April 28, 2021

Google’s and Microsoft’s Profits Soar as Pandemic Benefits Big Tech

Here’s what you need to know: Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times Google’s parent…

Credit…Cody O’Loughlin for The New York Times

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said on Tuesday that revenue in its most recent quarter increased sharply from the same period a year ago, boosted by strong demand for online advertising on its search results and YouTube videos and by continued growth at its cloud computing arm.

Alphabet posted revenue of $55.31 billion, up 34 percent from a year earlier, and net profit more than doubled to $17.93 billion in the first quarter. It was the third straight quarter of record profit for the company. The results came in above analysts’ expectations. Shares of Alphabet rose more than 4 percent in after-hours trading.

Like the other technology conglomerates, Alphabet has thrived during the pandemic. After a pullback in travel-related advertising during the first few months of the pandemic, Google’s advertising business has rebounded with gusto. Businesses are spending money with Google to target consumers who are spending more time online.

Advertising revenue rose 32 percent in the quarter spurred by strong demand for search marketing. Alphabet also generated $6 billion in YouTube ads, an increase of 49 percent.

The results demonstrated once again the enduring strength of Google’s online properties, which remain unfazed — at least financially — by regulatory pressure and a flurry of antitrust lawsuits.

In a conference call with analysts, Ruth Porat, Alphabet’s chief financial officer, said the company benefited during the quarter from “elevated online activity” but warned that the trend may not continue once lockdown restrictions are lifted and economies recover.

Google’s cloud computing business has continued to scoop up customers during the pandemic as companies have moved more of their data and work into centralized data centers in an effort to save money and become more digitally nimble. Revenue at the cloud business grew 46 percent, while its losses narrowed to $974 million in the first quarter. But Google continues to be a distant third to Amazon and Microsoft in the cloud business.

Alphabet’s results were also helped by belt-tightening during the pandemic. The company’s sales and marketing costs remained flat even though revenue grew by $14 billion, and it reduced general spending from a year earlier. The lower costs also took place while Google was continuing to hire new staff. Alphabet increased its head count by nearly 17,000 people to roughly 140,000 employees globally.

Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Microsoft on Tuesday reported that its quarterly sales grew at one of its strongest rates in years, as the company was poised to cross $2 trillion in market value.

Revenue rose to $41.7 billion for the fiscal third quarter, up 19 percent from a year earlier, its biggest quarterly increase since 2018. Profits jumped 44 percent to $15.5 billion. The results surpassed both the company’s and Wall Street’s expectations, underlining how Microsoft and other big tech firms have been winners in the coronavirus pandemic.

“Over a year into the pandemic, digital adoption curves aren’t slowing down,” Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said in a statement. “They’re accelerating.”

Sales of commercial cloud products generated $17.7 billion in revenue, up 33 percent from a year earlier. Revenue from Azure, Microsoft’s flagship cloud computing product, rose 50 percent, while commercial Office 365 products grew 22 percent as corporate customers embraced running their computing and other tools on the cloud.

Microsoft has closed in on Amazon’s lead in cloud computing, according to data from Synergy Research Group. Amazon has about a third of the growing market, and Microsoft has surpassed 20 percent market share.

Sales of personal computing products rose to $13 billion in the quarter, up 19 percent, as people bought more computers and opted for new devices with larger screens during the pandemic to learn and work from home. Gaming revenue grew 50 percent, fueled by spending on the new Xbox gaming console, which was launched late last year, as well as on Xbox content and services.

The company also benefited from fluctuations in foreign exchange rates, as well as a tax-related court decision in India.

Starbucks’ global revenues grew 11 percent in the last quarter as coronavirus restrictions eased in some places.
Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

Seeing signs that customers are eager to gather and put the dark days of the pandemic behind them, the coffee giant Starbucks said that its sales in the United States made a “full recovery” in the first three months of the year.

Same-store sales in the U.S. climbed 9 percent in the company’s second quarter compared with the same period last year, while global revenues climbed 11 percent to $6.7 billion.

