Axios Future

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October 09, 2019

Welcome back to Future. Thanks to those of you who have been sending tips and ideas — keep them coming! Reply to this email or hit me at [email protected] Future's Saturday author, Kaveh, is at [email protected]

Situational awareness: "Axios on HBO" has been extended for two additional seasons, through the end of 2021 — and will increase to 12 shows each year.

  • Our fall season kicks off Sunday, Oct. 20, at 6 pm ET/PT. Details.

I've got 1,294 words for you this afternoon — a 5-minute read. Here we go...

1 big thing: Walmart is winning the antitrust wars

Illustration of the Walmart smiley face in a golden trophy cup

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

At a moment when regulators, politicians and consumers are railing against companies getting too big, one behemoth has been growing under the radar: Walmart.

The big picture: Walmart already had its turn as the corporate villain in the 1980s. Now, as tech companies bear the brunt of the scrutiny, the retail giant is amassing wealth — earning $514.4 billion in revenue, the most of any company on Earth, in 2018.

What's happening: "I don't think anyone is paying attention to Walmart," says Sally Hubbard, a director at the Open Markets Institute and a former assistant attorney general in New York's antitrust bureau. "It's just not on people’s minds because it isn’t considered the way of the future. ... The government sees brick and mortar as more of a dying industry."

But Walmart isn't going anywhere. It has transformed into a 21st-century company that's doing everything Amazon is doing — and it's neck-and-neck with Amazon in a few high-tech areas that are considered the tech giant's home turf, like drone delivery and same-day shipping.

Investigators are under intense political pressure from lawmakers and consumers to do something about Big Tech, says Hubbard. But "the political pressure just isn't there to investigate Walmart. The places where Walmart has large grocery market share are not places where policy activists live."

Amazon is new to the U.S. grocery business, of which Walmart already owns 13%.

  • In many parts of America, Walmart's dominance is far more pronounced. The retailer has more than 50% market share in 203 cities and towns, and more than 70% in 38 of those places, per a recent report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).
  • Many of these towns are among the most economically distressed in the nation.
  • "No other grocer in the history of the country has ever had this kind of market share," says Stacy Mitchell, co-director at ILSR, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that opposes concentrated economic power.
  • When it comes to all U.S. retail spending, Walmart takes 8.9% and Amazon 6.4%.

Jeff Bezos has become the American billionaire archetype. But also consider the Walton family of Walmart fortune: six members of the family have more wealth than the bottom 41% of Americans.

What to watch: Not only is Walmart avoiding the antitrust spotlight, but it is also helping fuel the techlash against its competitors.

  • The Free and Fair Markets Institute, which called itself a "grassroots campaign" to topple Amazon, is funded by Walmart, reports WSJ.
  • Walmart is also part of the Retail Industry Leaders Association that has written to the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department with concerns that Amazon and Google stifle competition, the LA Times reports.

Worth noting: A major driver of the global antitrust probes into Amazon is the fact that it simultaneously operates as an e-commerce platform and an individual seller — it's the mall, but it also has its own store within the mall, in the best location.

  • Walmart's online platform isn't nearly as powerful as Amazon's. "When we ask sellers who are fed up with Amazon why they don't switch to, they say the volume just isn't there," Hubbard says.

The bottom line: "The fad to hate Walmart has been overshadowed," says Eleanor Fox, an NYU antitrust law professor.

2. Bigger is better in the trade fight

Illustration of a giant freight ship leaving a wake in the shape of a dollar sign

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Speaking of Walmart, it and other big companies are winning in the trade war, too.

What's happening: Scores of American small businesses are losing profits and wasting inventory in the U.S.-China trade fight. But the biggest and richest are coasting — in every sector.

"Bigger guys, just by virtue of their size, can weather the storm better," says Tom Duesterberg, a trade expert at the Hudson Institute.

Bigger farms are getting even bigger, while smaller ones are going belly up. "The farms left standing after the trade [war] will likely be some of the biggest in the business," Reuters reports.

