SpongeBob, “Star Trek” and the Super Bowl have attracted new subscribers to ViacomCBS’s streaming platforms.
The company, led by Shari Redstone, rebranded its long-running streaming service as Paramount+ in March, while also providing it with a slew of new shows, films and sports programming. The company also added content to Pluto, its free streaming service.
The stronger commitment to digital media has created a revenue powerhouse, with streaming sales jumping 65 percent to $816 million in the first quarter, the company reported Thursday. ViacomCBS said it added 6 million new streaming subscribers to both Paramount+ and a smaller streaming service, Showtime, bringing the total to 36 million.
The company doesn’t disclose how many customers are coming to each platform, but the majority have bought Paramount+, a cheaper service at $6 a month with ads, or $10 a month without commercials. ViacomCBS plans to offer a new tier at $5 a month this June in an effort to drive more subscribers. That should help the company sell more ads, offsetting the price drop.
true profitability only after it surpassed 200 million subscribers last year.
The company said it will invest more in original series and films for Paramount+, and, in a marked switch from its previous strategy, it plans to hold back more of its own productions for the service, instead of licensing them to other streamers.
In 2019, the company sold rights to “South Park,” one of its most popular franchises, to AT&T’s HBO Max for $500 million for several years. It has also sold shows such as “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” to Amazon Prime Video and “Thirteen Reasons Why” to Netflix. Now, ViacomCBS will try to fill its content pipeline from its own studios.
jumped nearly tenfold in the past year.
Most of those gains had come as a result of a heavily leveraged trading strategy from a single investment firm called Archegos Capital Management, led by the investor Bill Hwang. At one point Mr. Hwang was responsible for $20 billion of ViacomCBS stock, or a third of all shares.
It all came tumbling down last month, when lenders demanded their money back. ViacomCBS also suffered as its share price plummeted from a high of $100 to about $38 on Thursday.
Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos, will launch a rocket into space with passengers on board for the first time in July, the company said on Wednesday.
One seat on the flight, which will carry six astronauts on a short jaunt to the edge of outer space, is up for auction.
The first astronaut flight of New Shepard, a suborbital spacecraft, is scheduled for July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“We’ve spent years testing, so we’re ready,” Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut sales for Blue Origin, said at a news conference on Wednesday.
millions of people eventually living and working in space.
For now, most of Blue Origin’s business has stayed closer to Earth. It builds and sells rocket engines to another rocket company, United Launch Alliance. A rocket that would lift cargo to orbit is not expected to be ready for years, and the company recently lost a competition with SpaceX for a contract to build a moon lander for NASA’s astronauts (it has protested the award). Customers have also paid to fly science experiments for NASA and private scientists during test flights of the New Shepard spacecraft.
It has been preparing for years for the start of its space tourism program, which would offer suborbital trips to what is considered the boundary of outer space, 62 miles above Earth. A competitor, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, also plans to fly space tourists on suborbital jaunts. Virgin Galactic’s space plane, known as SpaceShipTwo, is flown by two pilots, so it has carried people to space on test flights, but no paying passengers yet.
Blue Origin’s tourist rocket is named after Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space. It has undergone 15 test flights, none of which had passengers aboard. Ahead of the latest test, in April, a crew rehearsed boarding and exiting the capsule.
For July’s crewed launch, astronauts will arrive to the launch site in West Texas four days before their flight for safety training, Ms. Cornell said.
terms of agreement for the auction listed on Blue Origin’s website, the winning bidder must have a height and weight from five feet tall and 110 pounds to 6-foot-four and 223 pounds.
The astronaut must also be comfortable with walking at heights above 70 feet above ground level on the gangway, be able to climb the launch tower — equivalent to seven flights of stairs — in less than 90 seconds and be able to fasten his or her own harness in less than 15 seconds.
The astronaut must also be comfortable with lots of pressure pressing down on him or her for several minutes during both the ascent and descent.
Proceeds from the winning bid will be donated to Club for the Future, a science and technology education foundation affiliated with Blue Origin, Ms. Cornell said.
Ms. Cornell declined to comment on potential pricing for regular tickets, and when they might go on sale for the general public. But she said there would be “a couple more crewed flights before the end of the year.”
She also declined to answer whether Mr. Bezos would be on the first flight and did not say if and when he would go to space.
Amazon had a record-breaking year in Europe in 2020, as the online giant took in revenue of 44 billion euros while people were shopping from home during the pandemic. But the company ended up paying no corporate tax to Luxembourg, where the company has its European headquarters.
