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Intel’s turnaround tale clashes with circumspect Wall Street

February 18, 2022, 6:00 PM UTC

America loves a comeback story. And in the tech world, few companies have a better chance to recapture their past glory than the onetime champion of chips, Intel.

That’s certainly the narrative that took hold this week, as top media outlets lavished Intel with attention on the first anniversary of CEO Pat Gelsinger’s return to the California semiconductor giant.

In lengthy profiles published by the New York Times and Fast Company, as well as an interview with Bloomberg and a presentation to investors, Gelsinger made the case for Intel rising from its struggles to regain its place atop the chip industry—even if Wall Street isn’t buying it yet. 

To his credit, Gelsinger is working with a great backstory.

After dominating the first few decades of global semiconductor production, Intel quickly lost its edge not through scandal or strife, but good old-fashioned mismanagement. 

A series of miscalculations and misplaced priorities—most notably, its late entry into the smartphone chip market—left Intel looking like an aging relic. In the meantime, domestic and Asian competitors—the latter of which often benefited from generous government subsidies—gradually stole Intel’s market share. 

Faced with an uncertain future, Intel board members recruited back Gelsinger, an Intel veteran of 30 years who was elbowed out in 2009 by the company’s new guard, to lead the chipmaker’s long-awaited revival. He inherited a relatively easy company for which to root. At a time when Facebook, Google, and other Big Tech behemoths profit off mining your personal data, Intel helps make the products that power our daily lives.

So far, Gelsinger and Intel seem a strong marriage of man and moment.

In interviews and public speeches, Gelsinger oozes authenticity while serving as Intel’s head cheerleader, making the case for big investments in semiconductor manufacturing and better chip design technologies. He’s plainspoken and pragmatic about the company’s past failures, but bold and bright in projecting its future.

That genuine nature serves Intel well in Washington as Gelsinger continues to aggressively lobby Congress to pass the CHIPS Act, which would provide $52 billion in federal support for boosting American semiconductor production. 

While Gelsinger has been mostly diplomatic in his approach, his message has been forceful: The U.S. relies too much on foreign chip designers and manufacturers, which represents an economic and national security risk. The House and Senate have passed separate pieces of legislation that would provide the $52 billion boost, though hurdles remain in reconciling the two bills.

Yet, for all the feel-good vibes floating around Gelsinger, Intel’s bottom line will ultimately determine his fate. And so far, investors remain skeptical. 

The company’s stock is down about 25% since Gelsinger’s arrival, in contrast to strong gains by the S&P 500 and a mostly flat Nasdaq 100. 

At the company’s annual investor conference Thursday, Intel executives said it will likely take three or four years to know how handsomely its massive investments, including more than $100 billion in commitments made since Gelsinger’s arrival, will pay off, the Wall Street Journal reported. Intel shares shed 5% in midday trading Friday.

“The lift is just extremely heavy, and people that think that this can be resolved in a handful of quarters—even a handful of years—probably don’t understand the challenges that he was facing coming in in the first place,” Jon Bathgate, a fund manager at investment firm NZS Capital, told Bloomberg.

Gelsinger, for his part, acknowledges that he’s merely written the first few chapters of Intel’s comeback story. “I think we’re generally ahead of where I thought we’d be at this point,” Gelsinger told Fast Company. “But we still have a lot of mountain to go.”

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Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Widening the scope. The Securities and Exchange Commission and a California state employment watchdog have expanded their respective investigations into video game developer Activision Blizzard’s handling of extensive workplace misconduct claims made by female staffers, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. In both cases, investigators for each agency issued new subpoenas that seek information about Activision Blizzard employees who were not part of initial document requests. The development comes as Microsoft looks to complete a $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard sometime next year.

Double trouble? The landmark deal between Spotify and podcaster Joe Rogan was actually worth more than $200 million, twice the amount reported when the two sides struck the agreement in 2020, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing two anonymous sources familiar with the terms. The updated dollar figure, which Spotify and Rogan neither confirmed nor refuted, gives additional context to the size of Spotify’s bet on cornerstone personalities propelling its podcasting foray. Spotify and Rogan have come under increasing scrutiny over the past several weeks in response to Rogan’s past use of racial slurs and promotion of COVID-19 information that the medical community widely refutes.

Building a base. Meta’s primary virtual reality platform, Horizon Worlds, has added about 300,000 monthly active users in the U.S. and Canada since launching in early December, The Verge reported Thursday. The disclosure marks the first time that Meta has commented on usage of Horizon Worlds, the earliest iteration of the company’s huge investment in pioneering the so-called metaverse. By comparison, the long-established virtual reality world Second Life boasted an average of about 200,000 daily users globally as of mid-2021.

Cover your eyes. Roku shares tumbled 28% in midday trading Friday after the streaming hardware company issued a disappointing earnings report and gloomy outlook for the start of 2022, CNBC reported. The decline, on track for Roku’s biggest single-day stock loss, followed a 10% drop in share price Thursday as investors anticipated an unimpressive earnings report. Roku posted $865.3 million in holiday-quarter revenue, well short of analysts’ forecast of $894 million, and a rapidly slowing rate of year-over-year growth amid persistent supply chain challenges.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Better late than never. The Department of Justice is arriving to the crypto scene, and it’s got a top cop on the job. The federal agency announced Thursday the creation of a new National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team, with a veteran cybercrime prosecutor, Eun Young Choi, set to lead the charge. Fortunes Tristan Bove has a rundown on the effort and Choi’s credentials, as the feds try to tame an increasingly complex corner of the digital economy.

From the article

Choi will become the inaugural director of the National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (NCET), effective immediately, as regulators attempt to clamp down on what have so far been largely unmonitored crimes.

“Because of the nature of the jurisdiction and the laws involved, [crypto crimes] are barely prosecuted crimes,” Todd Raque, financial crimes and money laundering expert at Featurespace, a fraud prevention technology provider, told Fortune. “I think the DOJ unit will be a focal point to help make sure there is a more coordinated effort across agencies.”

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Tim Cook got a 500% pay raise last year. Now Apple store employees are considering unionization, by Chris Morris

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s $99 million pay package is under attack as advisory firm urges shareholders to vote against it, by Jonathan Vanian

Five years after the ‘Uber Blog’ helped launch #MeToo, businesses still must do more to fight sexual harassment, by Anita Hill

Apple’s next iPhone update will let you use Face ID to unlock your phone while wearing a mask, by Georgina McKay and Bloomberg

Morgan Stanley warns Ethereum could lose ground to Binance, Solana, and Cardano, making shift to ‘proof of stake’ even more urgent, by Eamon Barrett

One of the top donors to the ‘Freedom Convoy’ is a billionaire Silicon Valley executive, by Tom Giles, Stephen Wicary, and Bloomberg

The techno-military-industrial-academic complex, by Wendell Wallach

BEFORE YOU GO

Is that an apology? Elon Musk apparently does have his limits on Twitter: horrible Hitler memes. The Tesla CEO, never one for backing down in the face of social media critics, deleted a tweet Thursday that featured a meme likening Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the murderous Nazi leader. The tweet was meant to satirize Trudeau’s crackdown on the “Freedom Convoy,” a loose group of Musk-supported protesters causing disruptions across Canada as they defiantly oppose COVID-related government restrictions, but the American Jewish Committee and other critics correctly called out the false equivalency. 

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