A Tax Credit for Hiring, China Embraces Bankruptcy, and Trader Joe’s Influencers

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MARKETING
Trader Joe’s never pays for advertising, but it has an impressive array of influencers on Instagram: “In the summer of 2016, [Dezeray] launched the Instagram account @traderjoesglutenfree, where she posted photos of every new gluten-free item that Trader Joe’s had in stock. ‘Look who has decided to grace us with her presence again this year. GET IT WHILE YOU CAN!’ reads a recent caption on a photo of Trader Joe’s butternut squash pizza crust that garnered more than a thousand likes and 50 comments. … Today she has nearly 47,000 followers, many of whom look to her as a primary source on gluten-free products at their local grocery store. 

“Dezeray is part of a small, but growing, community of Trader Joe’s Instagram influencers, none of whom are associated officially with the brand but all of whom have built a dedicated following over their shared love of the affordable grocery chain. There’s Trader Joe’s Obsessed (150,000 followers), Trader Joe’s Kitchen (215,000 followers), Trader Joe’s Aficionado (16,000 followers), Trader Joe’s Pro (31,000 followers), Trader Joe’s Insider (78,000 followers), and the biggest one of all, Trader Joe’s List, which has more than 950,000 followers.”

RETAIL
The retail apocalypse has claimed a maker of retail fixtures: “The relatively small, Pennsylvania-based company counts big, distressed retailers like JC Penney Co., Neiman Marcus Group and Destination Maternity Corp. among its customers, according to its website. Fleetwood listed as much as $50 million each in assets and liabilities in its bankruptcy petition and posted $70 million in sales last year, court papers show. Some of the company’s customers this year started delaying orders, extending project timelines and slow-paying invoices amid the retail industry’s slump and tariffs levied on China, attorneys for Fleetwood said in court papers. The tariffs also boosted the cost of materials for Fleetwood, which makes things like checkout counters and tables, and an investment in a new manufacturing facility sapped cash from the company …”

Supermarkets are opening small warehouses in their stores: “America’s top supermarkets are facing a new challenge: Grocery aisles in stores aren’t suited to meet the growing demand for online orders. So Walmart, Albertsons, Stop & Shop, Meijer, Hy-Vee and others are building automated mini-warehouses inside their stores and opening up ‘dark stores’—locations that look like supermarkets but are closed to customers—to make deliveries and prepare pickup orders. Although only around five percent of US shoppers buy their groceries online today, analysts expect that number to rise in the coming years. Walmart has trained more than 30,000 workers to fulfill customers’ online grocery orders, but in some cases that has led to congested aisles with workers in its own stores during peak shopping times, such as weekends.”

LEGISLATION
Under a new Senate bill small business owners would get a tax credit for hiring their first employee: “‘What this bill is all about is making it possible for small businesses to get out of the gate in a realistic way and grow,’ said [Sen. Ron] Wyden. ‘Some of the biggest businesses in this country started in garages, dorm rooms, coffee shops. ‘I’ve been all over the state in town-hall meetings … and an informal group of women entrepreneurs starting talking to me,’ explained the senator. ‘This bill grew out of their suggestions. … The heart of the bill is to create that incentive to hire the first employee and to create incentives for capital investment (in small businesses) for others.’

“The bill’s tax benefits include a ‘first employee tax credit equal to 25 percent of W-2 wages, up to $10,000 a year, with a $40,000 lifetime limit,’ and a ‘small-business investor tax credit up to 50 percent of a qualified debt or equity investment, up to $10,000 a year, with a lifetime limit of $50,000. Both incentives are limited to businesses owned by a US individual earning $100,000 or less ($200,000 or less for joint filers).’”

TAXES
Congressional Democrats are calling for investigations into opportunity zones: “Lawmakers are voicing mounting concerns about a federal tax incentive, known as an ‘opportunity zone,’ that is supposed to encourage investors to pump money into the nation’s poorest neighborhoods. Leading Democrats in the House and Senate have sent a flurry of letters demanding answers and action by federal agencies after recent New York Times articles detailed how wealthy investors and real estate developers, including those with ties to the Trump administration, are poised to profit on the initiative. In August, The Times highlighted how tax-advantaged money was beginning to flow to development projects that were underway in affluent neighborhoods even before the opportunity-zone incentive was enacted as part of President Trump’s tax cuts at the end of 2017. The initiative enjoyed broad bipartisan support.”