The company’s European retail division reported a loss of €1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) to Luxembourg authorities, according to a recent financial filing, making it exempt from corporate taxes. The loss, which was due in part to discounts, advertising and the cost of hiring new employees, also meant the company received €56 million in tax credits that it could use to offset future tax bills when it makes a profit, according to the filing, released in March.
Amazon was in compliance with Luxembourg’s regulations,and it pays taxes to other European countries on profits it makes on its retail operations and other parts of the business, like its fulfillment centers and its cloud computing services.
But the filing is likely to provide fresh ammunition for European policymakers who have long tried to force American tech giants to pay more taxes. And the Biden administration is pushing for changes in global tax policy as part of an effort to raise taxes on large corporations, which have long used complicated maneuvers to avoid or reduce their tax obligations, including by shifting profits to lower-tax countries, like Luxembourg, Ireland, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
first three months of this year, the entire company’s profitsoared to $8.1 billion, an increase of 220 percent from the same period last year. Amazon’s first-quarter filings, released last week, also showed that it made $108.5 billion in sales, up 44 percent, as more customers made purchases online because of the pandemic.
The company’s filing with Luxembourg was reported earlier by The Guardian.
A spokesman for Amazon, Conor Sweeney, said the company paid all taxes required in every country in which it operated.
“Corporate tax is based on profits, not revenues, and our profits have remained low given our heavy investments and the fact that retail is a highly competitive, low-margin business,” he said.
250 million in unpaid taxes from 2006 through 2014 from Amazon. Amazon and Luxembourg appealed that order, and a judgment in Europe’s second-highest court is expected next week.
Margaret Hodge, a British lawmaker, said Amazon had deliberately created financial structures to avoid tax. “It’s obscene that they feel that they can make money around the world and that they don’t have an obligation to contribute to what I call the common pot for the common good,” she said.
Matthew Gardner, a senior fellow at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a left-leaning research group in Washington, said Amazon’s Luxembourg filing showed why there was such urgency, not only in the European Union but also in the United States, to require a global minimum tax.
“This is a stark reminder of the high financial stakes of inaction,” he said.
Produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock and created by Meredith Scardino — a team that has collaborated before on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Mr. Mayor” and “Saturday Night Live” — the sitcom “Girls5eva” is about a formerly popular 1990s girl group that attempts a comeback. The band is played by a mix of real-life comedians and musicians: Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Paula Pell and Busy Philipps. Expect plenty of jokes about ageism and sexism in the music industry, cushioned by the kind of goofy absurdism common to Fey and Carlock’s comedy.
Whether or not you’re a fan of Formula One auto racing, you can learn a lot from this gripping 2010 documentary about Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian driver who fought against an establishment that resisted his more aggressive, daring approach. The director Asif Kapadia (who later won an Oscar for his equally thorough and compelling Amy Winehouse documentary, “Amy”) here combines exciting archival footage with some fascinating history lessons, detailing the ways that traditionalists and bureaucrats sometimes suppress innovation and stifle competition.
‘The Bold Type’ Season 5
The final season of this soapy drama will wrap up the sometimes triumphant and sometimes troubling stories of three millennial ladies: the soul-baring journalist Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens), the social media influencer Kat Edison (Aisha Dee) and the aspiring fashion designer Sutton Brady (Meghann Fahy). It might also reveal the fate of the once-indomitable women’s magazine they’ve all worked for. Over the course of its first four years, “The Bold Type” evolved from being a portrait of a generation to becoming an unusually plugged-in (if somewhat fantastical) commentary on the state of modern media. It has also featured fantastic performances from its three leads, whose powerful presence in these roles will be missed.
Also arriving: “My War on Drugs” (May 3), “Basketball: A Love Story” Season 1 (May 5), “Belushi” (May 6),“Bloods” (May 6), “The Flood” (May 6), “Lassie” (May 6), “Pinocchio” (May 11), “Domina” (May 15), “The Lost Kingdom of the Black Pharaohs” (May 12), “Liar” Season 2 (May 15), “Generation Gifted” Seasons 1-3 (May 19), “Battle of the Sexes” (May 22), “Fighters” (May 23), “Black Monday” Season 3 (May 24), “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” (May 25), “Deep Water” Season 1 (May 26), “Endangered Wildlife Sanctuary” (May 27), “Madagascar: A Little Wild” (May 28), “Venus and Serena” (May 29).
OAKLAND, Calif. — Cosmetics. Digital dances called “emotes” A currency called V-Bucks. Virtual concerts. Fortnite, the popular gaming platform, is more than just a game. It is a “metaverse,” full of virtual life, said Tim Sweeney, chief executive of Epic Games, the company that created Fortnite.
