Alibaba's Jack Ma is a Communist Party member, China state paper reveals

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Jack Ma, the head of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and China’s best-known capitalist, is a Communist Party member, the official Party newspaper said on Monday, debunking a public assumption the billionaire was politically unattached.

FILE PHOTO: Alibaba Group co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma attends the World Trade Organization (WTO) Forum “Trade 2030” in Geneva, Switzerland, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

The People’s Daily revealed Ma’s Party membership in a list of 100 people it said had helped drive the country “reform and opening up” process. Ma is China’s richest man with a fortune of $35.8 billion, according to Forbes.

It was unclear why the paper chose to mention Ma’s affiliation now but it comes amid a push by Beijing to bring the country’s private enterprises more in line with Party values, especially in the technology sector that has grown rapidly, driven by the successes of private firms.

Ma, who announced in September he would step down as Alibaba chairman next year, is China’s highest-profile business leader. He has acted as an adviser to political leaders in Asia and Europe and fostered big ambitions in the United States.

He has driven Alibaba to become a $390 billion giant, which dominates China’s online retail market, stretches from logistics to social media, and has spawned a separate fintech empire around popular payment platform Alipay.

Ma’s political affiliation came as a surprise to many.

Results from domestic search engine Baidu Inc, when asked “is Jack Ma a Communist Party member”, also mostly said that he was not.

Alibaba declined to comment on Ma’s Party membership, but said political ties did not impact the firm’s operations.

“Political affiliation of any executive does not influence the company’s business decision-making process,” a spokesperson said in emailed comments to Reuters on Tuesday.

“We follow all laws and regulations in countries where we operate as we fulfil our mission of making it easier for people to do business anywhere in the digital era.”

The People’s Daily list also included Baidu head Robin Li and Tencent Holding Ltd chief Pony Ma, though did not name either of them as Party members. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent together make up the “BAT” trio of China’s top tech firms.

The paper did not say when Ma had become a Party member.

Reporting by Adam Jourdan and John Ruwitch; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Himani Sarkar

Attention Passengers: Your Next Flight Will Likely Arrive Early. Here's Why

As frequent fliers, Kellogg’s Jan Van Mieghem and Yuval Salant have seen the same scene unfold numerous times: Their plane touches down and the pilot announces over the loudspeaker that the flight arrived ahead of schedule. Upon hearing about this stroke of good luck, the passengers immediately perk up.

“Everybody is smiling,” says Van Mieghem.

But are these smiles due to more than good luck? Van Mieghem, the Stuart professor of managerial economics and operations, and Salant, an associate professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, began to wonder whether airlines were strategically adjusting their schedules to make early arrivals more likely.

In a new study with Assistant Professor Dennis Zhang of Washington University in St. Louis, the researchers analyze two decades of data on 43 million domestic U.S. flights. They discover that published flight times–the flight duration that consumers see when they shop for plane tickets–increased 8.1 percent between 1997 and 2017, amounting to an additional 341 million passenger hours.

But when the researchers break down what caused that increase, they find that planes are not flying slower than they used to.

Rather, nearly half of the additional time comes from airlines strategically padding their schedules. Late planes are bad for business–so, by adding time to their predicted flight lengths, airlines can increase the odds that their planes will arrive on time. This schedule padding is especially common on flight routes with less competition, the researchers find.

In Search of Lost Time

The team looked at historical data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics containing detailed data on 43 million flights over the last 21 years. They analyzed changes in flight duration for the same route operated by the same carrier year over year.

On paper, it appeared that the same flights now take significantly longer than they did in the ’90s.

The researchers knew that there were several possible explanations for this. Planes may be spending more time circling in the air waiting for an open landing strip, or more time on the ground waiting for a gate to become available. Another possibility is that air travel has become less predictable–if so, airlines could be adding more buffer time to guard against increasingly frequent delays from bad weather or other unplanned events.

A final possibility was “strategic padding”: airlines might extend their scheduled flight times not for any logistical reason, but as a matter of sheer business strategy. 

“When flights arrive on time or ahead of schedule, you get happy customers,” says Van Mieghem. 

However, Salant notes, “there are costs associated with that.” For one, if an airline pads too much, a competitor can undercut them by offering a shorter flight. Furthermore, flight crew members are often paid for the full scheduled flight duration, regardless of how long the flight actually takes.

The researchers created a mathematical model to tease out how much each factor–air time, ground time, unpredictability, and strategic padding–contributed to the increase in published flight times. 

They found that planes spend roughly the same amount of time in the air as they did 21 years ago. And unpredictability did not seem to be playing much of a role in the increase, either.

Ground time was a different story. “Passengers were spending more time on the plane waiting for take-off, or waiting for a gate after landing, possibly because of increased air traffic,” Salant says.

But that increase in ground time explained about half of the increase in published flight times, leaving more than 150 million passenger hours unaccounted for. The researchers concluded that this remaining time was the result of strategic padding.

“We find that the missing time is not due to physical constraints like air time and ground time or variability. It’s due to strategic decision-making by airlines. They’re padding their schedules, and they’re doing it for a reason.”

— Jan Van Mieghem

Less Competition Means Longer Flight Times

Why has strategic padding become more common? The researchers suspected that part of the reason is dwindling competition. 

“If you have plenty of competitors, logic dictates that you will seek to offer customers the most efficient route from A to B. You’ll cut back your scheduled flight time,” Van Mieghem explains.

But due to bankruptcies and mergers, there are fewer large U.S. airlines today than in 1997. So airlines today may feel less competitive pressure to offer shorter flight times.

To test this theory, the researchers looked at how published flight times changed after competitors either started or stopped offering flights on a particular route. 

As predicted, when competition grew stiffer, airlines cut down travel time. Conversely, Van Mieghem says, “as the playing field thins out, less competition makes it easier for airlines to do the opposite.

A Silver Lining to Schedule Padding?

Walk around O’Hare airport, for example, and you are likely to come across a billboard advertising the “reliability” of United Airlines’ flights.

“But it’s not really about reliability,” Van Mieghem says. “If airlines really wanted to improve reliability, they’d focus their efforts on enhancing their operations. What our study shows is that this is not the case. What they’re going for instead is the easier–and cheaper–option of schedule padding.”

Nonetheless, the researchers stress that schedule padding has its benefits. After all, a flight that usually takes 90 minutes may indeed take 120 on an unlucky day. By publishing a time closer to two hours, the researchers explain, airlines are simply erring more on the side of caution.

In fact, schedule padding may actually help travel go more smoothly. Passengers are not only more likely to experience the joy of an on-time arrival, but also get more buffer time to make a connecting flight.

And the paper’s revelations suggest that there is an opportunity for passengers to be strategic, too, says Van Mieghem.

“We tend to allow a little extra time for delays or hold-ups when we’re travelling,” he notes. But if consumers know that their flight is likely to get in on time, they might save time by reducing that buffer in their schedule. “Of course,” he adds, “this is a question of our individual tolerance for risk.”

