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Analysis

Musk well-positioned to steer cryptocurrency’s future direction of travel

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When Elon Musk revealed three months ago that Tesla had bought $1.5bn worth of bitcoin, fans of the digital currency claimed the move would hasten its wider adoption as a tool of corporate finance.

On Wednesday, however, Musk withdrew his personal endorsement, swearing off accepting the cryptocurrency as payment for Tesla’s cars and undermining the company’s justification for using it as a destination to park its spare cash.

As usual, Musk’s comments provided immediate fuel for crypto traders as well as ammunition for the warring crypto tribes on Twitter. But it was harder to tell whether his announcement would have any effect on wider perceptions of the currency, or what role Musk’s views will play in the next phase of crypto adoption.

“He’s always saying things every two days and isn’t consistent,” said John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School. Tesla’s pretensions to pushing bitcoin into the mainstream of corporate use always sounded secondary to its interest in pure financial speculation, Coffee added. “I think his first investment was much more of a currency investment than anything else.”

Whatever lies behind Musk’s on-again, off-again love affair with bitcoin, his effect on market prices has been hard to ignore. The currency’s price jumped 15 per cent on the day that Tesla’s investment was revealed, and fell 6 per cent in the 24 hours after this week’s announcement.

The latest drop came just days after Musk jokingly denounced dogecoin — another cryptocurrency that he had heavily promoted — as “a hustle” on US television, sending its value down 15 per cent.

“Without question, he’s become the single most important factor in crypto,” said JP Thieriot, chief executive of crypto exchange Uphold. That influence extends beyond Musk’s ability to move prices and helps shape how people think about digital currencies, Thieriot suggested.

Even Musk, however, can’t force cryptocurrencies into mainstream commercial use. He said this week that Tesla had backed away from accepting payment in the currency because of the environmental effects of the energy-intensive “mining” that goes into validating transactions — a well-known issue he has ignored in the past. 

Many crypto experts said that Musk’s change of heart appeared to reflect an acceptance that bitcoin was not suitable for payments. Other companies that had accepted bitcoin as a form of payment in the past, including Dell and Microsoft, also later dropped it.

“I don’t think a lot of people want to spend their bitcoin,” said Wilson Withiam, an analyst at crypto research group Messari. “If there was actual money behind it, would [Tesla] have actually done that?”

Musk’s change of heart extended beyond the issue of payments. He also swore his electric carmaker off becoming an active participant in the bitcoin market, saying that it “will not be selling any bitcoin”.

The commitment came two weeks after Tesla surprised Wall Street with a $101m profit from selling part of its holdings, raising worries that the company’s performance would increasingly be tied to crypto trading.

The pledge not to sell may have reassured some investors, but it also effectively undermined Tesla’s case for using the currency as part of its everyday corporate treasury operations.

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Zach Kirkhorn, Tesla’s chief financial officer, told Wall Street two weeks ago that the liquidity of the bitcoin market justified Tesla holding the cryptocurrency, since it meant the company could buy and sell actively.

That flexibility was particularly important, he said, as Tesla faced greater cash demands to finance plants in Texas and Germany while also dealing with extreme financial stresses in its supply chain caused by the global semiconductor shortage.

“Being able to access our cash very quickly is super important to us right now,” Kirkhorn said. With one tweet that promised to lock in the company’s crypto investment, Musk has torpedoed that rationale.

Some bitcoin backers said that Musk had still helped prepare the way for the wider adoption of bitcoin by corporate treasurers by encouraging other companies to view it as a valid holding — even if there have been almost no examples of others announcing they were buying the currency.

His initial enthusiasm for bitcoin had generated interest — including among treasurers — that was likely to continue well beyond his recent turnround, said Rayne Steinberg, chief executive of digital asset management group Arca. “People were talking about it, it entered the zeitgeist.”

Some corporate treasury experts, however, said that Tesla’s flirtation with cryptocurrency holdings had done nothing to encourage wider adoption.

