on its biggest rivals.

Microsoft announced Monday it had acquired Nuance Communications for $16 billion ($19.7 billion including net debt). The deal gives Microsoft a company that specializes in voice transcription and related artificial intelligence software. Nuance has a particular niche in health care, providing software to digitize conversations from doctor’s visits and facilitate clinical documentation.

The acquisition comes about a month after Microsoft closed its $7.6 billion deal for ZeniMax, the parent company of video game publisher Bethesda. That transaction is meant to boost Microsoft’s Xbox against growing video gaming competition. Microsoft has also been in talks to acquire Discord, a voice, text and video-chatting platform for games, for more than $10 billion. Those discussions have happened concurrently to the Nuance transaction discussions, which started in December, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Microsoft’s recent deal talks don’t stop there. The company nearly acquired TikTok’s U.S., Canadian, Australian and New Zealand operations last year in a deal that was being discussed in the $20 billion to $30 billion range. Microsoft has also recently approached Pinterest to gauge their interest in selling, according to a Financial Times report in February. Pinterest has a market capitalization of more than $51 billion.

Less than three years ago, Microsoft paid $7.5 billion for GitHub. Less than five years ago, Microsoft paid more than $26 billion for LinkedIn.

Spending tens of billions on acquisitions is starkly different from the strategies of the world’s other technology super giants — Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook. It also just so happens that Congressional Democrats and government agencies including the DoJ and FTC have taken a close look at whether Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook have abused their market power, and are considering separating their businesses or unraveling previous large acquisitions.

Other than Microsoft, Amazon is the only member of the big five that has spent more than $5 billion on an acquisition in the last five years, buying grocery foods chain Whole Foods for more than $13 billion in 2017.

Nuance is Microsoft’s fourth such takeover.

Not ‘some aggregation play’

Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook, well aware they’re under regulatory fire, are all proceeding cautiously with larger acquisitions, according to people familiar with the matter. A major purchase for any of them would almost certainly draw political attention, especially as their market capitalizations have ballooned during the pandemic. It’s possible a big M&A transaction would become the catalyst for more draconian actions, such as a company breakup or forced divestitures.

But Microsoft has avoided the same level of scrutiny. That eliminates bidding wars and makes Microsoft the current buyer of choice — a role it likely wouldn’t have played five years ago.

This dynamic popped up during last year’s TikTok discussions, when Google felt it couldn’t lead a deal for the U.S. assets because of its regulatory positioning.

CEO Satya Nadella alluded to why he thinks the government has treated Microsoft — a company with a $1.9 trillion market valuation — differently in an interview with CNBC.

“Our job is to provide technology so that [doctors and providers] can keep all of the data secure,” Nadella said, speaking specifically about Nuance.

“This is not about some aggregation play. This is about pure platform providers. That makes Microsoft very distinct in how we approach most of what we do.”

In other words, Nadella is making the argument that Microsoft is agnostically providing technology while competitors are using consumer data in potentially harmful or monopolistic ways.

Microsoft shareholders will ultimately have to decide how much empire building they’re comfortable with. Nadella has turned the company around with his focus on enterprise technology. Nuance fits the focus. Other targets are further afield. But, as Wedbush analyst Dan Ives wrote in a note to clients, “clearly, Redmond is on the ‘offensive’ around M&A with the company in a clear position of strength.”

So far, shareholders are not showing any trepidation about the Nuance deal, sending Microsoft shares up about 0.5% in afternoon trading Monday.

WATCH: Microsoft, Nuance CEOs on $16 billion deal, cloud strategy, health-care AI solutions

Less than three years after Microsoft acquired GitHub for $7.5 billion. Less than five years ago, Microsoft bought LinkedIn for $26.2 billion.

None of the other technology giants — Amazon, Google, Apple or Facebook — have spent anywhere close

on the aspects of regulation. these are superi important tipioocs.

one ofthe things we are doing — al labout providers patiets doctors — their data. provide tech so they can in fact keep data secure — use evenAI to benefit health care. not an aggretaion play — pure platform providers. microsoft distinct in how we approach most of what we do.

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Biden has a historic opportunity in the Middle East to foster progress

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President Biden’s long years of Senate and White House experience taught him that the Middle East could be quicksand for his presidential ambitions.

 So, it was no accident his Mideast goals were modest and aimed at avoiding resource-draining distractions from his domestic ambitions and international priorities: recharging the U.S. economy and rallying European and Asian allies to deal with China. 

The old logic was that U.S. withdrawal from Mideast affairs would leave a dangerous vacuum. The new thinking was that by keeping some distance one could encourage greater self-reliance. 