INTERNATIONAL
Looking to cushion a slowing economy, China is embracing US-style bankruptcy: “In the trenches of China’s debt-addled economy, the government has made a startling decision: Let companies fail. That has left creditors angry, debtors fighting to save their businesses and judges on a mission to promote the benefits of bankruptcy. After years of pumping out financial support to keep the economy humming and workers happy, China has embarked on a debt reckoning. Beijing is building a bankruptcy system to take on a significant pickup in corporate defaults. The country now has more than 90 US-style specialized bankruptcy courts to help sort through a morass of corporate debt that, until recently, would have been swallowed by state banks and other creditors.”

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STARTUPS
A new bank is offering a three percent interest rate for good behavior: “A new online bank called HMBradley will pay customers an industry-topping three percent interest rate if they save at least 20 percent of their income every month in their accounts. The bank, unveiled on Wednesday, is backed by investors who include PayPal founder Max Levchin. While other online banks, including Goldman Sachs’ Marcus, have been trying to woo customers with higher interest rates, HMBradley wants to distinguish itself by rewarding what it calls good behavior. … In an interview with Fortune, CEO Zach Bruhnke said what sets HMBradley apart from other so-called challenger banks—which typically offer debit cards and zero fees—is a business model that relies on a traditional banking strategy of loans and deposits: ‘Every challenger bank is the same and offer similar hooks like ‘get paid early’ or ‘don’t pay a fee.’ They’re all focused on getting you to swipe your debit card, while we’re after people who want to save.’”

SUSTAINABILITY
Rick Steves’s travel company has imposed a yearly $1 million carbon tax on itself: “Standard accounting practices allow businesses to ignore costs to our environment–but I believe it’s ethical to pay our share of that cost. At the expense of our profit, we imposed a creative ‘carbon tax’ on ourselves. … A round-trip flight to Europe emits roughly as much climate-changing carbon, per passenger, as six months of driving. Scientists and development experts figure it takes about $30 of careful investment in environmental initiatives in the developing world to mitigate the carbon emissions created by one round-trip flight between the USA and Europe. At my company, we take about 30,000 people to Europe each year on our tours. That adds up to about $900,000 for us, but we’re rounding up and figure that we owe $1 million annually to cover our climate costs. Though some businesses address this issue by purchasing carbon offsets, I prefer to invest our $1 million directly in climate-smart agriculture and forestry projects in developing countries, as well as legislative advocacy here in the USA.”

REGULATION
Marketed as swordfish, it could actually be shark given that the US doesn’t verify its imported seafood: “Only a striking one percent of fish imported into the United States is tested to ensure that what’s marketed on the outside of a package matches what’s on the inside. For a nation that imports about 90 percent of its seafood, that can have profound consequences. … The most common thing people are eating when they think they’re biting into swordfish is shark—specifically shortfin mako or blue shark. That’s the case with about 15 percent of all swordfish, the team found in a study published on Nov. 1 in the journal Foods.”

CAPITALISM
Billionaire investor Ray Dalio is starting to sound a little like Bernie Sanders: “At the same time as money is essentially free for those who have money and creditworthiness, it is essentially unavailable to those who don’t have money and creditworthiness, which contributes to the rising wealth, opportunity, and political gaps. Also contributing to these gaps are the technological advances that investors and the entrepreneurs that I previously mentioned are excited by in the ways I described, and that also replace workers with machines. Because the ‘trickle-down’ process of having money at the top trickle down to workers and others by improving their earnings and creditworthiness is not working, the system of making capitalism work well for most people is broken. This set of circumstances is unsustainable and certainly can no longer be pushed as it has been pushed since 2008. That is why I believe that the world is approaching a big paradigm shift.”

And that’s what’s ahead.

Please send comments and suggestions to mattg@oxfordcenter.com and lfeldman@oxfordcenter.com

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