Global Shortages During Coronavirus Reveal Failings of Just in Time Manufacturing

In the story of how the modern world was constructed, Toyota stands out as the mastermind of a monumental advance in industrial efficiency. The Japanese automaker pioneered so-called Just In Time manufacturing, in which parts are delivered to factories right as they are required, minimizing the need to stockpile them.

Over the last half-century, this approach has captivated global business in industries far beyond autos. From fashion to food processing to pharmaceuticals, companies have embraced Just In Time to stay nimble, allowing them to adapt to changing market demands, while cutting costs.

But the tumultuous events of the past year have challenged the merits of paring inventories, while reinvigorating concerns that some industries have gone too far, leaving them vulnerable to disruption. As the pandemic has hampered factory operations and sown chaos in global shipping, many economies around the world have been bedeviled by shortages of a vast range of goods — from electronics to lumber to clothing.

In a time of extraordinary upheaval in the global economy, Just In Time is running late.

“It’s sort of like supply chain run amok,” said Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School. “In a race to get to the lowest cost, I have concentrated my risk. We are at the logical conclusion of all that.”

shortage of computer chips — vital car components produced mostly in Asia. Without enough chips on hand, auto factories from India to the United States to Brazil have been forced to halt assembly lines.

But the breadth and persistence of the shortages reveal the extent to which the Just In Time idea has come to dominate commercial life. This helps explain why Nike and other apparel brands struggle to stock retail outlets with their wares. It’s one of the reasons construction companies are having trouble purchasing paints and sealants. It was a principal contributor to the tragic shortages of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, which left frontline medical workers without adequate gear.

a shortage of lumber that has stymied home building in the United States.

Suez Canal this year, closing the primary channel linking Europe and Asia.

“People adopted that kind of lean mentality, and then they applied it to supply chains with the assumption that they would have low-cost and reliable shipping,” said Mr. Shih, the Harvard Business School trade expert. “Then, you have some shocks to the system.”

presentation for the pharmaceutical industry. It promised savings of up to 50 percent on warehousing if clients embraced its “lean and mean” approach to supply chains.

Such claims have panned out. Still, one of the authors of that presentation, Knut Alicke, a McKinsey partner based in Germany, now says the corporate world exceeded prudence.

“We went way too far,” Mr. Alicke said in an interview. “The way that inventory is evaluated will change after the crisis.”

Many companies acted as if manufacturing and shipping were devoid of mishaps, Mr. Alicke added, while failing to account for trouble in their business plans.

“There’s no kind of disruption risk term in there,” he said.

Experts say that omission represents a logical response from management to the incentives at play. Investors reward companies that produce growth in their return on assets. Limiting goods in warehouses improves that ratio.

study. These savings helped finance another shareholder-enriching trend — the growth of share buybacks.

In the decade leading up to the pandemic, American companies spent more than $6 trillion to buy their own shares, roughly tripling their purchases, according to a study by the Bank for International Settlements. Companies in Japan, Britain, France, Canada and China increased their buybacks fourfold, though their purchases were a fraction of their American counterparts.

Repurchasing stock reduces the number of shares in circulation, lifting their value. But the benefits for investors and executives, whose pay packages include hefty allocations of stock, have come at the expense of whatever the company might have otherwise done with its money — investing to expand capacity, or stockpiling parts.

These costs became conspicuous during the first wave of the pandemic, when major economies including the United States discovered that they lacked capacity to quickly make ventilators.

“When you need a ventilator, you need a ventilator,” Mr. Sodhi said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, my stock price is high.’”

When the pandemic began, car manufacturers slashed orders for chips on the expectation that demand for cars would plunge. By the time they realized that demand was reviving, it was too late: Ramping up production of computer chips requires months.

stock analysts on April 28. The company said the shortages would probably derail half of its production through June.

The automaker least affected by the shortage is Toyota. From the inception of Just In Time, Toyota relied on suppliers clustered close to its base in Japan, making the company less susceptible to events far away.

In Conshohocken, Pa., Mr. Romano is literally waiting for his ship to come in.

He is vice president of sales at Van Horn, Metz & Company, which buys chemicals from suppliers around the world and sells them to factories that make paint, ink and other industrial products.