What has taken Biden administration officials by surprise is how quickly historic opportunity has emerged. A positive series of loosely connected events across the region offers the best opportunity in memory for reducing tensions, ending conflict, building economic progress, and advancing Mideast integration.

Their combined effect should be to prompt the Biden administration to recalibrate its “do-no-harm” approach to the region and lift its ambitions. For starters, it should focus on the four leading indicators of change and explore how to build upon them.

  • First, the region’s two most bitter adversaries, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are engaged in secret talks to manage the region’s most incendiary conflict.
  • Second, Turkey this week added Egypt to the list of countries with which it is trying to reduce tensions – including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel.
  • Third, signatories to last year’s Abraham accords are building further upon their historic normalization agreement, with the UAE and Israel set to open free trade talks next month.
  • Finally, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq are engaged in trilateral talks to deepen their economic ties, underscoring the potential for growth-generating regional integration.

To help any of this along would not require the sort of military deployments, endless commitments or costly investments that have so soured Americans to the region.

What it would take is a heightened level of diplomatic and economic creativity, and the dusting off of history books to study how the U.S. helped Europe end centuries of conflict after World War II and build the institutions and cooperative habits that endure until today. 

The process should begin by studying the dynamics of what’s unfolding, staying out of what’s working well and engaging where doing so would support fragile progress.

Weary of the financial and reputational cost of their disputes, countries long at odds are talking — Saudi Arabia with Iran, Turkey with Egypt, the UAE with Qatar, and Israel with any number of Arab states, alongside other emerging combinations.

Warring parties in Libya and Yemen, though far from solutions, are looking for ways to de-escalate. National leaders have stepped up their efforts at economic growth, sensing the demands of a well-educated, rising generation that understands global standards.

Most intriguing, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been holding secret talks since January, apparently without U.S. involvement, and brokered by Iraq.

In a dramatic change of tone, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said:  “We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow as we have Saudi interest in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which is to drive prosperity and growth in the region and the entire world.”

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has many reasons for changing course. Among them was the shock of a highly sophisticated Iranian attack on Saudi oil installations in September 2019, costing Riyadh some $2 billion.

The event not only exposed the kingdom’s vulnerabilities and Iran’s growing capabilities, it also raised doubts about U.S. security guarantees even from as close a friend as President Donald Trump, who did not retaliate on Riyadh’s behalf. 

“The concern that Biden will make overly nice with Iran,” says the Atlantic Council’s Kirsten Fontenrose, “while drawing down from the region and de-prioritizing the bilateral relationship is crucial to Saudi’s calculus right now.”

Reeling economically and isolated politically, Turkey also has been mending fences with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel—who have been wary of Istanbul’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups they consider extremist.

And building off last year’s historic Abraham Accords, a senior Mideast official says Israel and the UAE will start talks next month on a free-trade agreement, just one of many efforts to seize the momentum of normalized relations. 

Continuing to act as an outsized regional elixir for economic modernization and political moderation, the UAE this week liberalized its residency requirements to attract wealthy expats, and it has set the goal of doubling its GDP within the decade, in particular through technological investments. 

Separately and inspired by the Abraham accords, officials from Israel, the UAE, Greece and Cyprus met in April, with the backdrop of the east Mediterranean, to deepen their cooperation on everything from energy to fighting the pandemic.

Taken individually, these indicators  may appear more tenuous than transformational. Tie them together and build upon them more methodically, however, and the Middle East could have the beginnings of the sort of conflict de-escalation, economic cooperation and institution building that Europe enjoyed after World War II.

With growing security threats in the Horn of Africa and new uncertainties regarding Afghanistan’s future, the U.S. would like to be able to call upon steadier Middle East partners to better address growing uncertainties elsewhere in their broader neighborhood.

No one should expect the Middle East in the short-term to sprout its own equivalent of the European Union, NATO or the CSCE, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe that provided the venue for talks between the Cold War’s rival factions.

One also should not expect the U.S. to play the galvanizing role it did then, when it had half of global GDP, much of Europe was in rubble and the Soviet Union was rising as an adversary to counter.

That said, it would be wrong to underestimate the positive potential U.S. influence.

The Trump administration’s support for the Abraham Accords helped unlock growing cooperation among the signatories: Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

The Biden administration has endorsed the agreements, most recently in a conversation this week between President Biden and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed. Biden administration officials, however, should invest more into building upon the accords.

President Biden’s resumption of efforts to negotiate with Iran, his focus on human rights issues, and his reluctance to feed the region’s divisions also plays a positive role, as long as negotiators don’t set the bar too low to lift sanctions on Tehran.

