A.I. deals in the cross hairs
Tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon and Google have sought an edge in the artificial intelligence race by investing in innovative start-ups like OpenAI and Anthropic.
But that strategy is drawing more attention, as the F.T.C. joins international counterparts in scrutinizing those deals. It’s the latest effort by the agency to check the power of Big Tech, but raises questions about whether it also will impede the ability of start-ups to raise needed cash.
The big question: Do these deals hinder competition? None of the arrangements is a straight-up acquisition. But in the Microsoft-OpenAI deal, the relationship appears especially close: Microsoft has committed to investing $13 billion in the ChatGPT parent for a 49 percent stake (seeking to stay below 50 percent in a bid to avoid antitrust scrutiny) and has gained rights to OpenAI’s intellectual property.
Microsoft doesn’t have representation on OpenAI’s board. But its influence on the start-up was cast into the spotlight in November, when it offered to hire Sam Altman after he was ousted as OpenAI’s C.E.O.
Amazon and Google don’t appear to have as much influence over Anthropic, though together they have committed to investing $6 billion in it. (A Google spokesman noted that his company’s deal with Anthropic doesn’t involve exclusive tech rights, unlike Microsoft’s investment in OpenAI.)
The F.T.C. wants more information on the deals, including their strategic rationale and implications on competition. “Our study will shed light on whether investments and partnerships pursued by dominant companies risk distorting innovation and undermining fair competition,” Lina Khan, the F.T.C. chair, said in a statement.
The F.T.C.’s inquiry follows examinations by Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority and the European Commission on similar concerns.
Regulators are trying to avoid past mistakes. Khan rose to fame by proposing new antitrust approaches to restrain internet giants. She has said that the A.I. industry needs similar oversight, writing in a Times Guest Essay last year that “The expanding adoption of A.I. risks further locking in the market dominance of large incumbent technology firms.”
A.I. companies do have a concern: Their operations are hugely expensive, requiring enormous sums of computing power to run their A.I. systems. The investments in OpenAI and Anthropic involve cloud computing credits, helping to defray costs. Restricting Big Tech’s ability to invest in those companies could hinder their ability to keep innovating.
In other A.I. news: Elon Musk’s xAI is reportedly seeking up to $6 billion in new funding, including from investors in Hong Kong — which could raise political concerns in the U.S.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
The White House plans to limit exports on liquefied natural gas. The Biden administration said on Friday that it would halt the approval of new licenses for such shipments as it scrutinizes their environmental impact. The move may hurt customers in Asia and Europe, which have grown increasingly dependent on American natural gas since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.
JPMorgan Chase reshuffles its top executives. Jennifer Piepszak and Troy Rohrbaugh will become co-C.E.O.s of a newly expanded commercial and investment bank, while Marianne Lake will become sole head of the firm’s enormous commercial bank. All three are tipped as potential successors to Jamie Dimon, the bank’s C.E.O. — although he has said he isn’t leaving anytime soon.
Investors brace for inflation data. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on Thursday that inflation was “well under control,” a thesis that could be tested when the Personal Consumption Expenditures price index data is released on Friday. Economists expect that the closely watched report will show that prices rose for “core” goods and services last month by 3 percent on an annual basis. It’s the last major inflation report before the Fed’s rates-decision meeting next week.
Cruise blames hostility to regulators for its woes. General Motors’ autonomous vehicle division said that while executives didn’t mislead regulators about an incident in which one of its cars dragged a pedestrian, they did fail to explain key details. That led to a nationwide suspension of operations and investigations by the Justice Department and others; several executives, including the G.M. subsidiary’s co-founder Kyle Vogt, have already resigned.
Opening up the App Store
Apple has agreed to a major overhaul of its digital services business that will allow customers in the E.U. to download apps from rival app stores, use third-party payment systems and more easily choose a default browser that’s not Safari.
It’s the latest example of regulators forcing big changes on Big Tech.
Apple is making the changes to comply with the E.U. Digital Markets Act, which takes effect in March. The law is a big test for the bloc, which has been trying for years to limit the market dominance of U.S. companies like Apple, Amazon and Google, fearing that their size harms competition and consumers.
The E.U. is a big market for the iPhone maker. The bloc accounts for about 6 percent of the company’s App Store business, which has estimated global revenue of $24 billion. Apple shares fell 1 percent on the news on Thursday.
