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Previous close34.96
Bid34.97 x 4000
Ask35.40 x 1300
Day's range35.19 - 35.58
52-week range26.01 - 42.00
Avg. volume7,015,871
Market cap28.693B
Beta (3Y monthly)1.27
PE ratio (TTM)15.79
Earnings dateN/A
Forward dividend & yield0.56 (1.60%)
Ex-dividend date2019-11-29
1y target estN/A
  • Tencent Should Be Split Up

    Tencent Should Be Split Up

    (Bloomberg Opinion) -- China’s most ubiquitous company is hiding one of its most valuable assets. That needs to change.Tencent Holdings Ltd., best known for the WeChat messenger that almost everyone in the country uses, has a growing fintech business. But it’s getting overshadowed by the games and social media divisions. By spinning it off into a new company, with a move to a separate listing, management could unlock as much as $230 billion in value. That would make the entity China’s fourth-largest listed company and the world’s sixth-biggest financial services firm.Such a move could help Tencent retake some of the limelight that it’s about to share with Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. once that company lists in Hong Kong. Alibaba’s fintech unit, Ant Financial Services Group, already functions as a separate business with the e-commerce giant holding a 33% stake. At Tencent, fintech and business services accounted for 26% of revenue last quarter. The Shenzhen-based company is due to report third-quarter earnings late Wednesday.I estimate that revenue from Tencent’s fintech business grew in excess of 70% last year.(1)  The vast majority of that was payments. Yet Tencent also offers other products such as wealth management and has a 30% stake in WeBank, China’s first online-only bank, which was founded five years ago. Data on its fintech profits are hard to ascertain, yet information disclosed by Alibaba shows that Ant Financial was unprofitable last year, so Tencent could be in a similar boat. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The two rivals are startups in the classic sense, using fast revenue growth driven by marketing and incentives to gain ground fast. A major reason why both have lost money in recent years is due to low take rates, the commissions received from processing payments, because they’ve offered discounts to consumers and merchants. A turnaround could be near, Sanford C Bernstein senior analyst David Dai wrote in a recent series on China’s fintech sector. He estimates that a maturing market will ease cut-throat competition and allow both companies to take a greater share of the money that sloshes through their payments platforms.As a result, Tencent’s payment business (TenPay) alone could be worth $137 billion, compared to $127 billion for Ant’s AliPay, the Bernstein team figures. HSBC Holdings Plc uses two methodologies(2) to come up with an estimated value of around $128 billion. Throw in the other products, and Bernstein calculates a base-case valuation for Tencent’s fintech unit of $160 billion, going as high as $230 billion. This indicates that 40% to 58% of Tencent’s current market cap is locked up in this hitherto hidden division. Bernstein has a base case of $210 billion for Ant, reaching as high as $320 billion.Payments spinoffs have proven to be lucrative in the past. EBay Inc. proved it with PayPal Holdings Inc. in 2015, with the latter posting a 177% normalized return since then, outpacing the 145% rise in the S&P Data Processing sub-index which includes Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc. PayPal also trounced both eBay (35%) and the S&P 500 (49%). Square Inc., another payments provider, has been one of the hottest stocks of the past decade, returning more than 590% since its initial public offering in 2015.A more recent example comes from India, where Walmart Inc. is reported to be spinning off payments business PhonePe from local e-commerce company Flipkart Group, which it acquired last year. That transaction could turn a $20.8 billion startup into two unicorns with a combined value of more than $30 billion. Tencent doesn’t need to rush to list this fintech unit. Appetite for mega IPOs is likely to be satiated by Alibaba’s Hong Kong listing and that of Saudi Aramco over the next few months. And there’s a long runway of big startups ready for their moment in the sun. By merely making it a separate entity, management can signal intent and allow investors to start re-rating Tencent’s stock accordingly.An offering may not even be necessary, since Tencent is already sitting on more cash than it needs. Instead, the company could distribute shares in Tencent Fintech to existing shareholders, and then directly list the stock. That’s similar to the approach advocated by activist investor Dan Loeb for a Sony Corp. split.Tencent is sitting on a bright light in this fintech unit. Time to let it shine.(Updates to include reference to third-quarter earnings schedule in third paragraph.)(1) The "others" category includes fintech, cloud, film & TV. Tencent noted that fintech is the major component and gave a figure for cloudbut not content.(2) HSBC Approach 1: valuation per user. Approach 2: Using Tencent operating margins applied to its payments business, then comparing to peers.To contact the author of this story: Tim Culpan at tculpan1@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Patrick McDowell at pmcdowell10@bloomberg.netThis column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

  • Could eBay Inc. (NASDAQ:EBAY) Have The Makings Of Another Dividend Aristocrat?
    Simply Wall St.

    Could eBay Inc. (NASDAQ:EBAY) Have The Makings Of Another Dividend Aristocrat?

    Is eBay Inc. (NASDAQ:EBAY) a good dividend stock? How can we tell? Dividend paying companies with growing earnings can...