Cyber Monday 2018: Best Outdoor and Fitness Deals (Fitbit, Apple Watch, Etc)

Most outdoor fanatics agree: It’s preferable to be outside than it is to be inside, trolling through deals on your computer. But especially in winter, a well-chosen jacket—or backpack, or fitness tracker—can make your time outside so much more comfortable. On this Cyber Monday, we spent hours trolling the web and looking for our favorite outdoor deals so that you don’t have to.

Deals tend to flow and out of availability and vary in price during Cyber Monday. Please bear with us. We will continue to update this list as we learn about new deals, and cross out links that no longer offer the promised discount, or sell out.

More WIRED Cyber Monday Deals

Our Favorite Fitness Deals

Apple

Fitbit Versa for $149 ($51 off)

Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Target

Fitbit is having a killer sale, and for the money, the Versa is one of the most versatile and effective fitness trackers you can buy. If you prefer a more stripped-down tracker, the new Charge 3 is also currently $30 off.

Apple Watch Series 3 for $229 ($50 off)

Amazon, Best Buy

We loved the Apple Watch Series 4, but the Series 3 remains an excellent, waterproof option for fitness-oriented athletes who also want to check messages on the go.

Garmin Fenix 5 Plus Sapphire for $650 ($150 off)

Amazon, Garmin, B&H Photo, Dell, REI

If you do any kind of outdoor activity, the Garmin Fenix 5 Plus is the best GPS-enabled fitness watch you can get for this kind of money. The sapphire glass version is stronger, but both are worthwhile. B&H and Dell offer the $550 non Sapphire versions, which are also on sale.

ProForm 905 Treadmill for $850 ($100 off)

Walmart

Too cold or wet to run outside? The ProForm 905 is compatible with an iFit subscription to recreate trails from all over the world. You can watch on the display as the treadmill automatically adjusts the incline.

TRX Minimal System for $65 ($35 off)

Huckberry

Here’s the deal: TRX bodyweight suspension training is very effective and convenient, since it packs down so small. But if you’re worried that you’re going to pull a rotator cuff or get irretrievably and embarrassingly tangled in a doorway, the Minimal System is an easy way to try it out without dropping three figures.

More Outdoor Deals

Rad Power Bikes

United by Blue Bison Women’s Puffer Jacket for $171 ($57 off)

United by Blue

Bison fiber is normally discarded as waste in ranch country, but United by Blue blends the hollow, compactable hair with recycled polyester in a warm, durable puffer. My testing jacket has kept me warm while hiking and biking in 20-30 degree temperatures.

Petzl Tikkina Pet Headlamp for $15 ($5 off)

Backcountry, Moosejaw

I have other headlamps that cost much more. But when I’m walking the dogs or going on a late run, this one always seems to get the job done. It weighs 3 oz, projects up to 150 lumens, and the battery life lasts for 60 hours. Done and done.

Salewa Ultra Train 2 for $98 ($40 off)

Zappos

Zappos is having an enormous sale, which is worth checking out if you’re looking for running shoes or fitness apparel. Salewa’s “speed hikers” combine the durability of a climbing shoe with the form factor of a running one.

Thule Snowboard Racks for $175 ($45 off)

Amazon, Moosejaw, Backcountry

A lot of Thule products are discounted around the web for Cyber Monday, which makes it a great time to pick up anything from a roof box to a backpack to a jogging stroller. Our pick are these snowboard racks, because, well… if you weren’t on the mountain this weekend, you will be soon.

RadPower Bikes RadWagon for $1,399 ($400 off)

RadPower Bikes

Not only is RadPower’s RadWagon one of the most affordable electric cargo bikes out there, it’s one of the most convenient. Rather than riding 200 miles home from a preferred retailer, RadPower will deliver one to your door. You can also opt to have it assembled by a mobile bike shop.

Free Belt Plate, Skid Plate, and $50 Gift Card with Boosted Mini S Purchase ($749)

Boosted

Boosted is currently offering free accessories with the purchase of the Boosted Mini S.

Cotopaxi Paray Lightweight Jacket for $50 ($50 off)

Cotopaxi

I’m a big fan of Cotopaxi’s colorful, lightweight windbreakers that pack down into their own pockets for travel. The Paray jacket has a durable water-repellent (DWR) finish on tough, 20-dernier nylon. Cotopaxi uses the proceeds to fund projects that reduce preventable disease, create jobs, and alleviate poverty.

Topo Designs Daypack for $119 ($30 off)

Nordstrom, Zappos, Topo Designs, Huckberry

If you want a durable, everyday backpack with the same classic look as a Fjallraven Kanken but with a slimmer profile, I suggest the Topo daypack. I’ve had mine for a few years now and the 1000-dernier Cordura has been dragged all over the world with nary a scratch. I also like their slim-cut, retro mountain fleece ($30 off).

Otterbox Venture 25 Cooler for $210 ($60 off)

Otterbox

Otterbox is currently holding a sitewide 25 percent off sale, if you’ve been looking for a cooler that will last forever or a case that will protect your phone when you drop it off a cliff.

Cyber Monday Sale Pages for 2018

We’ve sifted through the mess of deals, but if you want to look for yourself, here are some links. Many of these prices may not be live until day-of.

When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we earn a small affiliate commission. Read more about how this works.

Stocks To Watch: Eyes On Cyber Monday, Argentina And Mars

Welcome to Seeking Alpha’s Stocks to Watch – a preview of key events scheduled for the next week. Follow this account and turn the e-mail alert on to receive this article in your inbox every Saturday morning.

Investors will be looking for some soothing signs of global cooperation next week amid the continuing erosion of equity markets. In Europe, U.K. and European Union leaders are scheduled to meet for more Brexit talks at a special summit that begins in Brussels on November 25. Meanwhile, the highly-anticipated G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires begins on November 30, headlined by the planned meeting between President Trump and Chinese Premier Xi Jingping. As for the sharp drop in crude oil prices, while there’s some debate on if global growth concerns are a bigger factor than Saudi Arabia production levels, you can’t overlook the wildcard of having Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump all in Argentina at the end of the week.

Notable earnings reports: Salesforce.com (NYSE:CRM), Momo (NASDAQ:MOMO) and GameStop (NYSE:GME) on November 27; Box (NYSE:BOX), J.M. Smucker (NYSE:SJM) and Dick’s Sporting Goods (NYSE:DKS) on November 28; Splunk (NASDAQ:SPLK), Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), Dollar Tree (NASDAQ:DLTR), Workday (NYSE:WDAY) and Palo Alto Networks (NYSE:PANW) on November 29. See Seeking Alpha’s Earnings Calendar for the complete list of earnings reporters.

IPOs expected to price: No new action anticipated.

IPO lockup expirations: Hancock Jaffe Laboratories (NASDAQ:HJLI) on November 27 and Ambow Education (NYSEMKT:AMBO) on November 28.

Analyst quiet period expirations: Axonics Modulation Technologies (NASDAQ:AXNX), Twist Bioscience (NASDAQ:TWST) and Orchard Therapeutics (NASDAQ:ORTX) on November 26.

Projected dividend changes: Disney (NYSE:DIS) to $0.90 from $0.84, McCormick (NYSE:MKC) to $0.56 from $0.52, Raymond James (NYSE:RJF) to $0.35 from $0.30, Cantel Medical (NYSE:CMD) to $0.10 from $0.085, J&J Snack Foods (NASDAQ:JJSF) to $0.48 from $0.45, La-Z-Boy (NYSE:LZB) to $0.13 from $0.12, Neenah (NYSE:NP) to $0.45 from $0.41.