In normal times, the company is behind in filling perhaps 1 percent of its customers’ orders. On a recent morning, it could not complete a tenth of its orders because it was waiting for supplies to arrive.

The company could not secure enough of a specialized resin that it sells to manufacturers that make construction materials. The American supplier of the resin was itself lacking one element that it purchases from a petrochemical plant in China.

One of Mr. Romano’s regular customers, a paint manufacturer, was holding off on ordering chemicals because it could not locate enough of the metal cans it uses to ship its finished product.

“It all cascades,” Mr. Romano said. “It’s just a mess.”

No pandemic was required to reveal the risks of overreliance on Just In Time combined with global supply chains. Experts have warned about the consequences for decades.

In 1999, an earthquake shook Taiwan, shutting down computer chip manufacturing. The earthquake and tsunami that shattered Japan in 2011 shut down factories and impeded shipping, generating shortages of auto parts and computer chips. Floods in Thailand the same year decimated production of computer hard drives.

Each disaster prompted talk that companies needed to bolster their inventories and diversify their suppliers.

Each time, multinational companies carried on.

The same consultants who promoted the virtues of lean inventories now evangelize about supply chain resilience — the buzzword of the moment.

Simply expanding warehouses may not provide the fix, said Richard Lebovitz, president of LeanDNA, a supply chain consultant based in Austin, Texas. Product lines are increasingly customized.

“The ability to predict what inventory you should keep is harder and harder,” he said.

Ultimately, business is likely to further its embrace of lean for the simple reason that it has yielded profits.

“The real question is, ‘Are we going to stop chasing low cost as the sole criteria for business judgment?’” said Mr. Shih, from Harvard Business School. “I’m skeptical of that. Consumers won’t pay for resilience when they are not in crisis.”

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Hong Kong Has a New Type of Prisoner: Pro-Democracy Activists

HONG KONG — A half year after he got out of prison, Daniel Tang has made a habit of going back. He waits in spare, crowded corridors. He greets familiar faces among the fellow visitors and guards. He brings books, postage stamps, writing paper and packets of M&Ms.

Mr. Tang is visiting people like him who were imprisoned for their role in the pro-democracy street protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019. He travels three hours, round-trip, for a 15-minute chat through a thick plate of glass, sometimes with a total stranger. He summons a cheery, chatty demeanor, when he feels anything but.

“You owe them your best face,” he said. “If you’re not feeling right, don’t even bother going.”

Mr. Tang and many of those he meets with represent a new breed of convict in Hong Kong: activists who opposed the Chinese Communist Party’s growing power in the city. This group — often including college students or white-collar professionals — rose up two years ago in a historic campaign of public disobedience that led to clashes with police on the streets and focused the world’s attention on the future of the Asian financial capital.

tough new laws imposed by Beijing, mass arrests and the hazards of the coronavirus. Now, with dim job prospects, a fraught political future and the unending threat of another arrest, those protesters are emblematic of the uncertainties facing the city’s stricken democracy movement.

about 7,000 people. Beijing’s imposition last year of a national security law gives prosecutors greater powers to target even more.

Many of the activists are contemplating a future in exile. Others struggle to stay committed to the cause for which they sit behind bars.

“Being sentenced to jail fractures people,” said Alex Chow, a 30-year-old activist who spent a brief time in jail for his role as a leader of protests in 2014, a precursor to the 2019 demonstrations. He now lives in exile in the United States.

as well as veterans. Those sentenced to prison so far include Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, young leaders of the 2014 protests. Wong Ji-yuet, 23, and Owen Chow, 24, activists who participated in a primary election that was organized by the pro-democracy camp, are awaiting trial in solitary confinement after they were charged with endangering national security.

For many young people in jail, the sentences have redrawn their lives.

Jackie Yeung, a 23-year-old university student serving a three-year prison sentence, said she had abandoned the “typical ambitions” she used to harbor — getting a good job and an apartment in a family-friendly district.

statement ahead of her sentencing. “And I have no way of comforting them through the glass in the visitation room in prison.”

She dreams of opening up a small business importing Taiwanese pineapples after she and a Taiwanese cellmate are released. With the profits, she would support other young people by helping to pay their legal fees and living expenses. “To do anything, you need money,” she said.