  • What Happened at Mithril When Peter Thiel Wasn’t Around

    What Happened at Mithril When Peter Thiel Wasn’t Around

    (Bloomberg) -- When Ajay Royan started Mithril Capital in 2012 at the age of 32, he’d never worked at a venture firm or managed a team. Hailing from a modest background in India, his sharp mind distinguished him in and out of school, but he lacked the funds to invest in technology startups. What Royan did have was a curiously strong relationship with the fabulously wealthy and powerful investor Peter Thiel.Royan had worked at Thiel’s hedge fund Clarium Capital—infamous for a spectacular collapse that vaporized more than $6 billion in value between 2008 and 2012. Unlike most of Thiel’s employees who fled Clarium as it cratered, Royan stuck around. He wasn’t awarded a huge salary for his loyalty, but he earned something infinitely more valuable: Thiel’s trust and financial backing to build and manage a venture firm.Thiel put up $100 million to start Mithril. His name and reputation helped attract dozens of prominent investors who followed his lead, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the new fund. Then, for the most part, Thiel left Royan and his team to their own devices. While Thiel busied himself with other pursuits—backing a lawsuit against gossip site Gawker, advising the Trump administration on technology matters, dreaming of floating cities and radical life extension—his protege came under fire for allegedly mismanaging Mithril and driving off most of the firm’s top managers. The drama centers on an epic falling-out between Royan and his former general counsel, Crystal McKellar, who left Mithril earlier this year. In a lawsuit filed in October, Royan accuses McKellar of instigating a “whisper campaign” claiming that he committed financial fraud connected to how Mithril collects and spends management fees. A second lawsuit filed about two weeks later by Mithril accuses McKellar of breaching confidentiality and other agreements and seeks a declaration that she was fired for cause as a result of those actions.On Thursday, McKellar returned fire with her own lawsuit, in which she reiterates allegations of financial fraud and says Thiel considered shutting down Mithril before being persuaded to give Royan a chance to get the firm back on track. In the complaint she quotes Thiel as saying: “I can’t believe how greedy Ajay is. Ajay has broken Mithril.” In a statement, a spokesman for Mithril said that the allegations in McKellar’s suit were false, “as evidence in Mithril’s lawsuit against her demonstrates.” He added: “Mithril is confident they will be proven as such in court.”Last month, in an interview overseen by two crisis-management consultants, Royan denied doing anything wrong. “The core of this entire allegation is that there’s some financial issues at the firm,” he said during the almost three-hour conversation. “There are freaking zero issues.” Royan’s reputation—and by extension Thiel’s—was losing luster even before the lawsuits. In recent months, McKellar's concerns coincided with complaints from some investors that Royan is an overly timid deal-maker who has invested just a quarter of Mithril’s newest fund. Former employees and others in Thiel’s extended network have criticized Royan for keeping their names on the website after they left—giving the appearance that the team was larger than it actually was. Several former and existing Mithril employees also said they find it unseemly that Royan put his father and sister on the payroll.So far most investors are keeping the faith. Two major backers reaffirmed their support for Royan and his investing strategy, according to letters written by them and reviewed by Bloomberg. One praised his “patience to not chase inflated pricing” and “world-wide view of investment opportunities.” With the addition of McKellar's suit, which describes Mithril as operating on the power of Thiel’s name but largely ignored by the man himself, that faith will be further tested. Thiel didn’t respond to a request for comment. In the interview, Royan described his patron as “blown away. Like shocked” about allegations of fraud and mismanagement. He added: “I’m not happy, he’s not happy.”Founded in 2012, Mithril is named after the super-strong armor worn by characters in “The Lord of the Rings.” (Thiel, an unabashed Tolkien fan, also mined the trilogy for the name of his data software company, which he tagged Palantir after the books’ magical communication orbs.) Even before Mithril opened its doors, there were problems. Investors at Founders Fund, the venture firm Thiel started several years earlier, were unhappy that Mithril would operate just a few steps from their office on San Francisco’s leafy Presidio campus, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Mithril could have provided a natural complement to early-stage Founders Fund deals by bankrolling some of their more mature startups. But instead of cooperating, Thiel’s two firms competed from the start.In an episode that has not previously been reported, Mithril and Founders Fund clashed over the right to invest in Airbnb Inc. According to two people with direct knowledge of the situation, Mithril locked the deal down as one of its first, crowing about its early stake in the vacation rental startup to newly committed investors. The move rankled many at Founders Fund who felt that because Thiel was already an Airbnb backer they had the first right to invest. After heated exchanges between the two firms, Founders Fund prevailed, leading a $200 million round at a $2.3 billion valuation. Airbnb is now worth $31 billion.