“It created conversation among treasurers, but I don’t think it changed anyone’s mind,” said Jerry Klein at Treasury Partners in New York. The overriding requirement for treasurers to preserve the value of their companies’ cash had completely ruled out cryptocurrencies, Klein added.

But if Musk’s dabbling in bitcoin failed to change the currency’s standing in the corporate world, his latest intervention has raised another prospect: that he could become a kingmaker for a future cryptocurrency to rival or even supersede bitcoin.

Using his celebrity to draw attention to bitcoin’s large energy consumption — and that many participants in the network are in China, relying on coal-fired power stations — could hasten the search for alternatives, according to supporters. Surveys of millennials and Gen Z, who are big buyers of cryptocurrencies, showed that they were also deeply concerned about climate change, said Thieriot at Uphold. “Eventually, those things have to converge,” he said.

Musk’s comments provoked an immediate scramble for attention among backers of cryptocurrencies that claim to have less adverse effects on the environment. Those included Bitcoin Zero — a carbon neutral version of bitcoin — and Cardano, one of several networks that use a so-called proof of stake mechanism to validate transactions, consuming less energy.

Most newer networks, however, have struggled to win attention and a share of crypto investment. Most of the displaced attention has focused on ether, the digital token used on the ethereum network. With a total value of $440bn, its tokens are worth almost half as much as bitcoin.

Ether is already used by some investors as a form of digital money, and its long-planned move to a proof of stake system could finally be completed within the next year, putting it in a strong position to win wider support, said Withiam, the analyst at Messari.

Musk did not show his hand about which cryptocurrency will win his favour as he turns away from bitcoin, saying only that it would be a token that consumes less than 1 per cent as much energy. His open-ended comment is bound to leave crypto investors guessing — and guarantee that all eyes stay fixed on his tweets for the next clue to his thinking.

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Analysis

Huawei’s fall hits growth of Sony’s chip business

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Growth of Sony Group’s semiconductor business has slowed, reflecting a plunge in shipments of image sensors for smartphones to Huawei Technologies as a result of the US-China trade war.

Although Sony has avoided a fall in the volume of shipments thanks to orders from other Chinese smartphone makers, the recovery of earnings appears likely to be delayed until the fiscal year of April 2022 to March 2023 because of weakened demand for sensors for high-end smartphones.

As Samsung Electronics of South Korea, which is strong in processing sensors for midrange smartphones, catches up, Sony is halfway towards recapturing the smartphone market.

“We cannot achieve an earnings recovery in the year through March 2022,” said Terushi Shimizu, president and CEO of Sony Semiconductor Solutions, at a press briefing on June 3.

This article is from Nikkei Asia, a global publication with a uniquely Asian perspective on politics, the economy, business and international affairs. Our own correspondents and outside commentators from around the world share their views on Asia, while our Asia300 section provides in-depth coverage of 300 of the biggest and fastest-growing listed companies from 11 economies outside Japan.

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For fiscal 2021, the semiconductor arm of Sony Group expects its operating profit to decline for the second consecutive year to ¥140bn ($1.26bn). The projection reflects changes in the smartphone market structure resulting from the trade friction between the US and China.

Huawei had a global market share at the 4 per cent level in terms of shipments in the January-March period, according to US research firm IDC. With the US government banning the export of American technology to Huawei, the Chinese company saw its market share plunge some 14 percentage points from the same quarter of 2020, when it ranked second.

At the expense of Huawei, Samsung, Apple of the US and three Chinese smartphone manufacturers — Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo — expanded their shares.

Changes in global smartphone market shares

Sony commands half of the global market for image sensors in value. Growing demand for high-definition smartphone cameras, and the trend of using two or more cameras in a smartphone in recent years, have enabled Sony to expand shipments to Apple and Huawei on the back of its advanced technology of producing high-end sensors.

With Huawei losing its momentum, demand for cutting-edge sensors for high-end smartphones has weakened. Sony thus increased shipments to the three Chinese smartphone makers which primarily manufacture middle- and lower-end phones. While sensors for such phones are each priced low, the makers demand improvements in image quality to attract consumers.