And Apple, he argued in federal court on Monday, wants an unfair cut of the money to be made in the Fortnite metaverse.
Mr. Sweeney offered a granular explanation of Fortnite to paint an expansive portrait of his company’s world on the first day of what is expected to be a three-week trial, pitting Epic against Apple in a fight over Apple’s App Store fees and other rules that could reshape the $100 billion app economy.
Epic sued Apple in August, arguing that Apple is unfairly leaning on its control of the App Store to extract an unfair cut of the money Epic makes from selling digital goods inside Fortnite.
antitrust claims by state and federal governments in the United States and Europe. Apple is also battling two potential class-action lawsuits from consumers and developers over its App Store fees.
Fortnite, Mr. Sweeney said, “is a phenomenon that transcends gaming,” he said. “Our aim of Fortnite is to build something like a metaverse from science fiction.”
Metaverse? A court reporter needed clarification. It’s a virtual world for socializing and entertainment, Mr. Sweeney said.
The legal arguments in the case center on the boundaries of the market the two companies are fighting over. Apple’s lawyers focused their opening statements on gaming, arguing that people can get access to Fortnite in many places other than the App Store, like gaming consoles.
an interview last year, is “completely unprecedented in human history.”
But Mr. Sweeney was so soft-spoken in his testimony on Monday, a court reporter had to repeatedly ask for clarification on gaming and technology terms. He wore a suit, ditching his usual, T-shirt and cargo shorts. He also wore a clear face shield.
In his testimony, Mr. Sweeney explained Epic’s decision to pursue the lawsuit. “I wanted to show the world through actions exactly what the ramifications of Apple’s policy were,” he said.
In a cross-examination, Richard Doren of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher hammered at Mr. Sweeney with a rapid series of yes-or-no questions to make the point that Epic also publishes Fortnite on other platforms, like gaming consoles — and that Epic is not complaining about them.
But Mr. Sweeney countered that the gaming consoles, which typically lose money on the hardware they sell and make it up on fees, have different business models from Apple’s and Google’s app stores, which are highly profitable.
Mr. Doren asked Mr. Sweeney if he knew that the actions Epic took last summer would cause Apple to kick his company’s app out of the App Store. He suggested that Mr. Sweeney had hoped Apple would cave in to the pressure because of Fortnite’s popularity.
“I hoped Apple would seriously reconsider its policy then and there,” Mr. Sweeney said. Apple did not, and Epic sued.
In the coming weeks, top Apple executives, including the chief executive, Tim Cook, and executives from Microsoft and Match Group are expected to testify.
Corporate America takes on anti-Asian discrimination
Top business leaders and corporate giants are pledging $250 million to a new initiative and an ambitious plan to stem a surge in anti-Asian violence and take on challenges that are often ignored by policymakers, Andrew and Ed Lee report in The Times.
Donors are a who’s who of business leaders. Individuals who are collectively contributing $125 million to the newly created Asian American Foundation include Joe Bae of KKR, Sheila Lirio Marcelo of Care.com, Joe Tsai of Alibaba and Jerry Yang of Yahoo. Organizations adding another $125 million to the group include Walmart, Bank of America, the Ford Foundation and the N.B.A. The initiative has echoes of the recent effort by Black executives to round up corporate support to push back against bills that would restrict voting.
Anti-Asian hate crimes jumped 169 percent over the past year; in New York City alone, they have risen 223 percent. And Asian-Americans face the challenge of the “model minority” myth, in which they’re often held up as success stories. This shows “a lack of understanding of the disparities that exist,” said Sonal Shah, the president of the newly formed foundation. For example, Asian-Americans comprise 12 percent of the U.S. work force, but just 1.5 percent of Fortune 500 corporate officers.
The group’s mission is broad. It is aiming to reshape the American public’s understanding of the Asian-American experience by developing new school curriculums and collecting data to help influence public policy. But its political lobbying efforts may be challenged by the enormous political diversity among Asian-Americans, Andrew and Ed note.
nearly 402,000 cases on Saturday, a global record, and another 392,000 on Sunday. A business trade group is calling for a new national lockdown, despite the economic cost of such a move. The C.E.O. of India’s biggest vaccine manufacturer warned that the country’s shortage of doses would last until at least July.
Credit Suisse didn’t earn much for its Archegos troubles. The Swiss bank collected just $17.5 million in fees last year from the investment fund, despite losing $5.4 billion from the firm’s meltdown in March, according to The Financial Times.
Verizon sold AOL and Yahoo. The telecom giant divested its internet media business to Apollo Global Management for $5 billion, and will retain a 10 percent stake. It’s a sign that Verizon is giving up on its digital advertising ambitions and focusing on its mobile business.
