Benioff’s big test
Wednesday’s earnings report by Salesforce may be the most closely watched in the software giant’s 24-year history. Investors — especially the now half-dozen activist shareholders who are clamoring for change at the company, and possibly board seats — will be eager to hear how its chief, Marc Benioff, plans to turn around its fortunes.
That won’t be easy. Mr. Benioff must make potentially drastic changes to the performance and culture of the company he founded, even as employees grow restive after a wave of layoffs.
Salesforce faces a host of challenges. Its stock price is down 47 percent from its November peak, as investors fret over declining sales and a company that seemingly grew bloated during the tech boom. The Wall Street Journal outlined some of the most striking examples of what happened to the onetime highflier:
The company paid Matthew McConaughey, a friend of Mr. Benioff’s, over $10 million a year to be a creative adviser and spokesman, including in a $5 million Super Bowl ad. (Mr. Benioff told The Journal he had no part in approving McConaughey’s compensation.)
Mr. Benioff repeatedly prioritized sales growth — including a “flood-the-zone” approach — over profitability and efficiency; he believed that slowing hiring for sales teams would hurt revenue growth. That’s borne out in financial measures: The company’s adjusted operating margins have been much smaller than those of rivals like ServiceNow and Adobe.
Previous efforts to promote efficiency, including a 2021 proposal that would have ranked top achievers and eliminated the worst performers, fell flat with staff.
Salesforce, the largest employer in San Francisco, was once awash in perks, including specialty-coffee baristas at its headquarters and use of a 75-acre wellness retreat. Those have been drastically scaled back, drawing complaints from the 22,000 employees who’ve joined an internal Slack channel called “airing of grievances.”
Mr. Benioff has already moved to change course, including by laying off 10 percent of the company’s work force, or 8,000 people. That cuts against his longtime corporate philosophy of “ohana” — Hawaiian for familial bonds — but it was necessary, he told The Journal: “If you don’t have a performance culture, and you don’t operate the company with that kind of efficacy, you’re not doing anybody any favors.”
The question now is what investors will think. Wall Street has already been agog at how many activist shareholders have piled into Salesforce — including Elliott Management, Starboard Value, Third Point, Inclusive Capital and ValueAct. They are likely to push for a focus on increasing profits. A sixth activist showed up this week: Strive Asset Management, a self-professed “anti-woke” investment firm, which has called on Salesforce to “stop using your business as a ‘platform for social change’ and focus on serving your customers alone.”
Benioff may address the investor challenges on Wednesday, including any potential détente he has reached with the activists. (Salesforce has been in truce talks with Elliott in recent weeks, though it’s unclear whether that will be enough to stave off a proxy fight.) But the greater challenge of restoring the company to its former heights may take a long time to address.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
Elon Musk takes center stage at Tesla on Wednesday. At the carmaker’s first investor day, its billionaire C.E.O. is expected to announce new products, including updated solar panels and its forthcoming pickup truck. But shareholders and analysts may also ask about a recent recall tied to Tesla’s autonomous vehicle software and growing competition in electric vehicle sales.
The E.U. narrows a big antitrust case against Apple. The European Commission will focus on Apple’s limits on how streaming-music rivals like Spotify can advertise subscriptions to their services; it dropped charges about the iPhone maker restricting developers to its own in-app payment system. That slims down the case against Apple, but may make it stronger.
A third top FTX executive strikes a plea deal. Nishad Singh, who was the failed crypto exchange’s director of engineering, pleaded guilty to several counts of fraud and campaign finance violations. More notably, he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, putting more pressure on the FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried as he awaits trial.
The F.B.I. backs up the lab-leak theory about the pandemic’s origins. Its director, Christopher Wray, said the agency believes the coronavirus likely spread from an accidental leak at a laboratory in Wuhan, China; that theory got a boost recently from the Energy Department. But the White House has said there is still no consensus on the origin of the outbreak.
More details emerge about a federal inquiry into Dan Snyder. Prosecutors have focused on a $55 million loan taken out by the Washington Commanders without the knowledge or approval of Mr. Snyder’s then-fellow owners, according to ESPN. Those investors — including the FedEx founder Fred Smith — raised their concerns with the N.F.L., though the league did little to investigate, ESPN reports.
Goldman calls time on its consumer ambitions
At Goldman Sachs’s second-ever investor day on Tuesday, the Wall Street bank conceded that one of its big bets wasn’t panning out. David Solomon, the firm’s C.E.O., said it would scale back its consumer-banking efforts.
