Photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/Getty/AFP via Getty Images
With a new year upon us, it seems prudent to boil down all the things we clearly learned about politics during the 2020 elections into a few bright-line lessons for the very near future. It’s very likely we will learn more once reliable post-election analysis based on Census data and voter files becomes available. (One of the problems analysts face right now is that 2020 exit polls are especially unreliable thanks to methodological issues raised by heavy voting by mail.) But searing some big-picture findings into our brains is useful since some of them contradict hot takes or override in significance other data points that have been exaggerated or misunderstood.
The Electoral College Is More of a Travesty Than Ever
Joe Biden’s 4.5-point popular vote win over Donald Trump was larger than that mustered by the winners of the 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2004, 2012 and 2016 elections. Biden led by more than seven million votes, yet Trump could have won an electoral vote majority with a shift of just 65,009 votes between Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska and Wisconsin. The disconnect between the popular and electoral vote is getting larger and more alarming, mostly because the most competitive states are not entirely representative of the country as a whole.
This near-calamity was a possibility hiding in plain sight throughout the 2020 campaign, though it was disguised by Biden’s large national and state polling lead, which showed him periodically ahead in many states that fell to Trump when the race tightened, e.g., Florida, Iowa, Ohio and even Texas.
All the post-election complaints from Trump and his supporters have made it easy to forget that thanks to the Electoral College we might have seen a true national convulsion at the prospect of a two-term president who never won a popular vote plurality and was repudiated by a clear majority of voters when running for reelection. And Biden, whose 51.4 percent of the national popular vote was the second-highest posted by any winner in the last eight presidential elections, might have been truly entitled to launch a “stop the steal” crusade.
Straight-Ticket Voting Continues to Rise
The surprisingly strong Republican performance in House races, particularly in some suburban or exurban areas, led to some initial talk that ticket-splitting had returned. And there were even sightings of that great mythical beast, strategic voting where voters consciously sought to create partisan gridlock by balancing presidential votes for one party with down-ballot votes for the other.
It’s true that there was some significant ticket-splitting in southern California, where Republicans clawed back four House seats they lost in 2018 — all in districts carried by Joe Biden. These races, however, were very close in both 2018 and 2020, and it didn’t take much of a gap between Biden and down-ballot Democrats to produce the flips.
More generally, there was a bit of an optical illusion created by Republican gains in the House. Overall, Democrats won the national House popular vote by 3.1 percent, not that different from Biden’s 4.5 percent margin at the presidential level. And Democrats did, after all, win a majority of seats, albeit a reduced majority if compared to 2018. As Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman notes, only 17 House races were won by candidates whose parties lost the presidential election in their district — the lowest number in a century, and down significantly from the 35 split-ticket districts in 2016 and the 83 in 2008.
In the Senate, only one candidate, Susan Collins, won a state lost by her party’s presidential candidate (pending the results in the two Georgia runoffs on January 5, of course). It will be a while before we have the full data necessary to compare presidential and state legislative voting, but it is worth noting that some of the states where Democrats hoped to flip legislative chambers wound up going for Trump (Florida, Iowa North Carolina and Texas) or were very close (Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania).
Presidential Approval Ratings Remain the Best Predictor for Presidential Vote Share
Yes, national and state polls got a lot of things wrong in the 2020 election cycle. Though it’s not as much as some have asserted, particularly in judgements made before a steady upward drift in Biden’s popular-vote margin made some national polls look a lot better. But there’s one national polling number that wound up looking highly accurate in predicting one presidential candidate’s share of the vote: the president’s job approval rating. Gallup had Trump’s at 46 percent just prior to the election, and he took 47 percent of the vote. As Wasserman noted, Gallup job approval numbers have been pretty close to the vote-share won by every president seeking reelection since 1976,
This reinforces the conviction that presidential reelection bids are mostly a referendum on that president’s performance in office, no matter what other wacky things might be going on. This might merit an even closer look at Biden’s job approval numbers going forward than would otherwise be the case.
Democrats Missed a Huge Opportunity and Republicans Dodged a Bullet
We obviously cannot close the books on 2020 until the January 5 Georgia Senate runoffs determine which party controls the upper chamber for the next two years. If Democrats sweep the two Georgia races, they will have 50 senators, and a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris will allow Democrats to organize the Senate and claim a governing trifecta for the first time since 2010.
That sounds great for Democrats, and it is great compared to the alternative of a return to the days when Mitch McConnell systematically obstructed the agenda of the Obama-Biden administration. But the Democratic margin of control in both houses of Congress would be so slight that Republicans will be justified in believing the normal midterm swing against the party holding the White House could well put Congress back under their control in 2022. And if Republicans do win one or both Senate runoffs in Georgia, their ability to keep the Biden-Harris administration from accomplishing much at all will be immensely enhanced.