To make things easier on prisoners, Mr. Tang and some other activists have banded together to provide support. They write letters and gazettes to catch people up with protest news and raise funds to pay for better meals in jail while protesters await trials.

Mr. Tang frequently sees Ms. Yeung. During one visit to her prison near the border with the mainland city of Shenzhen, he brought pens and stamps. He left the stamps, but was unable to give her the pens, as it would have exceeded her monthly allowance of two.

For all of his dedication, Mr. Tang, who spent more than a half-year imprisoned after pleading guilty to arson charges, says it doesn’t feel like it’s enough.

“Many Hong Kongers have moved on and moved away and don’t think about how there is a group of people sitting behind bars for the movement we all fought for,” said Mr. Tang, who is in his late 30s. “It seems many have forgotten.”

Far from radicalizing during his time on the inside, Mr. Tang now struggles with cynicism and meaning in a city that suddenly seems unfamiliar. He has been disheartened by the protest movement’s stagnation and by the waves of migration out of the city. The camaraderie of protest has been replaced by dread of ever more targeted arrests. He sees it all as an abandonment of values and believes that escape is a privilege unavailable to many.

Mr. Tang’s protester friends from prison also seem to be moving on. A group chat they kept, called the “Lai Chi Kok Prisoners,” after the facility where they were detained, still lights up occasionally with holiday greetings and vague laments. But few want to talk politics. Sometimes those in prison that do speak out seem to be exaggerating their place in the movement. He rolls his eyes at one prisoner, who has taken to calling himself Mandela 2.0.

“All that we have left is our relationships with one another,” he said. “Some seem ready to let that go.”

Yet, for Mr. Tang, there is no road back — not that he’d take it. His former employer was understanding, but let him go when his absence stretched on. He has been unable to access his life savings, he said, after his bank account was frozen over automated donations he made in 2019 to a protester bail fund that police placed under investigation.

He has applied to managerial jobs like those he had worked in the past, only to be turned away because of his criminal record. Now, he’s mulling applying for a taxi license or working in construction.

He still faces four charges related to the protests that were filed just days before his release from prison. The thought of officers at his door has kept him away from the apartment he shares with his mother. He tells her he now works a night shift, and she doesn’t press him.

“I’m really tired,” Mr. Tang said. “The government has left us no room to resist and nowhere to go.”

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The Small Business Administration’s Gaffes Are Now Her Job to Fix

Isabella Casillas Guzman, President Biden’s choice to run the Small Business Administration, inherited a portfolio of nearly $1 trillion in emergency aid and an agency plagued by controversy when she took over in March. She has been sprinting from crisis to crisis ever since.

Some new programs have been mired in delays and glitches, while the S.B.A.’s best-known pandemic relief effort, the Paycheck Protection Program, nearly ran out of money for its loans this month, confusing lenders and stranding millions of borrowers. Angry business owners have deluged the agency with criticism and complaints.

Now, it’s Ms. Guzman’s job to turn the ship around. “It’s the largest S.B.A. portfolio we’ve ever had, and clearly there’s going to need to be some changes in how we do business,” she said in a recent interview.

When the coronavirus crisis struck and the economy went into a free fall last year, Congress and the Trump administration pushed the Small Business Administration to the forefront, putting it in charge of huge sums of relief money and complicated new programs.

confusing, often-revised loan terms and several technical meltdowns — the program enjoyed some success. Millions of business owners credit it with helping them survive the pandemic and keep more workers employed.

Economists are skeptical about whether the program’s results justify its huge cost, but Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden both embraced the effort as a centerpiece of their economic rescue plans. As the pandemic stretched on and the economy plunged into a recession, the Paycheck Protection Program morphed into the largest business bailout in American history. More than eight million companies got forgivable loans, totaling $788 billion — nearly as much money as the government spent on its three rounds of direct payments to taxpayers.

Fraud is a major concern. Thousands of people took advantage of the rushed program’s minimal documentation requirements and sought illicit loans, according to prosecutors, to fund gambling sprees, Lamborghinis, luxury watches, an alpaca farm and a Medicare fraud scheme. The Justice Department has charged hundreds of people with stealing more than $440 million, and scores of federal investigations are active. (During her confirmation hearing, Ms. Guzman promised that she would “prioritize the reduction of fraud, waste and abuse.”)

