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CEO Daily: The Best in Business Reading

Good morning.

In recent years, Chinese muscle-flexing in the South China Sea has been the cause of much consternation in many quarters. It’s not just the obvious geopolitical power issues, but the massive commercial ones: Roughly half of the world’s shipping tonnage transits through that area, according to Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea And The End Of A Stable Pacific, a fascinating book by Robert Kaplan.

But the South China Sea represents only a small part of the Middle Kingdom’s maritime influence—or so contends “How China Rules The Waves,” an impressive piece of work in the Financial Times (I’m grateful to my colleague Geoff Smith for drawing my attention to it). The article, crammed with data and charts, makes a persuasive case that China has quietly become the world’s primary maritime power, far surpassing any other country. Consider:

Investments into a vast network of harbours across the globe have made Chinese port operators the world leaders. Its shipping companies carry more cargo than those of any other nation — five of the top 10 container ports in the world are in mainland China with another in Hong Kong. Its coastguard has the globe’s largest maritime law enforcement fleet, its navy is the world’s fastest growing among major powers and its fishing armada numbers some 200,000 seagoing vessels.

A lot of articles have focused on China’s geopolitical reach in continents like Africa, where the country trades development assistance for raw materials and gains a lot of influence along the way. This powerful article explores another aspect of its growing might. Sure, China’s Navy isn’t close to matching the reach of the U.S. Navy, but in every other way, China is extending its sway over the oceans and the countries that border them. This article is crucial reading to understand the shifting geopolitical and economic tides in the coming decades.




Wall Street’s White Whale

For prosecutors, and to a lesser extent, journalists, Steven Cohen has been the great white whale of hedge fund traders. For decades his gaudy returns caused him to be suspected of insider-trading…and for decades he denied it. The sense that he was operating with impunity only intensified after the financial crisis, as the perception grew that the wealthiest and most powerful miscreants went unpunished. Ultimately, his then-firm, SAC Capital, pleaded guilty to criminal charges, but Cohen escaped with civil penalties, including a temporary ban from trading for customers. To say that all of that has been well-covered in the press would be an understatement.

Now comes the New Yorker’s Sheelah Kolhatkar with an account, adapted from her soon-to-be-released book entitled Black Edge, about the legal pursuit of the billionaire trader. Kolhatkar’s story of Cohen’s near prosecution is not a revisionist account; it won’t change your understanding of what occurred (or what didn’t occur, in this instance). But what she does do is put you where few journalists ever take readers: inside the room where prosecutors and defense lawyers were jousting over whether Cohen should be charged, in a meeting called for the express purpose of giving the defense team an opportunity to persuade the prosecutors not to charge Cohen. That would turn out to be the most dramatic moment in Cohen’s case, it seems, and if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in such a discussion, this article puts you in the exact spot where the abstractions of legal statutes meet the brute reality of trying to assess your chances of winning a case. The vast majority of readers will embark on the story already knowing how it turns out and yet it’s a journey worth taking.

We Just Want To Find Ourselves

What’s the difference between a good technology and a good business? More profoundly, why do companies even exist? “The Inside Story of BitTorrent’s Bizarre Collapse,” in Backchannel, sheds light on such questions. You may remember the BitTorrent technology as the “Napster of entertainment,” as writer Jessi Hempel puts it, software that permitted customers to, say, download movies without paying for them. But the software also serves paying customers, including Facebook, which uses it to update its servers. The technology is great, Hempel writes, but it’s based on open-source software, which means others can use it freely. The result: BitTorrent (the company) had no moat, to use Warren Buffett’s phrase, to protect its great idea and extract large sums from it. So…what did the company want to do with itself?

In BitTorrent’s case, the process stretched over close to a decade, making it the company equivalent of an upper middle-class kid cycling through graduate schools and experiences to “find himself.” Of course, there’s more than a bit of irony as the company tried to reinvent itself to serve artists (rather than give away their products for nothing), and Hempel’s article mostly focuses on the increasingly frantic latter stages. The story also made me ponder the role of inertia in business: How many companies—indeed, how many industries—just drag along for years or decades because the customers and managers find that it requires more energy to abandon them than to let them limp along? The answer, I think, would be dismaying.

From Crack House To…Wait—What?

This article, in BloombergBusinessWeek, offers many pleasures, and they’re quite evident just from the headline—“The Preposterous Success Story of America’s Pillow King”—and first sentence: “As so many great entrepreneurial success stories do, the tale of Mike Lindell begins in a crack house.”

I mean, what else do you need to know? It’s a highly entertaining and rewarding account of an entrepreneur’s triumph. (Also, I will admit that after reading the story I immediately visited the company’s website to check out the pillows. I’m not offering any product endorsements here, but what middle-aged person isn’t looking for a better night of sleep?)

Bonus: Trumponomics Daily

Finally, may I humbly recommend you add one more newsletter to your collection? This one is penned by my Fortune and CEO Daily colleague Tory Newmyer, a graceful and penetrating writer with extensive experience plumbing the byways of Washington—which CEO Daily readers already know given that he has been writing the Saturday edition of this newsletter. Now Newmyer is upping his game. His new offering is called “Trumponomics Daily,” and as Newmyer put it in his debut dispatch this week, “My aim is to make this a dispassionate space for chronicling the impact that a radically remade dynamic in Washington means for business.” Indeed, Donald Trump has promised dramatic change and it seems certain that some sort of earthquake is coming. But what, precisely, that will consist of, and what the effects will be, are deeply uncertain. That’s why it’s crucial to have a savvy guide to help you understand what’s happening. Newmyer is that person and you can sign up for his newsletter here. 

Nicholas Varchaver