Qualcomm Sucks Up To China
By John Lawrence
Qualcomm has been fined almost a billion dollars by China for violating its anti-monopoly law. China has the world’s most internet users and the largest smartphone market so Qualcomm has to tread gingerly with the authorities there since it doesn’t want to be booted out of the world’s most lucrative market. The fine will knock 58 cents a share off Qualcomm’s earnings for the year. Qualcomm CEO Steven M. Mollenkopf thinks paying the fine will make Qualcomm better positioned to cash in in the future.
This could be another front in the brewing economic conflicts between China and the US. To sweeten the pot Qualcomm has offered China deep discounts on licensing its patents for certain systems and agreed to partner with Chinese companies. But all this could be construed as a bribe in order to get access to the Chinese market.
Since half of Qualcomm’s revenue comes from China, there is a need to be China’s “friend” as Chinese internet czar, Lu Wei, pointed out. And that doesn’t just mean on Facebook. China has considerable leverage over Qualcomm and a host of other American corporations who are all eager to make money in China. China knows this and is flexing its muscles in an apparent show of economic nationalism.
Although regulation is a bad word in the US, not so in China. China’s regulator is the National Development and Reform Commission aka the N.D.R.C. It is getting more aggressive in giving out fines. This could correspond to China’s push to develop its own chip market so it won’t have to import them from companies like Qualcomm. Since Qualcomm makes most of its money from licensing its patents, the future looks ominous for the San Diego chipmaker. China hasn’t always shown the greatest respect for foreign patent holders, and will probably have many patent workarounds up its sleeve.
The Qualcomm Drama: Rich People Fighting Other Rich People Over Who Gets a Bigger Slice of the Money Pie
By now it’s conventional wisdom that the ratio between CEO pay and the pay of the average worker has reached astronomical proportions. Huffington Post reports:
The ratio of CEO-to-worker pay has increased 1,000 percent since 1950, according to data from Bloomberg. Today Fortune 500 CEOs make 204 times regular workers on average, Bloomberg found. The ratio is up from 120-to-1 in 2000, 42-to-1 in 1980 and 20-to-1 in 1950.
“When CEOs switched from asking the question of ‘how much is enough’ to ‘how much can I get,’ investor capital and executive talent started scrapping like hyenas for every morsel,” Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, told Bloomberg.
Scrapping like hyenas for every morsel aptly describes the plight of Qualcomm management and Qualcomm shareholders. In an earlier article I wrote about how retiring CEO Paul Jacobs gave his employees a homework assignment last March: go home and tell your wife and family to tell Congress to give Qualcomm a tax break. It seems that Qualcomm has a lot of money parked offshore which should be obvious since they do most of their business in China. Before they can “repatriate” that money, they have to pay taxes to the US government on it so they lobby Congress for a tax break in order to bring it home tax free or almost tax free.
The so-called tax holiday has been tried once before with CEOs promising to use the money to build new plants and create new jobs in the good ole US of A. It never happened. Instead CEOs used the money to buy back their own stock thereby raising the its price. The idea is that this benefits shareholders who can then sell their stock at a higher price and cash in.
However, a new wrinkle has emerged in the stock buyback business. Instead of it raising the price so shareholders can cash in, Qualcomm has figured out a way to raise the price so CEOs can cash in and leave shareholders grasping for thin air. The U-T reported “Instead of duly enriching the shareholders who own Qualcomm, its executives have leveraged dominance of the world’s smartphone technology to enrich themselves.”
As the price of Qualcomm’s stock went up, the hyenas – meaning outgoing CEO Paul Jacobs and incoming CEO Steven Mollenkopf – figured out a way to channel the increased largesse not into shareholder profit but into executive pay for themselves. Investors holding large blocks of Qualcomm stock like Jana Partners were not amused.
The U-T reported:
As overall executive compensation jumped 180 percent last year, Qualcomm gave special stock grants worth $95 million to just two executives. Paul Jacobs, the co-founder’s son who gave up the CEO job way back in March 2014, got $45 million that vests over five years.
The new CEO, Steve Mollenkopf, received a staggering $50 million over five years. President Derek Aberle received grants worth $26.6 million.
Jana Partners, a hedge fund, was founded in 2001 by Barry Rosenstein. Jana, which manages more than $11 billion, is known for buying stakes in companies and then seeking to work with management as it pushes for change. In other words they are a thorn in Qualcomm’s side. They’ve been pushing to break up Qualcomm into two companies – one being the chip making operation and the other being the patent licensing part.
Qualcomm has a huge target on it from Jana Partners. They want to shake up the company in an effort to make shareholders more money and raise the stock price. Jana has invested about $2 billion in the company so it thinks it has the right to boss it around.
$45 Million for Three Months’ Work – Not Bad, Eh?
So Paul Jacobs, failing in his quest for a tax holiday, nevertheless, creatively figured out a way to make $45 million for himself while stiffing Qualcomm shareholders. This was all done by means of stock grants. Qualcomm can grant its executives as many stock shares as it wants to. This means that there are more outstanding shares of stock which dilutes the price per share. So Qualcomm’s trick was to buy back some of its stock thereby decreasing the number of outstanding shares and increasing the price per share, and then to turn around and grant stock to those three executives so that the final result was that the exact same number of shares, more or less, were outstanding as there were before this maneuver took place.
The U-T opined “Instead of using buybacks to give owners more of the company over time, Jacobs has effectively recycled shareholder profits into executive pay.”
So three hyenas in the form of Jacobs, Mollenkopf and Aberle swiped the money off the table before another hyena in the form of Jana Partners could get to it. Had Jana Partners been successful and gotten to the money first, its rich shareholders could have reaped the profits instead of Qualcomm executives and CEO pay would have decreased. Getting back to the obscene ratio between CEO pay and worker pay, in neither case would workers have benefited even if in this instance CEO pay had diminished. The benefits would have gone to another set of rich hyenas, Jana Partners.
Ironically, workers have no leverage in this scenario whatsoever. Even if executive pay decreases, the only likely beneficiaries are other rich people – shareholders – not workers.
Last week Qualcomm cut its earnings forecast for the second time this year after reporting that its past quarter’s earnings dropped 45 percent from the prior year. Samsung is not going to use its Snapdragon chip this year, but Qualcomm is optimistic. Samsung has invited them to produce their next chip in Samsung’s own factory. Like a moth to a flame, Qualcomm will let Samsung oversee its chip making operation. I wonder what could go wrong with that? As other companies rev up their own chip making operations, Qualcomm will not only lose the chip business, but its patents, from which it gets most of its income, will be rendered worthless as Samsung and others devise workarounds to Snapdragon.
China is also revving up its chip making operations which will result in less of a need for Qualcomm’s Snapdragons. They are afraid Qualcomm has built in a “back door” which would allow the US to spy on Chinese officials. Maybe Paul Jacobs got out just in time.