Cyber Monday: Updates on Cyber Monday sales could come in during the week from Wayfair (NYSE:W), Shopify (NYSE:SHOP), Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY). Last year, the companies all posted dazzling growth, although their reports on activity ranged from very detailed (Wayfair) to somewhat vague (Amazon). The catch-all investment for online shopping is the Amplify Online Retail ETF (NASDAQ:IBUY), which has seen some volatility this year. IBUY closed up 0.9% on Friday after Black Friday online sales reports came in strong, but trades 23% below its 52-week high.

Mars: NASA’s planned landing of the Insight spacecraft is a huge moment for Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT). The lander built by Lockheed is due to touch down in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars at around 3:00 p.m. ET on November 26. A Lockheed mission operations team based out of Denver will support science collection through the life of the mission, estimated to last approximately two Earth years or one Martian year. Investors are looking for a little Mars magic, with shares of Lockheed Martin down 8.0% YTD.

Food for thought: Campbell Soup (NYSE:CPB) holds its shareholder meeting on November 29 amid a raging proxy battle with Third Point. Shares of Campbell Soup are up 3.5% since the company reported better-than-anticipated Q3 results, but the food company still has some work to do. Wells Fargo points to the new CEO selection, Lance-Snyder integration and soup turnaround as some big hurdles that need to be cleared. It’s hard to say if any M&A news will come out of the Campbell meeting, but food names such as J.M. Smucker (SJM), Farmer Bros. (NASDAQ:FARM), General Mills (NYSE:GIS), Flower Foods (NYSE:FLO), Kellogg (NYSE:K) and Hostess Brands (NASDAQ:TWNK) have been perky off of Campbell developments.

Los Angeles Auto Show: The L.A. Auto Show running from November 30 to December 9 will have a heavy focus on Automobility, including speakers on the topic from Ford (NYSE:F), General Motors (NYSE:GM), Magna International (NYSE:MGA), Lucid Motors, Honda (NYSE:HMC) and even an Amazon Alex exec. Visa (NYSE:V) will also be represented on an Automobility panel. Notable models debuting at the show include the 2020 Toyota (NYSE:TM) Corolla hybrid, BMW (OTCPK:BMWYY) X/5/X7 Sport Activity and 2020 Kia (OTCPK:HYMLF) Soul Crossover – as well as surprise models from Porsche (OTCPK:POAHY) and Nissan (OTCPK:NSANY).

Carvana in focus: Carvana (NYSE:CVNA) is scheduled to host its analyst day event on November 29. Wolfe Research has tipped that the event could be a catalyst if the company clears up the visibility on its long-term margin profile.

New Jersey: Keep an eye on the Garden State, with the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations committee and the Assembly Appropriations committee set to meet on November 26 to discuss four marijuana-related bills. If legislation is to move forward, lawmakers will have to work out a tax rate for marijuana producers and retailers in the state. Good news out of New Jersey could provide a little lift for Cronos Group (NASDAQ:CRON), Aurora Cannabis(NYSE:ACB), Aphria (NYSE:APHA), Canopy Growth (NYSE:CGC), Tilray (NASDAQ:TLRY) and gang.

FDA watch FDA decision are due on Loxo Oncology (NASDAQ:LOXO)-Bayer ‘s (OTCPK:BAYRY) larotrectinib tumor treatment and Catalyst Pharmaceutical’s (NASDAQ:CPRX) Firdapse treatment for Lambert- Eaton myasthenic syndrome. There could also be FDA action on the resubmitted application from Celltrion-Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (NYSE:TEVA) on the Truxima biosimilar.

Evercore ISI HealthcareX: One of the bigger healthcare conferences of the year is scheduled to run from November 26 to November 29. Presenting companies include Agilent Technologies (NYSE:A), AbbVie (NYSE:ABBV), Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:ARNA), Alexion Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:ALXN), Biogen (NASDAQ:BIIB), bluebird bio (NASDAQ:BLUE), CVS Health (NYSE:CVS), GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), Illumina (NASDAQ:ILMN), Incyte (NASDAQ:INCY), Qiagen (NASDAQ:QGEN), Charles River Laboratories (NYSE:CRL) and Natera (NASDAQ:NTRA).

M&A tidbits: The window-shopping period on the American Railcar Industries (NASDAQ:ARII) merger with ITE Rail Fund expires on November 26. American Railcar trades slightly below the $70 deal price. Shareholders at LaSalle Hotel Properties (NYSE:LHO) and Pebblebrook Hotel Trust (NYSE:PEB) vote on their proposed combination on November 27. If approved, the merger is slated for November 30. The deadline on the first phase of the European Commission review of the PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP)-SodaStream (NASDAQ:SODA) deal is November 30.

Consumer heat check: The Deutsche Bank Gaming, Lodging, Leisure & Restaurants One on One Conference is scheduled to take place in Scottsdale, Arizona from November 29-30. Presenting companies include BBX Capital (NYSE:BBX), Bluegreen Vacations (NYSE:BXG), Boyd Gaming (NYSE:BYD), Avis Budget (NASDAQ:CAR), Caesars Entertainment (NASDAQ:CZR), Eldorado Resorts (NASDAQ:ERI), Cedar Fair (NYSE:FUN), Golden Entertainment (NASDAQ:GDEN), Hilton Worldwide (NYSE:HLT), International Game Technology (NYSE:IGT), MGM Resorts (NYSE:MGM), Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NASDAQ:NCLH), Penn National Gaming (NASDAQ:PENN), Playa Hotels & Resorts (NASDAQ:PLYA), Red Rock Resorts (NYSE:RRR), Scientific Games (NASDAQ:SGMS), Extended Stay America (NYSE:STAY), Marriott Vacations (NYSE:VAC), Wyndham Hotels & Resorts (NYSE:WH), Wyndham Destinations (NYSE:WYND) and Wynn Resorts (NASDAQ:WYNN).

Spotlight on industrials: The Credit Suisse Industrials Conference runs in Palm Beach, Florida from November 28-29. Expect to hear views on the macroeconomic climate and impact of tariffs from a list of heavy hitters that includes ADSW, Canadian Pacific (NYSE:CP), Eaton (NYSE:ETN), Fortive (NYSE:FTV), Jacobs Engineering (NYSE:JEC), Kansas City Southern (NYSE:KSU), 3M (NYSE:MMM), Mastec (NYSE:MTZ), Quanta Services (NYSE:PWR), United Continental (NASDAQ:UAL), Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT), Cummins (NYSE:CMI), Covanta (NYSE:CVA), Fluor (NYSE:FLR), Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) and SPX (NYSE:SPXC).

Box office: Movie theater operators Cinemark (NYSE:CNK), AMC Entertainment (NYSE:AMC), Reading International (NASDAQ:RDI) and Marcus Corporation (NYSE:MCS) are looking for a big office weekend, with strong forecasts in for Disney’s (DIS) Ralph Breaks the Internet ($49M), MGM’s Creed 2 ($36M), Warner Bros. (NYSE:T) film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald ($30M) and Universal’s (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch ($27M). The YTD U.S. box office is up 10.2% to $10.43B through November 19.