A third of Basecamp employees quit after a ban on talking politics. At least 20 resigned after the software maker’s C.E.O., Jason Fried, announced a new policy preventing political discussions in the workplace. The company isn’t budging: “We’ve committed to a deeply controversial stance,” said David Hansson, Basecamp’s chief technology officer.
stormed the field yesterday, forcing the postponement of its highly anticipated match against Liverpool. They called for the ouster of the Glazer family, United’s American owners, over their support for the new competition meant mostly for European soccer’s richest teams.
Succession hints and other highlights from Berkshire’s meeting
At the annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway on Saturday, Warren Bufett and Charlie Munger spoke out on a typically broad range of topics, from investing regrets to politics to crypto. (They also picked fights with Robinhood and E.S.G. proponents, for good measure.) Buffett watchers also got their clearest hint yet as to who will succeed the Oracle of Omaha as Berkshire’s C.E.O. when the 90-year-old billionaire finally steps down.
It’s Greg Abel. CNBC confirmed with Buffett that Abel, the 59-year-old who oversees Berkshire’s non-investing operations, would take over as C.E.O. “If something were to happen to me tonight it would be Greg who’d take over tomorrow morning,” Buffett said. Charlie Munger, Buffett’s top lieutenant, dropped a hint on Saturday, saying, “Greg will keep the culture.”
Buffett took on Robinhood. The Berkshire chief said the trading app conditioned retail investors to treat stock trading like gambling. “There’s nothing illegal about it, there’s nothing immoral, but I don’t think you’d build a society around people doing it,” Buffett said.
Robinhood pushed back. “There is an old guard that doesn’t want average Americans to have a seat at the Wall Street table so they will resort to insults,” tweeted Jacqueline Ortiz Ramsay, the company’s head of public policy communications.
And Buffett got blowback on E.S.G. Berkshire shareholders followed his lead and rejected two shareholder proposals that would have forced the company to disclose more about climate change and work force diversity. But each proposal got support from a quarter of Berkshire shareholders, a relatively high percentage. And big investors spoke publicly about their backing for the initiatives: BlackRock, which owns a 5 percent stake in Berkshire, said the company hadn’t done enough on either front.
Other highlights from the Berkshire meeting:
Munger let loose on crypto. “Of course I hate the Bitcoin success and I don’t welcome a currency that’s so useful to kidnappers and extortionists,” he said. “I think the whole damn development is disgusting and contrary to the interests of civilization.”
Ajit Jain, who oversees Berkshire’s insurance operations, and Buffett traded quips about whether the company would insure Elon Musk’s trip to Mars. “This is an easy one: No, thank you, I’ll pass,” Jain said. Buffett said it would depend on the premium and added, “I would probably have a somewhat different rate if Elon was on board or not on board.”
“We will not be anywhere near as focused on buybacks going forward as we have in the past.”
— Intel C.E.O. Pat Gelsinger told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that in the future the semiconductor giant would focus less on buying its own shares and more on expanding production capacity to alleviate severe chip shortages.
an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal to tell executives about it. The Republican senator from Texas criticized company chiefs for what he said were ill-informed criticisms of Georgia’s new voting laws. “For too long, woke C.E.O.s have been fair-weather friends to the Republican Party: They like us until the left’s digital pitchforks come out,” Cruz wrote. These companies “need to be called out, singled out and cut off,” he added.
Cruz’s rejection may not make a big difference. After the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, many corporations pledged to withhold donations from lawmakers who voted against certifying the election results, at least for a period of time. Cruz, who is viewed as a key player in the efforts to reverse the vote, could be shut out for longer than others. But he’s not strapped for cash: He brought in more than $3 million in campaign funds in the three months after the riot, largely from individual donors.
It highlights a new schism between Republicans and corporate America. Those ties were already fraying under President Trump’s unpredictable administration. President Biden’s proposed tax hikes and regulatory push would have typically driven companies into the arms of Republican allies, but Cruz, for his part, said he’s no longer interested in what the corporate donors and lobbyists have to say. “This time,” he wrote, “we won’t look the other way on Coca-Cola’s $12 billion in back taxes owed. This time, when Major League Baseball lobbies to preserve its multibillion-dollar antitrust exception, we’ll say no thank you. This time, when Boeing asks for billions in corporate welfare, we’ll simply let the Export-Import Bank expire.”
meet in court for a trial that could have implications for the future of the App Store and the antitrust fight against Big Tech. DealBook spoke with Jack Nicas, a technology reporter for The Times, about what’s at stake.