“We had egg on our face,” said a former Mithril employee who, fearing retribution for speaking publicly, asked not to be identified. To help smooth frustrations between his warring fiefdoms, according to the same people, Thiel helped arrange a Mithril investment in Palantir. Thiel had already steered Founders Fund to invest in the company, which has secured billions in government and private-sector contracts, but has never turned an annual profit in 15 years. Said the former employee about letting Mithril take a stake in Palantir: “It was like, ‘Hey look at this other shiny thing.’”The initial drama notwithstanding, Mithril’s first fund was fairly typical, with nearly a dozen employees who had all worked with or known Thiel previously finding and funding startups for the firm. Johnson & Johnson acquired one of those earlier this year, snapping up surgical robotics company Auris Health Inc. for $3.4 billion in a deal that delivered Mithril an exit of roughly $510 million. If Auris hits additional milestones, Mithril’s haul will be $870 million, more than returning the entire $540 million fund on that one deal.But back in 2015, when investors were asked to commit to a second larger Mithril fund of $740 million, they didn’t know Auris would be the largest acquisition of a venture-backed medical device company in history. They were mostly betting on Thiel’s reputation.Silicon Valley doesn’t have oligarchs, but Thiel, 52, comes mighty close. He helped build PayPal and when EBay Inc. bought it in 2002 and parlayed the payout into venture investing—writing a now-famous first check to Facebook Inc. That set him on the path to becoming a billionaire. Now, with his Facebook board seat, consigliere status within the Trump administration and expansive network of powerful friends including Elon Musk and Reid Hoffman, Thiel is an influential and, for many, coveted investing partner.His association with Mithril was good enough for the Getty family, Singapore’s Temasek Holdings Pte and dozens of others who joined Thiel to invest a combined $540 million in the fledgling firm’s first fund. Though Thiel is featured prominently on the firm’s website, he has never played a role in daily operations or management.In fact, Thiel has no fiduciary responsibility to Mithril and is free to engage in investing activities that compete with the firm, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg. “Peter has no control, responsibility or oversight with respect to the manager’s or general partner’s financial reporting and controls, or their disclosure and investor reporting,” states a memorandum between Mithril and investors.Instead, Royan ran the shop and quickly became known for making unconventional choices. The most unorthodox, perhaps, is how he structured Mithril’s management fees. Venture firms typically charge 2% of a fund’s capital to pay for salaries and other operating expenses while investments mature. Fees typically begin tapering off after five years or so as partners harvest profits from their startups. Mithril was structured that way too, but with a twist.A separate management company operated by Royan collected the fees. In financial statements shared with the limited partners in 2017 and 2018, the firm said it was waiving 25% of the fees. In fact, that isn’t exactly what happened. The investors actually paid the full $11.7 million in 2017 and $11.9 million in 2018. But $3 million of that each year was renamed a special “contribution,” which Royan then used to make a personal investment back into the fund. Directors at venture funds are often required to commit their own capital alongside fund investors to strengthen alignment, and this is how Mithril structured that commitment.Royan characterized the fees as standard and said no investors have complained. He said former general counsel McKellar crafted and approved the fee structure; in the first lawsuit he accuses her of weaponizing the fees in an attempt to sully Mithril’s reputation at a time when she has started her own venture firm. “The core of this entire thing is a subterfuge about how we’re actually set up, which has been transparent from day zero,” Royan said. Mithril’s second lawsuit against McKellar, filed in mid-October, requests a monetary award for damages as well as a declaration Mithril terminated her for cause. She deleted more than 98% of all text messages on her company-issued phone before returning it, according to vendor analysis using carrier records included in the suit. McKellar, who played Becky Slater in the “Wonder Years” television show and met Royan at Yale University, denied the claims made in the two Mithril lawsuits, characterizing them as retaliatory. In her own suit, McKellar paints herself as a whistleblower who was wrongly terminated. In the suit she says she tried to correct problems at the firm, and when she realized she would be unsuccessful, she contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Securities and Exchange Commission to protect investors. (The SEC and FBI declined to comment.) She describes a phone call with Thiel, during which she says he told her he wanted to be more involved at Mithril, but Royan had kept him out of the loop. She subsequently met Thiel at his Los Angeles home, according to the complaint, and discussed the fees, investor relations and Royan’s management style.They agreed to meet again at the house the following day with Royan. During that meeting, McKellar alleges, Royan mischaracterized what was going on at Mithril, and she was forced to contradict him. Thiel threatened to shutter Mithril but Royan appeared “chastened” and promised to implement various fixes. Thiel then relented. In the complaint, McKellar says she tried to implement the fixes but was ultimately thwarted by Royan and officially left Mithril in February, although she continued as an adviser through the summer. Several former employees told Bloomberg that Royan’s flawed leadership helped set the stage for the recent troubles. They say he was rarely at the San Francisco office and when he was there did little to foster esprit de corps. He held himself apart—and  some say above—others, communicating infrequently and creating what one ex-employee described as a caste system. “It was like he was Brahmin and we were