Excerpted from an email which Whitney Tilson sent to investors
1) Over the summer, when 60 Minutes isn’t airing new stories, it typically runs greatest hits from recent seasons, so it’s not surprising that it’s re-airing the Lumber Liquidators story from March 1st tonight (Sunday) – I assume with an update that will, I hope, include the fact that the company continued selling the toxic laminate for more than TWO MONTHS after the story aired before finally halting sales on May 7th, that the CEO, CFO, head of sourcing, and chief compliance officer have all left, and that the company is under investigation from a half dozen federal agencies…
60 Minutes deserves to take a victory lap on this – it was an extraordinary piece of journalism that will, I confidently predict, win major awards.
(The 17 articles I’ve published on Lumber Liquidators since the 60 Minutes story aired are posted at: www.tilsonfunds.com/LLTilsonarticles.pdf and my latest slide presentation is at:www.tilsonfunds.com/LL.pdf)
2) This story on Amazon’s corporate culture, which takes up nearly half of the front page of today’s NYT, is a fascinating look inside a fascinating company. No huge surprises if you’ve read The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (which I highly recommend). A lot of similarities with Apple and Tesla (because of the many similarities among Bezos, Jobs and Musk). These are incredible companies, run by incredible, visionary entrepreneurs, but they really burn most people out – yet for a small minority of people, they’re the perfect place to work.
On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an orientation intended to catapult them into Amazon’s singular way of working.
They are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.
At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)
Many of the newcomers filing in on Mondays may not be there in a few years. The company’s winners dream up innovations that they roll out to a quarter-billion customers and accrue small fortunes in soaring stock. Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff — “purposeful Darwinism,” one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.
Even as the company tests delivery by drone and ways to restock toilet paper at the push of a bathroom button, it is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable. The company, founded and still run by Jeff Bezos, rejects many of the popular management bromides that other corporations at least pay lip service to and has instead designed what many workers call an intricate machine propelling them to achieve Mr. Bezos’ ever-expanding ambitions.
“This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” said Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter. “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”
Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
3) Roger Lowenstein with some common sense on stock buybacks:
Stock buybacks are suddenly controversial, with critics arguing that they are hurting the American economy, killing jobs, and manipulating stock prices and therefore must be banned. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running for president, has made slamming buybacks a theme of his campaign. And William Lazonick, an economics professor at UMass Lowell, has asserted that banning buybacks is key to reviving the middle class.
Is this ordinary corporate tactic really so bad? Actually, buybacks are both useful and benign — and in no way warrant restriction. Let’s start with the basics: stock buybacks are a converse operation to stock sales. Companies issue stock — that is, they sell slices of equity — to raise capital. They buy back stock to retire capital. These buybacks occur for two reasons.
4) Krugman with some spot-on points about the goings on in China:
They appear to have been taken completely by surprise by the market’s predictable reaction; namely, the initial devaluation of the renminbi was “the first bite of the cherry,” a sign of much bigger declines to come. Investors began fleeing China, and policy makers abruptly pivoted from promoting currency devaluation to an all-out effort to support the renminbi’s value.
The common theme in these wild policy swings is that China’s leadership keeps imagining that it can order markets around, telling them what prices to reach. And that’s not how things work.
I’m not saying governments should never interfere with markets, or even set limits on prices…
…But these were short-lived actions, taken at times when markets seemed to have lost their bearings. Staffers at the Federal Reserve used to call these moves “slap in the face” interventions. That’s very different from the kind of sustained intervention and political dictation of prices China seems to imagine it can pull off. Do the country’s leaders really not understand why that won’t work?
If they really don’t, that’s a big concern. China is an economic superpower — not quite as super as the United States or the European Union, yet, but big enough to matter a lot. And it’s facing tough times. So if its leadership is really as clueless as it has been looking lately, that bodes ill, not just for China, but for the world as a whole.
5) Adam Davidson with some spot-on thoughts on Greece – and why lenders need to take a big haircut:
In hindsight, of course, we know that the investors should not have lent Greece anything at all, or, if they did, should have demanded something like 100 percent interest. But this is not a case of retrospective genius. At the time, investors had all the information they needed to make a smarter decision. Greece, then as now, was a small, poor, largely agrarian economy, with a spotty track record for adhering to globally recognized financial controls. Just three weeks earlier, a newly elected Greek prime minister revealed that