It’s a very different picture from the one many Democrats and objective observers alike glimpsed for much of the election year: an expanded House majority to accompany a Democratic Senate, and a presidential win decisive enough to create a “struggle for the soul of the Republican Party” between the defeated Trumpists and the rest of the GOP.
The lost Democratic opportunity in 2020 most definitely extends to decennial redistricting process for the House and state legislatures, as Democrats fell far short of their ambitious goals of flipping enough chambers to prevent Republicans from repeating the gerrymandering feats they undertood after their 2010 landslide. As FiveThirtyEight reported, Democratic hopes were dashed in state after state:
The GOP is in almost as good a position as it enjoyed in the last redistricting process, when Republicans controlled the drawing of 55 percent of congressional districts and Democrats controlled only 10 percent after 2010’s GOP wave. As a result, the House map has been more biased toward Republicans this decade than at any point since the 1970s (and Republicans have been able to win multiple chambers in state legislatures despite losing the statewide popular vote1). It now looks as if we’re headed for another 10 years of Republican-favoring maps. Democrats were able to win the House and several state legislatures in 2018 thanks to shifting vote patterns in the suburbs in particular, but Republicans in many states will now have the opportunity to draw new gerrymanders that account for this realignment.
The steady trend towards adoption of independent redistricting commissions will limit Republican gerrymandering, but only to a marginal extent.
Looking at the bigger picture, 2020 represented yet another cycle in which favorable demographic trends did not produce the swelling Democratic majority that looked imminent in 2008 or even earlier. Again, we must await better data to determine exactly which segment of the population shifted in one direction or the other, but it appears the relatively strong Republican performance was built on a combination of previously unplumbed white working class votes (often thought to have “maxed out” for Republicans in 2016) and a small but clear shift towards the GOP among Latinos, and perhaps a pro-Republican shift among Black men. The idea that Democrats are destined to reduce their opponents to a shrinking and literally dying rump of old white voters isn’t looking that compelling at the moment.
America Desperately Needs National Election Reform
It’s easy to dismiss the pre- and post-election furor about voting procedures to the unique circumstances of a pandemic that made unusual levels of voting by mail much more attractive, and a major party whose president has exhibited a career-long willingness to lie blatantly in making irresponsible claims of election fraud. Yes, Trump and his enablers are principally at fault for undermining confidence in the U.S. election system among an alarming number of Republican voters. But the raw material for their lies was provided by a crazy-quilt system of election rules administered by poorly funded state and local officials and supervised by a vast and complicated array of judges delivering rulings that are 100 percent incomprehensible to anyone without a law degree.
One of 2020’s great ironies is that it’s Republicans who mostly complained about widely varying election rules, given their chronic resistance to federal involvement in vindicating voting rights and their opposition to larger federal funding for election administration (particularly during negotiations over COVID-19 relief and stimulus legislation). Given their heavy investment as a party in restricting access to the ballot, it is likely they will continue to favor arbitrary and partisan state and local election systems where they benefit the GOP, even as they accuse Democratic jurisdictions of wire-pulling and ballot-box stuffing, usually without much evidence. But something’s got to give at some point: the country cannot perpetually tolerate a system of elections in which a growing minority — and in some cases a majority — has no faith at all.
Of all the seemingly impossible tasks of bipartisan policy-making America faces in 2021 and beyond, perhaps none is more urgent than election reform, aimed at creating some uniform rules for how and when ballots are cast, with transparent accountability measures, pro-voter incentives, and adequate funding to make it all work in favorable and unfavorable conditions alike. 2020 should be the last election where one big segment of voters is struggling to cast ballots and another is fighting to overturn the results.
The end of the Merkel era: Is 'Mutti' really ready to swap politics for plum cake and potato soup? – CNN
The world’s crisis manager
‘We can manage this’
Of Politics and Stock Prices – Motley Fool
In this episode of Motley Fool Money, host Chris Hill is joined by senior analysts Jason Moser and Ron Gross to discuss how the business world reacted to the insurrection at the United States Capitol Building. Also, Bezos, Buffet, and Dimon pull the plug on health venture Haven, and Teledyne Technologies (NYSE:TDY) and FLIR Systems (NASDAQ:FLIR) team up in an $8 billion merger. ‘Home stock’ tumbles on earnings, while another consumer goods one rises, and fintech start-up SoFi prepares to go public via a SPAC. Two companies’ executives step down from their role and new deals are about to take place in the streaming world. The guys discuss these latest news, the stocks on their radar and more.
To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool’s free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Jan. 8, 2021.
Chris Hill: We’ve got the latest headlines from Wall Street. We will get a preview of next week’s Consumer Electronics Show with Joanna Stern from The Wall Street Journal. As always, we’ve got a couple of stocks on our radar. But we will begin with Wednesday’s events in Washington, D.C., and the insurrection at the United States Capitol building.