Samsung has set an eye towards capitalising on the “new normal” created by the trade friction between the world’s two largest economies, in a bid to recover its lost ground.

Samsung ships nearly 300m smartphones per year, most of which contain image sensors it produces on its own. While having stable demand, the company is strong at producing high pixel sensors used in midrange smartphones and is enjoying growing demand.

In the global image sensor market, Samsung, with a share of 20 per cent, is trailing Sony, with its 50 per cent share. With Samsung boasting microfabricating technology needed for high pixel sensors, Shimizu said, “We are actually falling behind as far as high pixels are concerned.”

But, he added, “we will add new value using technology cultivated in the field of high image quality.”

Terushi Shimizu, president and CEO of Sony Semiconductor Solutions, speaks at a press briefing on June 3 © Masaharu Ban

Samsung has a large number of manufacturing facilities, including those for memory chips and central processing units. Sony will spend ¥700bn on production facilities in its semiconductor business under a three-year plan through fiscal 2023, up 20 per cent from the preceding plan. But if the importance of microfabrication technology increases, Samsung may gain an advantage because of its greater leeway for investment, according to a research company.

Sony is also expected to take time before reducing its reliance on the volatile smartphone market. Although the company positions image sensors for automobiles as a growth market and keeps boosting annual sales by 50 per cent, the business is still small in scale. Collaborating with its “Vision S” prototype electric vehicle project, Sony plans to develop a high-performance sensor capable of detecting objects even in the dark and sell it to American and European automakers.

Sony will also challenge for a new business model. While Sony has engaged in the sale of image sensors, it is attempting to establish a recurring model of collecting fees on a continuous basis. Specifically, it will use a sensor equipped with data-processing functions of artificial intelligence it has developed. Data, therefore, can be processed both in the cloud and in the sensor so that the volume of communication can be reduced.

For example, the sensor can be used in a camera at a cashless payment retailer with no cash register and improve the performance of street monitoring cameras.

Sony’s AI image sensor has found its way into smart monitoring cameras the city of Rome will put into use in June to optimise the operation of buses by sensing congestion at bus stops or emit light to pedestrians walking through a red light.

Image sensors with data-processing functions of artificial intelligence, developed by Sony, are promoting the rise of new core semiconductors for smartphones (Photo courtesy of the company)

The semiconductor business centred on image sensors was positioned as an engine of growth when Sony was rehabilitating itself. In fiscal 2019, it contributed to Sony’s earnings, logging more than ¥1tn in sales and an operating profit ratio of 22 per cent to sales.

Sony Semiconductor has propped up the revival drive despite such difficulties such as damage inflicted on its local plant by a series of earthquakes in Kumamoto Prefecture in 2016.

While striving to address radical changes in the smartphone market, Sony Semiconductor is being tested for whether it can develop new growth sectors such as image sensors for automobiles and AI image sensors.

Cutting-edge semiconductors are also drawing attention from the viewpoint of national security as the government has drafted a policy of courting overseas manufacturers.

The procurement of logic chips has become difficult as even Sony farms out most of production to overseas manufacturers. Asked whether Sony Semiconductor will launch production, including a joint venture project, for stable procurement, Shimizu admitted to the difficulty of producing them on its own in terms of both technology and cost.

“Generally speaking, it is extremely meaningful to receive state support,” Shimizu said, suggesting the need for government financial assistance for production.

A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on June 7, 2021. ©2021 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved

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Kamala Harris takes heat handling knotty vice-presidential portfolio

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US vice-president Kamala Harris gave a widely panned television interview while visiting Guatemala this week. 

Asked why she hadn’t been to the US-Mexico border, where an influx of migrants is putting a huge strain on local communities, Harris first dismissed the question and said, “We’ve been to the border.” Pressed, she laughed and said: “And I haven’t been to Europe.” 

