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CEO Daily: Wednesday, 15th March

Good morning.

How does a company whose products are deeply embedded in the physical world cope with digitization?

According to Jean-Paul Agon, CEO of French cosmetics giant L’Oréal, one part of a successful response strategy is the willingness to embrace what he calls “organized chaos.”

In an interview in this month’s edition of our magazine, Agon explains to Fortune’s Erin Griffith that “it allows us to always keep our mind open to new ideas, ready to jump on new trends and take new opportunities.”

“You have hundreds of initiatives and experiments,” he says. Some work, some don’t. The key to good management, it would appear, is knowing when to call time on the bad ones, and judging how far the good ones can be rolled out across the company.

In some ways, the transition has been easier for Agon because “digital is by definition pretty decentralized,” and L’Oréal is a decentralized company anyway, with 34 brands across 140 countries. All but one of those brands were bought, and the French company has made a point of allowing its acquisitions a high degree of independence in fulfilling the potential it saw in them. You can read Erin’s interview in full here.

More news below.

Geoffrey Smith

Top News

Trump’s Tax Returns on Drip Feed

A small part of President Donald Trump’s tax return was leaked to MSNBC, showing that he paid $38 million in federal taxes in 2005 on reported income of $153 million. That appears to negate claims by the Democratic Party during the election campaign that Trump used a $916 million loss in the 1990s to avoid paying taxes for the next 20 years. It’s still unlikely to stop calls for fuller disclosure, which would be clearly preferable to a drip feed of partial information leaked selectively by unknown parties with unknown agendas. Some $31 million of the $38 million liability in 2005 was generated by the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which limits the use of deductions by ultra-high earners. Trump had said during the campaign he wants to scrap the AMT, a goal that appears in a different light this morning. Fortune

China’s Soothing Words on Trade

Premier Li Keqiang said China didn’t want a trade war with the U.S. and warned that such a development would not make trade between the two countries fairer. Speaking a day after news broke that his boss, Xi Jinping, will meet with President Trump in Mar a Lago in April, Li was at pains to stay diplomatic, saying that “no matter what bumps this relationship hits, we hope it will continue to move forward in a positive direction,” and putting much of the current tension over the trade issue down to “different statistical methods.” Elsewhere in the press conference, he reiterated that China’s economy would continue to avoid a ‘hard landing’ and grow by around 6.5% this year. Reuters

Three Cheers for the 1% (Fed Funds Rate)

The Federal Reserve is expected to raise the target for the key Fed Funds rate by a quarter of a point to 1% at its Federal Open Market Committee, responding to signs of strong employment growth and what appears to be a solid (if still unspectacular) upward trend in earnings. The move is fully priced in, and the market’s focus will be on any language in the accompanying statement that suggests a possibility of more than three rate rises this year. A Wall Street Journal survey said 60% of economists see a second hike coming as early as June. Fortune

VW Flutters Its Eyelashes at FCA

Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller left the door open to a merger with Fiat Chrysler (mooted last week by FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne), telling a press conference that the group was “more open on that account than we used to be.” Strong sales in China helped VW overtake Toyota as the world’s largest automaker last year, but underlying profit at the core VW brand weakened due to a diesel scandal that continues to rumble on. German prosecutors raided Audi offices and the homes of Audi executives Wednesday morning in connection with “suspected fraud and false advertising”—the same language used by prosecutors probing VW’s headquarters. Fortune

Around the Water Cooler

Euronet Crashes Jack Ma’s Party

Euronet Worldwide, a U.S.-based electronic payments provider, threw a wrench into the plans of Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial to gain a foothold in western markets. It offered $15.20 a share for rival MoneyGram, valuing the latter at just under $2 billion (including debt). The 15% premium to Ant Financial’s offer is less important, arguably, than the fact that an all-U.S. deal would not be subject to approval from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which has been increasingly skittish about Chinese acquisitions in the last couple of years. MoneyGram’s shares rose 25% in response to the prospect of a more viable cash-out option. Fortune

Germany Proposes Steep Fines for Social Media Promoting Hate

Germany proposed a new draft law that would fine social networks like Facebook up to 50 million euros for failing to take down hate speech and other criminal content within tight time limits. The proposal comes only days after a ruling that said Facebook couldn’t be held liable under current law for offensive material it published. The German law has the potential to act as a precedent for other countries in Europe important to Facebook’s business. However, the German version looks particularly tough. That’s due in part to official fears about anti-immigrant sentiment driving the agenda in federal elections later this year. Fortune

Saudi Scare Tactics Work Too Well

An oil market report from OPEC showed that its deal on output restraint is not having the desired impact on the global glut. That’s due largely to countries from Venezuela to Kazakhstan failing to deliver the cuts they promised. Saudi Arabia, which remains the only player capable of unilaterally balancing the market, had already hinted that it may resort to its price war strategy if the deal isn’t honored, and did so again with the data that it sent to OPEC for yesterday’s report. Oil futures plunged 2%, but recovered after Riyadh issued a more conciliatory, but still unconvincing ‘explanation.’  Fortune

Neiman Marcus Can’t Stop the Bleeding

Neiman Marcus is up for sale after reporting its sixth straight quarter of underlying sales declines. CEO Karen Katz blamed the ease of online shopping and price comparisons for the malaise, along with the strong dollar. A sale isn’t the only strategic alternative that its private equity owners, Ares Management and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, are pursuing, but their room for maneuver is crimped by a $5 billion debt load that Standard & Poor’s says is “unsustainable.” The Wall Street Journal reported that Hudson’s Bay Co., the owner of Neiman rival Saks Fifth Avenue, was a potential buyer.  Fortune

Summaries by Geoffrey Smith;