untouchables,” said this person, who after realizing he would get little mentoring from Royan and virtually no contact with Thiel, decided to leave.He has had plenty of company. Not one of nine team members featured on Mithril’s site in July 2014 are still with the firm. Other more recent hires have also departed. The steady stream of departures is unusual for the venture industry, where it can take several years for investments to pay off, and employees typically stick around to see them through. The talent drain was a touchy subject for Thiel, according to people familiar with his thinking. Like other Mithril investors, he expected Royan to use the management fees to build a sharp investing team adept at finding and evaluating deals.When told departed colleagues faulted his management style, Royan expressed surprise. “If there are issues you’re hearing, I haven’t heard them,” he said. He explained there is no mechanism for employees to voice concerns because he doesn’t believe formal processes unearth substantive issues. Royan also dismissed concerns about the high rate of turnover, arguing that Mithril resembles a private-equity firm in that it relies more on financial models than superstar deal-hunters. Former employees said low salaries were another irritant. According to two of them, the pay was below market rate and the share of profits was designed to be 1.2% rather than the promised 2%. Mithril’s management company, which is majority owned and operated by Royan, gets that 2% and employees are paid after Royan’s management firm takes its cut, the two former employees said. One of them said the arrangement was especially upsetting because he only learned about it two years after starting work at Mithril, over drinks with others in Thiel’s network. In a statement, the firm said: “Mithril pays competitive compensation tied to an individual’s qualifications and role, with significant upside when the fund outperforms.”Either by accident or design, Mithril maintained the appearance of having a fully staffed operation. Apache Web server co-developer and open-source advocate Brian Behlendorf was a major selling point to investors while Royan was raising Mithril’s second fund. Less than a month after the fund closed, Behlendorf quit. Still, he remained a prominent fixture on the firm’s website for more than a year. Behlendorf declined to comment. JD Vance, who wrote the bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” joined Mithril in September 2016. He quit about a year later to join Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest Fund but remained on the site as a managing director for another six months. He has since removed any mention of Mithril from his LinkedIn profile. Vance, whose photo on the site was misidentified for much of his tenure as another employee named Sam Ecker, also declined to comment.Royan said there was never any intent to deceive anyone and that Mithril has “possibly the least updated website in the world. We have to call an external person and have them update it.” Royan took down Mithril’s team page last month to protect identities of team members from what he described as harassment from a reporter. One person was never listed on the site, despite being retained as a consultant: Royan’s father. Asked about the arrangement, Royan said it’s one of several such advisory roles he finances from his portion of the management fees. “I need counsel and I have multiple people I get counsel from,” he said. “These are not people that are on my team or my professional staff. One of these advisers happens to be my dad and that’s fine. End of discussion.” He added: “He’s the man who taught me everything.”  Through a Mithril spokesman, Royan’s father declined to comment.Mithril also employs Ajay’s sister Anuja Royan as a managing director with a focus on operations and finance. She joined the firm in 2015 after a decade of experience building financial models at private equity groups Counsel Corp. and Hilco Consumer Capital and handling audit and assurance at Ernst & Young. Her name did appear on the website. Through a Mithril spokesman, Anuja also declined to comment.In January, Royan decamped from San Francisco and opened a new Mithril headquarters in Austin. Explaining the move, he said he chose the Texas tech hub because it’s centrally located, cheaper and embraces more diverse thinking than the east or west coasts. (His comments echoed Thiel’s own disparagement and abandonment of Silicon Valley.) While the larger venture and tech community took the move in stride, most Mithril team members didn’t want to relocate. So far, just a few have made the move with Royan. In December, investors will gather at Mithril’s first annual meeting in four years—an event requested by Cambridge Associates, a global investment firm that advises other investors about which venture firms to back. During the meeting Mihtril will update the group on performance and future plans as it gets closer to raising a third fund.With the new location—and almost a dozen new hires—Royan seems to be hoping he can start fresh and put the recent unpleasantness behind him. In a letter reviewed by Bloomberg, a major investor in both Mithril funds and member of the firm’s LP committee said after reviewing the firm’s financials, visiting the Austin office and evaluating allegations of misconduct and employee departures, her firm found no cause for concern. “You have our unequivocal support,” she wrote.  With the claims in McKellar’s lawsuit challenging Royan’s integrity, he’s redoubling efforts to polish his and Mithril’s image in an industry where reputation is everything because results can take a decade. Said Royan: “It’s a trust business.”To contact the author of this story: Lizette Chapman in San Francisco at lchapman19@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Robin Ajello at rajello@bloomberg.net, Mark MilianFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

