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Slow income growth is ‘holding back’ the Chinese consumer: Barclays

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Consumer spending in China has largely lagged the country’s overall economic recovery from the pandemic and that sluggishness stems from slower household income growth, according to Jian Chang, chief China economist at Barclays Asia Pacific.

Data released Wednesday showed China’s retail sales once again missed analyst expectations. Official data reported retail sales rose 12.4% in May from a year ago, less than the 13.6% increase forecast by analysts.

Barclays economists said in a Wednesday note they do not see growth in China’s consumption and services returning to pre-Covid levels this year.

“A fundamental issue, I think, that has been holding back the Chinese consumer spending is really the … slower household income growth, and particularly for lower income group,” Chang told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Friday.

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In 2020, China’s cash-strapped poor took on more debt after the pandemic hit job prospects.

Chang pointed to comments from Premier Li Keqiang last year in which he said roughly 600 million people earn just 1,000 renminbi per month (about $155).

She noted that migrant worker salaries have also struggled to recover, posting growth of just 2.5% as compared with 6.5% pre-pandemic.

These are headwinds for Beijing as the Chinese government hopes to promote its “dual circulation” policy, which places greater emphasis on consumption as a key economic driver.

“To improve household consumption share in the GDP you really need to improve household income share in the GDP,” Chang said.

“That means you really need to improve income distribution … which we know that is quite difficult, especially after the global financial crisis and after the pandemic. We really see globally, you know, there is the widening of income gap and the widening of wealth gap,” she said.

Chang said there’s also a gap in where spending occurs. While larger stores and shopping malls have been “quite strong,” Chang said smaller stores are not seeing the same performance.

“If you look at the smaller store sales, which accounts for two-thirds of overall retail sales, that has really been underperforming and is not even half of its growth rate pre-pandemic,” Chang said.

— CNBC’s Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report.

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Zoom’s fast ascent to $100 billion made acquisitions a sudden priority

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Zoom founder Eric Yuan poses in front of the Nasdaq building as the screen shows the logo of the video-conferencing software company Zoom after the opening bell ceremony on April 18, 2019 in New York City. The video-conferencing software company announced it’s IPO priced at $36 per share, at an estimated value of $9.2 billion.

Kena Betancur | Getty Images

Salesforce needed 14 years as a public company to reach a market cap of $100 billion. Getting there required three multibillion-dollar acquisitions and four distinct revenue sources.

When Zoom topped the $100 billion mark last year, it had been public for just over 14 months. The company was reliant on a single product and had completed just one tiny acquisition.

While it’s still just a toddler on the Nasdaq, Zoom is now being forced to take on adult responsibilities for investors, thanks to its unexpectedly rapid ascent. The video chat company’s historic growth during the Covid-19 pandemic vaulted its market cap from $9.2 billion at the time of its 2019 IPO to a peak of $159 billion in October, putting it tentatively even with Cisco.

Zoom has lost about one-third of its value since then, despite reporting 191% revenue growth in the latest quarter, as investors prepare for a post-pandemic future and as competition picks up, most notably from Microsoft Teams.

Still, Zoom is among the 25-most valuable North American tech companies and the only one in that pack to go public in the last four years. Shopify and Snap, which went public in 2015 and 2017, respectively, are the only companies in the group that trade for a richer multiple to sales.

In other words, the stock market is giving Zoom the tools to become a major dealmaker. And Zoom is taking advantage, announcing earlier this week the $14.7 billion purchase of Five9, which sells cloud-based software to call centers.

“It allows them to use their currency to buy things that are impactful,” said Alfred Chuang, a partner at venture firm Race Capital who previously co-founded BEA Systems and sold it to Oracle for $8.5 billion in 2008. “I can’t imagine this will be last one.”