Why is Epic suing Apple?
Many companies, including Spotify and Match Group, have complained loudly and publicly about the control that Apple has over the App Store, and the 30 percent commission it charges. Epic basically set some bait for Apple: It began using its own payment system in Fortnite, a very popular game, which meant Apple couldn’t collect its commission. It knew how Apple would react: Apple kicked Fortnite out of the App Store. Then Epic immediately sued Apple in federal court, and simultaneously launched a sophisticated PR campaign to paint Apple in a bad light. [Epic is suing Google for the same reason.]
Read the full report about the case from Jack and Erin Griffith.
THE SPEED READ
Legendary Studios, the producer of movies like “Godzilla vs. Kong,” has reportedly held talks to either merge with a SPAC or buy another studio. (Bloomberg)
Politics and policy
Why investors have largely shrugged off President Biden’s proposal to raise capital gains taxes. (NYT)
As the head of the nonprofit Venture for America, Andrew Yang pledged to create 100,000 jobs nationwide. The group created about 150. (NYT)
An internal Amazon report warned management that its sales team had gained unauthorized access to third-party seller data, which may have been used to help its own products. (Politico)
Tesla is reportedly stepping up its engagement with Beijing officials as it faces greater pressure from the Chinese government. (Reuters)
“Most Democrats seem to be on board with narrowing the differential between the tax rate on capital gains and ordinary income, but there’s opposition for treating the rates as the same,” wrote analysts with Beacon Policy Advisors, a political consultancy. “This means there’s probably a middle ground for raising the capital gains rate on top earners to, say, 28 percent.”
If stocks continued their climb, it would largely be in keeping with previous periods when capital gains taxes were raised.
In 2013, when the tax rose to the current 23.8 percent, from 15 percent, on Americans with the highest incomes, the S&P 500 climbed nearly 30 percent. It was the best year for stocks in the last two decades. And after the top rate rose to 28 percent, from 20 percent, at the end of 1986, the market continued to roar higher, by nearly 40 percent through most of 1987.
Stocks eventually suffered their worst single-day collapse ever on Black Monday in October 1987, but that crash had little to do with tax policy, and the markets ended the year slightly higher. In 1991, a small increase to 28.9 percent in the capital gains rate for those with the largest incomes coincided with a 26 percent rise in the S&P 500. The major driver for that gain had nothing to do with taxes; it was the emergence from a recession.
Similarly, investors appear to be focusing on evidence that the economy is on the brink of breakneck growth. That surge is being fueled by a river of federal government spending, rock-bottom interest rates and more Covid-19 vaccinations. In the first three months of the year, the economy grew at an annualized clip of 6.4 percent. At that pace, 2021 would be the best year for growth since 1984.
Economic growth and corporate profits tend to rise together. And signs of additional oomph in the economy are already showing up in earnings reports from publicly traded companies.
Tech giants such as Tesla, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, all reported first-quarter profits that trounced analyst expectations.
Good morning and happy May. Is anyone else itching for a vacation, or just a chance to go … elsewhere? Good news: If you’re vaccinated, you could escape to Europe (and help boost its ailing tourism industry) as soon as this summer. Here’s what you need to know for the week ahead in business and tech news. — Charlotte Cowles
What’s Up? (April 25-May 1)
Plan No. 3
In his first address to Congress, President Biden detailed his American Families Plan, the third huge spending proposal that he has put forth in his 100 days in office. (The first was the $1.9 trillion stimulus package, signed into law in March, and the second was the American Jobs Plan, which focuses on infrastructure and has yet to pass Congress.) The latest proposal includes financing for universal prekindergarten, federal paid family leave, a permanent expanded child tax credit, subsidized child care for low- and middle-income families and free community college, among other initiatives. To pay for it, Mr. Biden wants to raise taxes on the rich. But most Republicans are opposed to tax increases and say the plan costs too much.
Up Goes the G.D.P.
More signs of life from the economy. The country’s first-quarter gross domestic product was up 6.4 percent, at an annualized rate, according to the Commerce Department. That’s almost back to its prepandemic high. Consumer spending is also on the rise, and some analysts believe that it could grow more than 9 percent this year — a record — as health and job conditions continue to improve, and travel and dining open back up.
great for the tech giants. Amazon’s latest quarterly report showed such blockbuster sales — up 44 percent from the previous year — that it beat even the most optimistic forecasts. Meanwhile, Apple’s profits grew 54 percent, mostly thanks to soaring iPhone sales. And Facebook nearly doubled its revenue during the same time period, while Twitter’s jumped 28 percent. (Both companies have barred former President Donald J. Trump and some extremist figures from posting on their platforms since January, but it clearly hasn’t hurt their bottom lines.)