Her comments drew criticism and underscored the political dangers that the number two official in the White House faces as she juggles a cumbersome, and expanding, policy portfolio.

Harris was in Central America as leader of the Biden administration’s response to the border problem, including the thorny question of how to address migrants fleeing north from the troubled countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

She has also been handed the nearly intractable task of shepherding contentious voting rights and police reform legislation through a sharply divided Congress. She has hit the road to sell President Joe Biden’s sweeping infrastructure plans. In addition, she has also taken an interest in black maternal mortality and other racial equity issues, including tackling vaccine hesitancy among African-Americans. 

Harris’s first foreign trip as vice-president exposed what detractors and allies alike say are her shortcomings as a politician and vulnerabilities should she run again for president. Harris, a former senator from California, abandoned a floundering primary bid for the White House in late 2019. 

Her comments earlier in the week to NBC News sparked outrage, particularly from Republicans who are hammering the administration over migrants. Meanwhile, she took flak from fellow Democrats for urging migrants not to come to the border in the first place. 

Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist, pointed to the vice-president’s failure to effectively convey her message on the trip.

“If this is your debut as vice-president on the international stage, you want to give your best performance, and she certainly can do better,” Marsh said. 

Harris made history at her January swearing in, becoming the first woman, the first black person and first Asian-American to serve as vice-president. She holds outsized power as the tiebreaking vote in a Senate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. But the other duties of a vice-president are less clearly defined. 

People close to the administration say that Harris has proven a deft counsellor to the president and a near constant presence at the White House, attending regular briefings, offering Biden advice and appearing at his side for big speeches. 

Biden himself served as vice-president under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017. When he announced Harris as his running mate last summer, he said he hoped that she would provide advice as he did to Obama. 

“When I agreed to serve as President Obama’s running mate . . . he asked me what I wanted most . . . I told him I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made important decisions,” Biden said. 

He added: “That’s what I asked Kamala. I asked Kamala to be the last voice in the room.” 

Harris is hardly the first vice-president with difficult assignments. Most recently, Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s vice-president, headed the White House coronavirus task force. 

“The vice-presidential tasks are such that usually, if you are successful, they become the president’s and the administration’s accomplishments. If you are unsuccessful, they become yours,” said Kenneth Baer, the founder of consultancy Crosscut Strategies. He was a speech writer for vice-president Al Gore in the Clinton administration and Gore’s ill-fated 2000 presidential bid. 

Harris supporters contend that her challenging portfolio only underscores the faith Biden has placed in her.

“Any one of those issues would be a full-time job for most people,” Marsh said.

Many Democrats argue Harris faces undue criticism, from Republicans in particular, given her identity as a woman of colour. But others admit she made missteps in Latin America and say that her refusal to correct course — Harris later had a frosty exchange with a Univision TV anchor about the border crisis — only remind people of her shortcomings as a presidential candidate in 2019.

“What I think you have seen in the past few weeks . . . are some of the issues you saw during the campaign,” Marsh said. “At different points during the campaign, she did not perform particularly well. Other days, she was spectacular.” 

Looming over Harris’s term is the political future of Biden, who is 78. Her allies say that she is focused on supporting the president as he seeks to push through his legislative agenda ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, when control of both chambers of Congress will be up for grabs. Next week, as part of her voting-rights remit, she will meet state legislators from Texas, where Democrats recently blocked a state bill that would have restricted access to the ballot box. 

“There is a sense . . . that she is focused on her future as opposed to the job, and I just don’t think that is true,” said Dylan Loewe, a former speech writer for then-vice-president Biden who also ghostwrote Harris’s memoir. 

“The last thing that she wants for her future presidential campaign, whenever it is, is for the storyline to be that she was focused on the future and not the president, and that she was not the same kind of vice-president to Joe Biden as Joe Biden was to Barack Obama.”

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Analysis

Big weddings may be allowed despite expected delay to lockdown easing

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Boris Johnson will consider proposals to allow larger weddings to go ahead in England, despite a likely delay to the June 21 easing of England’s lockdown.