  • Amazon Is Accused of Forcing Up Prices in Antitrust Complaint

    Amazon Is Accused of Forcing Up Prices in Antitrust Complaint

    (Bloomberg) -- In a letter sent to federal lawmakers, an online merchant has accused Amazon.com Inc. of forcing him and other sellers to use the company’s expensive logistics services, which in turn forces them to raise prices for consumers. The 62-page document, reviewed by Bloomberg, lays out an antitrust case that emphasizes harm to consumers—the traditional basis for such cases in the U.S.  Until now, antitrust experts have suggested that Amazon was not vulnerable to such an argument and that regulators would need to find another way to restrain the company’s growing market power. The complaint, based on an analysis of thousands of Amazon transactions over several years involving more than 100 products, turns all of that thinking on its head. It accuses Amazon of “tying” its marketplace and logistics services together, an antitrust violation in which a company uses dominance in one market to give itself an advantage in another market where it’s less established. The letter refers to previous Supreme Court rulings on tying, including one against Kodak in 1992 that said the photocopier manufacturer violated antitrust laws by forcing customers who bought its machines to also use its parts and repair services.“When it comes to Amazon’s dealings with third-party merchants, some of the conduct actually does lend itself to antitrust scrutiny,” said Hal Singer, an antitrust expert and Georgetown University adjunct professor retained by the merchant to work on the analysis. “If you can connect the conduct to some measureable harm, in this case increased prices, that gets you into the antitrust ballpark.”Amazon, in an emailed statement, disputed many of the merchants’ allegations, saying its logistics prices are competitive and its sellers aren’t penalized for using other delivery options. “Amazon has invested tens of billions of dollars in developing a world-class fulfillment network and we offer that network to sellers at highly competitive fees when compared to other options available to sellers. In fact, our research shows other comparable options available to sellers are approximately 50-80% more expensive”  than Amazon services, the company said.The accusations are potentially a significant development in various government inquiries into Amazon’s business practices. The House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel hosted a hearing in July during which chairman David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, grilled an Amazon attorney about its practices. As  part of that investigation, the committee sent surveys to customers of big tech platforms, asking about the state of competition in digital markets and the adequacy of existing enforcement.The merchant, who received that survey, says he can’t pursue an antitrust case himself because he agreed to binding arbitration when he began selling products on Amazon. But he hopes the Federal Trade Commission, which is already interviewing merchants, will investigate or that a logistics company will file suit, alleging it is losing business due to Amazon's practices. The merchant, who said he has paid Amazon tens of millions of dollars in fees in recent years, requested anonymity out of fear of losing business.A spokesman for the House Judiciary’s antitrust committee declined to comment.The merchant’s letter says Amazon raised logistics fees by 20% over the past four years until they cost as much as 35% more than competing services. The merchant claims Amazon pushed him to continue using its logistics or risk being suspended from selling on its platform or seeing his products marginalized on the site. He says using Amazon’s service forced him to boost prices by as much as 12% on more than 100 products he’s been selling on Amazon for years. The allegations directly challenge Amazon’s own testimony that search algorithms determining which products are most prominently displayed are designed to best serve customers, not favor Amazon. The merchant alleges he could offer the same products on Amazon at lower prices and with faster, more reliable delivery if he could handle logistics himself without being penalized for late deliveries. Merchants using Amazon’s logistics services  don’t face penalties for delivery mishaps, which is why many choose to use it even when better options are available, the letter states.Amazon operates an online marketplace, essentially a digital mall where merchants can sell products. Its website attracts 210 million unique visitors each month in the U.S., mostly shoppers looking for products, making it extremely valuable for anyone looking to sell things online. More than half of all goods sold on Amazon come from independent merchants who pay Amazon a commission on each sale. Amazon controls more than 70% of all online marketplace sales in the U.S., more than triple its closest online marketplace competitor EBay Inc., according to Digital Commerce 360.How regulators define Amazon’s market is a key step in any antitrust investigation. Amazon maintains it should be considered in the broadest possible terms, a retailer that attracts about 4 percent of spending in the U.S. The allegations propose narrowly defining Amazon as the dominant online marketplace with few competitors, which makes its merchant customers more susceptible to its demands.The letter alleges Amazon uses its marketplace to push its logistics services called Fulfillment by Amazon. Merchants ship their products to Amazon warehouses around the country and pay the online giant fees for storage, packing and delivery. Amazon has been expanding its logistics operations to handle everything from storing products to shipping them to customers’ homes. Its online store where U.S. shoppers will spend $221 billion this year, according to EMarketer Inc., gives it a big platform from which to build its logistics business. If Amazon can use its marketplace might to build up its logistics business, it wins an advantage over rival services offered by UPS, FedEx and smaller logistics providers.Amazon, in its emailed statement, said “Fulfillment by Amazon is a service that our sellers love—they tell us FBA saves them time, money and the hassle of packing and shipping boxes so they can instead focus on growing their business, creating new products, and even spending more time with their families. They tell us they choose FBA because it gives them peace of mind knowing that shipping logistics and customer service are taken care of 24/7, year-round.”The merchant’s complaint is by no means a sure thing. Tying services and products together alone isn’t illegal. For more than a century, disputes involving railroads, hospitals and big technology companies like Microsoft have asked the courts to determine when tying should be deemed anticompetitive, and it’s a subject frequently debated by legal scholars. The merchant’s complaint points to a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that laid out standards for illegal tying, later used in the Kodak case, which the merchant’s letter says pertains to Amazon.“The essential characteristic of an invalid tying arrangement lies in the seller’s exploitation of its control over the tying product to force the buyer into the purchase of a tied product that the buyer either did not want at all, or might have preferred to purchase elsewhere on different terms,” the 1984 Supreme Court ruling states.The letter alleges that Amazon uses “carrots and sticks” to coerce merchants to buy its logistics services. Amazon’s control of the marketplace lets it determine which products are most visible on the site. Those using Fulfillment by Amazon are more likely to have their items appear prominently in search results to win sales. Merchants can sell products on Amazon and handle logistics themselves, but many opt to use Fulfillment by Amazon to increase their visibility on the site, a key factor in selling products.Amazon denied its search results favored items it delivers, but said products offered by merchants using its logistics services tend to be more prominent in results. It said that’s not because the search algorithm is biased toward Amazon, but because Amazon logistics “generally provides a better and more reliable experience for our customers than fulfillment through other means,” Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky said in a July letter to the House antitrust panel.The merchant’s letter disputes Amazon’s testimony. Of more than 120,000 Amazon orders handled by Fulfillment by Amazon from Aug. 25 to Oct. 25, fewer than 25% arrived within two days; more than half arrived in about three days and more than 15% arrived in four days, according to the merchant’s analysis. Despite the slow delivery times, Amazon’s logistics fees were 35% higher than other rapid shipping options offered by UPS and the U.S. Postal Service, according to the merchant.The sticks Amazon uses to coerce merchants to use its logistics services are strict penalties, including getting kicked off the platform, for merchants who handle their own logistics. Merchants using Amazon logistics services aren’t penalized when customer orders arrive late, even though they frequently do, since that’s Amazon’s responsibility. Those who handle their own logistics face stiff penalties for even minor delivery mishaps, including being suspended from selling on the platform, according to the merchant.Merchants decide to use Amazon’s logistics, even when more affordable options are available, because it protects them from being kicked off the platform when deliveries are late.“The most intimidating stick in Amazon’s arsenal is the ability to suspend or threaten to suspend sellers,” that don’t use Amazon logistics, the complaint states.\--With assistance from Ben Brody.To contact the author of this story: Spencer Soper in Seattle at ssoper@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Robin Ajello at rajello@bloomberg.net, Alistair BarrFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

