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The 101 best, worst, and weirdest business moves of the pandemic

Welcome to Buy/Sell/Hold, Marker’s weekly newsletter that’s 100% business intelligence and 0% investment advice. Each week, our writers Steve LeVine and Rob Walker make sense of the most important developments in business right now — and give them a Buy for clever moves or positive trends, a Sell for mistakes or missed opportunities, or a Hold if they’re noteworthy but too early to call.

🏃 Amazon, Apple, and Netflix aren’t running for the hills 🏃

The Buy/Sell/Hold Analysis

Practically everyone agrees that the biggest and most familiar tech companies — the so-called FAANG gang: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google — are overdue for a regulatory comeuppance. Experts maintain it could be arriving soon: After all, many of these firms’ CEOs have been hauled before congressional committees repeatedly, and rumors of potential antitrust action abound. So how are those threatened giants behaving under that heat?

Well, one popular target of regulatory rumors, Amazon, just announced that it’s using its supersized market power to muscle its way into yet another consumer category: prescription drugs, which it is now promising to make available on a two-day delivery scheme for members of its Amazon Prime service. The news instantly whacked a combined $10 billion off the valuations of Walgreens and CVS, demonstrating the market’s appraisal of Amazon’s muscle.

Meanwhile, fellow FAANG Netflix, which has enjoyed an influx of new customers thanks to everyone being trapped at home, seems to have realized that we’ll be stuck binge-watching for a while longer, and raised its prices. (Rival streamer Hulu is charging more, too.) Google announced last week it will end free unlimited storage for its Google Photo service, to the consternation of users who signed on for that very feature. And Apple, lately under pressure for charging app developers a whopping 30% cut of sales through its app store — a policy that has sparked regulatory scrutiny, complaints from app creators, and a lawsuit from Fortnite maker Epic Games — announced a new policy this week: It will now charge smaller app-makers 15%, which is hardly a capitulation.

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In other words, the tech giants aren’t acting worried. If anything, they’re as brashly ambitious as ever. The Amazon example is particularly stark: Just weeks ago, a supposedly “damning” Congressional report on the tech giants painted the company — simultaneously the biggest e-tailer and a major e-commerce marketplace — as an outsize influence in digital commerce, abusing its massive data-collection abilities to undercut competition. The European Union has just charged Amazon with antitrust violations on similar grounds.

But is Amazon running scared? Are any of the FAANGsters? The evidence suggests just the opposite. Even Apple’s erstwhile concession seems, on closer look, mostly tactical. The 15% fee applies to developers who made less than $1 million through the app store in the prior year — a big group, but one that by one estimate accounted for just 5% of App Store revenue in 2019. This is more of a fig leaf than a sacrifice — Epic Games says the move is designed to “divide app creators” — and remains a steep price that any fledgling app-maker has almost no choice but to pay.

As with Amazon continuing to throw its weight into new retail sectors, that’s not FAANG running scared. That’s just running as hard as ever — and daring anyone to catch them.

Verdict: Sell

— Rob Walker

⚡ Lightning Round: 101 Momentous Moves Edition ⚡

The past eight months have condensed 10 years’ worth of momentous business moves into three quarters. Marker has cataloged these highs and the lows into a compilation of the 101 most audacious, admirable, and opportunistic business moves of the pandemic. Here are four moves adapted from the list, updated with this week’s news (trust us, you’ll want to set aside time to read through the entire strangely nostalgic time capsule):

Airbnb’s pandemic seesaw is swinging back up. Things were looking pretty dire for Airbnb this spring, when the company laid off 1,900 of its 7,500 employees, even after raising $1 billion from private equity firms. Its long-anticipated IPO plans were delayed — but by August, after the rise of the social-distancing staycationIPO plans were back on. Now the platform — which plans to raise $3 billion on the Nasdaq in the coming weeks — is reportedly also considering being listed on Silicon Valley’s new alternative trading exchange, the Long-Term Stock Exchange, in early 2021. Good thing Airbnb gave laid-off employees an extra year to exercise those stock options. Buy.