This is a show about business, finance, and investing. So, we’re going to start with some perspective from two of the most prominent leaders in finance and investing. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, condemned the violence, saying, “Our elected leaders have a responsibility to call for an end to the violence, accept the results, and as our democracy has for hundreds of years, support the peaceful transition of power.” Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, the largest asset management firm in the world, called the violence an assault on our nation, our democracy, and the will of the American people. He added that “The peaceful transfer of power is the foundation of our democracy. At the end of the day, the mob lost, members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives went back to work. Democracy prevailed, and Vice President Mike Pence announced the certification of the transfer of power.”
My hunch, Ron, is that is part of the reason why we saw the stock market hitting an all-time high on Thursday, and then again on Friday.
Ron Gross: Yeah. It does feel counterintuitive to have the stock market at all-time highs among all of the turmoil and controversy, but as we always say, the market is forward-looking and it’s looking to transform formation of power. It’s looking at the fact that the vaccines are finally being distributed, although certainly not at the pace that we were all anticipating. I think there’s hope for additional stimulus, especially in light of the changes in power in the Senate, which happened over the last several days. I think that’s actually a pretty important point. I think we really still need to do something for the gig workers out there that are still hurting, and as we saw on Fridays job reports, we lost 140,000 jobs in December, and that was versus the expectation of 50,000 increase in jobs. Hospitality accounted for most of those losses, with restaurants and bars dropping 370,000. We still need a bridge to get to the other side. But I do think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, at least I really hope there is, but I think that’s where we’re headed.
Jason Moser: Yeah. I think he summed it up nicely there, Chris. I think at the end of the day, the mob lost and democracy won, and I think that this unfortunate event disappointed a lot of us. I think this really reinforced and it reiterated the power of democracy, why it’s so important, and why, even though that was obviously a very bad day in our country’s history, we should be looking forward to many, much brighter days to come.
Hill: Let’s get to a couple of the big stories from earlier in the week. Three years ago this month, we were talking on this show about the big announcement that Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A)(NYSE:BRK-B), and JPMorgan Chase were forming a partnership aimed at cutting healthcare costs and improving services for employees. Eventually that entity would be called Haven Healthcare. Ron, earlier this week, Haven Healthcare started to sell employees. It is shutting down by the end of February. I know healthcare is hard, but I think back to three years ago, and there were some big ripple effects from that announcement in 2018.
Gross: Yeah. You figure, you get Buffett, Dimon, and Bezos in a room, and what can’t they do? They’ve got the capital, they’ve got the brainpower, they’ve got the vision. Boy, let’s hit healthcare, let’s get this done and as you said, it just shows how difficult healthcare actually is. Three years after its founding, Haven is shutting down. The purpose was really quite wonderful. They wanted to develop improved access to primary care, simplify insurance coverage, make prescription drugs more affordable, all great ambitions, but too difficult to achieve. In this particular case, all companies have different employee bases, different locations, different priorities, each employer’s existing healthcare was different from the next. It’s been written that they were each going about this on their own rather than collaborating, which was the original purpose. I think certainly the writing was on the wall when the CEO stepped down in May, and then it was pretty difficult to keep other senior executives on board. Haven is no more. UnitedHealth, Humana, CVS stocks went up on that news, not surprisingly, as they had gone down earlier on the news that Haven was being formed. Healthcare is tough. The new administration is calling it a top priority, as do most administrations. We’ll wait and see.
Hill: Teledyne Technologies announced it’s buying FLIR Systems in a cash and stock deal worth $8 billion. FLIR Systems is in the business of thermal imaging cameras and sensors. Jason, who should be more excited about this deal, FLIR or Teledyne shareholders?
Moser: [laughs] Well, I would say, as someone who recommended FLIR Systems for our Augmented Reality and Beyond service a little while back, I wasn’t expecting this. I think Teledyne shareholders should be more excited, because I really didn’t want FLIR to be acquired. [laughs] Granted that was probably a little selfish on my part, but it is what it is. I definitely get the interest. These are similar businesses, but their technologies don’t really overlap. I do think that FLIR will be a complementary addition to Teledyne. As you mentioned, FLIR makes its money by selling cameras and sensors and related technology. It’s main focus is thermal imaging, including infrared. The fun fact there actually, its name is derived from the acronym for Forward Looking Infrared, so FLIR, there you go. They report their revenue in two segments; In Industrial Technologies, In Defense Technologies, about 60% of their sales comes from the Industrial and Defense side. I’m sorry, about 60% of revenue comes from Industrial and Defense, accounting for the remaining 40%. One of the nice things about their business, their supply chain is vertically integrated. So with Teledyne and FLIR protecting their intellectual property it’s paramount, and FLIR has done that very well through the years. I think that this will be something that plugs into Teledyne quite nicely. Two very similar businesses, both in size, and in what they do, but not a whole heck of a lot of overlap, and I think this actually ought to work out pretty well.