There were other problems. Female and minority business owners were disproportionately left out of the relief effort. A last-minute attempt by Mr. Biden to make the program more generous for solo business owners came too late to help many of them. This month, a new emergency popped up: The program ran short of money and abruptly closed to most new applicants.

“There was no warning,” Toby Scammell, the chief executive of Womply, a company that helps borrowers get loans, said of the latest debacle. His company alone has more than 1.6 million applicants caught in limbo.

low-interest disaster loans of up to $500,000 and new grant funds, created by Congress, for two of the hardest-hit industries: the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant for live-event businesses and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. (The hotel industry is pushing for its own version.)

Each required the agency to create policies and technology systems from scratch. The venue program has been especially rocky. On its scheduled start day, in early April, the application system completely failed, leaving desperate applicants hitting refresh and relying on social media posts for information and updates.

“I turned to my associate director and said, ‘I figured something like this would happen,’” said Chris Zacher, the executive director of Levitt Pavilion, a nonprofit performing arts center in Denver. The Small Business Administration revived the system three weeks later and has received 12,200 applications, but it does not anticipate awarding grants until late May.

have turned into primal screams of pain. (“I SERIOUSLY CANNOT TAKE THIS WITH SBA ANY LONGER” is one of the milder replies.) She said she understood the urgency.

“It’s definitely unprecedented — across the board, across the nation — and we are seeing multiple disasters at the same time,” she said. “The agency is highly focused on just still responding to disaster and implementing this relief as quickly as possible.”

This is Ms. Guzman’s second tour at the Small Business Administration. When President Barack Obama picked Maria Contreras-Sweet in 2014 to take over the agency, Ms. Guzman went along as a senior adviser and deputy chief of staff. The women had met in the mid-1990s. Ms. Guzman, a California native with an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, was hired at 7Up/RC Bottling by Ms. Contreras-Sweet, an executive there.

“I was always impressed with her ability to handle jobs with steep learning curves — she has a quick grasp of complex concepts,” Ms. Contreras-Sweet said.

Ms. Guzman spent her first stint at the agency focused on traditional projects like its flagship lending program, which normally facilitates around $28 billion a year in loans. The time, the job is radically different.

community navigators” program, which will fund local organizations, including nonprofits and government groups, to work closely with businesses owned by people with disabilities or in underserved rural, minority and immigrant communities. It’s an expansion of a grass-roots effort by several nonprofits to get vulnerable businesses access to Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Ms. Guzman said she was bullish about that effort and other agency priorities, like expanding Black and other minority entrepreneurs’ access to capital — but first, like the clients it serves, the Small Business Administration has to weather the pandemic.

And to do that, it has to stop shooting itself in the foot.

The much-awaited second attempt at opening the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant fund was preceded by one final debacle: The agency announced — and then, less than a day before the date, abandoned — a plan to open the first-come-first-served fund on a Saturday. For those seeking aid that has not yet arrived, the incident felt like yet another kick in the teeth.

Ms. Guzman said she was aware of the need for her agency to overcome its limitations and rebuild its checkered reputation.

“This is a pivotal moment in time where we can leverage the interest in small business to really deliver a remarkable agency to them,” she said. “I value being the voice for the 30 million small and innovative start-ups around the country. What I always say to my staff is that I want these businesses to feel like the giants that they are in our economy.”

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Why Is Hiring Hard Right Now?

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Sensible theories tell us that unemployment insurance levels could reduce workers’ job search intensity, but well-done studies found that wasn’t really the case in 2020. Demand may be rising faster than supply but things are changing fast, systematic data is slow, and so anyone who tells you they know exactly what’s happening in America broadly now is wrong.

What else is going on here?

Assuming employed, essential workers were more likely to get vaccinated earlier, the non-vaccinated rate is substantially higher for working-age Americans who are not working. My analysis of census data shows that, in January through March, for every 10 percent of working-age people vaccinated, about 1 percent more became employed. Our working-age employment rate remains about three percentage points down from February 2020. If this relationship continued to hold as we vaccinate the next 30 percent of working-age Americans, the remaining employment gap could close. It’s not that simple, but I do think that it suggests that public health remains the first-order issue.