“In the last quarter, we’re seeing very early signs that friends and family were celebrating being together again,” Kevin Johnson, the president and chief executive of Starbucks, said on a call with analysts on Tuesday after the close of the markets. “While certainly not all markets are opening at the same speed in terms of vaccine distribution, we know this is the key that enables all of us to once again be together.”

Starbucks made a profit of $659 million in the quarter, up significantly from $328 million a year earlier, when many of its stores were closed because of the quarantine restrictions around the world.

Starbucks said it expected global same-store sales for the full year to climb as much as 23 percent as the rest of the world recovers and reopens from the pandemic.

“While the Covid-19 pandemic is not over, this moment is giving us confidence to raise our full-year guidance,” Mr. Johnson said.

U.S. members enrolled in its loyalty rewards program grew 18 percent over the past year, Mr. Johnson said; there are now more than 23 million 90-day active members. Drive-through activity also remained robust, with higher ticket sales as customers ordered multiple drinks and often added a food item to their order, like the Impossible Breakfast Sandwich or cake pops, Mr. Johnson said.

“Every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant,” Jason Fried, Basecamp’s chief executive, wrote in a blog post.
Credit…Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Basecamp, a company that makes productivity software, said on Monday that it had “made some internal changes,” including a ban on talking about politics at work.

“Every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant,” Jason Fried, Basecamp’s chief executive, wrote in a blog post. “You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target.”

Basecamp’s move echoes a ban on talking politics at Coinbase, which was enacted in September by its chief executive, Brian Armstrong, prompting dozens of employees to leave the company.

The timing of these announcements is probably no accident, following a surge of employee activism and corporate action on social issues. Big companies like Amazon, BlackRock and Google took a stand this month against Republican efforts to enact restrictive election rules in almost every state.

Surveys suggest that a large portion of employees believe that the companies they work for should speak up on social issues. The new policy at Basecamp, which has about 60 employees, is one of the least hedged signals yet that the feeling is not always mutual.

Both bosses framed their new policies as a way to remove distractions and carved out exceptions for issues they consider relevant to their businesses. “If there is a bill introduced around crypto, we may engage,” Mr. Armstrong wrote last year, while one of Basecamp’s co-founders, David Hansson, wrote on Monday that the company might engage on “topics like antitrust, privacy, employee surveillance.”

The moves, in both cases, were met with a mix of admiration and criticism, with supporters saying the policies are good for business and detractors arguing that choosing to abstain from politics is inherently political and probably impossible to enforce.

In addition to discouraging politics talk on work platforms, Basecamp said it would end “paternalistic benefits” such as a fitness reimbursement and education allowances (it plans to give employees an equivalent amount of cash instead), ban committees and stop “lingering or dwelling on past decisions.”

Basecamp’s changes are notable because its founders have long evangelized the company’s worker-friendly culture in books and blog posts.

Mr. Armstrong of Coinbase applauded Basecamp on Twitter, calling it “another mission focused company.” “Who will be next?” he asked.

In a new filing, Fox said its coverage of Smartmatic was part of its overall reporting on claims made by former President Donald Trump.
Credit…Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

In the months since the election tech company Smartmatic sued Fox News and three of its anchors, the two companies have engaged in a prehearing back-and-forth that continued Monday when Fox filed briefs in support of a previous motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.

In its defamation suit, which was filed in New York State Supreme Court on Feb. 4, Smartmatic accused Fox and the anchors Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro of promoting falsehoods about the company and widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Shortly after the suit was filed, Fox canceled Mr. Dobbs’s program on Fox Business and filed a motion for a dismissal of the suit, arguing that the claims of electoral fraud broadcast on Fox News and Fox Business were newsworthy and handled fairly. Smartmatic replied on April 12, with a brief stating that the three Fox anchors had played along as their guests promoted election-related conspiracy theories.

In its latest volley, Fox asserted that its coverage of Smartmatic was part of its overall reporting on a challenge of the election outcome based on claims made by former President Donald J. Trump.