Hill: Shares at Bed Bath & Beyond (NASDAQ:BBBY) down more than 10% on Thursday after third-quarter results came in lower than expected. You tell me, Ron, how bad was it?
Gross: It really wasn’t that bad at all. I think the results disappointed investors, but the stock impact is way overblown. I think we’ve actually seen the stock come back subsequently at least a bit. Overall, comp sales up 2%. Comps at Bed Bath & Beyond itself were up 5%. Digital sales up 94% at Bed Bath & Beyond, and up 70% overall in the business. Revenue was down 5.1%, folks are focusing on that, but that’s because the company closed stores. They sold off some of their smaller chains, which I loved, like the Christmas Tree Shops and World Market, selling off what they’re calling non-core assets to strengthen the balance sheet. Adjusted gross margins were up, less markdowns, favorable product mix. The net income was hurt, because of a lot of one-time charges, because remember, this company under Mark Tritton is undergoing a pretty big transformation in terms of restructuring and selling off non-core assets. So, there’s lots of charges flowing through the income statement, about 86 million this quarter. If you adjust for that, they actually have profits of $0.08 per share versus a loss of $0.38 a year ago. But that was short of expectations, hence the sell off in the stock. I see significant improvement in the balance sheet, half $1 billion reduction in gross debt, they’ve got $1.5 billion in cash right now. They increased their full-year EBITDA guidance, they’re increasing their share repurchase program to $825 million. In fact, on Friday, JPMorgan said they would purchase $150 million worth of that stock. I think things are looking good. I think the transformation, the reorganization is on track here.
Hill: I feel so much better than I felt [laughs] two minutes ago, [laughs] so thank you. [laughs].
Gross: You’re welcome.
Hill: On the flip side, shares of Constellation Brands (NYSE:STZ) were up this week. Third-quarter profits and revenue came in higher than expected for the beer, wine, and spirits company. Although, I got to say, Jason, shares of Constellation Brands over the past 12 months are up 20 %. That’s good? I don’t know. Maybe it says something about me, but during a pandemic, I thought they would have done a little better.
Moser: Well, it’s a little bit of a business in transition, but I do hear you there. I think it’s interesting, and we’re all, obviously, very tired of hearing the word coronavirus, but their Corona brand, has not suffered from that at all. There has been no association [laughs] whatsoever, which is good for them. The Corona brand itself continues to sell well, but they launched a new hard seltzer with the Corona brand, that’s been one of the most successful product launches ever for the company, right now, holding a stronger before positioning in that seltzer market today, but given that it’s so new, I suspect they’ll continue to gain some share there with their scale.
The challenge is, really, for businesses like this, it’s on premise, bars and restaurants, and those sales that were down about 35% from a year-ago. But based on the numbers, they’re dealing with the challenge nicely, net sales increased 28%, on shipment volume growth of 27%, earnings per share up 32%; the beer segment has been the biggest catalyst for growth. U.S. depletion trends of 12% in the quarter, and specifically it was Modelo Especial. That was the most significant growth contributor, as the top share gaining imported beer in the U.S. beer category. Those depletions grew about 20%, and then Pacifico really pulled its weight as well. A lot of questions on Canopy, and it’s not really been a very good investment thus far. But I will say in the call management, they struck a tone of optimism, and I think a lot of that has to do with the recent reshaping of the political spectrum in Congress. We might see some opportunities there with the Canopy business, but it does sound with guidance for 2021, talking about earnings per share in the range of $9.90 or so. It puts this share at a fairly reasonable price in a market where it seems a lot of stocks these days are arguably overvalued.
Hill: The online lender is not planning an IPO. It will go public via the suddenly popular SPAC, special-purpose acquisition vehicle. Jason, you cover the financial sector for our Industry Focus podcast. How interested are you in SoFi?
Moser: I would’ve said a couple of years ago, probably not so interested, but fast-forward to today and seeing what social finance has done to SoFi, it is becoming more interesting. This really does seem like a very good fit, a very good combination in regard to the IPO, particularly in an age we’re seeing so much innovation in the world of finance and banking. SoFi’s mission is to help people reach financial independence and help them realize their ambitions, and they do that through a number of different channels. They’re doing something right, because they’ve got one million plus members and counting, but the business initially, it was originally founded on an alumni-funded lending model, that ultimately helped connect students and recent graduates in order to deal with the touchy topic of student loans. Since then, they’ve evolved the business to a number of different services in banking and in lending. To that point, they actually just received preliminary conditional approval from the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in its application for a national bank charter. So, they have big aspirations where finance is concerned and clearly, again, like I said, just judging by the number of folks using their products and services, they’re doing something right. So, I suspect given the popularity of FinTech these days in the way that we’re seeing finance evolve, I think this will be well received.
Gross: If you pronounce finance, “finance,” is that actually SoFi?
Moser: Or if you want to just be a little bit more casual, Ron, just pronounce it SoFi.