For employers with some flexibility in setting wages, they may not raise wage offers to new hires because internal equity then pressures for raises to incumbents and that reduces their profit. These employers will feel like they want to hire, but not so much that they will raise wage offers enough to attract candidates. They will cry about labor shortages but not compete hard.

What can companies do to attract workers?

First, make the job better. Improve wages, benefits, training, safety and respect. Ensure every supervisor treats employees with respect. Are any consistently experiencing higher turnover in their unit?

Second, promote public health by taking coronavirus precautions. This will help everyone and reassure workers who’ve stayed out of the labor market due to health concerns.

Third, be more transparent about what the job offers. Many managers post vague job openings in order to preserve their bargaining flexibility, so they can make a tailored offer after learning about a specific candidate’s circumstances. However, vague vacancy descriptions can lead to two kinds of expensive errors. First, some people who would be a good fit don’t apply because they can’t recognize that the job would be a good fit. Second, people who would not be a good fit apply because the ad is not clear and then the manager has to waste time interfacing with them.

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U.S. Looks to Rebuild Gaza, but Aid Could Hinge on Hamas’s Rocket Arsenal

A Brookings Institution analysis concluded in 2017 that the reconstruction effort largely failed because of intractable political opposition to Hamas — not only from Israel, but also from Egypt, which opposes the militants’ ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Restricted access to Gaza — as enforced by Egypt and an Israeli blockade — limited building supplies, humanitarian assistance and other equipment to the area, the analysis concluded. That fueled already-simmering tensions between Hamas and its political rivals in the Palestinian Authority, whom Egypt was pressuring to take over security operations in Gaza as a way to open access.

At the same time, the analysis found, international donors were slow to send money they had committed to the 2014 rebuilding effort in Gaza. The vast majority of donations that were unfulfilled, three years after the cease-fire, had been pledged by Arab states in the Persian Gulf that also opposed Hamas’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence but has some links to extremist groups. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by both Israel and the United States.

Taken together, Gaza’s reconstruction fell flat, confining residents to temporary housing amid soaring unemployment and diminished services in electricity, clean water and waste management.

Mr. Ross said that the earlier efforts to rebuild Gaza had largely failed and that any future monitoring system, potentially by the United Nations, would need to be an effective, round-the-clock endeavor that would halt reconstruction if Hamas was found to be storing, building or preparing to launch rockets.

“The issue is massive reconstruction for no rockets,” Mr. Ross said. “There has to be enough oversight of this process to know that it’s working the way it’s intended. And the minute you see irregularities, everything stops.”

He said that would not necessarily mean a complete disarming of Hamas, and that some immediate humanitarian aid should be delivered to Gaza. But, Mr. Ross said, the offer for broader reconstruction assistance should be made publicly to assure donors of consequences if Hamas resumes its rocket program. He predicted Hamas would, at least in the beginning, agree to some sort of arrangement. “Right now, the needs are so profound that they will go along with something,” Mr. Ross said.

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Italy’s Vaccine Drive Runs Up Against a Sacred Institution: Summer Vacation

ROME — As Dr. Mario Sorlini sits patients down in a vaccination center near the badly affected Italian town of Bergamo, he explains a potential complication of the coronavirus vaccine.

The second dose, he tells patients with terror-stricken faces, will fall on a date during the summer holidays.

“‘But I’ll be in Sardinia then,’” he said that some had responded with distress. Others moan about hotel rooms they’ve already booked. Some, he said, get up and leave.

For months, Italians have hungered for the vaccines that would give them safety, freedom from lockdown and a taste of normal life. After initial pitfalls and hurdles, the vaccination campaign is finally speeding up, but it is heading smack into the summer holidays that are sacred for many Italians and prompting fears among officials that a significant number would rather get away than get vaccinated.

recent vacation anthem. That could create a significant danger next autumn, Ms. Tosi wrote in an open letter to the region’s president.

“The Second Shot Blocks Vacation,” read a headline in Messaggero Veneto, a newspaper in northeastern Italy, echoing concerns in papers, websites and social media accounts across the country.

An estimated 20 million Italians — mostly 40- and 50-somethings — face the prospect of getting their second shots in the middle of July or worse, in the riptide that is the Italian August, which pulls people out of cities and into swelling seaside towns.