Apple warned the requirements would be bad for customers. Phil Schiller, who leads the App Store business, grumbled to The Financial Times that the revamp was being forced upon the company and that the measures will make the user experience in Europe inferior to that of “the rest of the world.”
Opening up the App Store does address some criticisms by developers and regulators. Apple has long resisted making changes to the App store, which has come under fire by developers like Spotify and Epic Games for extracting high fees and requiring that they conform their technology to Apple’s platform.
App developers regard the D.M.A. as a great leveler. In a blog post this week, Spotify said that its E.U. customers who use Apple products would soon be able to change their subscription plans and pay for those changes inside the app.
“It should be this easy for every single Spotify customer everywhere,” the company wrote.
A “shiver down the spine” of Western business in China
Ian Stones spent decades in China as a high-profile member of the international business community, helping companies like General Motors and Pfizer establish operations. Five years ago, he was secretly detained, according to The Wall Street Journal, in a case that raises concerns about the risks foreign executives and companies face in the country.
Stones’ relatives say they haven’t seen any Chinese court documents. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said this morning that Stones had been sentenced in 2022 to five years in prison for “illegally obtaining intelligence for overseas actors” and that his appeal had been rejected last September. Stones’ daughter, Laura, told The Journal that he had not confessed and neither the family nor British embassy officials were allowed to attend his trial.
American experts on Chinese law say the secrecy around his detention suggests that other foreign executives are also being held.
The arrest of such a prominent executive could send a chill across Western businesses. Peter Humphrey, a British due-diligence expert who was detained for 23 months in China, is a longtime friend of Stones’. He said the detention of Stones is a sign of the uncertain business environment under President Xi Jinping. “This should send a shiver down the spine of every Western businessperson who is in China,” he told DealBook.
Japan goes up, China goes down
Japan’s benchmark stock index, the Nikkei 225, is trading at highs last seen in 1989 and is within striking distance of a record. The market is soaring as the weak yen makes stocks look cheap and corporate reforms have given shareholders more rights.
Geopolitics have helped, too, as Western investors look for alternative sources of growth as they sour on China, where it’s the opposite story. Growth has slowed. Its property market is deeply troubled, and stocks have languished in recent years.
Seeing the divergence, investors, including Warren Buffett, are pouring money into Japan as they see a growth story in the making.
Big companies are clogged by bureaucracy, inefficiency and process that often hinders rather than helps. In “The Friction Project,” Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao, professors at Stanford University’s business school, examine why it can be hard to get things done in organizations, and how to fix that.
DealBook spoke with Sutton about the friction that can slow down business. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How does friction start?
Whether it’s fixing a university, fixing a Lego model or planning a trip, our default approach to solving problems is to just add more and more and more complexity. On top of that, organizations create a bunch of incentives for adding still more complexity. People build fiefdoms, especially people who handle stuff like accounting, H.R., or legal. Some of those functions are valuable, but very often they put obstacles to getting things done.
What does “good” friction look like?
Laszlo Bock, who was the head of people at Google, told us the company had a history of interviewing applicants as many as 25 times before offering them a job. So he put in a simple rule: If you’re going to interview someone more than four times, you need to get his written permission. That was an example of using good friction to stop bad friction.
How can leaders spot and fix bad friction?
We call it the subtraction game. Turn to the person next to you to brainstorm what’s driving you crazy, and then identify stuff you can actually get rid of that would make things easier.
I played this game with a pharmaceutical company. The general counsel said, “We have more than 85 different parental leave policies, and I think we can do better than that.” Two weeks later, they were down to 60.
THE SPEED READ
Blackstone’s fourth-quarter profit rose 4 percent as its private equity business recovered; meanwhile, the firm plans to raise $10 billion for a new opportunistic credit fund. (Bloomberg)
A group of bondholders in Farfetch is seeking to challenge a takeover of the embattled online luxury marketplace by Coupang. (News release)
Conservative activists and tech industry lobbyists plan to oppose President Biden’s executive order requiring A.I. companies to disclose more details about their biggest projects. (Politico)
Liz Cheney, the former Republican representative, urged Nikki Haley to stay in the G.O.P. primary through Super Tuesday in March. (NYT)
Best of the rest
In layoff news: Microsoft is cutting 1,900 jobs in its video game division after closing its takeover of Activision Blizzard; Salesforce is laying off 700 workers; and Business Insider is eliminating 8 percent of its staff positions. (NYT, WSJ)
“Elon Musk Is Spreading Election Misinformation, but X’s Fact Checkers Are Long Gone” (NYT)
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