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Activist Investors Are Circling Salesforce

Looking over his shoulder?Credit…Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Another activist takes on Marc Benioff

Salesforce has been through a lot of turbulence lately, including a huge round of layoffs and a shake-up in its top ranks. Now it faces a big new threat in Elliott Management, the $55 billion hedge fund that has taken a significant stake in the company.

Elliott’s intervention will only add to the pressure on Salesforce’s co-founder and soon-to-be sole C.E.O., Marc Benioff, to bolster the software giant’s performance as it deals with an already challenging economic environment.

It isn’t clear what Elliott wants. The hedge fund, whose multibillion-dollar stake was first reported by The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by DealBook, is known for shaking up huge companies, with demands that have included cost cuts, replacing executives and selling off businesses.

For now, Elliott is taking a cordial public approach. “We look forward to working constructively with Salesforce to realize the value befitting a company of its stature,” Jesse Cohn, managing partner at the hedge fund, said.

Salesforce is already battling another big activist: Starboard Value announced in October that it had built a stake and noted that the company has been underperforming its peers, but hasn’t publicly called for specific measures.

Mr. Benioff faces a number of challenges. Salesforce has seen its market value drop by roughly half since its peak in 2021, to $150 billion. It laid off 10 percent of its work force in the fall, after what Benioff said was excessive hiring in the tech market boom during the pandemic. Its co-C.E.O., Bret Taylor, is expected to step down this month, after what The Journal said was tension with Benioff. And Salesforce has been criticized for a multibillion-dollar acquisition spree that skeptics say hasn’t paid off.

That’s on top of a tough economic environment, which has driven companies to spend less on services like the software tools that Salesforce sells.

What’s next? Potential moves include more cost cuts — Salesforce still employs 71,000, more than it did before the pandemic — and a higher bar for doing takeovers. But Elliott hasn’t shied away from demanding a shake-up in executive ranks or selling off divisions, and its voice carries a lot of weight with other investors.

HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING

Ken Griffin sets a record for hedge fund profits. His Citadel earned $16 billion last year, according to LCH Investments, beating the $15.6 billion that John Paulson collected in 2007 by betting against subprime mortgages in what was once called the “greatest trade ever.” But the picture was grimmer for hedge funds as a whole: The industry lost $208 billion last year.

The Biden administration dismisses a popular suggestion for ending the debt ceiling standoff. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that the Fed is unlikely to accept a $1 trillion platinum coin that the U.S. would mint and then deposit at the central bank to provide funds to pay its debts, The Wall Street Journal reports. That removes the prospect of an easy solution for helping the country avoid a default later this year.

Brazil and Argentina begin talks on creating a common currency. The move by South America’s biggest economies could eventually grow to include other countries. It could eventually make the continent one of the world’s biggest currency blocs and reduce global reliance on the U.S. dollar.

Elizabeth Holmes may have tried to flee the U.S. In a court filing, prosecutors said the Theranos founder bought a one-way plane ticket to Mexico shortly after being convicted on fraud charges last January. She didn’t go on the trip, but they argue she has demonstrated a flight risk.

A new White House C.O.O.

With the departure of his chief of staff, Ron Klain, President Biden is losing his top lieutenant, and Corporate America is losing an ally. But they may find another in his replacement, Jeffrey Zients, who, as a former entrepreneur and management executive, has strong business credentials of his own. A drawback: He’s perceived to lack the political savvy of the highly influential Klain.

Mr. Zients won’t go it alone. As former coronavirus response coordinator, Mr. Zients oversaw a highly successful vaccination campaign despite no public health experience.

Still, the administration plans to spread out Mr. Klain’s responsibilities to several officials, including Anita Dunn, a senior Biden adviser and political and communications strategist whose former clients include AT&T, Lyft, Pfizer, Salesforce and Reddit; Steven Ricchetti, White House counselor and a former lobbyist, who like Mr. Klain is known to field calls from Wall Street; and Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, a deputy chief of staff and a co-founder of a consulting firm that advised Gates Ventures and other corporate clients.

Washington will be losing a communicator. Mr. Klain is reportedly always on and available to talk, whether with people on Wall Street; in the wee hours on the phone with the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer; or over a glass of wine on the houseboat of Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia.

Mr. Klain has deep connections throughout Washington: He previously served as chief of staff for Vice President Al Gore; worked as a lobbyist at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, for clients like Cigna, Fannie Mae, Time Warner and US Airways; and worked at Revolution LLC, a tech investment firm started by Steve Case, the billionaire co-founder of AOL

Mr. Klain has been one of Biden’s primary negotiators. He has been a reliable interlocutor in fraught times, said Chris Lehane of the crypto investment firm Haun Ventures, who worked for Mr. Klain when he was chief of staff to Gore. “One of the things on the business side people always worry about, or think about, is, ‘Who is in the room that matters when big things are going down?’”

With Mr. Klain, Corporate America knew that someone very high up “would ask the right questions and consider all the issues,” Mr. Lehane told DealBook, likening the role of chief of staff to that of “C.O.O. of the federal government.” (Republicans called Klain“Prime Minister Klain.”)


