Adam Neumann was flying high. Literally.
His office-rental giant WeWork was months away from being valued at $47 billion. Revenue was doubling annually. And Mr. Neumann was zipping across the Atlantic Ocean in a Gulfstream G650 private jet with friends last summer, smoking marijuana.
After the group landed in Israel and left the plane, the flight crew found a sizable chunk of the drug stuffed in a cereal box for the return flight, according to people familiar with the incident. The jet’s owner, upset and fearing repercussions of trans-border marijuana transport, recalled the plane, leaving Mr. Neumann to find his own way back to New York, these people said.
Since Mr. Neumann co-founded WeWork—recently renamed We Co.—with Miguel McKelvey nine years ago, he has led with unusual exuberance and excess. His combination of entrepreneurial vision, personal charisma and brash risk-taking helped the company surpass $2 billion in annual revenue, and made it the country’s most valuable startup.
Now many of the same qualities that helped fuel his company’s breakneck growth in the private market are piling up as potential liabilities as the company prepares to go public—helmed by a CEO who looks little like a typical public-company chief.
Mr. Neumann muses about the implausible:
- becoming leader of the world,
- living forever,
- amassing more than $1 trillion in wealth.
Partying has long been a feature of his work life, heavy on the tequila.
Public investors are increasingly skeptical of the formula that has worked for Mr. Neumann so far: his pitch that We is far more than a real-estate company. With its rapid growth and use of technology, he argued, the company deserves rich valuations normally reserved for tech companies.
Instead, many potential investors now see a fast-growing office subleasing company with losses of more than $1.6 billion last year.
Since We filed the prospectus for its initial public offering last month, it has been besieged with criticism over its governance, business model and ability to turn a profit. It is now expecting an IPO valuation as low as a third of the $47 billion sticker price it garnered in a January funding round—a drop without recent precedent. This week, We postponed the offering until October at the earliest.
Wall Street and Silicon Valley investors have been dismayed by the number of potential conflicts of interest disclosed in the “S-1” IPO prospectus, including Mr. Neumann leasing properties he owns back to the company and borrowing heavily against his stock. Even some of We’s private investors said they were angered to learn that an entity Mr. Neumann controls sold the rights to the word “We” to the company for almost $6 million—before public pressure led him to unwind the deal.
“This is not the way everybody behaves,” said Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter Inc., who led the company through one of the larger tech IPOs of the past decade. “The degree of self-dealing in the S-1 is so egregious, and it comes at a time when you’ve got regulators and politicians and folks across the country looking out at Silicon Valley and wondering if there’s the appropriate level of self-awareness.”
Given the prominence of the IPO, he added, “that is a big problem.”
Mr. Neumann, 40, declined to comment through a spokesman, who cited rules surrounding the planned IPO. Mr. Neumann told We employees Tuesday the process had been humbling and he would learn from it, say people who heard him. We executives have previously said he is strongly devoted to the company, and many of his personal transactions were made with the company’s best interests at heart.
This account is based on interviews with current and former employees, investors and friends who interacted with Mr. Neumann as he built We.
For startup investors, the 6-foot-5 Mr. Neumann has always had the qualities they crave in Silicon Valley founders, despite being based in New York. He is intensely ambitious and a masterful storyteller with a magnetic personality who can inspire and sell.
Raised in Israel on a kibbutz, Mr. Neumann moved to the U.S. when he was 22, where he attended Baruch College and tried to start businesses. One was a collapsible heel on women’s shoes that didn’t get off the ground. Working out of his Tribeca apartment, he started Krawlers, which sought to make baby clothes with knee pads to make crawling more comfortable. The slogan, he has said: “Just because they don’t tell you, doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.” It never gained traction.
He and Mr. McKelvey started a small co-working space on the side during the recession that followed the financial crisis and were amazed by the demand.
By 2010, they had started WeWork, with essentially the same core business model that exists today: They lease an office long-term, renovate it to make it hip and inviting, and sublease smaller desks and offices short-term.
Krystal Ball interviews Author Anand Giridharadas on his book “Winners Take All.” Anand explains how the same billionaires who undermined the American Dream now want us to be dependent on them as our saviors.
They sold their principles a long time ago.
Before going to the White House, Donald Trump demanded that the Fed raise interest rates despite high unemployment and low inflation. Now he’s demanding rate cuts, even though the unemployment rate is much lower and inflation at least a bit higher. To be fair, there is a real economic argument for rate cuts as insurance against a possible slowdown. But it’s clear that Trump’s motives are and always have been purely political: he wanted the Fed to hurt President Obama, and now he wants it to boost his own reelection chances.