  • The Lawyer Behind Google’s Strategy on Antitrust, China and Everything

    The Lawyer Behind Google’s Strategy on Antitrust, China and Everything

    (Bloomberg) -- If Google is feeling pressure from the government scrutiny bearing down, the company isn’t showing it. Last Friday the search giant announced it was paying $2.1 billion to buy Fitbit, the struggling maker of fitness gadgets. The deal was Google’s second multi-billion dollar acquisition in the last several months, flying in the face of repeated critiques from public officials that large tech companies are stifling competition by buying startups. “By attempting this deal at this moment, Alphabet Inc.’s Google is signaling that it will continue to flex and expand its power in spite of this immense scrutiny,” David Cicilline, the Democratic congressman leading Congress’s investigation into antitrust issues in tech, said in a statement.People close to Google say the decision to move forward with the Fitbit acquisition bears the fingerprints of one of its key leaders: Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal officer. Company lawyers don’t inspire the same public fascination as young tech founders. But Walker has quietly become one of the most influential people within Google over the last four years. By extension, that makes him one of Silicon Valley’s most important players as the industry enters a moment of unprecedented political peril. Unlike Facebook Inc., which has spent much of the last year trying to explain its policies to a skeptical public, Google has kept its head down and conducted its business as usual. In September, when attorneys general from 48 states announced an antitrust investigation into the company, Walker’s department didn’t bother to send an email to staff explaining the situation. “You take it seriously, but don’t overreact,” said Matt Tanielian of the Franklin Square Group, a lobbying firm. “That's a sign of someone like Kent being in charge.” Walker's supporters see his leadership style as a welcome sign of corporate maturity. Other people see a company that hasn’t adjusted its approach to changing circumstances. For the first time in its history, Google has no shortage of political enemies, yet it seems unwilling to engage them, according to Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy. “They’re so used to winning that they don’t necessarily push forward with maximum effort,” she said. “There’s a lack of recognition that they’re not in another time. It’s not 10 years ago. It’s not five years ago. It’s not even two years ago.”  Sohn, who has known Walker for years, refers to him as “a lawyer’s lawyer,” a common compliment for those who have worked with him. But Google, whose founders have receded from public view and whose CEO, Sundar Pichai, is unusually reserved for a Silicon Valley CEO, is lacking a charismatic champion at the top. It has a good attorney, when what it might really need is a good politician.   Walker, 58, spent his childhood on a series of military bases, before attending Harvard University and Stanford Law School. He spent his early career as a federal prosecutor, and did stints at eBay Inc., Netscape Communications Corp., and AOL before joining Google in 2006. At first, Google’s small legal department was consumed with legal challenges over copyright and privacy. But several years into Walker’s tenure, the company began facing its first challenges with antitrust investigations. Walker’s background is not in antitrust law, and he didn’t oversee Google’s 2013 settlement with U.S. regulators over competition. But he has had ample opportunity to learn the subject. “Kent, frankly, really grew with the company,” said Shirley Tilghman, who served on Google's board from 2005 to 2018. Walker, who declined an interview request, has become a prominent figure within Silicon Valley’s insular circle of top lawyers. His protégés have gone on to lead the legal departments at Twitter Inc., Pinterest Inc., Dropbox Inc. and other Silicon Valley firms; many went into the Obama Administration. He’ also a typical Google executive in many ways. Several friends and former colleagues described him as an eager polymath, an obsessive, hands-on, manager—and a huge science fiction fan. Walker has a reputation of coming to conversations armed with data to back up his arguments, his friends said, and considers the word "thoughtful" to be the highest compliment. “He’s intellectually ambidextrous,” said Adam Kovacevich, who spent 12 years at Google's policy division. “He has always cautioned everyone to take Google’s critics seriously.” Walker’s purview expanded when Google created Alphabet to be its parent company in 2015. When it did so, the company’s co-founders and its longtime legal chief, David Drummond, stepped back from Google’s daily operations. Google’s head of policy, Rachel Whetstone, left for Uber the same year, and Walker took over her policy portfolio. Last summer, he became Google’s chief legal officer and head of global affairs, taking control of oversight of corporate policy, cyber-security and philanthropy. Now, nearly every contentious issue at Google eventually bubbles up to Walker—antitrust controversies in Europe, debates over digital data privacy and artificial intelligence ethics, what to do about China, confrontation with Google’s workforce over sexual harassment and contract workers. Walker also plays a key role in managing relationships with governments, a task normally associated with chief executives.  Not every company entrusts its top lawyer with so much power. “For Google, it’s a huge, huge portfolio,” said Doug Melamed, the former general counsel at Intel Corp. “The fact that he has it is testament to the respect he commands with the board and other executives. There are signs of strain, however. Attrition among the legal and policy staff has been bad enough that one former Google official referred to Walker as “the only one left.” To run global affairs, Walker hired Caroline Atkinson, a former Obama official based in Washington, D.C., but she lasted less than two years. Walker spent another year searching for a replacement before hiring Karan Bhatia, a former Bush administration official, last June. This spring, Walker confided to his friend Melamed, the former tech lawyer, that he felt “spread a little thin.”  Walker has also become a target in recent years for current and former employees who think Google has sacrificed its idealistic culture in favor of conventional commercialism. Former employees describe how the company’s legal and policy departments once engaged in robust debates over sensitive topics, but say the back-and-forth faded as Walker consolidated power. Meredith Whittaker, a former Google researcher who has become a prominent critic of the company, argued that this is particularly important because of the impact Google’s policies have outside the company. “He's put there to protect the company from liability, which also means protecting Google from being accountable to its workers and to the public,” she said. “In that way, he's doing all of us—those affected by Google's services and the workers there—a great disservice.”  Trust between Google’s management and its restive workforce has deteriorated since the revelation that the company was working on Project Maven, a Pentagon program to use computer vision software to analyze drone imagery. Google said last year it would stop working on the project, setting off a round of recriminations in Washington.  According to his critics, Walker has shown an inclination to stymie the kind of activism that led Google to back out of Maven. An all-staff memo from Walker, sent earlier this year, reminded employees that accessing certain “need to know” documents was a fireable offense, which some employees interpreted as an attempt to stifle activism. A Google representative said at the time this did not represent a new policy. In August, the company sent out new “community guidelines” to staff warning them not to spend time debating “non-work topics.” Several current employees complained that what they saw as Walker’s desire to tamp down political expressions was an attempt to mollify conservative critics who accuse Google of liberal bias.  Walker’s obscurity may be undercutting his influence outside the company. Eric Schmidt, the company’s former chief executive officer and executive chairman, largely served as Google’s public face during his tenure. Schmidt left in 2017, and Sundar Pichai, his successor, cuts a lower profile. Walker now takes many of the high-level meetings that Schmidt did, but he does so without the cachet of being a chief executive. When Walker planned to testify last summer at a Congressional hearing on Russian election interference, the Senate demanded Google send Pichai instead. Google simply didn't show, and committee staff pointedly set out an empty chair where Pichai would have sat.A Democratic staffer in Congress, who asked to not to be identified discussing private matters, said Walker has been much more reluctant to communicate with lawmakers than his counterparts at other tech giants. “Say what you want about Facebook, at least they’re apologetic,” said Sohn. At Google, she continued, “they haven’t admitted to any error. That might be a mistake.” \--With assistance from Ben Brody and Alistair Barr.To contact the author of this story: Mark Bergen in San Francisco at mbergen10@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Brustein at jbrustein@bloomberg.netFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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  • The ‘Uber for Trucking’ Tries to Navigate Some Uber-Scale Problems