What’s Next? (May 2-8)
A Is for Antitrust
The fight between Apple and Epic Games, which makes the popular video game Fortnite, heads to a federal court in California this week. The dispute began last year when Epic started selling Fortnite directly to its customers, violating its contract with Apple, which makes a 30 percent commission from App Store sales. Apple retaliated by kicking Fortnight off its store, and Epic fought back with a lawsuit. The case will be closely watched by other companies and lawmakers who have raised concerns about the App Store’s anti-competitive practices. Those include European regulators, who on Friday accused Apple of violating antitrust laws by imposing unfair rules and fees on rival music-streaming services.
Price Check in the Cereal Aisle
For the good of your fellow humans, don’t stockpile toilet paper. But bear in mind that it’s about to get more expensive. Companies like Procter & Gamble, General Mills and Kimberly-Clark are all raising prices on everyday necessities like tampons, toilet paper, diapers and cereal this year to make up for increasing costs of production and shipping. Those costs grew during the pandemic, particularly when supply chains were pinched, but companies were reluctant to pass them along to struggling consumers. Now that the economy is starting to stabilize, expect some price adjustments to make up for the past year.
Pack Your Bags
The travel industry is ready for takeoff — if you’re vaccinated, that is. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased rules for cruise lines to resume operations, allowing some ships to set sail as soon as mid-July if they attest that 98 percent of the crew and 95 percent of passengers are fully vaccinated. And the European Union said that American tourists with vaccine certificates would be allowed to visit the bloc this summer, more than a year since it banned nonessential travel from most countries.
a long-anticipated ban on selling menthol cigarettes as well as all flavored cigars. (Possession will remain legal, however.) Amazon will increase pay between 50 cents and $3 an hour for half a million of its workers. And the Federal Reserve left interest rates near zero, playing down a rise in inflation and promising to continue support for the recovering economy.
LONDON — Of all the unsavory ethical questions swirling around Prime Minister Boris Johnson these days, the one that has stuck is how he paid for the costly makeover of his apartment in Downing Street. And it has put his 33-year-old fiancée, Carrie Symonds, under a particularly scorching spotlight.
Mr. Johnson has been accused in news reports of secretly using funds from a Conservative Party donor to supplement his public budget for redecorating the apartment — a charge that, although Mr. Johnson says he has repaid the money, has prompted an investigation by Britain’s Electoral Commission. But it is Ms. Symonds and her purportedly expensive taste in wallpaper and designer furniture that has become a running theme on social media and in British tabloids.
“#CarrieAntoinette” is trending as a Twitter hashtag, while the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, had himself photographed studying wallpaper at the British department store John Lewis — a labored stunt meant to make light of reports that Ms. Symonds derided the Downing Street décor left by Mr. Johnson’s no-nonsense predecessor, Theresa May, as a “John Lewis nightmare.”
Never mind that Ms. Symonds has not actually been quoted saying anything about John Lewis. The reference, in a profile of her in Tatler magazine, is attributed to an unnamed person who once visited her in the apartment. Tatler did report that Ms. Symonds oversaw the renovation project, and her involvement means she, too, may have to turn over evidence to the Electoral Commission.
For Ms. Symonds, a former Conservative Party communications chief who now works for an animal-rights group, it is the latest trial in a year overstuffed with dramatics: the near-fatal illness of Mr. Johnson after he contracted the coronavirus; the birth of their son, Wilfred; and the bitter purging of Mr. Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, in which she is reported to have played a behind-the-scenes role.
It all has put Ms. Symonds at the heart of a familiar narrative, one replete with sexism and double standards: the grasping, manipulative politician’s partner. She joins a parade of women, from Hillary Clinton to Cherie Blair, the wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose murmurings to their men were the subject of fevered suspicion.
The fact that her relationship with Mr. Johnson coincided with the breakup of his 25-year marriage, and that she became the first unmarried partner to move into Downing Street, only adds to Ms. Symonds’ tabloid portrayal as a libertine Lady Macbeth or an upwardly mobile Marie Antoinette — choose your cliché.
“The outsized fascination with Carrie Symonds’ role in the prime minister’s circle reflects outdated sexist tropes that regard women in positions of influence as inherently devious,” said Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group and a research fellow at the London School of Economics.
Her defenders say that as an accomplished political player in her own right, Ms. Symonds has no less right to offer advice to the prime minister than any other unpaid adviser — and he would be wise to take it.