Hill: There you go.
Hill: Two big announcements in the C-suite this week, Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) announcing that CEO Steve Mollenkopf will be retiring in June. Company President Cristiano Amon will be taking the corner office. Ron, Mollenkopf has been there seven years, still a little surprising because he’s only 52 years old.
Gross: Only 52, but it was a rough seven years. It’s like dog years that he had to go through. We’ll just tick off a few of the things, the antitrust case brought by the FTC over anti-competitive practices, a legal fight with Apple over patent licensing practices, a hostile takeover attempt by Broadcom, activist investor Jana Partners wanted it to break itself up and split into the chip unit and the patent licensing business, and then of course, there was the $54 billion acquisition of NXP Semi that got called up due to U.S. strained political tensions and the trade war at the time. So, it’s been rough. I think he’s been put through the wringer. He leaves Qualcomm in a pretty good place now, capitalizing on the demand for 5G phones, shares have crashed the market over the last five years. Going out on a high note with the company in pretty good shape.
Hill: Starbucks‘ Chief Financial Officer Pat Grismer is retiring next month. Senior VP Rachel Ruggeri is going to take over as CFO. But Ron, Grismer has only been CFO for a couple of years. That just, it’s not a red flag, but it’s a pink flag for me.
Gross: Yeah. It’s a little bit surprising when I see these types of press releases with short tenure. I always hope to see something like he’s going to start his own business or they give us something. They’ve given us pretty much nothing here to go on. So, you can fill in the blanks with optimism or pessimism. I’m not so sure, but his replacement, Rachel Ruggeri, certainly qualified, 16 years at Starbucks, 28 years in the business. I think the company will still be in good hands, but it does cause me to scratch my head a bit.
Hill: This week, fans of cauliflower had reason to celebrate. Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) launched a limited time offering of cilantro-lime cauliflower rice. It costs an additional $2, Jason, but I’m guessing if this works, this is going to move from being a limited time offering to a full-time offering.
Moser: It absolutely could be. I’ll tell you, just surfing through Twitter for a few minutes earlier, it does seem like this is getting a pretty positive response from those who are talking about it. But you go back to the Chipotle of years ago and we talked about the risk of what ultimately it’s been a strength of theirs and keeping a simple menu. The risk though being the menu can get stale. I think that was something that was probably starting to come to fruition there. So these types of menu items and innovations, these help keep Chipotle in the conversation and they help broaden their customer base too, I think, really. So if you look at this menu today, this is just not the same menu. This is not the same Chipotle that we grew up with, so to speak, five, six, seven years ago. You look at the lifestyle bowls alone, they’re making it not only easier in some cases to order, but they are also expanding their audience at the same time. So for me, as a Chipotle shareholder, personally, I don’t know that I have any interest in the cauliflower rice, but I sure like that they are doing it because I think it’s going to continue to broaden their customer base and key people coming back for more.
Gross: It’s interesting to see this continuation of this anti-grain trend. I think it’s the Paleo diet, that is I think most famous for assuring grains because our ancient ancestors did not. Grains were not part of their diet. Of course, they only lived to be 40, but I’m [laughs] not sure that’s relevant. But it is interesting to see lots of restaurants continue this trend to put things on their menu that aren’t grain-based.
Hill: Well, and to your point, Jason, that really was the story for a number of years. Part of the reason that it was the story is because Steve Ells, who was running the company at the time, continues to talk about it. But you look at the job Brian Niccol has done, it wouldn’t surprise me not only if this is successful, it moves to full-time, if we saw a couple of other tests over the next couple of years like this.
Moser: I think that’s something to keep an eye on with Chipotle. I think for me personally as an investor, I want to see this kind of stuff. I want to see them continue to do this kind of stuff, whether it’s carne asada or cauliflower rice. Every few months, every six months or so, when you see them bringing new things to the menu, even if it’s just for a test, that tells you they’re staying on their toes. They’re not just resting on their laurels, so to speak. I think perhaps new leadership has had something to do with that.
Hill: Joanna, thanks for making the time!
Joanna Stern: Thank you for having me.
Hill: Given how this week has gone, I’m going to timestamp this conversation. It’s just after three o’clock on Thursday afternoon. Originally, I wanted to talk to you about CES and I still want to talk to you about CES. But I have to start with the events that unfolded on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol Building, because part of this evolving story has to do with social media platforms. Facebook has suspended President Trump’s account indefinitely, Twitter made him remove some tweets, locked his account overnight. These companies have been reluctant in the past to take this sort of punitive measure. Let’s just start with this, have these decisions surprised you in any way?
Stern: Yes and no. I think because of history and the fact that these companies have tiptoed around so much of the president and what’s been put out there, I will say I’m some level surprised. But on the other hand, I’m not surprised at all because I think we knew at some point there would be a breaking point. I don’t think we knew what that breaking point would be. We saw it with this attack on the Capitol Building.