But investors didn’t appear impressed by the long-anticipated announcement. Goldman’s shares dropped nearly 4 percent on Tuesday.
“We’ve significantly narrowed our ambitions for our consumer strategy,” Mr. Solomon told shareholders, a reversal for a business that Goldman had once touted as a source of growth. It includes the buy-now-pay-later lender GreenSky and credit card businesses for Apple and G.M. The firm previously disclosed that its platform solution unit, which houses most of its retail banking businesses (but not its Marcus online bank), had lost $3 billion pretax since 2020; executives said they’re aiming to make the business break even in 2025.
Mr. Solomon said that Goldman was now weighing “strategic alternatives” for the business, Wall Street parlance for a potential sale of some or all of its parts. It isn’t clear what Goldman will do, but Bloomberg reports that the firm is exploring a sale of GreenSky.
Goldman is doubling down on its traditional business lines. Mr. Solomon said the firm would redouble efforts to expand its wealth-management business, which provides more stable fees than its signature deal-making and trading operations. (Wealth and asset management have helped bolster the fortunes of a top rival, Morgan Stanley.)
But analysts raised questions about Solomon’s plan, with some professing uncertainty over what Goldman hopes to do with the consumer business. “Having a blended message was a confusing one,” Gerard Cassidy of Royal Bank of Canada told Bloomberg. “Are you going to keep it or are you going to sell it?”
Major doubts about student debt relief
The fate of the student debt battle before the Supreme Court is looking increasingly bleak for millions of federal student loan borrowers and for the Biden administration.
The court’s conservative majority on Tuesday cast doubts on the legality of the White House’s plan to cancel about $400 billion in student debt, suggesting that the move represents an overreach of the president’s executive power.
The government’s English — and math — came into question. Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the argument that the debt forgiveness amounts to a mere “modification” of the federal loan program. “We’re talking about half a trillion dollars,” he said, adding that “if you’re going to affect the obligations of that many Americans on a subject that’s of great controversy,” most observers would think that was something for Congress to decide.
The cases may come down to standing — whether the six Republican states and two students who have pushed to nullify the debt-forgiveness plan can challenge it at all. If the court finds they can’t sue because they aren’t really harmed, the justices could resolve the separate cases without addressing questions about the president’s powers. That’s what the federal government is hoping for.
The matter could test the scope of the “major questions doctrine.” This legal theory holds that whenever there are big economic and political questions looming over the implementation of new government policies, congressional authorization is required. The high court applied the doctrine last June in a decision that invalidated an Environmental Protection Agency rule on capping carbon emissions. Ever since, some pro-business advocates have cited the doctrine as a potential way to challenge government proposals that they deem to be too onerous and costly for companies.
The Chamber of Commerce has weighed in on student debt. In an amicus brief, it argued that the cases provide a “timely opportunity” to apply the major questions doctrine. It also plans to use the doctrine to challenge a proposed F.T.C. ban on noncompete clauses. Similarly, Gary Gensler, the S.E.C. chair, has said he expects some critics of the agency’s new climate disclosure framework to use the legal tenet there as well.
A decision on the student debt cases is due in June.
“It used to be that you’d see smaller things fail, but now Twitter is going down completely for certain regions of the world. When serious things break, the people who knew the systems aren’t there anymore.”
— Saagar Jha, a former Twitter engineer, on how outages, glitches and bugs appear to be on the rise at Elon Musk’s social network.
The China growth story continues
Beijing published knockout manufacturing data and encouraging housing figures this morning, adding rocket fuel to one of the world’s most impressive stock market rallies.
The SSE Composite Index in Shanghai gained 1 percent on Wednesday, and the Hang Seng Index of Hong Kong stocks finished up 4.2 percent, putting it about 40 percent above its close on Oct. 31.
Helping drive the market were stellar economic data. The National Bureau of Statistics reported on Wednesday that the purchasing managers’ index, a key data point about the health of China’s manufacturing sector, rose to its highest level since 2012. Elsewhere, home sales in China, a big driver of domestic growth, rose for the first time in 20 months.
Investors have poured into Chinese stocks since November, when Beijing began to ease Covid lockdown measures on homes and businesses. The Hang Seng has outperformed stock market indexes in Europe and North America over that period by a wide measure.
The next potential boost for Chinese stocks may come next week, when officials are expected to report a new economic growth target at the annual meeting of the country’s rubber-stamp legislature.
THE SPEED READ
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