CEO Daily: Tuesday, March 15
Good morning, Daily readers. Alan Murray is off on vacation this week. Deputy Editor Clifton Leaf is bringing the coffee and donuts—or at least a bit of news on this very busy Tuesday.
The phrase “Putin surprised the world” has become so common that it is no longer surprising. [Here, for example, is the Russian President “surprising the world” with plans for a gas pipeline to Turkey (2015), with his Ukraine brinksmanship (2014), by withdrawing from WTO negotiations (2010) and then warming to the West, on missile defense (2007), and on the Kyoto protocol (2004)]. But last night, Putin surprised the world by announcing the withdrawal of the “main part” of its troops from Syria—a process that is set to begin today, on the fifth anniversary of the brutal civil war there.
The move is expected to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into softening his hard line against rebel factions in the peace talks that are underway in Geneva—though expectations in the long-running, devastating, and globe-rattling conflict have faded quickly in the past.
The war has left in its wake 5 million refugees and displaced an additional 7 million people from their homes within Syria, says David Miliband, the former U.K. Foreign Secretary who now presides over the 83-year-old International Rescue Committee, and who visited Fortune last week. The number of civilians fleeing from this war represents roughly one-fifth of the 60 million people displaced by conflict around the world today, says Miliband. For the other four-fifths, he says, just “follow the war zones. You’ve got big displacements from Somalia, from Afghanistan, from Burma (Myanmar).”
In this last country, however, there is—as in Syria—renewed hope. U Htin Kyaw, a friend of Aung San Suu Kyi and a member of her National League for Democracy party, was elected Myanmar’s president by that nation’s Parliament on Tuesday—a vote that ended decades of military rule.
All this, plus the NCAA’s Big Dance begins (get your official bracket here), and primary voters head to the polls today in five states and one 184-square-mile U.S. commonwealth somewhere in the Pacific Ocean (Republicans only). According to the latest polling averages from Real Clear Politics, Trump leads in four of the five states.
March Madness indeed. More news follows.
• Central banks take center stage
Center banks are going to grab a lot of attention this week, as investors await the latest policy moves from the Bank of Japan, the Federal Reserve and Bank of England. Those key meetings involving three of the world's most prominent central banks follow a market-moving decision last week from the European Central Bank, which took fresh steps to jumpstart flagging eurozone economic growth. The BoJ stood pat Tuesday, apparently unconvinced by the effectiveness of negative rates, while the Janet Yellen-led Fed breaks from its two-day meeting Wednesday and the BoE announces its latest monetary policy decision Thursday. USA Today
• Google's AI wins final Go game
Google's artificially intelligent Go-playing computer system has defeated Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol in the fifth and final game of the best-of-five series, concluding with four wins and just one loss. As Wired reports, machines have bested humans at checkers, chess and even Jeopardy, but this is the first time a machine has topped the very best at Go – a 2,500-year-old game that's far more complex than chess and requires, at least among humans, an added degree of intuition. Wired
• McClendon's car was driving at high speeds
Aubrey McClendon, the former CEO of Chesapeake Energy, was driving well above the speed limit at roughly 88 miles per hour before he slammed into a bridge abutment earlier this month and died, according to Oklahoma City police. The death of the energy entrepreneur came less than a day after he was indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice on allegations of violating antitrust rules by rigging bids for land. He denied the charges. McClendon‘s car collided with the bridge at 78 mph, findings from the accident investigation showed. Officials wouldn't speculate on whether McClendon committed suicide, citing the ongoing investigation. Reuters/Fortune Editors
• Theranos CEO to host Clinton fundraiser
Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of embattled blood testing company Theranos, is hosing a fundraiser for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton next week at an event that is slated to take place at Theranos' headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. The event will feature the candidate's daughter, Chelsea Clinton, according to a report by Re/code. There will be tiered contributions ranging from $100 to $2,700 and opportunities to meet with the former First Daughter. Hillary Clinton herself won't attend, though, as the idea of the fundraiser raised some eyebrows given the controversy Theranos has recently generated. Fortune
• Avon Products to cut 2,500 jobs
Avon Products, which has sold off most of its declining North American business, is set to slash 2,500 jobs and move its operational headquarters to the U.K.. The move comes after the New York-based direct seller of beauty products late last year said it was selling an 80.1% stake in its U.S. and Canada division to private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management for $170 million. Avon had been unable to stanch years of deteriorating sales in the U.S. With that sale, the company's commercial operations are now fully outside of the domestic market, so Avon said it made sense to rethink about the company's operating model. Fortune
Around the Water Cooler
• GM, Lyft deepen partnership
General Motors and new business partner Lyft are launching a short-term car rental program aimed at bringing on more drivers to the ride-hailing service. The Express Drive program is a signal that the two companies are beginning to act on a partnership that was announced in January, when GM also invested $500 million into the startup. The service, initially launching in a few cities, will eventually be offered across the U.S. The pact is part of the automaker's long-term vision: a network of GM self-driving cars within Lyft's service that can shuttle passengers around town without a driver. Fortune
• Where cable à la carte is booming
In the U.S., if you want to watch ESPN or MTV, you almost always will need to pay for a costly pay-TV plan that tosses in a bunch of channels you don't want for a bulky cable plan. But in markets abroad, where pay-TV providers aren't as powerful, entertainment companies including Viacom, Walt Disney, and 21st Century Fox are offering online offerings for their content – something many Americans have also expressed interest in. Cable penetration is lower in Asia, Latin America and even Europe, so it makes sense that there would be more freedom to market directly to consumers. Bloomberg
• A Chinese company's U.S. hotel buying spree
On Monday, a Chinese insurance company that just over a year ago purchased the Waldorf Astoria, bought $6.5 billion of properties from the Blackstone Group and made a $12.8 billion bid to buy Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. The New York Times points out that it will be interesting to see if the moves by the insurer, Anbang, raise questions on the presidential campaign trail about foreigners buying assets in the U.S.. As the Times points out, when Anbang bought the Waldorf Astoria, concerns were serious enough that President Obama – who would routinely stay there as presidents had done since 1947 – switched hotels the next time he stayed overnight in Manhattan because of worries the Chinese could have planted surveillance. The New York Times (subscription required)
• Michael Jackson estate sells assets to Sony
Sony signed an agreement with Michael Jackson's estate to pay $750 million for the deceased pop star's stake in Sony/ATV Music Publishing, the world's largest music publisher which controls songs such as The Beatles' "All You Need is Love." As part of the agreement, Sony will make a lump sum payment of about $733 million as well as distributions to the singer's estate. The deal establishes Sony's control over a joint venture that the two parties had formed in 1995. Jackson had bought ATV a decade earlier, outbidding former Beatle Paul McCartney. Reuters