Hill: Facebook and Twitter are two of the big tech companies that were already under the congressional microscope even before the events of this week. Looking to your crystal ball, tell me where you think this is going in 2021, whether it’s demand from Congress or Facebook and Twitter changing their policies in significant ways.
Stern: I want to say that this is going to be the spark to get some regulation. I think that at a moment like this, and you can see it, the CEOs are really deciding on a whim what they should do with these companies, what they should do to police this content. I’m not sure they want to be in that position. Of course, they don’t want to be in a position where they have that control taken away, but I do think, as Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai and others have said, they want some regulation. They do want some guardrails around what can and cannot happen with some of the rules around the platforms. I’d like to hope we see some of that. I don’t know how much we’re going to see around specifically what the president of the United States can or cannot say on social media, but I’m also hopeful that the next president of the United States is not going to use Twitter or Facebook as this current administration has.
Hill: Let’s move on to CES, which next week. It’s the largest consumer technology trade show in the world. It’s virtual this year, so there are a lot fewer vendors involved. So I assume it’s going to be a little bit more focused. What are you looking for in terms of either a theme for technology or a big announcement from some company next week?
Stern: Well, I should say, I’ve covered CES, now, I believe it’s a little bit more than a decade, and I have never been happier to cover CES. I was very excited to go to my first CES. I mean, going to a giant technology trade show in Las Vegas with all the gadgets and these giant companies, I mean, it was a dream. Then it wears on you and you realize you get sick every year, you eat crappy food, you’re stuck in press briefings without seeing your family or even any friends. So I will say being able to cover this show from the privacy of my home with great food and heat and no desert and casinos around me, I’m thrilled. I think though this is going to make this show a lot smaller because the main thing about this show is seeing and feeling and touching all of these gadgets, and seeing the lights of the TVs, and seeing the robots move around. That’s a lot harder to do on a screen ironically because you’ve got these giant screens when you usually go to CES. So at least, hopefully, that sets the show for people. I think one thing that I’ve been interested in seeing is the reaction from some of the major manufacturers, or even some of the smaller gadget manufacturers, to pandemic life, to the new normal life. So this is one thing I tackled in our 2021 look-ahead. I think we’re going to see a reaction in some of the pandemic prevention gadgets, things like masks that connect and tell you the air or you’ve got to change your filter or you can talk better on the phone because there’s a microphone built into your mask. I’ve already gotten tons of pictures for UV sanitizing gadgets. They sanitize everything in your house, your desk, your car, things around, air purifiers, thermometers. So I think there’s going to be this COVID theme of the show.
Hill: Well, sticking with that theme for a second, I want to ask you about one of the biggest trends that we saw last year, and that was the rise of home fitness, and nothing illustrates that quite like shares of Peloton being up 400% over the past year. When you look at technology that is aimed at home fitness, digital health, how much of it do you think has actual staying power? Because in the back of my mind, I’m wondering the likelihood that some of this stuff ends up being the next-generation of treadmills that we just hang clothes on.
Stern: I really think this is one of the trends of the pandemic that stays with us. Others, I’m not so sure. I think web video calling and web calling is one that I think we’re all getting the fatigue from it. I don’t have fatigue from not going to a gym or not paying for a very expensive workout class. Yes, I miss the excitement of having other people around, but the convenience of being able to work out from home, the integration with the technology, you can see these tech companies wanting to figure out how they can catch up to a Peloton. Apple is trying to do it with Fitness+, the new subscription service that works with the Apple Watch and provides workout classes. Amazon is dipping its toe into the water already with some of this, with their new Halo Fitness Band. You open the app and they’ve got other classes you can watch. I think this one is here to stay. I’m not sure what we’ll see at CES around the hardware. Peloton’s the leader there and they’ve announced a bunch of new stuff that’s coming out in 2021, but we’ll see.
Hill: One of the big keynote addresses at last year’s CES was Quibi, Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg talking about the impending launch of their new short-form video platform. I know we’ve seen other short-form video platforms fail in the marketplace, but they didn’t have the same buildup, and frankly, leadership star power that this one had. How do you view the very short life and quick death of Quibi?
Stern: I want to say wrong place, wrong time. I actually do give a little bit of credence to that, and what Katzenberg said, they built it for the phone, people weren’t leaving their homes. But really, there were a lot of things on the wall there that they should’ve seen. Launching a video platform that you can only watch on your phone just neglect the rest of the streaming space. I mean, even before the pandemic, many of us wanted to lean back, sit on our couch, and stream some content. I mean, that’s what we were doing. That’s what the industry had moved toward, OTT, and being able to watch across devices. So I think that was a huge blind spot for the company. Also, just the content, it wasn’t really buzz-worthy. I mean, there were some stars and celebrity pieces. I can remember I watched some, I feel like it was a dog dating show. I mean, that’s probably what I wanted it to be honestly. [laughs] It was just something about dogs. Maybe that’s my pitch for a new show, a dog dating show. But it just wasn’t there, the Calibre and the 60 Minutes show didn’t come until a couple of weeks later after the launch, and that was actually some very good content. The news content I found to be better than any of the other entertainment content. Maybe that’s just my preference.