“Smartmatic asks this court to become the first in history to hold the press liable for reporting allegations made by a sitting president and his lawyers, and to break that barrier in the context of one of the most newsworthy events imaginable: a contested presidential election,” Fox said in its filing on Monday. “This court should decline that First-Amendment-defying request.”

Representatives for Smartmatic declined to comment.

Smartmatic has argued that the Fox hosts knew the on-air statements about the company were not accurate. If a court determines that Smartmatic is a public figure, Smartmatic’s lawyers will have to show that Fox acted with “actual malice” in its treatment of the company.

The Fox briefs filed on Monday argued that Smartmatic, which is seeking $2.7 billion in damages, had not demonstrated that its channels or its anchors acted with malice, showing only that the three Fox hosts had not investigated the claims made on their programs.

The Fox brief said that Smartmatic’s “allegations largely boil down to accusations of mere ‘failure to investigate.’”

It added, “Seeking to compensate for the weakness of its allegations, Smartmatic emphasizes their volume. But a stack of inadequate allegations is still inadequate.”

The briefs filed by Fox on Monday are likely to be the last in its case against Smartmatic before a court considers the matter. A hearing date has not been scheduled.

Another election technology company, Dominion Voting Systems, sued Fox for defamation in March. Fox called that suit “baseless” and pledged to fight it in court.

Eligible businesses have lost hundreds of billions of dollars, according to congressional estimates, but lawmakers provided funding to cover only a sliver of that total.
Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

A $28.6 billion grant fund for restaurants, bars, caterers and other food businesses will open Monday, the government said on Tuesday, offering an extra lifeline to some of America’s hardest hit small businesses.

The Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which was created last month by the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, will offer grants of up to $10 million to replace lost sales. The amount each businesses can receive is generally the difference between its 2019 and 2020 gross receipts, minus certain other federal assistance such as Paycheck Protection Program loans.

The money is expected to go quickly. Eligible businesses have lost hundreds of billions of dollars, according to congressional estimates, but lawmakers provided funding to cover only a sliver of that total.

“Restaurants are the core of our neighborhoods and propel economic activity on Main Streets across the nation,” said Isabella Casillas Guzman, the head of the Small Business Administration, which will disburse the grants. “They are among the businesses that have been hardest hit and need support to survive this pandemic. We want restaurants to know that help is here.”

All eligible businesses will be able to apply starting on Monday, but for the first 21 days, the Small Business Administration will approve claims exclusively from businesses that are majority-owned by people who fall into one of the priority groups designated by Congress: women, veterans, and individuals who are both socially and economically disadvantaged. The agency said that latter group includes those who meet certain income and asset limits and are Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian-Pacific American or South Asian American.

Applicants included in those groups will be asked to self-certify their eligibility for the exclusivity period. That three-week priority period alone is likely to exhaust the fund.

Publicly traded companies, businesses with more than 20 locations and restaurants that have permanently closed are ineligible for the grants.

Applications can be submitted through a Small Business Administration website and some point-of-sale systems. The technology companies Clover, NCR Corporation, Square and Toast are working with the agency to enable applications for their customers.

Eager restaurateurs are preparing to apply — and have started lobbying for additional funding to keep eligible applicants from being shut out.

“This is great news, but the $28.6B won’t be enough,” Russell Jackson, a New York City chef, wrote on Twitter in a message urging Congress to “refill the program as needed.”

Jamie Dimon, the JPMorgan Chase chief executive, has spoken of what he deems as “serious weaknesses” with remote work.
Credit…Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

JPMorgan Chase is opening its offices to all employees in the United States on May 17, subject to a 50 percent occupancy limit, according to an internal memo sent Tuesday obtained by The New York Times.

The bank, which employs more than 240,000 globally, told its office-based employees that the opening comes as the bank prepares itself — and its workers — for a more formal return to office at the start of July. (Employees of retail bank branches have been working on location throughout the pandemic.)

“We are welcoming more of you back next month so that you can get comfortable being back in an office environment,” the bank’s six-member operating committee wrote in the memo. “Understanding this may take some time, we would fully expect by early July, all U.S.-based employees will be back in the office on a consistent rotational schedule, also subject to our current 50 percent occupancy cap.”