Barron’s mentions: The plunge in Target’s (NYSE:TGT) share price makes it a bargain, reasons Jack Hough. Is a 5.1% increase in same-store sales and 49% pop in e-commerce sales all that bad? It’s seen as more than a little interesting that Berkshire Hathaway ([[BRK.A)]], BRK.B) is plowing money into big banks, investing more than $4B in JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) in Q3 and $6B in Bank of America (NYSE:BAC). Buffett also holds stakes in Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), U.S. Bancorp (NYSE:USB), Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), PNC Financial (NYSE:PNC), and Bank of New York Mellon (NYSE:BK). Andrew Bary notes that even though the yield curve has been narrowing, banks have been reporting wider net interest margins. Tae Kim looks at the FAANG stocks one by one. Alphabet (GOOGL, GOOG) is called the most attractive, while too many clouds are seen with Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX).

Sources: Nasdaq, EDGAR, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg

Editor’s Note: This article discusses one or more securities that do not trade on a major U.S. exchange. Please be aware of the risks associated with these stocks.

Insiders Just Bought A 15% Yield At Below Book Value: USA Compression Partners LP

Looking for a dependable high-yield vehicle? The management at USA Compression Partners LP (USAC) have maintained the company’s $.52 quarterly through previous boom and bust cycles:

(Source: USAC site)

If you’ve ever researched how natural gas gets pulled out of the ground, you’ve already discovered that compression is an increasingly important part of the operation. Compression also is a vital element in shale fracking production, which requires more compression than traditional techniques.

Although you wouldn’t know it from its current low price, which is near its 52-week low, USAC is in a good place now – demand for its large horsepower units is robust, and the major acquisition it made of the assets of CDM in early 2018 put it into a dominant position in its industry.

Management referenced this on the recent Q3 ’18 earnings call:

“The overall market for compression services remains very strong, driven by solid natural gas fundamentals and the continually midstream infrastructure buildup, which does not just combine to one region, but rather it’s taking place across the country in areas which we operate. We continue to take advantage of the strong market to push through rate increases while prudently investing capital in the business. Our utilization metrics demonstrate the current strength of the market and we expect continued strength throughout 2019, based on the current visibility for compression services demand.”

Natural gas has multiple drivers – increasing utilization as a replacement for coal at power plants, LNG exports, exports to Mexico, and demand as a feedstock for petrochemical companies, which continue to ramp up their presence in the US, in order to take advantage of larger natural gas supplies:

(Source: USAC site)

Many have posed the age-old question, “Does size matter?” with advocates on both sides of the argument.

However, when it comes to the scintillating world of compression, size does matter, and here’s where USAC has a distinct advantage over its competitors. The trend is toward outsourcing, particularly for large equipment, which tends to be “sticky” – it’s expensive for a customer to demobilize this type of equipment, ($60K – $200K plus), which promotes longer contracts and increasing prices for USAC.

“The market for large horsepower equipment has remained very tight as we’ve experienced throughout the entire year. Demand continues to be especially strong for the very largest horsepower categories in which USA Compression specializes.”

“Compression – the way forward continuing to outsource actually is trending to accelerate. So, I think you’re actually in a very unique time right now that you’ve got limitations on access to capital, you’ve got limitations on access to people and you have limitations on access to new equipment. So, all of those three things together can provide for a perfect storm which we think plays well to our strength of large horsepower infrastructure equipment and will allow us to re-price our book upward over time.”

“We’re in the equivalent of a seller’s market right now where there is a lot of demand and not a lot of supply.” (Source: Q3 call)

(Source: USAC site)

Looking forward, USAC should be able to capitalize on a better pricing environment: “When we look at the spot pricing on the new units we’re deploying, 120,000 some odd horsepower for next year, these are extremely attractive new unit economics, effectively five-year or less cash on cash type of payouts, low 20s, IRR on an levered type of basis.” (Source: Q3 ’18 call)

Distributions:

USAC’s next distribution should have an ex-dividend date sometime in early February. It pays in the usual Feb/May/Aug/Nov LP cycle for LPs, and issues a K-1 at tax time. At a $13.50 price/unit, USAC yields 15.56%, with trailing coverage of 1.02X.

DCF coverage was just 1.01X in Q3 ’18. However, moving forward, management sees additional cost savings synergies from the CDM deal kicking in for 2019, as it finalizes the transition. The entire 900 employees of the company are now using the same customer, contract and asset data systems. This should improve coverage going forward, in addition to forward price increases.

No More IDR’s:

USAC closed on the CDM deal on 4/2/18. CDM was the compression services arm of Energy Transfer Partners LP, and Energy Transfer Equities, which merged into Energy Transfer LP (ET). CMD was valued at ~ $1.8B.

This deal included the following:1. The contribution of ETP’s subsidiaries, CDM Resource Management LLC and CDM Environmental & Technical Services LLC, to USAC.2. The cancellation of the incentive distribution rights in USAC.3. The conversion of the general partner interest in USAC into a non-economic general partner interest. As part of the transaction, ETE acquired the ownership interests in the general partner of USAC, and approximately 12.5 million USAC common units from USA Compression Holdings.

(Source: USAC site)

Earnings:

This table illustrates the impact that the CDM deal has had on USAC’s operations. It was transformative, ramping up revenue and EBITDA by well over 100% and DCF by over 54% in Q3 ’18, while Q2 ’18 saw even larger increases.

USAC had a larger than normal number of legacy CDM field technicians after the CDM deal closed, and also used outside parties to perform routine maintenance on some compression units, which was much more expensive than using internal personnel. It took a while to find the right caliber of technicians, due to a strong marketplace environment, but they’ve fixed the situation, and upgraded their staff talent level.

USAC’s coverage has improved dramatically over the past four quarters, rising from a sub-par .87x (when the GP was relinquishing IDR rights to support the payouts, up to 1.09X in Q2 ’18, and averaging 1.02x over the past four quarters).

Looking forward to 2019, if we use an average of the post-CDM deal Q2 and Q3 2018 DCF figures of $47.5M and $51.4M, respectively, that gives us an average DCF of ~$49.45M/quarter.

We compared and extrapolated that $49.45M DCF average to the Q3 ’18 total cash distributions of $47.02M, which were higher than the Q2 ’18 total of $43.5M.

If USAC’s DCF and total distributions stay flat, we should see 1.05X coverage in 2019. This is without the benefit any cost savings, or additional revenues from price hikes.

Fleet Utilization:

Fleet horsepower was over 3.6M, as of 9/30/18, an increase of more than 53,000 horsepower vs. Q2 ’18. Active horsepower increased 61,000 to over 3.2M, up ~2% over Q2 2018.

Another positive is that management has been able to redeploy ~353,000 horsepower of idle horsepower from the combined fleets at nominal additional capex costs. (CDM’s fleet had a lower utilization rate.) Most of its idle equipment is in the small horsepower category – long before the CDM deal, management had been shifting USAC’s emphasis toward large horsepower equipment.