  • The U.S. lost more than 12,000 farms in 2018. There are a slew of reasons for the decline, but a trade war doesn’t help.
  • At the epicenter of the crisis are soybean farmers. They've lost China, their biggest buyer, due to the trade war, and soybean prices have cratered as a result.
  • But many big farms have been able to circumvent the problem. One North Dakotan, whose farm is about 100 times the size of a typical one, shelled out $800,000 to buy steel bins that can hold excess soybeans until prices come back up, per Reuters. That's not an out available to most farmers.

Bigger retailers, like Walmart and Amazon, have also been able to stave off the trade war's effects.

  • “Larger retailers may be able to find alternative sources or be able to absorb a price increase without passing the cost on to their customers,” David French, senior vice president of government relations for the National Retail Federation, tells the Washington Post. “But the smaller you are, the more vulnerable you are to the impact."
  • Smaller retailers that are forced to raise prices will find it even harder to compete with the giants. American consumers are increasingly unwilling to accept price hikes on everyday goods, Axios' Courtenay Brown reports.

Bigger manufacturers are also faring better than their smaller counterparts.

  • For most American companies, China is a major part of the supply chain — and rejiggering a decades-old supply chain is costly and difficult, Duesterberg says. The big manufacturers have the resources to make these sweeping changes, and the small ones don't.
  • In some cases, the bigger players can even get Chinese exporters to cover some of the cost of the tariffs for them, says Duesterberg. "They’ve got more leverage" because they're making massive orders.

What to watch: Chinese officials will arrive in D.C. on Thursday for the latest round of trade negotiations with their American counterparts. Look for more small businesses to suffer — or even close their doors — if the parties fail to reach a deal.

3. The shipping explosion

Two workers stand in a warehouse that is piled high with parcels

Inside the massive Nanjing warehouse of Chinese retailer Suning. Photo: Visual China Group/Getty

The world shipped 2,760 packages per second in 2018.

The big picture: That's a total of 87 billion parcels for the year, according to new data by shipping services company Pitney Bowes, provided first to Axios.

  • The total is up from 74.4 billion in 2017.

Why it matters: The rise of retail giants like Amazon, Alibaba and Rakuten is driving consumers' demand for a constant stream of parcels to their doorsteps — delivered fast and for free.

But, but, but: The demand for delivery comes with a steep environmental cost. Transportation is a larger contributor to climate change than any other industry.

  • China alone accounts for nearly 60% of the global parcel volume. The country shipped 50.5 billion packages last year.
  • The U.S. is next, with 12.5 billion, then Japan, with 9.4 billion.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration of American and Chinese flags rotating around each other

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

American speech spotlights Chinese censorship (Sara Fischer, Kia Kokalitcheva — Axios)

The white-collar job apocalypse that wasn't (Ben Casselman — NYT)

The complicated ethics of Tesla's autopilot (Zachary Mider — Bloomberg)

The rebirth of the urban helicopter dream (Laura Bliss — CityLab)

Singapore is the world's most competitive economy (Nana Shibata — Nikkei Asian Review)

5. 1 fun thing: "WeWorkaholics"

The doors of a WeWork building

A WeWork in San Francisco. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The We Company has quickly fallen from grace: its IPO is canceled, its embattled CEO is out and it's shedding assets to stay afloat.

  • But the people still love it.

CityLab's Sarah Holder has a hilarious account of how much time she spends at her WeWork office, which she says "feels even more Millennial than the harshest Millennial parody." She calls herself a "WeWorkaholic."

"It is 8 p.m., and I am sitting on the 19th floor of a WeWork in California. I eat my lunch here, and drink two cups of coffee here, and I consider going to the gym here, but don’t, almost every day. On Wednesday, I got my haircut here. Last week — and I will admit, the week before that — I had a beer here, but always less than four in one day, as is the company’s rule, not that they are monitoring my consumption. (Are they?)
Surprising as it may seem, I do not live in this WeWork. I only work here."

Thanks for reading!