Companies have been weighing how, and when, to bring workers back to the office. Microsoft opened its headquarters to employees last month, while still encouraging those who want to to stay at home. IBM created a “reorientation guide” for employees coming back to the office.

“We know that many of you are excited to come back, but we also know that for some, the idea of coming in on a regular basis is a change through which you’ll have to manage,” JPMorgan’s operating committee said in the email.

The finance industry, which places a premium on in-person interaction and training, has been among the most eager to get employees back in the office. Investment banks have also struggled to keep up morale as record-breaking volumes of work has led some junior analysts to warn of burnout made worse by isolation and the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional lives that comes from working at home.

JPMorgan’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, said in a recent letter to shareholders that there were “serious weaknesses” from remote work, including delayed decision making and a barriers to learning and creativity. He also acknowledged that the pandemic had accelerated trends like hybrid and flexible work policies, such that “working from home will become more permanent in American business.”

The bank continues to move forward with construction of its huge new Manhattan headquarters, which is expected to open in 2024 and house 12,000 to 14,000 employees.

“We are extremely excited about the building’s public spaces, state-of the-art technology, and health and wellness amenities, among many other features,” Mr. Dimon wrote.

The City of London, a financial hub, is seeking ways to draw people as a shift toward flexible work keeps some professionals away.
Credit…Tolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The City of London, the square mile in the center of London that is the heart of Britain’s financial and legal services, once had more than half a million daily commuters bustling through its streets. But the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in a new era of working from home that risks leaving the area permanently depleted. The City of London Corporation, its governing body, is looking for ways to revive it.

One way it hopes to use vacant space is to create at least 1,500 new homes by 2030, the corporation said, as part of a five-year plan announced on Tuesday. The district, which has several train stations, has primarily been a commuter destination, with only about 8,000 residents.

The City, as it is called, is particularly vulnerable to the trend of flexible working. It hosts hundreds of large companies that have been keen to offer their employees latitude in how often they work from the office. Last summer, during England’s brief easing of pandemic restrictions, the City’s streets were deserted while the rest of London and other towns boomed with activity.

“Firms have told us that they remain committed to retaining a central London hub, but how they operate will inevitably change to reflect postpandemic trends, such as hybrid and flexible working,” said Catherine McGuinness, the policy chair at the City of London Corporation.

In New York, developers are also working out how to repurpose office buildings in Lower Manhattan into housing.

While the City tries to lure back its usual workers and business visitors, it will also try to become more appealing to workers outside of financial and professional services. It is looking into offering cheaper, long-term rent on office space for creative professionals in empty or infrequently used spaces.

And it hopes to attract more tourists, with events, shopping and cultural activities outside of office hours. “We will explore opportunities to enable and animate the City’s weekend and nighttime offer,” the report said. “Bold programming of major events may include traffic-free Saturdays or Sundays in summer or an all-night celebration.”

Traffic in Philadelphia last month. BP reported higher earnings on Tuesday, and said it expected demand for oil would continue to recover from the pandemic.
Credit…Matt Rourke/Associated Press

BP reported a sharply higher profit for the first quarter of 2021 on Tuesday, signaling that after a grim 2020, oil companies’ earnings are recovering along with demand for their products.

BP said that underlying replacement cost profit, the metric most closely watched by analysts, was $2.6 billion, up from $791 million in the period year earlier. The London giant said that the price it received for its oil in the quarter was up more than 20 percent. BP described its trading and marketing of natural gas, where prices also increased, as “exceptionally strong.”

Citing strong economic growing in China and the United States, BP said that it expected the oil market to continue to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

Bernard Looney, the chief executive, has said he wants to use the cash from oil and gas operations to finance a shift toward electric power and other clean energy.

In the first quarter, the plan seemed to work well. The company raked in about $10.9 billion, a sum that included revenue from sales of fossil fuel businesses, among them a stake in a gas field in Oman. Because of divestments, BP’s oil production fell by 22 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

At the same time, BP expanded into the offshore wind business. It entered into a partnership with Equinor, the Norwegian energy company that is developing wind farms off the East Coast of the United States, and is acquiring offshore wind acreage off Britain at what some in the industry considered high prices.