USAC has had a very stable fleet utilization rate of ~93% for more than a decade:

(Source: USAC site)

Guidance vs. Performance:

Management narrowed its full-year 2018 adjusted EBITDA guidance range to $310 – $320M, and its 2018 DCF guidance range to $170m – $180M.

We pro-rated this 2018 guidance to three quarters to get an idea of USAC’s actual Q1 ‘3 ’18 results compare to the guidance. So far, EBITDA looks roughly in line with the low end of 2018 guidance, while DCF is ~4% above it.

Risks:

Natural Gas downturn – If there’s another protracted downturn in the energy patch, this could lead to a cutback in rigs, and potential demand for compression services, even the large units, which are in tight demand now.

Unlike crude oil, which has had a rough go of it in 2018, natural gas futures are up 34% over the past month, and 46% year to date in 2018. However, producers need compression to get their product out of the ground, which gives USAC a cushion in energy cycles, as its fleet utilization has had a strong, long term record of 93% utilization.

IRA Holders – Holding an LP in an IRA may result in tax complications for IRA holders due to UBTI. You’ll also get more tax deferral advantages from investing in USAC in a taxable account. You should consult your accountant about these aspects of investing in LPs.

Valuations:

At $13.50, USAC is less than 5% above its 52-week lows – its price hasn’t been this low since April 2016. It’s also selling at .85x of book value, and its price/DCF is one of the lower valuations we’ve seen recently.

Analyst’s Price Targets:

That $13.50 price puts it nearly 26% below analysts’ lowest price target of $17.00, almost 44% below the $19.43 average price target.

Insiders Are Buying:

Management just upped its skin in the game last week – they bought 45,000 units at a price range of $13.40 to $13.90.

(Source: finviz)

Financials:

Due to negative net income, which includes heavy non-cash depreciation and amortization charges, USAC has negative ROA and ROE valuations.

The interest coverage factor of just .69X looks poor, when compared to the 1.45X average, but, again that includes a great deal of non-cash depreciation and amortization charges.

USAC’s EBITDA/Interest coverage factor for Q1-3 ’18 was 4.49X.

Debt and Liquidity:

“As of September 30, 2018, the Partnership had outstanding borrowings under the revolving credit facility of $1 billion, $578.2 million of borrowing base availability and, subject to compliance with the applicable financial covenants, available borrowing capacity of $309.7 million. As of September 30, 2018, the outstanding aggregate principal amount of the Partnership’s 6.875% senior notes was $725 million.”

(Source: USAC site)

USAC’s Credit Agreement has an aggregate commitment of $1.6B, with a further potential increase of $400M, and has a maturity date of April 2, 2023.

Its 6.875% senior notes Senior Notes mature on April 1, 2026.

Options:

We have options picks for USAC in our Double Dividend Stocks service, which we can’t divulge here, but you can see trade details for over 25 other option-selling trades in our Covered Calls Table and Cash Secured Puts Table.

Summary:

We rate USAC a long-term buy. Demand for its natural gas compression services isn’t going away any time soon, just the opposite. USAC has a strong position in its niche industry, and is well-positioned to benefit from increasing demand for large-scale horsepower compression.

All tables furnished by DoubleDividendStocks.com, unless otherwise noted.

Disclaimer: This article was written for informational purposes only, and is not intended as personal investment advice. Please practice due diligence before investing in any investment vehicle mentioned in this article.

CLARIFICATION: We have two investing services. Our legacy service, DoubleDividendStocks.com, has focused on selling options on dividend stocks since 2009.

Disclosure: I am/we are long USAC.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

A Driver Returned to His Car to Find a Note and An Incredible Lesson on Doing the Right Thing. The Note Was From a 6th Grader

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

A grasp of ethics is becoming slightly more popular in business these days.

Well, we can thank the Valley’s abject disregard for ethics, one that’s finally caught up with many of its companies. Why, even Stanford has begun to discover the concept.

Still, when you run a business you don’t always — often? ever? — expect people to do the right thing.

Which is, perhaps, why the story of Andrew Sipowicz and his car has moved so many this week.

He returned to his car last Monday, parked in Buffalo, New York, to experience a sinking feeling. 

He also experienced something he never expected.

His car, you see, had endured a substantial dent in its front left side. It seemed as if there had been a hit and a run. 

Yet perched inside his windshield wiper was a note. A very detailed note, as it happened, from a 6th grader.

The spelling wasn’t perfect. The sentiment certainly was.

It read: 

If your wondering what happen to your car.

Bus: 449 hit your car It stops here everyday to drop me off.

At 5:00pm.

What happened? She was trying to pull off and hit the car. She hit and run. She tried to vear over and squeeze threw but couldn’t. She actually squeezed threw. She made a dent and I saw what happened.

-Sorry

-Driver seat left door

-A lady in the bus driver seat 499.

-Buffalo Public School bus

-A 6th grader at Houghten Academy

It sets a good example for a lot of students. Not just students, but just people in general.

What resulted is that the bus company is covering the cost of repairs and giving Sipowicz a loaner car. The bus driver, reports CNN, will be fired.

We get wrapped up in the bad deeds of companies because they appear to have such large consequences.

At heart, though, the bad deeds of companies are merely the bad deeds of individuals, written in capital letters and involving large amounts of capital.

Yet simple stories of goodwill also spread around the web, as this one has. 

It’s almost as if people want to be reassured that, in the midst of a world that seems to bathe delightedly in corruption, there still are good people. 

That story led to unexpected consequences and national attention. 

These days, we watch as so many who could say something, end up saying nothing.

We’re told that kids don’t bother with anything but themselves, buried as they are in their phones. 

Here, though, is a simple lesson of a 6th-grader who stopped, looked around and did the right thing. A generous thing.

Perhaps we should all do that a little more often.

Do These 3 Things Every Morning to Boost Your Productivity and Happiness

You don’t have to change your entire morning or suddenly start training for a marathon when you wake up to create a morning that will nourish the rest of your day. These three simple morning habits are a great place to start if you want to create a morning routine that will enhance your productivity.

1. Get an early start to the day.

As we all know, the early bird gets the worm. Getting an early start to your day allows you to begin your day with the freedom (and time) to own your morning. Instead of hitting the snooze button and running out the door to avoid being late, try waking up 30 or 40 minutes before you normally do. 

Lauren Vanderkam’s book What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast shows that almost 50 percent of self-made millionaires start their mornings three hours before their day needs to begin and that 90 percent of all executives prefer to be early rises and wake up before 6A.M. on workdays. 

Waking up early gives you time to get what you want to be done before heading into work. Take this time to make a healthy breakfast, read, meditate, or to do the remaining productive boosting habits on this list. 

2. Say your goals for the day out loud.

No matter how big or small your goal is for the day, week, or year it’s important to keep it at the front of your mind every single day. Creating a pathway to progress on your goals starts with acknowledging them. 

Being an entrepreneur means having to put out a million little fires a day, while still building a company and pushing a product or service. Being in charge of clients, employees, marketing materials X, Y and Z can start to give you whiplash. This is why it’s especially important to state your goal and objective every morning. Staying grounded in this will help you on even your busiest of days. 

