From Wall Street to K Street, Companies Gauge the Risks of Doing Business With Saudi Arabia

One of the roughly 10 lobbying firms that represent the Saudi government, the Harbour Group, has dropped it as a client, and others are considering following suit, according to people familiar with discussions, as Saudi Arabia struggles with a backlash over allegations that it murdered the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

The lobbying firms are privately discussing how to proceed, these people said. But some have already decided that the prospect of continued paychecks from Saudi Arabia — once a prized and profitable client — is not worth the risk to their reputations.

But for financial and technology companies, several of which have multibillion-dollar ties to Saudi Arabia, the calculus is more complicated. Few executives have backed out of the conference, which is called the Future Investment Initiative but is known colloquially as Davos in the Desert.

Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, was one of the few to announce that they would back out.

.. The Public Investment Fund, a large Saudi sovereign wealth fund, invested $3.5 billion for a 5.6 percent share in Uber in June 2016.

The fund’s managing director, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, took a seat on Uber’s board. Prince Mohammed is the chairman of the Public Investment Fund.

.. Blackstone’s chief executive, Stephen A. Schwarzman, remains an advisory board member and is expected to speak at the conference, which is held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, where Prince Mohammed locked up hundreds of wealthy Saudis last year in what he called an anti-corruption campaign but critics said was an effort to crush dissent.

.. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, is also still planning to attend

.. Peter Thiel, the technology venture capitalist who was once an ally of President Trump and is known for his independent streak, is still a member of the event’s advisory board but had never planned to attend the gathering, according to a person close to Mr. Thiel.

.. Richard Branson, the billionaire British entrepreneur, said that he had suspended his directorship at two tourism projects near the Red Sea and that his space ventures would halt their discussions over proposed investments from the Public Investment Fund.

.. Saudi Arabia has been a coveted client, thanks to its reputation for paying above-market rates and its status as one of the United States’ most reliable allies in an unstable region, which seemed cemented by the ties between Prince Mohammed and the Trump administration.
.. The debates about dropping the Saudi account also reflect the skittishness of the lobbying industry at a time when it has faced mounting scrutiny from federal investigators, including the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, about how foreign interests try to shape American politics and policy.
.. The highest-paid firms representing the Saudis in Washington are the international public affairs consultancy
  • Qorvis MSLGroup, which is being paid $279,500 a month, and the
  • Glover Park Group, which was started by former Clinton administration officials and is being paid $150,000 a month
.. Another two firms are being paid $125,000 a month —
  • Hogan Lovells, which has Norm Coleman, a former senator of Minnesota, as its point person for Saudi work, and
  • Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which has a bipartisan team composed of Marc S. Lampkin, a former aide to the former House speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, and Alfred E. Mottur, a top fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

.. Not all of these firms will drop the Saudis. Some are leaning toward maintaining their contracts, in part because they predict that if they were to abandon the country en masse, it could lead to reduced cooperation from the Saudi government.

Buffett Won’t Boycott Gun Makers, ‘That Would Be Ridiculous’

Warren Buffett said it would be “ridiculous” for the conglomerate not to do business with gun makers, noting that he doesn’t want to impose his political views on Berkshire’s investment decisions or business operations.

.. “I think what the kids are doing is very admirable, but I don’t think Berkshire should say we’re not going to do business with people who own guns,” Mr. Buffet said on CNBC. “I think that would be ridiculous.”

.. The companies could pare health-care expenses 3% to 4% through negotiating power alone, but the initiative intends to go further. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and JPM CEO Jamie Dimon are perfect partners, he said, because “we can make things happen. Our companies are big, yet we can still make things happen. We don’t have the bureaucratic problems or the constituency problems” that other large companies have.

Bitcoin’s Wild Ride Shows The Truth: It Is Probably Worth Zero

The digital currency’s value depends on it becoming digital gold—or on criminals

There is no chance whatsoever that bitcoin can displace the dollar, for the simple reason that it is badly designed. Bitcoin can handle a pathetically small number of transactions, and uses an inordinate amount of electricity to do so, making it entirely unsuitable to replace ordinary money.

.. Even if bitcoin worked better, it is in a Catch-22 because of Gresham’s law, the nostrum that bad money drives out good. Given the choice of spending inflationary government-issued money or something which holds its value, everyone would spend the bad paper stuff and hoard the bitcoin. You wouldn’t want to be the person who spent 10,000 bitcoins on two pizzas in 2010, when a bitcoin was worth a fraction of a cent. Those bitcoins are now worth $40 million. But if no one spends bitcoin, it will never get established as a currency.

.. There are two somewhat less ambitious claims for bitcoin that could give it value.

  1. The first is that it is a limited form of money because of its usefulness for dealing illegal drugs and dodging capital controls.
  2. The second is that it is a form of digital gold: an insurance that will keep its value even if governments confiscate or inflate away the buying power of the currencies they issue.

In any currency, the money supply multiplied by how often it circulates equals

  • the price level times
  • the number of transactions.

For bitcoin we can estimate three of the four variables

.. Assume that all drug dealing moves online, that bitcoins circulate as rapidly as ordinary currencies and estimate a $120 billion-a-year market for illegal drugs, and the formula spits out an ultimate value of $571 for a single bitcoin. The more drugs traded, the higher the value, and the more bitcoin hoarded rather than spent, the higher the value.

.. On this basis the recent price of $3,950 is mostly speculation, and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive James Dimon’s comparison to the 17th-century Dutch tulip mania is apt.
.. the potential to replace gold gives us some figures to work with. Thomson Reuters GFMS estimates there were 2,155 metric tons of gold held in exchange-traded funds. Switch all of that into bitcoin and it would justify a price of about $5,500 for the 17 million bitcoins currently outstanding.

Elizabeth Warren: One Way to Rebuild Our Institutions

When Novartis, a major drug company that was already effectively on federal probation for misconduct, paid kickbacks to pharmacies to push certain drugs, it cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and undermined patient health. Under the law, the government can boot companies that defraud Medicare and Medicaid out of those programs, but when Novartis got caught, it just paid a penalty — one so laughably small that its C.E.O. said afterward that it “remains to be seen” whether his company would actually consider changing its behavior.

.. Last year, five of the world’s biggest banks, including JPMorgan Chase, pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they rigged the price of billions of dollars worth of foreign currencies. No corporation can break the law unless people in that corporation also broke the law, but no one from any of those banks has been charged. While thousands of Americans were rotting in prison for nonviolent drug convictions, JPMorgan Chase was so chastened by pleading guilty to a crime that it awarded Jamie Dimon, its C.E.O., a 35 percent raise.

.. Personnel is policy.