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CEO Daily: Wednesday, February 17

Yesterday’s surprising comments from the new president of Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Neel Kashkari, deserve attention, not because he occupies a position of great power – he doesn’t – but rather because of who he is.


Kashkari spoke at the Hutchins Center at Brookings – fast becoming the place for discussions of monetary and banking policy. He said that Dodd-Frank had not gone far enough in regulating the banks, and suggested Congress consider “going further” with “bold transformational solutions” – by which he meant breaking up the big banks.


What makes this remarkable is that Kashkari is 1) a Republican, 2) a former banker at Goldman Sachs, and 3) an ambitious young man with clear political ambitions, having recently challenged Jerry Brown in the race for governor of California. He also knows his topic, having managed the U.S. Treasury’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.


The big banks should view Kashkari the way a miner views the canary. When a smart and ambitious political operator chooses to raise an issue like this in his very first speech – winning kudos from Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail – it is not a good sign. Odd currents are roiling U.S. politics.


And by the way, another sign can be seen in South Carolina, where Donald Trump’s protectionist message seems to be attracting voters in a state that has seen stunning growth in exports over recent years.


Fasten your seat belts: business is facing more than just the odd pocket of turbulence ahead.


Alan Murray

Top News

Icahn, Einhorn dump Apple shares

Several big hedge fund backers of Apple, including billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn and David Einhorn’s Greenlight Capital, reduced their stakes in the fourth quarter amid a drop in the value of the electronic device maker’s shares. Apple’s shares dropped 5% during the fourth quarter and the stock has since fallen an additional 11%, closing at $93.99 on Friday. In January, Apple forecast its first quarterly revenue drop in 13 years and reported the slowest-ever increase in iPhone shipments as Chinese sales showed signs of weakness. Reuters

Alibaba buys stake in Groupon

Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, has acquired nearly 33 million shares of the daily deals site Groupon – news that sent the U.S. company’s stock soaring on Tuesday. The stock purchase amounted to more than $100 million, giving Alibaba a 5.6% stake in Groupon to become the company’s fourth- largest shareholder as of the end of 2015. Alibaba says the investment reflects the strategy of taking positions in international firms in order to share ideas between the U.S. and Chinese markets. Alibaba has also made investments in online retailer and ride-hailing service Lyft. Fortune

Apple plans bond sale for buybacks

Apple made headlines on its own merit on Tuesday by announcing plans to sell up to $12 billion in bonds to pay for share buybacks and dividends. It would be the second-largest bond offering this year, behind Anheuser-Busch’s $45.8 billion bond issued in January, according to Thomson Reuters. Apple often uses the debt markets to fund those shareholder-friendly moves despite having $215.7 billion in cash on its books, largely because 93% of that cash is abroad and would incur taxes if it were returned home. New York Times (subscription required)

Apple to fight FBI ‘backdoor’ order

The electronics maker was in the news a lot yesterday, as we are writing about them several times in this CEO Daily newsletter. Apple CEO Tim Cook on Tuesday said his company would fight a court order granted to the FBI that would compel the manufacturer to build what it calls a “master key” for the data held on iPhones. In a letter to customers, Cook all but admitted that it was technically possible for the firm to cooperate with investigators (the case that sparked this disagreement involves the iPhone 5C that belonged to San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwaan Farook). But he said the special version of the iPhone firmware was “something we consider too dangerous to create.” Fortune

U.S., Cuba sign air travel deal

U.S. and Cuban officials signed an agreement in Havana that provides for the reopening of scheduled air services between the two nations for the first time in more than 50 years. The move is expected to set off a scramble among U.S. carriers to win route rights to serve Havana, which will be capped at 20 round trips a day from anywhere in the U.S.. However, there are limits to how many Americans can travel to Cuba, as the U.S. government still doesn’t allow its citizens to visit the island nation strictly for tourism. There are only 12 categories of authorized travel, including family visits or for humanitarian projects. Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Around the Water Cooler

The secret to Buzzfeed’s success

Buzzfeed, with a theoretical market value of about $1.2 billion, doesn’t get a ton of respect from the traditional media industry. To many, it is viewed as a content factory full of cat photos, animated GIFs, and listless listicles. But with 200 million monthly visitors and about five billion videos views, observers should take Buzzfeed seriously. The company’s real strength is in building a giant engine for understanding content flows and sharing behavior online – and using those tools to make Buzzfeed a  better advertising tool as well as a better media site. Fortune

U.S. planned cyberat+tack if Iran deal failed

The New York Times is reporting that the U.S. developed an elaborate plan for a cyberattack on Iran in case the diplomatic effort to limit that nation’s nuclear program failed and led to military conflict. The plan was devised to disable Iran’s air defenses, communications systems and crucial parts of its power grid, and was shelved, at least for the foreseeable future, after the nuclear deal was struck between Iran and six other nations last summer. Codenamed Nitro Zeus, it was part of an effort to assure President Obama that he had alternatives, short of a massive full-scale war, if Iran were to lash out at the U.S. or allies in the region. New York Times (subscription required)