Hill: Last thing on CES, you said you’ve been there year-after-year for a decade?
Stern: Too many years. Yeah. Too many.
Hill: What’s the weirdest thing you saw on the tradeshow floor? A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues went and told me there was a booth with, not a smartphone, it was a smart rubber duck. I’m just curious, in all your years, what stands out in terms of weirdness?
Stern: It’s everything so weird, everything. I remember one of my famous photos there was with Justin Bieber, and Justin Bieber was launching a robot. I don’t think the robot ever launched, and frankly, I’m not sure Justin Bieber’s career launched past that appearance. Then I heard there was a pair of ears that I put on my head that were supposed to respond to my brain waves. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. You’re really not sure any of this stuff works, and that’s one of the things I’m a little worried about covering remotely. It’s like, “Can we see if it works?” Truth is, you can’t even see if it works at the show. I’ve seen some wonderful things there too. One of my first experiences ever being in a self-driving car was at CES. I’ve been in many of those there. I’ve seen lots of interesting innovation in robotics there. I hope to go back one year.
Hill: Last thing and then I’ll let you go. In addition to your writing, you’re also Executive Editor of video at The Wall Street Journal, and you recently did a mini-documentary called Eternal, a Tech Quest to Live Forever, exploring companies that are creating technologies to build essentially the next version of preserving memories of people after they die, and I watched it. It was not only fascinating, it was very moving as well. I’m curious, what got you interested in this topic?
Stern: You know, it doesn’t go back to one specific thing. I would say that there were a couple of things over the years that got me interested in what happens to our stuff after we die. Certainly, I had heard some very sad notes from readers over the years about being locked out of a loved ones’ Facebook account, or being unable to access any passwords to get into their wife’s, who had passed away, computer to get anything, and those things always seems very technical and nitty-gritty to me. I always thought, “Okay, I’ll tackle that in the column,” and then at some point, I started researching and realizing, well, this is a lot more than just passwords and what happens to files and folders, it’s really about how our stories can live on and to be able in the future generations to hear us, to see us. What are the technologies that are coming along to make that more possible, more real? Do we want that? There’s so many interesting questions around it. So, I started on this journey and I wanted to do a longer form video project, and this seems like a good one to look at. COVID happened in the middle of when we were about to wrap the production of it, we were in edit, and almost made the story a little bit more timely. But the main character is a woman who’s in her 20s and has been suffering from an illness for a long time and COVID gave her even more of a scare. So it’s just a story, clearly, I can’t stop talking about it, a story that I just became really passionate about, and I thank you for watching it and hope more people will watch it.
Hill: Jason, you and I talked about this earlier in the week when we got reports that Roku was in “advanced talks” to buy the content. If they’re paying less than $100 million for the majority of the content, you think that’s a good bet?
Moser: Well, yeah. I mean, under $100 million, that could be any number really. I’d be cool if it was $15 million dollars, [laughs] or $10 million dollars, but we talked about it all the time. It’s about exclusive content, and listen. This has got to be never before seen footage. I mean, it’s Quibi. They’ve got to be able to message that to their advantage, and as silly as it may seem to some on the outside, and we’ve said this, the price they pay ultimately will dictate whether this makes sense or not. Because what this is, it’s content that will go on Roku channel, which is that app. They sell ads for this stuff, so ads matter for Roku. If they can sell the ad inventory that offsets the cost to buy this stuff, whether you think it’s silly or not, the economics makes sense. Hey, Roku is now over 50 million active accounts, keeping pace with Amazon Fire TV, and Roku already counts two-thirds of the top 200 national advertisers as clients. This is a massive platform making a lot of money off of advertising, and they’re going to be making investments like this to bring more exclusive and original content into their universe as time goes on. I suspect this is a small first step in what will be a longer-term strategy. Again, I don’t know how many people saw this Quibi stuff, but it clearly wasn’t very many.
Hill: The new year is always a time for reinvention and Burger King is getting in on the act as well. The fast food chain is kicking off 2021 with a new look, it’s the first rebrand in 20 years. Burger King unveiling new visual designs, restaurant concepts, new logos, colors, fonts, uniforms, packaging. Ron Gross, [laughs] will it make a difference for the business?
Gross: Absolutely not. I don’t think, and I love this, Burger King’s fresh color palette was inspired by its flame-grilling process and ingredients. They’ve developed a proprietary font built from the shapes of Burger King’s food. I swear the new logo looks older than the old logo. [laughs] It looks more classic, I guess, but older. I don’t know. I guess you always have to modernize your stores for sure. You have to spend some capital to keep things fresh, and this is no exception. I don’t know if it actually moves the needle though.