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    (Bloomberg) -- Amit Sekhri took up trucking in the thick of the Great Recession, drawn in part by the freedom of driving the open roads. He was prepared for long hours and weeks away from home. But two of his biggest—and least expected—gripes were the constant phone calls and late payments. Like many truckers, Sekhri booked his jobs through freight brokers, a class of intermediaries who do most of their business by phone. And many have a bad habit of paying late. Then he discovered an app called Convoy. It lets him select nearby loads listed by shippers and get paid a day or two after completing a trip. It uses a phone’s GPS to estimate a driver’s arrival time for pickup and tracks where he is throughout the route. For these reasons, Convoy Inc. is often described as “Uber for trucking”—a moniker that took hold before the real Uber set up a competing business and was gripped by a corporate crisis.Sekhri, 30, now drives his own truck and serves as a dispatcher for four drivers who deliver orders through Convoy, traditional job boards and occasionally Uber Freight. He credits Convoy with solving some of his main grievances with the job. “It’s pretty easy. You like the price, you accept it, you assign it to a driver, and you can track them. I don’t have to call the driver and say, ‘Where you at?’” Sekhri says. Convoy also lists accurate pickup times, letting him squeeze in a shower or meal outside his truck. But Sekhri has a bigger problem: Job rates are declining fast. App reviews for Convoy are riddled with complaints from drivers about low prices. Sekhri and two other Convoy drivers who spoke to Bloomberg echoed those concerns. One of them shut down his business in March. Sekhri says he uses Convoy for 10% to 15% of his loads—only when prices meet his needs. “I’ve got four kids to support,” he says. “I’m still hanging in and hoping it will get better.”This isn’t unique to Convoy. Rates are falling across North America after two years of increases.  Spot demand, which excludes long-term freight contracts, plummeted 27% through Oct. 25, and most drivers aren’t expecting business to improve over the next six months, according to market research from Bloomberg and Truckstop.com. Those who bought flatbeds during the surge are now struggling to find work and make auto payments.For Convoy, the company risks drawing comparisons to Uber in less flattering ways: drivers grousing about getting squeezed and a business model that has yet to turn a profit. One possible remedy is a dramatic expansion of its bidding system that Convoy plans to announce Tuesday. It would create a sort of EBay for freight, where drivers can submit offers for a vast number of jobs listed by shippers. Convoy says this will allow drivers to find more work and reduce trips without a load, but the theory isn’t proven. It could just as easily drive down prices and exacerbate the pay problem.Dan Lewis, the chief executive officer, says he’s sympathetic to concerns from drivers, especially small trucking companies that are often hit the hardest. He says he can’t control the market, but Convoy can help make it more efficient for drivers. “They’re just thinking in their head, ‘Hey, I did this job last year, and I got $1,000. Now I’m getting paid $900. Why am I being paid less?’” Lewis says. “What we want to do is help them reduce their costs.” Lewis doesn’t exactly fit in at a truck stop. The 38-year-old is a graduate of Yale University and worked at Microsoft Corp., Google and Amazon.com Inc. Before starting Convoy in 2015, he hung out at service stations along Interstate 5 for research. He says he talked at length with drivers, learned the lingo and listened to what frustrates them. Lewis realized technology could solve some of the trucking business’s arcana.The industry didn’t get it initially, Lewis says. Technology doesn’t usually elicit happy thoughts for truck drivers, amid talk of autonomous vehicles displacing their jobs. “Tech doesn’t move freight,” Lewis would often hear. “People move freight.”But rich people got it, taken with the potential to remake a $141 billion market for the better. The company has raised about $275 million in venture capital from a roster of investors that reads like a guest list at Davos. Among them are Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Marc Benioff. Dara Khosrowshahi invested personally before becoming CEO of Uber Technologies Inc. (He has since sold his stake.)The trucking market was accelerating in tandem with Convoy and Uber Freight. By the end of last year, Convoy was generating about $300 million in revenue on an annualized basis, and Uber Freight was on track for $500 million, estimates Silpa Paul, an analyst at research firm Frost & Sullivan. The tech companies’ growth has come at the expense of smaller, traditional brokers, says Lee Klaskow, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “You have these old-school guys smoking a cigarette with a Rolodex and a phone,” he says, though some are finally waking up to the need to modernize.Travis Washington, a trucker based outside Atlanta, says he once called to arrange a job with J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and was told to hang up and book through the company’s app. The broker gave him an extra $10 for doing so. But he still uses Convoy’s app daily, including a service called Convoy Go. It lets drivers bring only the cab of their truck and hook up to a trailer pre-filled with cargo at pickup. It can also save on fuel and other costs associated with a trailer. But Washington says Convoy’s prices for the return trip are typically too low, and so he loads the Convoy trailer with freight booked through a traditional broker. It’s not a great outcome for Convoy, but the company doesn’t discourage the practice, as long as the trailer is returned within a few days.This year, more drivers are having to find creative ways to cut costs. The startup that wants to be the new face of the trucking business has suddenly become for some drivers a symbol of a pricing crunch. Lewis recalls a difficult series of conversations in March at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Kentucky with drivers concerned about pricing. Lewis says Convoy is trying to show drivers how it can help, even when prices are low. It wasn’t enough to keep Ira Lawrence in business. He bought a truck in 2017 and signed up to drive for Convoy after taking a retirement package from the Canadian Navy. He and his wife in Oak Harbor, Washington, discovered that making a living wage was a lot harder than they expected, even during the boom. Weekly fuel costs were $2,400 to $3,000. Insurance was more than $1,600 a month. They managed to pay off the truck and trailer, but monthly maintenance costs exceeded $1,500. “The overall cost of owning a truck is through the roof,” Lawrence says. “We thought it would be this glorified life of: Get a load; stay there for a few days; and then get a load to somewhere else.”Four out of five jobs for Lawrence came through Convoy. The ability to get paid within 48 hours of completing a trip helped them stay afloat for a few years. He was forced