Crypto’s spreading collapse

Traditional financial institutions are cooling on crypto. Binance, the world’s biggest crypto exchange, said yesterday that one of its partners, Signature Bank, was reducing its exposure to digital assets and would only handle dollar transactions for customers of the company worth more than $100,000.

Regulators have warned banks about “safety and soundness.” The Fed, the F.D.I.C. and Office of the Comptroller of Currency issued a joint statement this month outlining the risks for institutions handling crypto. These included fraud, potential runs on assets and contagion.

The industry’s big players are deeply entwined. The crypto lender Genesis, which says its collapse was set off by the fall of FTX, will have its first bankruptcy hearing today. Genesis froze hundreds of millions of dollars worth of assets in November that it lent out via a yield product on the crypto exchange Gemini, leaving the latter’s customers in the lurch and the two companies facing charges of offering a nonregistered security by the S.E.C. But even as Genesis was struggling, former executives named in the filing were trying to woo investors to a new crypto hedge fund.

Lawyers may be the only winners in crypto right now. After objections from senators, creditor representatives and the founder of FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried, a Delaware bankruptcy court on Friday ruled that the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell could continue to work on the case. Bankman-Fried has accused the firm of conflicts of interest based on previous work it had done for his companies.

In other crypto news: Prosecutors seized more than $600 million in assets from Bankman-Fried.

  • Ruja Ignatova, a.k.a. Cryptoqueen, is on the F.B.I. ‘s most-wanted list for her alleged part in scamming investors of $4 billion through the promotion of OneCoin, which the authorities say was a pyramid scheme.


“Understandably, it can be off-putting to many to have a wealthy 92-year-old tell them what is good for their future. I’m going to make an exception on the streetcar issue.”

Warren Buffett, making a rare public stand on a local issue — introducing a streetcar system in Omaha — in the Omaha World-Herald, which he owns.


Investors see big returns in pro tennis

The stunners at the Australian Open keep coming, with No. 1 seed Iga Swiatek going down to defeat on Monday. The drama is growing off the court, too. A coterie of billionaires, deep-pocketed companies and star players are engaged in a high-stakes battle to remake the tennis business, report The Times Mathew Futterman and DealBook’s Lauren Hirsch.

Professional tennis has roughly one billion fans worldwide, and estimated annual revenues of $2.5 billion — a fraction of the N.F.L.’s $18 billion juggernaut business. Tennis players receive a much smaller percentage of the pot, and, critics say, poor management, excess bureaucracy and matches that go long into the night are capping the sport’s potential.

The private equity firm CVC Capital Partners believes the game is ripe for disruption. In seeking to buy a 20 percent stake in the Women’s Tennis Association, the firm wants to increase prize money for players and ensure it’s more equitably distributed between men and women. CVC also wants to gain a foothold with the Association of Tennis Professionals, the men’s tennis league,possibly opening up a path to investment there as well.

“This is definitely the time to go long on tennis, 100 percent,” the billionaire investor Bill Ackman told The Times. Mr. Ackman is funding a fledgling players’ organization led by the Serbian star Novak Djokovic. That group is searching for ways to grow the sport’s financial pie and the size of the players’ slice. One idea they’re mulling: a player-run fifth Grand Slam tournament.


The week ahead

A parade of tech earnings and economic data releases will give investors plenty to ponder. Major markets in China will be closed this week for the Lunar New Year festivities. Here’s what’s happening:

Tomorrow: The U.S., Britain and eurozone countries will publish January Purchasing Managers’ Index data, a reliable corporate indicator of economic sentiment. Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson and 3M report earnings. (And nominations for the Academy Awards will be announced.)

Wednesday: Tesla, ASML and AT&T headline earnings.

Thursday: U.S. fourth-quarter G.D.P. and data on new home sales will be released. Visa, Mastercard and LVMH report earnings.

Friday: December data for personal consumption expenditures, the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, will be published. Chevron and American Express report results.

THE SPEED READ

Deals

  • “How Charlie Javice Got JPMorgan to Pay $175 Million for … What Exactly?” (NYT)

  • Billionaires’ bets on investing in the news industry appear increasingly unlikely to pay off. (Semafor)

  • The Italian bank UniCredit has reportedly halved its spending on investment banks and consulting firms. (FT)

  • Bill Ackman’s latest personal investment: a British watch company. (FT)

Policy

  • The Justice Department is investigating operations at an Abbott infant formula plant in Michigan whose closure last year led to a nationwide shortage of formula. (NYT)

  • The Chamber of Commerce pledged to fight the F.T.C.’s proposed ban on noncompete agreements. (WSJ Opinion)

  • The mayor of the District of Columbia accused the federal government of hurting her city with its remote-work policies. (Politico)

Best of the rest

  • What the sweeping layoffs by tech and media companies say about the economy. (The Atlantic)

  • ChatGPT successfully passed an exam in a Wharton M.B.A. class; separately, Satya Nadella of Microsoft said his company’s partnership with the chatbot’s parent, OpenAI, will integrate its technology into many of its products. (FT, Insider)

  • Plans to build low-income housing in Nantucket, Mass. — home to 1-percenters like Steve Schwarzman — have run into local opposition. (Daily Beast)

  • “The Last Days of Hollywood’s Most Reviled Reporter” (NYT)

  • Why some dog walkers are earning over $100,000 a year. (NYT)

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