And yet, others say, there are legitimate questions to ask about Ms. Symonds’ influence, which goes beyond the news media’s obsessive focus on home improvements at Downing Street. Her ardent defense of animal rights was reported to have contributed to the government’s decision to halt a cull of badgers in Derbyshire, which contradicted the advice of scientists and veterinarians.
Friends of Ms. Symonds have been installed in key positions in Downing Street and, in the telling of Mr. Cummings, protected by her even after evidence of wrongdoing. On his blog, he claimed that Mr. Johnson wanted to shut down a leak investigation after it became clear that the culprit was Henry Newman, a close adviser to Ms. Symonds.
Mr. Cummings quoted Mr. Johnson as saying to him, “If Newman is confirmed as the leaker, then I will have to fire him, and this will cause me very serious problems with Carrie, as they’re best friends.”
Downing Street has denied that Mr. Johnson tried to shut down theinvestigation, but it did not comment about Ms. Symonds’ role.
Her defenders say she has a savvy political sense and could well have aspired to a seat in Parliament if she hadn’t begun a relationship with Mr. Johnson. To the extent that she is giving him advice, some say, it is helpful: cutting loose Mr. Cummings and other hard-core Brexiteers softened the prime minister’s image and improved his popularity before the recent ethics issues pulled him back to his more familiar role as a political scalawag.
“She was fantastic — she is very loyal and was hugely supportive,” said John Whittingdale, a former culture secretary for whom Ms. Symonds served as a special adviser. He described her as “a strongly committed Conservative” and a “very strong Brexit supporter” at a time when that was a less popular position.
“The people who are attacking Carrie clearly see a route to damage the prime minister by attacking her,” he said.
Ms. Symonds labors under a few handicaps, one of which is the lack of a job description for a prime minister’s partner.The role has no constitutional status, and unlike that of first lady in the United States, little administrative support. Successful spouses have usually had strong identities outside Downing Street.
Margaret Thatcher’s husband, Denis, was a businessman, as is Mrs. May’s husband, Philip. David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, ran a fashion company, while Ms. Blair, who once had her own political ambitions, worked as a high-level barrister during her husband’s decade in office. Though Ms. Blair’s influence came under criticism early on, the scrutiny subsided as she built a flourishing legal career.
“She always knew she could go back to her job at the bar, which made it less demeaning to be the appendage,” said Fiona Millar, a journalist and onetime aide to Ms. Blair. Ms. Symonds, she said, “doesn’t seem to have that life outside politics, which the people who’ve been successful at it did have.”
The daughter of Matthew Symonds, a co-founder of The Independent newspaper, and a lawyer for the paper, Josephine McAfee, Ms. Symonds was raised by her mother (both parents were married to other people at the time).
Her young adulthood was deeply affected by an incident in 2007 when she was targeted by a taxi driver who served her spiked drinks while driving her home. Ms. Symonds testified against the man, John Worboys, who was jailed as a serial sexual predator.
Well connected and social, Ms. Symonds became a public relations aide for the Conservative Party, eventually rising tochief communications officer, where she encountered Mr. Johnson. The couple had hoped to get married last summer, after his divorce from Marina Wheeler became final, but delayed the date because of coronavirus restrictions.
Life in Downing Street is less glamorous than it might appear, Ms. Millar said. While the job comes with a spacious Westminster apartment, a baronial weekend home, Chequers, and an annual decorating budget of £30,000 ($41,600), the government does not pay for food or household staff. Outside of public occasions, the couple are expected to cook for themselves or get takeout.
Living above the office, as Mr. Johnson struggled with the pandemic and his own illness, was challenging, people who know Ms. Symonds said. She contracted Covid herself, while pregnant, and then cared for their baby while Mr. Johnson, 56, was still shaking off his illness.
“There were times last week that were very dark indeed,” Ms. Symonds tweeted after he was released from an intensive care unit. Despite that, she retained her interest in environmental protection.
“Since having Wilf & not being able to get to the shops during lockdown,” she posted four months later, “I’ve relied on Amazon for lots of baby essentials, but I’ve been dismayed at the amount of plastic packaging. Please sign this petition to ask Amazon to give us plastic-free options too.”
Political commentators say they see Ms. Symonds’ fingerprints in Mr. Johnson’s embrace of green policies. They say she has played to his pragmatic instincts by nudging him toward a more conciliatory politics.
Few prime ministerial partners have been so deeply immersed in politics. Not only does she know the Conservative Party well, she also has strong contacts among its lawmakers, political journalists and the special advisers who play a powerful role in Downing Street and elsewhere in the government.
Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, said people have questioned Ms. Symonds’ influence “because of her specific insights and connections and background as a political operative and because of Boris Johnson’s malleability, and the fact that no one is sure what in his head.”