⚡ Hundreds of companies that got PPP loans went bankrupt anyway. Back in April, large companies like Danny Meyer’s burger chain Shake Shack were facing public ire for receiving large handouts from the rapidly depleting Paycheck Protection Program fund. (The chain quickly turned the backlash into a PR win by being one of the first large companies to return its loan.) It turns out, for many small companies that received money from the program, even that wasn’t enough: The Wall Street Journal identified at least 285 recipients of PPP loans that filed for bankruptcy, and noted that many smaller businesses simply liquidated rather than file for bankruptcy. Sell.

⚡After a disastrous year, AMC compromises on its new reality. In August, after more than five months without movies — and losses of $2.2 billion in a single quarter — AMC reopened 100 of its over 600 U.S. theaters with a one-day promo of 15-cent tickets to see older movies like Back to the Future. But even desperate discounts couldn’t coax moviegoers back to the cinema: In November, AMC said it was selling more stock to raise $50 million to try to stave off bankruptcy. But this week, it was announced that superhero sequel Wonder Woman 1984 would debut Christmas Day simultaneously on HBO Max and in U.S. theaters, with AMC CEO Adam Aron saying the chain is “fully onboard” for this plan, since “atypical circumstances call for atypical economic relationships between studios and theatres.” In other words: It’s not exactly the V-shaped recovery cinemas had hoped for, but it’s a start. Hold.

After turning bored millennials into day traders, Robinhood may be pondering a public offering. Despite a disastrous outage the day after the S&P 500 fell for five straight days, the no-fee stock trading app Robinhood became the pandemic entertainment engine for a new generation of day traders. In May, the startup raised $280 million from its venture investors, followed by another $660 million in September, pumping its valuation from $8.3 billion to about $11.7 billion in less than a year. No surprise, then, that the company is reportedly considering an IPO in early 2021. Buy.

📈 The Number: $123 billion

That was Elon Musk’s net worth by the end of stock trading Thursday — a $13 billion jump from Monday — making him the world’s third-richest person.

After a dozen years of the brow-furrowed tut-tuts of naysayers galore, Tesla on Monday was approved for entry to the halls of the establishment: the S&P 500 Index. As a result, index-tracking institutional investors that had thumbed their nose for years were forced to snap up its shares. That pushed up the company’s stock price — and Musk’s net worth.

The vindication of the bad boy of the auto industry was justified. It’s hard to think of another entrepreneur in memory who has so overturned a legacy industry by joining it. Not Jeff Bezos, who created his own industry — the e-book and later e-commerce store. Nor even Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, similarly at the front-end of burgeoning sectors. Instead, the annals of brash business are filled with the detritus of Icaruses that broke into existing industries and reached great heights, only to tumble to the ground — DeLorean, People Express, and Quibi, to name a few.

As I wrote this week for The Mobilist — my new Medium blog about the future of batteries, driverless cars, and autonomous vehicles — after many false starts, we do finally seem to be entering a new age of electric cars. Legacy automakers now all publicly tip their hat and give Musk credit for pioneering this era and setting the standard for where the industry will go. To a greater degree than ever, his fortune depends on it.

— Steve LeVine

🚗 Sign up here for The Mobilist, a clear-eyed, biweekly look at the new future of electric vehicles, batteries, and beyond.

🔎 Marker’s New Fixation 🔎

The pandemic has been a boon to Twitch, Amazon’s livestreaming platform, which nearly doubled from 3.8 million to 7.2 million users between February and April of 2020. Now, it’s up to 7.8 million — but there’s just one problem: Unlike Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who drew more than 430,000 users to watch her play the popular online multiplayer game Among Us last month, a large portion of these new streamers have literally no viewers at all. To show these Twitch streams some love, a software engineer built Nobody.live, a new site that lets anyone dip in on these lonely gamers streaming into the void so they can at least have an audience of one. I recently browsed the site myself, settling on a woman who happily chatted and hummed to herself all while attacking her opponents in Overwatch. “Is my sound okay?” she asked the empty room. It may feel like one giant metaphor for the isolation of 2020, but as long as they keep broadcasting, there’s always a hope that someone, somewhere might listen.

— Bobbie Gossage, Deputy Editor, Marker

🦃 We’ll be back in two weeks! 🦃

Buy/Sell/Hold will be taking off next week for Thanksgiving — we hope you and your families have a very happy Zoom holiday. See you on December 4!

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Bylines in Vox, VICE, The Paris Review, BuzzFeed, and more. Contributor to The Onion. Check out my work here: jeanlucbouchard.com.