The Five9 deal is one of the 10 largest U.S. enterprise software transactions on record, according to FactSet, and is bigger than any acquisition ever by Amazon, Google, Oracle, Cisco or Adobe. At about 23 times Five9’s expected 2022 revenue, it’s also the second-priciest software deal on a price-to-sales basis, behind only Salesforce’s $27 billion purchase of Slack, which closed earlier this month.

Chuang, who has been friends with Zoom CEO Eric Yuan since his pre-Zoom days at WebEx, says Yuan is now in a position familiar to Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, whose company has more than doubled in value since mid-2018 to $240 billion.

Both companies are set up to be cloud consolidators as automation changes the future of work and the enterprise software stack of the future gets built, Chuang said. In the three years since reaching a $100 billion market cap, Salesforce has completed four billion-dollar-plus deals, including Slack and the $15.7 billion purchase of Tableau.

“Not everything has worked out,” Chuang said, but he argues it’s important to take take big swings, even if the business is currently in good shape.

“When you have a very fast-growing company and become very successful, most people don’t want to rock the boat,” he said. “Acquisitions are not only useful to acquire customers but are super critical to satisfy a product vision you may have.”

The Cisco connection

Zoom’s initial talks with Five9 date back to last year, according to people familiar with the matter. The CEOs, who both previously worked on collaboration products at Cisco, know each other well and forged a product integration in 2019, when Zoom launched a phone offering.

Yuan was a lead engineer at WebEx when the company was acquired by Cisco in 2007, and Five9 CEO Rowan Trollope ran all of Cisco’s collaboration products, including WebEx, until taking the Five9 job in 2018. They never overlapped at Cisco — Yuan left to start Zoom a year before Trollope joined — but the connection is key as they both saw the challenges of retrofitting a legacy technology company for the cloud era.

Acquisition talks cooled for a while and picked up in the last three months, said people with knowledge of the transaction, who asked not to be named because the discussions were confidential. That’s when Goldman Sachs started advising Zoom on a deal and Five9 hired Frank Quattrone’s Qatalyst Partners.

Zoom also shuffled internal responsibilities this year, putting CFO Kelly Steckelberg in charge of business development, a job that had previously been held by operating chief Aparna Bawa, people close to the matter said. Yuan and Steckelberg drove the Five9 deal, the people said.

Bawa has assumed increased responsibilities elsewhere in the business. She oversees security, privacy and government relations, which all took center stage as Zoom became a widely-used service at large enterprises as well as in education, health care and among religious organizations.

Representatives from Zoom and Five9 declined to comment.

At a Morgan Stanley investor event in March, Steckelberg was asked about Zoom’s plans for the call center.

“Contact center is an absolutely really important part of the phone strategy,” Steckelberg said in response. “The way we approach that today is through partnering. We have great relationships with Five9. Eric and Rowan are very good friends.”

Zoom’s goal is to be not only a video service used for meetings with co-workers and clients, but to become the center of all work communication, including for customer service reps in call centers.

Yuan went a step further in June on Zoom’s quarterly earnings call. He responded to an analyst’s question about contact center expansion by telling investors, “Stay tuned, you will see something.” He followed by suggesting that details could be revealed around the time of the company’s Zoomtopia conference in September.

“I hope we will be able to do more,” he said, indicating that Zoom may go beyond integrations with call center technology providers.

Buy vs. build

A big reason why an agreement took so long to come together was because both stocks were so volatile, people familiar with the talks said. Shares of Zoom and Five9 moved 10% or more in a single week on several occasions this year, making it difficult to come to terms. Ultimately, the acquisition price was a modest 13% premium to Five9’s last closing price before the announcement.

The deal is projected to close in the first half of 2022 and Trollope will continue to run Five9 as a president of Zoom. Five9 adds a projected $650 million in revenue next year to the $4.8 billion in sales that analysts expect from Zoom, according to StreetAccount.

On the investor call following the announcement, Yuan and Trollope said that common customers have been telling them they want to count on a single vendor that can provide communications technology for internal purposes as well as customer service. Zoom could invest in building the product itself, but customers “do not want to wait,” Yuan said.