Some of the uneasiness about Ms. Symonds is as much about Mr. Johnson as her. With few fixed positions and a lack of ideological moorings, he leaves the impression that his decisions can be swayed by those with greatest access to him. During a year of lockdowns, that circle sometimes shrank to Ms. Symonds.
“The reason we’re fussing over this is that we think we have an inadequate figure as prime minister,” said Jill Rutter, a former civil servant who is a senior research fellow at the U.K. in a Changing Europe, a London think tank. “If we thought we had a really good prime minister, would we really care who his spouse is, beyond hoping he has a happy personal life?”
Apple, Google owner Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft raked in money in first quarter
Apple, Google owner Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft raked in money in first quarter
Microsoft sold products and services worth about $2.5m (£1.8m) combined. Profits before tax for the period came in at $88bn – more than $1bn of profit for every working day.
After a year of shifting to online work and leisure across the global economy, financial results published this week by most of US tech’s biggest names were bound to be strong. But even more bullish analysts on Wall Street were surprised by how fast they raked in money in the quarter, auguring even greater profits in the years ahead.
Apple astonished investors with strong growth across its business, from iPhone buyers snapping up new models capable of using faster 5G mobile networks to the usually quieter business selling wearables such as headphones and watches.
Online advertising is booming. Facebook said demand is so high that the average price it charges for ads rose by 30% year on year – albeit compared with the start of pandemic. Alphabet revenues rose by a third year on year thanks to Google’s advertising business.
Alphabet was also helped by fast growth in cloud services, offering companies access to data centres – a business helped by the pandemic shift to working from home. Amazon’s cloud business added $1bn in profits compared with the previous year, even while profits from its core online retail business soared.
The Microsoft chief executive, Satya Nadella, said the shift to digital technology was “accelerating” as its profits jumped 31% year on year. “It’s just the beginning,” he added.
The strong results were not limited to technology’s biggest names: analysts also point to strong performances from smaller tech companies such as chip designer AMD or social networks Snap and Pinterest.
Share price gains left the big tech companies at all-time highs (barring Apple, which has the consolation of being the most valuable company in history). The gains reflected widespread investor agreement with Nadella’s thesis that the pandemic push to digital will benefit big tech.
The companies’ dominance is unprecedented in modern times. Daniel Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, hailed record numbers for Apple, but argued that shares could gain another third to reach a $3tn valuation within 12 months. (Apple only reached the unprecedented $1tn mark in 2018, and $2tn in August.)
The scale of their balance sheets means they can rival countries on some metrics. Between them Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft spent $50bn on research and development in their 2018 financial years. That was equivalent to R&D spending by the whole UK economy in that year of £37.1bn, according to the most recent Office for National Statistics data.
Yet there appears to be only so much research and development that one organisation can do. One extraordinary aspect of the last week was the scale of share buybacks. Apple’s $90bn return to shareholders alone would be enough to individually buy almost all of the FTSE 100’s supposed behemoths.
Alphabet has scaled back some of its spending on famous “moonshot” programmes – such as the “Loon” effort to beam internet via high-altitude balloons – but even so it is ploughing money into technology that aims to push the boundaries of what computers can do. At the same time, it still judged that it had $50bn lying around to buy back shares.
There is more to come, argued David Donovan, a consultant at Publicis Sapient. His work upgrading technology at financial companies has convinced him that other sectors still have far to go in embracing digital technology, putting the economy “on the cusp of a major transformational period”.
Donovan added that the shift to recurring revenue models by companies like Amazon and Apple will add another moat to keep rivals out. More than 200 million Amazon customers pay for the privilege of buying products via its Prime service. Apple’s services business made revenues of $16.9bn in the first quarter, with more growth expected.
It might not all go smoothly. Martin Garner, the chief operating officer at CCS Insight, a market analysis firm, highlighted the groundswell of regulatory pressure, such as the European commission’s warning on Friday that Apple Music has broken EU competition law.
Big tech companies face another significant challenge: each other. There is large crossover in business models, whether it be advertising, cloud services or nascent targets such as in-car services. Apple’s battle with Facebook over privacy controls is the most striking cases of an open arm wrestle.
However, Alex DeGroote, an independent analyst, said that even at slower pre-pandemic growth rates there are such massive barriers to entry that it is difficult to see any way they will be dislodged. During last year’s market panic and the subsequent recovery tech stock gains have been nearly ever-present, suggesting a permanent shift is happening.
“The investment case has gone from defensive to growth in a year,” said de Groote. “The digital revolution is here to stay, and these businesses are embedded in our lives.”