What the Biden administration must avoid is listening to the wrong-headed conclusion of some analysts that U.S. disengagement from the region would accelerate progress. What’s needed instead is consistent support for the region’s rising forces of modernization and moderation, which have gained but still have far to go.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCOpinion on Twitter.



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Winklevoss’ crypto exchange Gemini offers 2.25% interest

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Cameron Winklevoss, left, and Tyler Winklevoss 

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Gemini, the cryptocurrency exchange founded by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, is going all in on dogecoin.

Starting Sunday, the Gemini app will let clients move their holdings in dogecoin into interest-bearing accounts through its Gemini Earn service.

The company says it will offer a rate of 2.25 percent APY (annual percentage yield) on a customer’s idle dogecoin balances.

Interest is earned and compounded daily, and customers can redeem their crypto at any time. There are also no minimum balances and no fees to transfer into or redeem from Gemini Earn.

The move by Gemini to add dogecoin to its savings program comes less than a week after the exchange listed the eight-year-old cryptocurrency for the first time.

“We at Gemini believe that one of the most exciting things about cryptocurrency…is empowering the individual, and doge is a phenomenal example of that,” Noah Perlman, Gemini’s COO told CNBC in an interview.

The meme-inspired cryptocurrency has captured the world’s attention, surging more than 25,000 percent in the last six months.

“The individual feels like doge is money? Then it is. We’re here to help individuals acquire it, store it, and spend it in a safe, secure way,” continued Perlman.

Since Gemini Earn launched in February, customers are now collectively earning interest on more than $2 billion in loans originated through the service.

Customers in the U.S. and Singapore can earn up to 7.4 percent APY on 32 cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin, ether, and the newly-added injective, polygon, and SushiSwap.

The company soon plans to offer interest on its dollar-pegged stablecoin, the Gemini dollar.

“When you compare the rates that we’re offering to what you can get in a traditional money market or CD, it’s up to 100 times more,” said Perlman.

Though the Peter Thiel-backed crypto lender BlockFi offers rates of up to 8.6 percent APY on crypto deposits, and cryptocurrency exchange Binance says clients can earn up to 20 percent APY through its platform, Gemini says it remains the only regulated exchange in the U.S. where you can trade and earn interest on dogecoin in all 50 states.

This proves to be especially vital in a place like New York, where, for example, the state has denied BlockFi the right to offer interest accounts.

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Dogecoin price plummets as Elon Musk hosts Saturday Night Live

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Pictured: (l-r) Musical guest Miley Cyrus, host Elon Musk, and Cecily Strong during Promos in Studio 8H on Thursday, May 6, 2021.

NBC | NBCUniversal | Getty Images

As Elon Musk – the self-proclaimed “Dogefather” – made his “Saturday Night Live” debut, the price of dogecoin fell off a cliff.

The meme-inspired cryptocurrency fell as much as 29.5%, dropping to 49 cents at one point. Musk mentioned dogecoin in his opening monologue and on “Weekend Update,” SNL’s satirical news show. In a Q&A with hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost, Musk called himself the “Dogefather,” said dogecoin was a “hustle,” and howled, “To the moon,” a catchphrase popular among doge enthusiasts intent on driving the value of the cryptocurrency to one dollar.

The price of dogecoin began to rebound during the “Weekend Update” skit. As of this writing, it is worth 57 cents, down about 17% from the beginning of the show.

During the frenzied sell-off, several Robinhood users complained that Robinhood’s crypto trading wasn’t working.

The company confirmed the outage on Twitter. Service was restored in less than an hour.

This isn’t the first time that Robinhood has missed out on major trading volume in dogecoin. Last month, the trading platform said customers experienced “sporadic crypto order failures” during a dogecoin rally.

Wall Street wasn’t expecting the dip.

“Also known as the Dogefather, Musk will undoubtedly have a sketch on cryptocurrencies that will probably go viral for days and further motivate his army of followers to try to send Dogecoin to the moon,”  wrote Edward Moya, senior market analyst at Oanda, in a note on May 4.

Dogecoin fans were out in mass on Twitter during the show, and live streams on YouTube were devoted to watching SNL and tracing dogecoin’s movements at the same time.

Tesla‘s electric rivals decided to make the most of having Musk fans tune in by buying air time. Lucid, Ford and Volkswagen all ran ads. Tesla notably doesn’t advertise on television.

Musk did make mention of one rival tonight. “I could say something truly shocking, like I drive a Prius.”

Disclosure: “Saturday Night Live” is a TV show of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC. CNBC owns the exclusive off-network cable rights to “Shark Tank,” which features Mark Cuban as a panelist.



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