Analysts like BTIG’s Matt VanVliet said the decision to buy instead of build is the right one.

“Overall, we are encouraged by Zoom’s strategy to supercharge its platform with this acquisition rather than rely purely on its own internal R&D chops, which would have taken years to scale,” wrote VanVliet, who has a buy recommendation on Zoom, in a report on July 19.

Zoom has a long way to go before it can claim to have a portfolio of cloud software products, like Salesforce, Adobe and ServiceNow.

Late last year, the company entered the live events space with the launch of a homegrown product called OnZoom, expanding the video platform beyond the workplace and betting that online gatherings, in some form, are here to stay. In July, Zoom hired Abhisht Arora, a 21-year Microsoft veteran and Teams program manager, as its head of corporate strategy, reporting directly to Yuan.

Between development of new products and big acquisitions into parallel markets, Yuan is trying to ensure that Zoom is more than just a pandemic stock, and that its status as an enterprise giant remains long after we say goodbye to Covid-19.

— CNBC’s Alex Sherman contributed to this report.

WATCH: Zoom’s acquisition of Five9 is a ‘steal of a deal,’ says analyst

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Air conditioning and climate change: Start-ups trying to help

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This June was the hottest in American history. The 116-degree heat melted power cables in Portland, Oregon, and smashed previous temperature records. Seattle recorded an all-time high of 108 degrees, as did the Canadian province of British Columbia, at a whopping 121 degrees.

As the world warms, more people are installing air conditioning. Global energy demand for cooling has more than tripled since 1990 and could more than double between now and 2040 without stricter efficiency standards.

But air conditioning itself is a major contributor to global warming. Altogether, building operations that include heating, cooling and lighting account for 28% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than the entire global transportation sector.

But SkyCool, Gradient and a number of other companies are working on the problem. They’re trying to apply new technologies to the traditionally inflexible heating and cooling industry, finance the upfront costs, communicate the value to property owners and make sure it’s all done equitably. 

Watch the video to learn more.

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The U.S. is deciding how to respond to China’s digital yuan

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China is beating the U.S. when it comes to innovation in online money, posing challenges to the U.S. dollar’s status as the de facto monetary reserve. Nearly 80 countries — including China and the U.S. — are in the process of developing a CBDC, or Central Bank Digital Currency. It’s a form of money that’s regulated but exists entirely online. China has already launched its digital yuan to more than a million Chinese citizens, while the U.S. is still largely focused on research.

The two groups tasked with this research in the U.S., MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, are parsing out what a digital currency might look like for Americans. Privacy is a major concern, so researchers and analysts are observing China’s digital yuan rollout.

“I think that if there is a digital dollar, privacy is going to be a very, very important part of that,” said Neha Narula, director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. “The United States is pretty different than China.”

Another concern is access. According to the Pew Research Center, 7% of Americans say they don’t use the internet. For Black Americans, that rises to 9%, and for Americans over the age of 65, that rises to 25%. Americans with a disability are about three times as likely as those without a disability to say they never go online. That is part of what MIT is researching.

“Most of the work that we’re doing assumes that CBDC will coexist with physical cash and that users will still be able to use physical cash if they want to,” Narula said.

The idea of a CBDC in the U.S. is aimed, in part, at making sure the dollar stays the monetary leader in the world economy.

“The United States should not rest on its current leadership in this area. It should push ahead and develop a clear strategy for how to remain very strong and take advantage of the strength of the dollar,” said Darrell Duffie, professor of finance at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Others see the digital yuan as insidious.

“The digital yuan is the largest threat to the West that we’ve faced in the last 30, 40 years. It allows China to get their claws into everyone in the West and allows them to export their digital authoritarianism,” said Kyle Bass of Hayman Capital Management.

Watch CNBC’s deep dive video into CDBCs to learn more.

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