Add a massive amount of productivity to your day by reciting your goals at the start of your day. Do so in a positive and affirmative way. Instead of saying “I want my company to earn X amount of revenue by X”, say “My company has a brilliant product, and we will earn X amount of revenue by X day.”. You should also do this with smaller, personal goals. 

Visualize what you want your day to be like, and what aspects of your day will attribute to you getting closers to your goal. Give yourself reassuring affirmations that will stay with you throughout the day–no matter how hectic it gets. 

3. Write a detailed to-do list.

Writing a to-do list every morning is a fantastic way of taking inventory of what you didn’t get accomplished the day before, and what you plan to get done today. Starting your day off by doing this every morning helps you set the tone for the day. 

Use this list in conjunction with your schedule to keep you prepared for what needs to get done that day. Staying aware of what your day should consist of is the easiest way to stay on track. This will boost productivity by allowing you to prepare for your day within the hour you wake up.

Google Play Is Offering 99¢ Video Rentals This Thanksgiving

Google announced its Cyber Week deals for 2018 Wednesday, one of which is a special Thanksgiving deal on movie rentals.

On Thanksgiving only, Google Play is offering rentals for all the films in its library for just 99¢. If there are movies you’ve been hoping to score a digital copy of, Google is also offering discounts on a number of those. Prices for hit films start at $4.99 over the weekend.

Discounted films include old favorites such as Fight Club and Office Space as well as recent hits such as Deadpool 2 and The Spy Who Dumped Me.

The movie discounts are just a part of Google’s digital discounts for the weekend. The Google Play store is also offering a $2 discount on any app or game, 80% off a number of games, and 50% off a number of apps on the service.

The Google Play store is a big business for Google. Last year app sales on the platform reportedly rose 35% from 2016. Between Google Play and Apple’s App Store, app sales totaled more than $58.6 billion last year.

SpaceX's crew rocket set for January test flight

ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) – The first flight of a SpaceX rocket tailored to fly astronauts to the International Space Station is set for liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 7, NASA said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: The top of a replica Crew Dragon spacecraft is show at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, U.S. August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

The launch test is a crucial milestone in the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to launch humans to space from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration said SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft – which will shuttle three astronauts to space from the same launch pad that sent Apollo 11’s three-man crew to the moon in 1969 – will make its debut flight atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on Jan. 7.

While NASA did not detail the flight path, it said the test would provide data on the performance of the Falcon 9, Crew Dragon capsule, and ground systems, as well as on-orbit, docking and landing operations.

SpaceX and Boeing Co (BA.N) are the two main contractors selected under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to send astronauts to space as soon as 2019, using their Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner spacecraft respectively.

Since the U.S. space shuttle program was shut down in 2011, NASA has had to rely on Russia to fly astronauts to the space station, a $100 billion orbital research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (402 km) above Earth.

The Demo-1 launch is the latest test in a rigorous certification timeline imposed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. While SpaceX is targeting early January, NASA spokeswoman Marie Lewis said the demo mission could be pushed back because “flying safely has always taken precedence over schedule.”

Founded by Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) Chief Executive Elon Musk, SpaceX said if the Jan. 7 test is successful, it plans to launch its first crewed mission in June 2019, but the timeline may shift.

Boeing plans a similar test launch of the Starliner spacecraft atop its Atlas 5 rocket as soon as March, with a crewed mission following in August.

The Jan. 7 launch date announcement comes a day after NASA said it would conduct a “cultural assessment study” of the companies, “including the adherence to a drug-free environment,” prior to crew test flights. [nL4N1XW01J]

Reporting by Joey Roulette in Orlando, Florida; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Lisa Shumaker

In 2019, The Most Coveted Employee Perk Will Be This 1 Thing

Two years ago, I made the decision to move my company to a 35-hour workweek. The results have been incredible. Particularly in how I believe it made me a better CEO. And financially, we’ve done much better too. My company, Work It Daily, is not alone. More and more companies are starting to adopt shorter workweeks and more generous time-off policies. As a result, I predict the hottest trend in employee benefits for 2019 will be focused on shaping how employees achieve the work-life balance they want and deserve.

3 Smart Reasons to Jump on the Work-Life Balance Benefit Bandwagon (Right Now!)

While being told to “go home” and “get a life” is usually meant to insult us, it’s actually welcomed by your staff. Successful leaders with big visions of greatness for their organizations know they can’t go it alone. Which means making sure employees feel like the company cares about their happiness and well-being–especially during times of extremely low unemployment, when it’s easy for your most talented employees to find a better job at another company. Here are three reasons why your company should focus on enhancing its work-life balance benefits in 2019:

1. Most companies still aren’t doing it–which makes you more attractive as an employer.

Old school managers are struggling to figure out how they can manage performance without tying it to the clock. If your definition of a good job is “butt in chair” then it’s going to be hard to let go. Meanwhile, companies that have well-defined OKRs (Objectives and Key Deliverables) have a much easier time trusting employees to get their work done, regardless of how much, or how little, time it takes them.

2. Your employees will become talent magnets for your company. 

Fact: Employees love to brag about their great work-life balance to friends and family. Want to have an easier time finding and hiring top talent? Creating an incredible work-life balance program will save you thousands in recruiting costs. That’s because your employees will be walking employer-brand billboards for why the best people work at your company.

3. Working smarter, not harder is a sign of strength.

Companies with a leadership team and staff who are well-rested, happy, and believe their goals can be achieved in a reasonable amount of time are more trusted and respected. Not to mention, studies show they perform at higher levels, too. If you want to look like a stable company on a sustainable growth track, getting the job done in less time is the way to do it.

P.S.–A Shorter Work Week Won’t Cost You in a Recession

For those of you worried how making changes like this will impact your business during a recession, remember this: Employees like to keep jobs that treat them well. I guarantee the appreciation and loyalty you gain from creating an attractive work-life balance benefit strategy will help you in an economic downturn. Your employees will do whatever it takes to make sure they can keep the company going so they can keep this coveted benefit. As someone who has had her team rally around her in the darkest of life’s moments, I know first-hand the powerful ROI of making sure your staff knows you respect and support their life outside of work.

Lime Manufacturer Hits Back Over Claims It’s Responsible for Recalled Scooters

Electric scooter startup Lime last week recalled scooters that broke in half and blamed a manufacturer—but now that manufacturer is fighting back, saying it’s not to blame for Lime’s faulty scooters.

The Chinese manufacturer, Okai, rejected Lime’s claims that scooters from its factory were the ones that easily broke apart when customers used them.

“We feel it necessary to make cautions to the public on the credibility of such statements made by Lime,” Okai said in a statement, according to CNN Business. “Obviously, Lime has other suppliers whose scooters broke.”

Lime recalled all the scooters made by Okai in its fleet worldwide. The manufacturer has sold 32,000 scooters to Lime, according to CNN Business.

“We are actively looking into reports that scooters manufactured by Okai may break and are working cooperatively with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the relevant agencies internationally to get to the bottom of this,” Lime told Fortune last week. “Safety is Lime’s highest priority and as a precaution we are immediately decommissioning all Okai scooters in the global fleet. The vast majority of Lime’s fleet is manufactured by other companies and decommissioned Okai scooters are being replaced with newer, more advanced scooters considered best in class for safety.”

