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Why corporate America finally entered the political battlefield

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.

⏱️ How long will the corporate courage last? ⏱️

The Buy/Sell/Hold Analysis

After one of the most whiplash years in the history of the hospitality industry, Airbnb announced a difficult decision on Wednesday: It would cancel all reservations made through the app in the Washington, D.C., area next week when President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated. The reason: the threat of more violent protests by right-wing supporters of President Trump, some of whom stayed in Airbnbs when thousands of them stormed Congress last week.

Airbnb is shouldering the cost of the cancellations, but in a way, their hand was forced. In an action unprecedented in modern memory, Airbnb is more or less simply going along with an uprising by a critical mass of companies against Trump and his congressional allies. By one count, 43 mostly blue-chip companies have denounced and halted political contributions to the 147 Republicans who voted not to certify Biden, or paused donating to all politicians entirely.

The list includes big tech players like Amazon and Facebook, corporate heavyweights like AT&T, Dow, and American Airlines, and has spread to banks, oil companies, hotels, big retailers, grocery chains, and more. Even Ken Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot who had ignited a boycott of the chain after he backed Trump’s reelection, said he felt betrayed by the president and threw his support to Biden.

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The significance is not in taking a stand per se — in recent years, driven by activist employees and communities, companies have been pushed to adopt public positions on everything from school shootings to immigration. Now, though, corporate America has drawn a new red line where no one else has. While large groups of politicians may be prepared to jettison the democratic system by refusing to accept the results of an election, the companies are not.

It’s not clear how long the corporate freeze-out of political contributions will stand, but it may not last long. One possible trigger for its return could be hunger for a piece of the infrastructure bill that the Biden administration seems likely to float in its first 100 days; members of Congress are a lot less likely to give lucrative projects to a company that’s currently punishing them.

One could fault business for convenient tardiness or self-preservation, arriving on the white stallion at only the 13th hour to help ensure there was a nation left from which to profit. After all, chaos is bad for the bottom line. But the corporate revolt is one the country clearly wants, judging by surveys by firms such as Edelman that show Americans trust businesses far more than government and media. And unlike the anti-racism platitudes companies posted to social media this past summer, largely unsupported by firm action, this rebellion is spoken in the language politicians understand — their lifeblood of cash donations.

Verdict: Buy

— Steve LeVine

⚡ Lightning Round⚡

FedEx signs up to be GM’s electric truck guinea pig. Later this year, General Motors will roll out a line of electric delivery trucks under a new division called BrightDrop. Its first customer will be FedEx, which agreed to purchase 500 of the electric vehicles. GM isn’t the only car-maker getting into this business — and FedEx isn’t the only delivery company betting on them. In November, Ford introduced an electric cargo van, and in September, Amazon pumped more money into its own EV investment, the startup Rivian. FedEx’s purchase of 500 trucks is dwarfed by the 100,000 electric vans Rivian plans to deliver to Amazon by the end of the decade. Hold.

Walmart doubles down on groceries, with an eye on banking. On Tuesday, the retail giant announced plans to test delivering groceries to smart coolers outside customers’ homes. By some estimates, Walmart’s already the biggest grocer in the world by sales, but it has its eye on catching up to Amazon’s growing same-day grocery delivery network with Whole Foods, Prime, and Amazon Fresh. Also this week, Walmart announced plans to launch a fintech startup. Fintech may sound like a far cry from the chain’s retail expertise, but the focus of this startup appears to be less cryptocurrency and day trading and more nuts-and-bolts financial services geared toward customers and employees. Nothing could be in Walmart’s wheelhouse more than shaping the financial habits of lower-income people. Buy.

Compass lines up for the IPO parade. SoftBank’s last big real estate play famously unraveled when WeWork filed to go public in the summer of 2019, showing the world it was on shakier footing than its $47 billion private valuation suggested. On Monday, Compass — another SoftBank-backed real estate tech startup — confidentially filed to go public and managed to avoid any cataclysmic public scrutiny in the process. As Patrick Sisson detailed for Marker in his December feature on Compass, the company — last valued at $6.4 billion — has expanded dramatically during the pandemic and strenuously resists any comparisons to WeWork. If only it’d open its books so we could say for ourselves. Hold.

Marie Kondo cleans up with a branding paradox. The bestselling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up-turned-media-star taught clutterers around the world to embrace minimalism, shedding unnecessary possessions except those that “sparked joy.” Now, Kondo’s making a hard philosophical pivot with a new collaboration to sell “100 organizing objects” with The Container Store, according to the New York Times. The Container Store has always been a retail concept struggling to validate its own existence (was anyone begging for a one-stop storage shop?), but as someone who got famous encouraging a pared-back lifestyle, Kondo’s move to sell special boxes with the chain sparks humor above all else. Sadly, the brand partnership will probably work. Buy.

📈 The Number: 1%

That’s the approximate decline in the number of patents granted in the U.S. last year, according to TechCrunch.

The drop in the number of patents granted — from 354,428 in 2019 to 352,013 — seems likely to be a side effect of the pandemic’s general drag on the economy, but was milder than expected. Data tracker IFI CLAIMS Patent Services notes that the patent figure (which can be taken as a rough proxy for innovation) has been trending upward for a decade; even the slightly lower number in 2020 is 13% higher than the 2018 figure. And perhaps even more surprising: Patent applications actually rose last year, by nearly 5%. (Perhaps in-person collaboration isn’t as crucial to innovation as we assumed.)

TechCrunch notes that the top growth categories for new patents included artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing, and autonomous technology. Interestingly, the list of companies racking up the most patent grants was topped not by the stock-market favorite tech stars you might expect — Apple, Amazon, and Google — but by IBM (with 9,130), Samsung (6,415), and Canon (3,225). Then again, what really matters with patents may not be how many you have, but how well you exploit them.

— Rob Walker

📖 Marker Read of the Week: The Bitcoin dream is dead by Marker columnist and The Wisdom of Crowds author James Surowiecki.

🔎 Marker’s New Fixation 🔎

From Dilbert through the ’90s to The Office in the early 2000s and Silicon Valley in the 2010s, white-collar office satire has long served as a coping mechanism to process the frustration (and, occasionally, existential dread) that accompanies accepting your role in late capitalism. Pandemic work memes — the latest genre of white-collar satire to proliferate popular media — are no exception. Right alongside the influencers and foodies of Instagram, you can also scroll through satirical accounts like Litquidity, linkdinflex, MBA-ish, and consultingcomedy — proof that not even a global pandemic, the shuttering of nonessential offices, and the near cleaving of democracy can stave off a universal appetite for timely corporate humor. I, for one, am thankful for these accounts’ commitment to remote work goofs in the face of daunting changes at work and beyond. It’s not just a welcomed replacement for doomscrolling through Twitter, but a good excuse for laughing off Sunday scaries that increasingly span the full week.

— Gloria Oh, Senior Ideas Editor, Marker

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