To avoid a potentially disastrous summer freeze in the vaccination campaign, and more economic pain, Italy’s regions are urging the government to meet vacationers where they are and offer shots on the beach.

led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi, prides itself on pragmatism and is desperate to get the tourism economy moving. Mr. Draghi recently announced that Italy would lift quarantines and restrictions on vaccinated international tourists and told them “it’s time to book your holidays in Italy.”

Island paradises like Capri, favored by many foreigners, have accelerated their vaccination campaigns and are now considered Covid free. But when it comes to Italians, who are themselves still in the process of getting vaccinated during the summer months, the government has sought to strike a balance between openness to innovative ideas and scolding Italians for their spring and summer fever.

“If we do flights of fancy and inventions, I’m not in,” Francesco Paolo Figliuolo, an army general who has been put in charge of Italy’s vaccination effort, said on Tuesday, seeking to throw cold water on plans floated by governors to inoculate vacationing Italians wherever they might go.

told reporters. “And that it is technically impossible.”

He suggested leaving vacations for a day and then heading back.

Bergamo, said that for now, most of his patients were accepting the summer date for follow-up shots but that many asked, “‘Can I do it at the beach?’”

He said he expected at least 10 people a day to give up on their August appointments for second shots, which means he will struggle to keep those doses from going to waste.

Ciro Mautone, 58, a security guard at Camponeschi, a cafe popular with the vacation set in Rome, said that he had selected the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which does not require a second shot, in part not to interrupt a potential holiday.

But he said that after the brutal year, with his work hit by the closing of businesses, he was focused on making up lost income rather than fretting about cutting short a vacation.

“I wish I had that problem,” he said.

Emma Bubola and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.

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Jim Clendenen, Santa Barbara Winemaking Pioneer, Dies at 68

In California, he learned the basics at Zaca Mesa, a leading Santa Barbara winery in the 1970s. There, he also met Mr. Tolmach, who would become his partner at Au Bon Climat.

Mr. Clendenen left again in 1980 to work harvests in Australia before another trip to Burgundy in 1981. “I learned that everything else I’d learned had been a waste of time, and that my life was going to be not loosely but accurately based on a Burgundian model,” he said on “I’ll Drink to That.”

As the Santa Barbara wine region expanded through the 1980s, Au Bon Climat outgrew its early home. In 1989, Mr. Clendenen was invited by Bob Lindquist, the founder of Qupé winery, to join him in becoming a tenant at a big, new winemaking facility being built at the Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley.

Mr. Clendenen wanted to accept the offer in order to increase Au Bon Climat’s production capacity, but Mr. Tolmach opposed the move. Their partnership ended, and Mr. Tolmach departed to start the Ojai Vineyard.

Beyond chardonnay and pinot noir, Mr. Clendenen grew other, lesser-known Burgundian grapes, like pinot gris, pinot blanc and aligoté. He loved Italian varieties like nebbiolo, teroldego and tocai friulano, which he grew and sold under the label Clendenin Family Vineyards. He also explored areas like the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County and Oregon, selling those wines under the label Ici/La-Bas, French for here and there.

Mr. Lindquist and Mr. Clendenen’s cooperative agreement to share production facilities endured until Mr. Clendenen’s death. The winery was no more than a giant utilitarian shed, nothing like the grand tourist attractions that populate Napa Valley. It was not open to visitors — there was a tasting room in the city of Santa Barbara for them — but it was a prize stop for members of the wine trade.

Mr. Clendenen was a superb cook, and when in residence at the winery he prepared lunch for the staff and whichever guests happened to arrive in time. When the meal was ready, work stopped and everybody took a seat among the barrels at long, indoor tables to eat and sample whichever bottles were open, whether a new vintage or a 20-year-old chardonnay.

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Dogecoin Went Wild in 2021. Here’s What It Taught Us.

Richard Lenz, a 31-year-old project manager for a hazardous waste removal company in North Ridgeville, Ohio, bought his Dogecoin in March 2014, after a subreddit for NASCAR fans banded together to sponsor the driver Josh Wise using cryptocurrency. (Mr. Wise ended up racing in a Doge-wrapped car.)

“Within a year I was done,” he said. “This was like, literally, just a joke.”