to shut down his trucking business in March, when he was unable to cover insurance costs. These days, Lawrence gets paid to train other drivers. He warns them about the risks, he says. But he still recommends the Convoy app and frequently dons his Convoy T-shirt, sweater and trucker hat. There are three types of people Lewis needs to please with Convoy: drivers, who want to get paid more; shippers, who want to pay less; and investors, who want to get paid the most. No one is completely satisfied right now, but Convoy says technology can solve everybody’s needs by wringing inefficiencies out of the market.Part of the original mission was to eliminate long return drives without a load. An automated service the company introduced three months ago bundles multiple loads and is now available for the majority of trips in Atlanta and Los Angeles. The app has since added other data to improve transactions and waste less driver time, including grading shippers based on how quickly they load a shipment. Companies with slow loading docks pay a premium because fewer drivers want the job, Lewis says.As for someday turning a profit, Lewis says the business is “built to reach better-than-industry economics on each market we enter.” Working in Convoy’s favor, he says, is that freight brokerage has a long tradition of generating profits.The goal for Convoy, in other words, is to out-Uber the larger, more established trucking companies—as well as Uber itself. Last month, Uber said it would spend $2 billion to expand freight operations in Chicago.Convoy’s newly expanded auction system, called Direct to Shipper, is part of that strategy. In the past, Convoy showed drivers a limited number of jobs, only the ones the company thinks it could fulfill. With the new service, Convoy will list every single load and allow drivers to bid on each one. If it works as intended, drivers should be able to line up more jobs on routes they want and at rates they like, meaning less empty time and more money, says Ziad Ismail, the chief product officer at Convoy. It’s more EBay than Uber and could increase options for drivers by a factor of 10, he says.In a less optimistic scenario, pitting drivers against one another to offer the lowest rate could end up further depressing prices. Echoing a mantra in Silicon Valley, Ismail suggests truckers could make up for an earnings shortfall in volume. “Drivers are trying to fill up their schedule,” he says. “If we can 10X the number of shipments they have available to them, the likelihood they can find a shipment that is closer to them or has less waiting time increases exponentially.” For shippers, especially smaller ones, Convoy has saved them a lot of money, while giving them the sort of attention other companies can’t afford to provide. Waiakea Springs, a Hawaiian maker of bottled water, uses Convoy for three-quarters of its shipments, from 10% almost two years ago. Convoy assigned the company a dedicated account representative to find the best prices and ensure smooth service, something Uber Freight wouldn’t do for such a small customer, says Alexandra Alegria, the director of supply chain and logistics for Waiakea Springs. Convoy also agreed to help the water company achieve an environmental goal of switching to all-electric vehicles starting next year, by connecting them with green trucking companies.Waiakea Springs sends as many as 10 trucks a week from California to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, mainly to the convenience store chain Wawa. That used to cost as much as $8,000, but the price on Convoy usually tops out at $5,300, Alegria says. But a few times, low-ball offers attracted poor drivers, she says. Convoy solved the issue in a very low-tech way. She called her account rep, who lined up a trucking company with a large fleet that’s now dedicated to shipping all of Waiakea Springs’ orders. “The majority  of other brokers I’ve worked with send you to one of their giant call centers,” Alegria says. “We haven’t had anyone who has been as invested in our growth as Convoy has.”To contact the author of this story: Dina Bass in Seattle at dbass2@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Milian at mmilian@bloomberg.net, Jillian WardFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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    (Bloomberg) -- Activist investor Starboard Value contends Box Inc. has underperformed its competitors due to a slowing growth rate and poor profitability and could be an attractive takeover target.Starboard sees the software maker as having multiple avenues to unlock value, including accelerating growth, striking a better balance between its sales growth and profitability, or potentially even seeking a buyer.“We believe this company is very, very attractive and could be acquired,” Starboard Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smith said Thursday at the C4K Investors Conference in Toronto.Box’s shares rose as much as 4.5% in New York trading. They closed up 3.7% to $16.36, giving the company a market value of $2.42 billion.Starboard disclosed a 7.5% stake in Redwood City, California-based Box last month, putting more pressure on the company, which has struggled to accelerate sales and become more profitable.Preferred AvenueSmith said later Thursday in an interview with Bloomberg TV his preferred avenue for the company to create value wasn’t through a sale. He acknowledged several potential strategic buyers, such as Adobe Inc. or Oracle Corp., along with private equity firms, may be interested in acquiring Box.A representative for Box declined to comment.Box is facing problems similar to those of other companies whose organic growth has slowed while having trouble shifting their model, Smith said. Box hasn’t met lofty sales growth targets that are common in the cloud-computing market, as it tries to transition to a broader software suite from from its current data-storage products.“The issue comes when you’re promising more growth than you’re achieving and you’re not able to pivot and balance that profitability and instead, as you may see in Box, you instead continue to spend more and more dollars chasing that growth,” Smith said. “Those companies that are reaching that level really need to also understand how to balance profitability.”Starboard has been one of the busiest activists this year, launching 10 campaigns, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Those targets have included Dollar Tree Inc., EBay Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Papa John’s International Inc., where Smith was appointed chairman in February.(Updates with closing share price in fourth paragraph.)\--With assistance from Michael Bellusci, Erik Schatzker, Nico Grant and Josh Friedman.To contact the reporters on this story: Scott Deveau in New York at sdeveau2@bloomberg.net;Hema Parmar in New York at hparmar6@bloomberg.netTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Liana Baker at lbaker75@bloomberg.net, ;Alan Goldstein at agoldstein5@bloomberg.net, Michael Hytha, Matthew MonksFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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