Moser: I feel like I stepped in a time machine with all of this rebrand stuff. I don’t know about you-all, but I really thought this was pretty interesting. The Global Chief Marketing Officer, Fernando Machado, told interviewers that the rebrand, they removed blue from the logo because [laughs] there’s no blue food, and they changed the bun part of the logo. The old bun logo used to actually have some white in there to imply that it was shining, and he said buns don’t shine, so that had to go too. That was the thinking that went into this, and ultimately taking the shine off, it takes away dimension, right? I don’t know that I’m really down with that.
Gross: Just keep the onion rings. That’s all you got to do.
Moser: I think the shine gave it a little dimension. I thought it was OK.
Hill: If you’re a shareholder of Burger King’s parent company, Restaurant Brands International, you really better hold your breath on this one. [laughs] Because I think, as we talked about earlier in the show, with Chipotle coming out with a new limited edition food might be a better move to move the needle, but we’ll see. Let’s get to the stocks on our radar. Our man behind the glass, Dan Boyd is going to hit you with a question. Ron Gross, you’re up first. What are you looking at this week?
Gross: I’m looking at Beam Therapeutics (NASDAQ:BEAM), B-E-A-M. It’s an early stage gene editing company that I just started looking at for potential inclusion in my biotech basket of seven or eight companies. They went public in February 2020. They are focused on the CRISPR technology I often talk about when I talk about companies like Editas, and Crispr, and Intellia. But the difference is that those companies are focused on technologies that cut the DNA strand and then replace the mutated genes, but Beam is focused on what’s called base editing which uses chemical reactions to alter DNA. Chemical reactions rather than cutting, that’s the main difference between the companies. I need to dig in it a way more. They’ve got $200 million in cash, which is great because they just went public, but they’re going to burn through that pretty quick, so you got to be careful on that front as well.
Hill: Dan, question about Beam Therapeutics?
Dan Boyd: Absolutely, Chris. Ron, you’ve been talking about a lot of healthcare companies recently on stocks on our radar. You mentioned your biotech basket. Do you think that the healthcare industry is on the up and up in 2021?
Gross: For sure, especially in the innovative part of the industry rather than perhaps the insurance part, but the future of medicine is changing and pretty quickly at this point.
Hill: Jason Moser, what are you looking at?
Moser: I just started digging into a company called Itron (NASDAQ:ITRI), ticker is I-T-R-I. Itron’s core focus is to help it’s customers safely, securely, and reliably operate critical infrastructure. We talk a lot about the Internet of Things, and one of the subsets of that, the industrial Internet of Things. Itron’s portfolio of products and services, it offers end-to-end devices and solutions that help utilities and municipalities think about energy, think water. It helps them responsibly and efficiently manage those resources. I figure as populations grow and resource consumption continues to stress what is clearly an aging global infrastructure, Itron is going to become a more relevant business. The advent of 5G, and the following 6Gs, and then the G’s to come after that, that connectivity is really going to help, I think, Itron grows to become a global leader in the space.
Hill: Question, Dan?
Boyd: Yeah. Well, not really a question, Chris, more of a comment. Ron usually brings the boring companies to the table and stocks on our radar, but Jason, I think you’ve taken the cake this time.
Moser: Well, Dan, listen. When you turn on your shower, and that water doesn’t come out one day, you tell me how boring that is. Itron’s working to solve that problem for you, and that problem hasn’t even happened yet.
Hill: What do you want to add your watch list, Dan?
Boyd: That’s a pretty fair point, Chris, but I’m going to go biotech with Ron.
Hill: All right, guys, we’re out of time. Thanks for being here. We’ll see you next week.
GOLDSTEIN: If politicians want decency in politics, be decent – Toronto Sun
Article content continued
But that was then, this is now.
When politicians call for civility, I’m reminded of the saying, “don’t pee on our legs and tell us it’s raining.”
They sound like baseball owners complaining about overpaid baseball players.
Who do they expect to fix the problem?
If federal politicians were ever going to be moved toward simple decency, it would have happened when the late Liberal MP Arnold Chan appealed for civility in Parliament on June 12, 2017.
Dying of nasopharyngeal cancer, which would take his life three months later at the age of 50, Chan — by all accounts a good person who entered politics for the right reasons — used his farewell speech in the Commons to make an appeal for MPs to reach for their better angels.
“We can disagree strongly — in fact we should,” he said. “This is what democracy is about … When we listen, we listen to one another despite our strong differences, that’s when democracy really happens. That’s the challenge that’s going on in the world right now. No one is listening.”
Then Green Party leader Elizabeth May spoke warmly of a note Chan had sent to her when she was wrestling with a difficult political decision.
When he died, Conservative MP O’Toole, and Liberal cabinet minister Ahmed Hussen, were among his honorary pallbearers, reaching across the political divide.
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