Then, a couple months ago, Mr. Lenz started seeing headlines about Dogecoin’s price surging. He also started getting nervous: He knew he’d stored his coins on his old computer’s hard drive, but he wasn’t sure where that drive was.

“I started looking for it a month, two months ago, and couldn’t find it,” he said. Somewhere, he had $10,000 worth of Dogecoin, then $40,000. “My father was kind of upset,” he said, a feeling that intensified as the price climbed.

Mr. Lenz resigned himself to the fact that his coins were gone. “If God wanted me to have the money, I would have had the money,” he said. Then, on May 7, the day before Elon Musk was slated to host “Saturday Night Live,” he found the drive and sold his coins immediately, for around $70,000. (After “S.N.L.,” where Mr. Musk joked about the currency, the price tumbled.)

Mr. Lenz gave a chunk of the money to his parents and plans to help pay for his sister’s wedding. As for the rest? “I am not kidding you when I say I YOLOed it,” he said, on shares of the hedge fund manager Bill Ackman’s SPAC, Pershing Square Tontine Holdings.

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The Gateses’ Public Split Spotlights a Secretive Fortune

The fortune of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates exceeds the size of Morocco’s annual economy, combines the value of Ford, Twitter and Marriott International and is triple the endowment of Harvard. While few know how their wealth will be divided in the divorce, one thing is clear: breaking it up can’t be easy.

Mr. Gates built one of the great fortunes in human history when he founded Microsoft in 1975 with Paul Allen. The Gateses’ net worth is estimated to be more than $124 billion, and includes assets as varied as trophy real estate, public company stocks and rare artifacts.

There’s a big stake in the luxury Four Seasons hotel chain. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and ranch land, including Buffalo Bill’s historic Wyoming ranch. There are billions of dollars’ worth of shares in companies like AutoNation and Waste Management. There’s a beachfront mansion in Southern California. And one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

“The amount of money and the diversity of assets that are involved in this divorce boggles the imagination,” said David Aronson, a lawyer who has represented wealthy clients in divorce cases. “There have rarely been cases that are even close to this in size.”

2019 divorce between the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his now ex-wife, the novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, was bigger. Mr. Bezos had an estimated fortune of $137 billion, though mostly in Amazon stock, and Ms. Scott kept 4 percent of Amazon’s shares, worth $36 billion at the time.

But Mr. Gates has for decades been diversifying his holdings; he owns just 1.3 percent of Microsoft. Instead, his stock portfolio includes stakes in dozens of publicly traded companies. He is the largest private owner of farmland in the country, according to The Land Report. In addition to the Four Seasons, he has stakes in other luxury hotels and a company that caters to private jet owners. His real estate portfolio includes one of the largest houses in the country and several equestrian facilities. He owns stakes in a clean energy investment fund and a nuclear energy start-up.

Forbes, or $146 billion, according to the research firm Wealth-X. Including the Gates Foundation’s endowment and the Gates personal fortune, Cascade most likely oversees assets that put it on par or beyond some of the world’s biggest hedge funds in size.

Mr. Larson operates Cascade with an obsessive level of secrecy, going to great lengths to cloak the firm’s transactions so that they can’t easily be traced back to the Gateses. In a 1999 interview with Fortune magazine, Mr. Larson said he chose the name “Cascade” because it was a generic-sounding name in the Pacific Northwest.

that questions about the future of the Gates Foundation immediately arose following news of the divorce. The foundation directs billions to 135 countries to help fight poverty and disease. As of 2019, it had given away nearly $55 billion. (In 2006, Mr. Buffett pledged $31 billion of his fortune to the Gates Foundation, greatly increasing its grant making.)

Since he stepped down from day-to-day operations at Microsoft in 2008, Mr. Gates has devoted much of his time to the foundation. He also runs Gates Ventures, a firm that invests in companies working on climate change and other issues. Over the decades, Mr. Gates shed the image of a ruthless tech executive battling the United States government on antitrust to be viewed as a global do-gooder. And he appears to be keenly aware of the stark contrast between the scale of his wealth and his role as a philanthropist. “I’ve been disproportionately rewarded for the work I’ve done — while many others who work just as hard struggle to get by,” he acknowledged in a year-end blog post from 2019.

told The New York Times last year. “There’s just none.”

Matthew Goldstein contributed reporting.

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