It’s not surprising, then, that Trump is also trying to stuff the Federal Reserve Board with political allies. What may seem surprising is that many of his would-be appointees, like Stephen Moore and now Judy Shelton, have long records of supporting the gold standard or something like it. This should put them at odds with his efforts to politicize the Fed. After all, one of the supposed points of a gold standard is to remove any hint of politics from monetary policy. And with gold prices rising lately, gold standard advocates should be calling for the Fed to raise rates, not lower them.
But of course both Moore and Shelton have endorsed Trump’s demand for rate cuts. This creates a dual puzzle: Why does Trump want these people, and why are they so willing to cater to his wishes?
Well, I think there’s a simple answer to both sides of the puzzle, which involves the reason some economic commentators (not sure if they deserve to be called “economists”) become goldbugs in the first place. What I’d suggest is that it usually has less to do with conviction than with cynical careerism. And this in turn means that goldbugs are, in general, the kind of people who can be counted on to do Trump’s bidding, never mind what they may have said in the past.
Let me start with what might seem like a trivial question, but which is, I believe, crucial: What does it take to build a successful career as a mainstream economist?
The truth is that it’s not at all easy. Parroting orthodox views definitely won’t do it; you have to be technically proficient, and to have a really good career you must be seen as making important new contributions — innovative ways to think about economic issues and/or innovative ways to bring data to bear on those issues. And the truth is that not many people can pull this off: it requires a combination of deep knowledge of previous research and the ability to think differently. You have to both understand the box and be able to think outside it.
I don’t want to romanticize the mainstream economics profession, which suffers from multiple sins. Male economists like me are only beginning to comprehend the depths of the profession’s sexism. There’s far too much dominance by an old-boy network of economists with PhDs from a handful of elite institutions. (And yes, I’ve been a beneficiary of these sins.) Many good ideas have been effectively blocked by ideology — even now, for example, it’s hard to publish anything with a Keynesian flavor in top journals. And there’s still an overvaluation of mathematical razzle-dazzle relative to real insight.
But even for people who can check off all the right identity boxes, climbing the ladder of success in mainstream economics is tough. And here’s the thing: for those who can’t or won’t make that climb, there are other ladders. Heterodoxy can itself be a careerist move, as long as it’s an approved, orthodox sort of heterodoxy.
Everyone loves the idea of brave, independent thinkers whose brilliant insights are rejected by a hidebound establishment, only to be vindicated in the end. And such people do exist, in economics as in other fields. Someone like Hyman Minsky, with his theory of financial instability, was, in fact, ignored by almost everyone in the mainstream until the 2008 crisis sent everyone scurrying off to read his work.
But the sad truth is that the great majority of people who reject mainstream economics do so because they don’t understand it; and a fair number of these people don’t understand it because their salary depends on their not understanding it.
Which brings me to the gold standard.
There is overwhelming consensus among professional economists that a return to the gold standard would be a bad idea. That’s not supposition: Chicago’s Booth School, which surveys a broad bipartisan group of economists on various topics, found literally zero support for the gold standard.
The events of the past dozen years have only reinforced that consensus. After all, the price of gold soared from 2007 to 2011; if gold-standard ideology had any truth to it, that would have been a harbinger of runaway inflation, and the Fed should have been raising interest rates to keep the dollar’s gold value constant. In fact, inflation never materialized, and an interest rate hike in the face of surging unemployment would have been a disaster.Thank God we weren’t on the gold standardCreditFederal Reserve of St. Louis
So why did gold soar? The main answer seems to be plunging returns on other assets, especially bonds, which were the product of a depressed world economy. What this means is that in practice pegging the dollar to gold would mean systematically raising interest rates when the economy slumps. Not exactly a recipe for stability.
Why, then, does goldbuggery persist? Well, some billionaires — such as Robert Mercer, also a big Trump supporter — have a thing about gold. I’m not entirely sure why, although I suspect that it’s just a plutocratic version of the Fox News syndrome — the angry old white guy ranting about big-government types inflating away his hard-earned wealth to give it away to Those People. And these billionaires give a lot of money to libertarianish think tanks that peddle gold standard derp.
Now imagine yourself as a conservative who writes about economics, but who doesn’t have the technical proficiency and originality needed to get a good job in academia, an economic policy institution like the Fed, or a serious think tank. Well, becoming a vocal gold-standard advocate opens a whole different set of doors. You’ll have a much fancier and more lucrative career, get invited to a lot more stuff, than you would if you stayed with the professional consensus.