Speaking at the G7 summit in Cornwall, the UK prime minister said the government would be cautious in its approach to ending lockdown restrictions, which senior Whitehall officials said would be delayed for four weeks.

“What I can certainly say is we are looking at the data, continuing to do that, but what you can certainly take is . . . the road map was always cautious but irreversible and in order to have an irreversible road map, we’ve got to be cautious,” he told the BBC.

Johnson will meet senior ministers on Sunday to sign off on an expected delay to the easing due to the spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19.

But ministers may still sign off on plans to allow larger weddings to go ahead. Those with knowledge of the proposals say they will mirror those currently in place for funerals. 

Indoor celebrations will be allowed up to each venue’s Covid-secure capacity, which means social distancing and masks would be required. 

Outdoor celebrations would have an overall cap, which could be 100 attendees. One person familiar with the proposals said: “It’s a completely arbitrary number and I have no idea how it would be enforced.”

Chart showing that roughly 15 million adults remain unvaccinated in England, including around two million over-50s

One senior Whitehall official said it was unclear whether the plans would be signed off. “Boris hasn’t decided but he will do it if it won’t harm the Covid situation.”

The delay to the lifting of coronavirus restrictions in England for a month comes after the prime minister’s chief medical adviser pressed him to postpone the move following a surge in Covid-19 cases.

The restrictions were meant to be removed on June 21, but Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has advised Johnson that a four-week delay to the final stage of the government’s lockdown easing plan was needed, stressing that a shorter delay would be insufficient to control the spread of the virus. Johnson is due to make an announcement on Monday.

The expected delay would come as the NHS races to vaccinate more adults amid a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations across the UK due to the coronavirus variant named Delta. Almost 15m adults in England remain unvaccinated, including 2m people aged over 50, according to Financial Times analysis.

Nine in every 10 new Covid-19 cases are the Delta variant, according to a Public Health England report released on Friday.

PHE data also indicated Delta, first identified in India, is 64 per cent more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha variant that originated in Kent.

Chart showing that cases are rising steeply in England, and hospital metrics are now also accelerating upwards. Deaths so far show no sign of a sustained rise

With two doses of a coronavirus vaccine showing good protection against infection from the Delta variant, the government is seeking to get more jabs into arms. Currently, 55.4 per cent of the adult population has had two doses.

Johnson was given data on Thursday that outlined the latest analysis of the Delta variant and its potential impact on the NHS. “It is now critical we double jab everyone as quickly as possible,” said one official.

One Cabinet Office insider said: “A delay [to lifting the final restrictions] is the only sensible course of action. It’s our working assumption. The latest modelling is dire and it would be suicide to go ahead with a full easing.”

The government’s medical advisers have modelled the impact of a four-week delay on vaccination levels, concluding that a smaller postponement would not make much difference.

But they believe four weeks would have a substantial impact by increasing the number of adults fully vaccinated with two doses, as well as giving more younger people at least some level of protection from a single jab.

Chart showing that England’s current surge in cases has a much younger age profile than its second wave last autumn, which should make it less lethal

The UK has recorded the highest weekly rate of Covid-19 cases since early March, with 45,895 new infections reported in the past seven days. This is a rise of 58 per cent on the previous week.

Office for National Statistics data showed the infection rate was highest in the north-west of England and among children of secondary school age.

Covid-19 hospitalisations have risen sharply since the Delta variant became dominant, with 884 beds occupied in England on Friday, up from a low of 730 on May 22. They have increased 9.8 per cent over the past week.

The link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths has not been broken by the vaccines, but data suggest it has weakened significantly.

More than half of the 42 people who have died after being infected with the Delta variant were unvaccinated, according to PHE.

With older people much less likely to be infected now due to vaccination than in the infection wave last autumn, the fatality rate is likely to be 75 per cent lower amid the latest surge in cases, according to FT analysis.



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