BP also said that, having met debt reduction targets, it would resume a program of buying back shares, a way to increase the price of BP stock; it had not bought back shares since the first quarter of last year, as its business was battered by the pandemic. In the second quarter the company plans to spend $500 million on such purchases.

Last summer, BP also cut its dividend for the first time since the Deepwater Horizon disaster a decade ago, to 5.25 cents a share. The dividend will remain at that level, the company said.

BP said it could generate a surplus with oil prices above $45 a barrel. Lately, prices have been considerably higher, with Brent crude, the international benchmark, at about $66 a barrel.

Nonprofit organizations “across the ideological spectrum” filed briefs supporting Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted.
Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

A Supreme Court case argued on Monday has created strange bedfellows, which did not escape the attention of the justices.

The matter pits charities against the State of California over donor disclosure requirements, and it’s a dispute over a seemingly small technical issue that some say has serious implications for political donations. It has turned groups that are often on opposite sides of political fights into — tentative — allies, the DealBook newsletter reports.

Nonprofit organizations “across the ideological spectrum” filed briefs supporting the petitioners, the Koch-backed charity Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted. The foundation argues that California violates the constitutionally protected right to anonymous association by collecting major donor data and failing to protect it (the state’s website has experienced security breaches). Justice Kavanaugh cited a filing from the American Civil Liberties Union, the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund and others who all agreed that “a critical corollary of the freedom to associate is the right to maintain the confidentiality of one’s associations.”

“Certainly, we don’t see eye to eye with the petitioners in this case on every issue,” Brian Hauss of the A.C.L.U. said at a news conference after arguments at the court. In this case, the A.C.L.U. standing with the Americans for Prosperity Foundation because of what it calls California’s “systemic incompetence” in failing to protect nonpublic data. Legally speaking, however, it recognized a distinction between public disclosure and nonpublic disclosure. In other words, the brief didn’t argue for a general extension of anonymity.

Opponents say this is a case about “dark money.” Democratic senators argued in a brief that the foundation is advancing the matter as a way to make it easier for special interests to influence politics with untraceable money. “This case is really a stalking horse for campaign finance disclosure laws,” Justice Stephen Breyer said. A ruling is expected in June.

Shares in UPS rose after the delivery company released first-quarter results that showed consolidated operating profit up 158 percent compared with a year ago.
Credit…Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
  • U.S. stocks were mostly flat on Tuesday as investors digested more company earnings reports and awaited the Federal Reserve’s next policy decision on Wednesday. The S&P 500 was unchanged, while the Nasdaq composite fell 0.3 percent.

  • Tesla 4.5 percent even after the electric-car maker posted a quarterly profit of $438 million, its highest ever. UPS rose 10.4 percent after the parcel delivery company reported earnings that beat analysts’ expectations.

  • Alphabet, Microsoft and Visa are among companies also reporting earnings on Tuesday after the market closes.

  • By last Friday, a quarter of companies in the S&P 500 had published their first-quarter results, with 84 percent of them reporting earnings that were better than expected, according to FactSet. If this trend holds, it would be the highest percentage since FactSet started tracking the metric in 2008.

  • Most European stock indexes fell. The Stoxx Europe 600 declined 0.1 percent.

  • HSBC shares in London rose 4 percent, becoming the best performer in the FTSE 100, after the bank said its pretax profits rose nearly 80 percent in the first quarter compared with last year. As the global economic outlook has improved, the bank released $435 million it had set aside for loan losses.

  • UBS dropped 2 percent after the Swiss bank said it lost $774 million in the first quarter from the collapse of the American hedge fund Archegos Capital Management.

Credit…Max Guther

In today’s On Tech newsletter, Shira Ovide says that what tech leaders believe and do matters. But when we focus on the chief executives, we sometimes neglect to recognize that regular people, not poobahs, make tech as we experience it.