What I’m suggesting, in other words, is that gold-standard advocacy is a lot like climate change denial: There are big personal and financial rewards for an “expert” willing to say what a few billionaires want to hear, precisely because no serious expert agrees. In the climate arena, we know that essentially all climate deniers are on the fossil-fuel take. There may be some true believers in the monetary magic of gold, but it’s hard to tell; what we do know is that prominent goldbugs do very well relative to where their careers would be if they didn’t buy into this particular area of derp.
And that, in turn, brings us back to Trump.
Why would Trump expect goldbugs to abandon their principles and back his demands to fire up the printing presses? Why is he, in fact, apparently finding it easy to get goldbugs willing to turn their backs on everything they claimed to believe?
The answer, I’d submit, is that it was never about principles in the first place. Many, perhaps most prominent goldbugs advocate a gold standard not out of conviction but out of ambition; they sold their principles a long time ago. So selling those pretend principles yet again in order to get a nice Trump-sponsored job is no big deal.
It’s cynicism and careerism all the way down.
His conference in Bahrain hears of big dream plans divorced from reality.
The slick promotional publication, titled “Peace to Prosperity,” described a $50 billion investment surge in the Palestinian economy over the next decade, like a fantastical New York real estate promotion. Palestinians certainly could use the investment and jobs in their economically depressed communities, where unemployment last year was 31 percent.
The publication touted what was supposed to be an economic foundation for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, presented at a conference in Bahrain this week by Jared Kushner, presidential son-in-law, senior adviser and, formerly, New York real estate developer.
Mr. Kushner invited participants to “imagine a new reality in the Middle East.”
But except for its patronizing tone, there’s little new about the plan, which relies heavily on the construction of much-needed infrastructure projects that are retreads of proposals the World Bank, the United States and others made in previous failed peace efforts.
The most ambitious undertaking would be a $5 billion transportation corridor from the West Bank to Gaza that could link the two Palestinian territories with a major road and possibly a modern rail line. To facilitate the flow of Palestinian people and goods with Israel, Egypt, Jordan and other countries in the region, facilities at key border crossings would be upgraded, new cargo terminals would be built, old ones would be refurbished and new security technology would be installed.
Although it deals only in generalities, the plan also envisions investing in upgrades to Palestinian electric grids, the Gaza Power Plant and renewable energy facilities. In an effort to double the water supply in five years, new desalinization and wastewater treatment facilities, wells and distribution networks would be built. Financial incentives would encourage private Palestinian businesses to expand the limited existing digital capabilities by developing high-speed telecommunications services.
Other proposals focus on expanding educational opportunities, jobs, housing, tourism and the rule of law.
While tantalizing, the plan as it stands is, to be gentle, unrealistic.
Israel controls the economic life of the Palestinian territories, meaning none of the proposals are possible without its concurrence. Yet the plan makes no demands on Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Gulf states, along with European nations and private investors, are expected to help finance the plan, but there have been no actual commitments, and the idea that the Arabs would bankroll a peace plan that sidesteps a Palestinian state is unlikely.
Making the whole initiative even more surreal, it arrives after the administration in which Mr. Kushner serves sharply cut funds for programs that support Palestinian schools and health care.
The fact that officials of the Israeli and the Palestinian governments, whose futures are most at stake, were absent from the two-day conference in Bahrain, and that many Arab and European countries sent only lower-level representatives, underscores the broad international discomfort with Mr. Kushner’s economic proposals and the promised plan for resolving Israel-Palestinian political issues that is supposed to follow it.
Team Trump is betting that dangling lucrative investments will cause Palestinians to abandon their aspirations for an independent state, a goal the United States supported as part of a negotiated peace since 2002, until President Trump voiced a more fluid view. If it were that easy it would have happened years ago.
Palestinian leaders, who halted contact with Washington months ago, rejected Mr. Kushner’s economic blueprint out of hand. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, allies with Israel against Iran, were supportive but made clear that the plan needed to be combined with a political solution.
The one truly enthusiastic cadre appeared to be billionaire investors who, seemingly for the first time, were seeing economic potential in a long-ignored part of the world. Many of them expressed such eagerness about eventually underwriting projects promoted by the plan that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “It’s going to be like a hot I.P.O.”
Mr. Kushner is right when he says the “old way hasn’t really worked.” However, by presenting a plan that ignores Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood and their demands for ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, he is making success even less likely. “If we are going to fail,” he has said, “we don’t want to fail doing it the same way it’s been done in the past.”
What happens next is anybody’s guess. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted in a recent closed-door meeting with Jewish leaders that the plan may be “unexecutable.” But if Mr. Kushner can mobilize powerful investors and international businesses as cheerleaders for Mideast peace, he could make a real contribution.