Lime didn’t immediately respond to request for comment from Fortune about Okai’s comments.

Along with questioning Lime’s placement of blame for its recalled scooters, Okai is pushing the company to take responsibility for the deterioration of heavily used scooters in its fleet.

“It is the operator’s responsibility to ensure proper and prompt management and maintenance of the scooters it puts into the co-sharing market,” Okai told CNN Business.

Lime’s scooter recall was its second in recent months, following a recall over Segway Ninebot scooters whose batteries caught fire.

It's Official: Apple Just Killed the Laptop

Do you really need a laptop anymore?

That’s a good question to ask, because the answer depends greatly on how you use it on a daily basis. For me, the new Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch released this month is a no-brainer as a laptop replacement. It’s so powerful that I haven’t noticed any slowdowns in all of my apps, even the processor-intensive ones like Skype and Texture (a magazine reader).

That last point is incredibly important. When you think of “going mobile” these days, it usually means taking notes at a meeting, staying in contact with people, researching things on the fly, and talking to a bot like Siri to ask about directions…to your next meeting.

More and more, I’ve been using the Apple Pencil to jot down notes and sketch out ideas on an iPad. I’ve explained many times how bots have taken over my working life. I use Siri in the car, Alexa at home, and the Google Assistant everywhere in between (usually on an iPhone–yes, I know that is sacrilegious). I’m even more of an iPad user than before.

I feel the future is already being built for us, one device at a time. Bots and tablets are the answer. A laptop is almost quaint. A big screen fused onto a keyboard, usually powered by Windows. The question is why do we still use them. If you can run Photoshop and every other app you use on a normal day but also benefit from the portability and power of the iPad Pro, why keep using a laptop? I don’t drag a laptop around anymore unless I know I’m going to do some video editing or longer-than-usual typing sessions (say, a book).

As far as typing, the iPad Pro works symbiotically with the Smart Keyboard Folio, and I’ve been finding that I can actually type faster during normal writing sessions at Starbucks.

I like how the keys feel, because they don’t have the excessive springiness of a Google Pixelbook or even the Apple MacBook. I’m typing right now with fingers flying faster than ever. Now, I do prefer Microsoft Word on a desktop or laptop connected to a massive display in my office. I’m not sure when that will change, because I doubt I’ll ever haul around a 32-inch display.

More and more, the iPad Pro 9.7-inch (and now the new iPad Pro) is what goes into my backpack. I know I can type, I know I can benefit from all of the apps. It’s just faster. It’s instant-on access to Chrome for doing research on the 12.9-inch display.

The new model sports the Apple A12X Bionic chip, which runs faster than any previous tablet I’ve tested. I tested Netflix, Skype, the Chrome browser–all faster. I know some readers have told me they could never use an iPad because they do web programming, video editing, or play high-end computer games, and I understand those reservations.

I believe mobile is changing, though. When I see people using the Microsoft Surface tablet in meetings, they are usually taking notes. As far as younger workers, they tend to use their phones, even for typing up docs. Laptops were once a primary productivity machine, but with bots and apps we’ve moved away from that mentality. We don’t need to use a laptop to organize a schedule, or set up reminders, or hold a Skype session. With each passing year a tablet becomes more like a laptop anyway, especially in terms of raw processing power.

Still not convinced? I understand. It took me about three years of using an iPad during meetings to realize it makes me more productive. I also never use a laptop at home anymore. If I’m sitting in the living room by the fire, it’s with a book or an iPad these days.

The only slight ding to mention about the iPad Pro 12.9-inch is that it’s quite spendy. The base model costs $999, which is a much higher price tag than many Windows laptops. If you pick the version with 1TB of storage and cellular service, it’s a jaw-dropping $1,899.

I’m not seeing any other downsides, especially once Photoshop debuts next year. It’s maybe a bit bulky at 1.39 pounds, and I could see the tablet slipping out of my hands–it feels a bit slippery. I’m still adjusting to the lack of a Home button a little (you swipe up to unlock like you do on an iPhone X). Those are minor factors. I like how the Pencil attaches to the side of the tablet. The Smart Keyboard Folio is pure genius for typists like myself (it costs an extra $199). And make sure you try out a magazine on the 12.9-inch display. Wow.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about why you still use a laptop and compare notes. I know there are use cases where the iPad doesn’t work. For me, it’s killed the laptop.

During Chicago Toy And Game Week, Products Get Licensed

Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing a remarkable toy inventor named Mary Couzin. In 2003, Couzin founded Chicago Toy and Game Week — affectionately known as ChiTAG — to bring toy inventors, toy companies, and toy lovers together. Now in its 16th year, the annual celebration of play and innovation has become the event for toy inventors of all ages and degrees of experience. Currently taking place right now, this event is unlike any other I’m aware of for inventors in the best way possible.

It’s beloved by the industry, for starters. Event sponsors include industry titans like Mattel, Hasbro, Spin Master, LEGO, and Goliath Games. And get this: Product acquisitionists from more than 90 companies, representing 26 countries, will be there. Wow. That’s a lot of decision-makers in one place. Every year, new inventors, professionals, and even young inventors license their toy and game ideas as a result. That makes ChiTAG a uniquely successful event for inventors.

Unlike typical trade shows — such as Toy Fair in New York City — the focus at ChiTAG is squarely on invention, not retail. There are several distinct components. This weekend, more 30,000 attendees (half of whom are children) will peruse and interact with toys and games exhibited at the fair. Retailers including Target also make a point of attending the fair, because they can observe how customers interact with the toys and games on display.

Before the fair gets underway, there’s a two-day conference for new inventors focused on education, including how to pitch. Professional toy inventors — who set their own meetings with companies looking for ideas — are provided with meeting space. Young inventors are encouraged to compete in a challenge by submitting videos of their invention ideas, and receive feedback and mentorship in return. And finally, there’s an awards gala. (This year, my former bosses David Small and Paul Rago from the startup Worlds of Wonder are being recognized for their decades of innovative toys with a Lifetime Achievement award.)

In the 1990s while she was in real estate, Couzin pursued her love of inventing as a side-hustle. After achieving some success, she began advising and representing other toy inventors.

“Coming together can only help the industry,” she explained in a phone interview. “We really make a point of this feeling like a community. People who don’t carry that out are not invited to return.” Industry leaders make themselves available because they view this as their time to give back, she added. Opportunities to network are a core part of the experience. “You could sit down to breakfast with the head of Hasbro,” she said.

I personally know of inventors who have licensed their ideas because of ChiTAG. When novice inventor Eduardo Matos had an idea for a new toy that he thought was a hit, he considered his options. Sharing his royalties with a toy broker didn’t appeal to him. What he heard about ChiTAG on LinkedIn sounded too good to be true. But after an executive convinced him it was the real deal, he took the risk and paid to participate in the conference for new inventors, included the opportunity to pitch.

It paid off. He received a lot of interest, and eventually secured a licensing deal with a leading toy company. His invention is scheduled to debut next fall.

“ChiTAG a must,” he said. “The information shared was hugely valuable. For example, I learned that when a company asks to option your product, the typical fee paid is $5,000 a month. When my invention was optioned later that same day, I knew to ask for that.”

His recommendations? Take as many notes as you can, attend the entire conference, make your prototypes look as professional as possible, and have a hit on your hands.

When you have an idea for a new product that you want to commercialize, determining how to spend your resources is incredibly important, because they’re always limited. This is true for startups that raise millions of dollars as well as independent inventors. What’s worth it? What’s not? When? These questions are especially relevant when considering industry events like trade shows, as costs quickly add up.

At the end of the day, being able to access the people in your industry who are decision-makers is remarkable. I wish more trade events provided access like this. (If you’re looking to license your product idea, I don’t recommend buying a booth and waiting for someone to walk up. Read more of what I believe inventors need to know about trade shows.)

Missed out this year? There’s a wealth of information on the ChiTAG website, including a regularly updated blog and white papers.

Mary Couzin’s Tips For Inventors

1. Do your research first. Does your product idea already exist? Use Google to find out. You could also visit a local retailer or toyshop. Ask, has this been done? Will it sell?

“It’s so easy to check. It’s not like the old days when you had to visit every show and store. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels.”

2. Don’t give up too soon. “Persistence is the number one quality you must have to become successful at toy inventing,” Couzin said. “Believing in what you have will carry you for the most part.”

Remember, no one has all the answers all the time. So take the opinion of others with a grain of salt. Couzin says she abstains from passing judgment on any toy or game for this reason.

3. Tell your story in the media. She emphasized the importance of storytelling, and referenced the success of the startup GoldieBlox. “Their marketing was brilliant. Before the product was as good as it is today, it had sold the public.” (Interestingly, GoldieBlox describes itself as a disruptive media company on its website.)

Toys are part of the entertainment industry, she pointed out, which means they compete for attention with movies, music, books, and television. “We’re the only ones not telling our story!”

If you want to succeed in the toy industry, you absolutely must attend this show.

General Electric's Major Lunge Forward Is A Hint At The Future

We all knew this day was coming, but few of us could have guessed it would have happened this quickly. In an announcement made public on its investor relations page, the management team at General Electric (GE) announced a major acceleration of its strategy to unwind from it its current ownership of Baker Hughes, a GE Company (BHGE). Not only that, the firm also announced plans to deepen its ties with BHGE in an effort to preserve synergies now that they will be moving closer to becoming fully separate from one another. These developments, while disappointing in a sense, should generate value for General Electric and its investors in the near term and push the business closer to the good standing it yearns.

A look at the deal

When the management team at General Electric announced plans to spin off its oil and gas business back in 2016, I was intrigued. As part of the transaction, the firm had agreed to contribute to Baker Hughes $7.4 billion in cash that would be allocated to that company’s shareholders in the form of a special dividend totaling $17.50 per share. In addition, General Electric contributed all of its oil and gas business and, in return, received a 62.5% ownership stake in BHGE. The remaining 37.5% of BHGE was allocated to shareholders of Baker Hughes.

Since this transaction was completed back in 2017, there has been considerable speculation swirling around that management at General Electric might eventually sell off or trade its stock in BHGE in an effort to simplify the conglomerate and, sure enough, they announced plans to do just that when they stated that they would be completing restructuring of the firm. At the time this decision was announced, I wasn’t surprised, but I was disheartened because over the next several years BHGE has the potential to generate significant value for shareholders, especially since oil and gas production continues to rise.

It should be mentioned that originally there would be a delay in the timing of General Electric’s divestiture of BHGE’s shares. Previously, management had agreed not to sell any of its shares in the business (except for what BHGE would buy from it) until July of 2019. That idea has now been shelved as new management, led by CEO Culp, has pushed to reinvent the firm by taking drastic actions.

Now, in its latest press release discussing its ownership of BHGE, General Electric has announced that it will now be allowed to sell off its ownership to the market, plus it will see some of its ownership acquired by BHGE itself. Reports on the matter seem to indicate that the deal will bring in gross proceeds, at current prices, of around $4 billion; but that is, I think, off a bit. You see, as of the end of last year, General Electric did own around 706.98 million shares of BHGE, but in the first three quarters of this year, the firm sold back to BHGE stock valued at $638 million.

Because BHGE continued to reduce its stock outside of what General Electric owned of it, General Electric’s ownership of the firm still remained at about the 62.5% threshold, but the newest trigger now appears to be a 50%+ stake in BHGE. Assuming BHGE does not buy back any of its common stock outside of the units it has already purchased, General Electric should be able to reduce its share count in BHGE by around 136.39 million shares from 687.46 million to just north of 500 million units. Put together, and considering that BHGE’s share price as of the time of this writing is $23.80, this implies total sales proceeds, on a gross basis, of around $3.25 billion. This, combined with management’s decision earlier this year to slash the distribution to close to zero, should help the business in its goal of paying down debt.

There’s more to the deal than just that

Although I would love to see General Electric retain its ownership in BHGE, one part of the deal excited me: the notion that the two companies are positioning themselves to collaborate with one another for the long haul. You see, upon the later of either General Electric’s ownership in BHGE dripping below 50% and July 3rd of 2019, certain agreements to collaborate together will come into force.

First and foremost is that the two companies will form a joint venture in order to provide aeroderivative engine services and product management that will be applicable in the oil and gas space. You see, BHGE benefits from General Electric’s jet engine technology due to overlap between the conglomerate’s Aviation segment and how said technology can be used in the LNG, on-and-offshore production, pipeline, and industrial segments within BHGE’s TPS segment. Another part of this arrangement will involve supply and strategic coordination between the firms, plus they will work together to ensure that current pricing levels for heavy-duty gas turbine technology will remain unchanged. The last piece appears to be continued work regarding General Electric’s digital operations and the conglomerate essentially allowing those to be used by BHGE as well.

With the digital operations aside (that continuation is mostly due to integration and offering reasons), all of these agreements really center on one thing: shared buying power. In the past, whenever I have written that General Electric should divest of all or most of its Power segment, a frequent criticism I’ve heard is that the tie-in between Aviation and Power will harm Aviation’s margins, perhaps to the extent that the high-quality segment would no longer be attractive like it is today. What this agreement with BHGE proves is that, while a loss of synergies can be real during a divestiture, my thesis regarding the firm’s Power segment being a good candidate for the axe still holds. You see, through these joint ventures, General Electric and BHGE will both benefit as if the two firms have remained tied together in the way their assets have been. This also means, then, that this kind of strategy is viable for other parts of the firm moving forward.

Takeaway

General Electric’s deal with BHGE is significant for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it allows the conglomerate to extract cash from a valuable asset sooner than previously planned, and the second is that they are using joint venture arrangements to maintain the same kind of buying power that they would have had if General Electric had either kept all of its own oil and gas assets or if it had at least continued to hold a significant majority of ownership in BHGE for the long haul. All of this is incredibly valuable for shareholders, but perhaps just as important is the prospect that this confirmation and successful deal structure might prove to be a roadmap for shareholders to get the best of both worlds: a monetization and optimization of assets, while maintaining the same kind of market power that helps to grow and hold together the behemoth for so long.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.