Google tames its own worst enemy

Also in today’s edition: The Good Glamm Group takes a Khiladi turn; India is in a rice trap; Adani slams the brakes; Drama at Mouse House

Good morning! We've come full circle. Feature phones are making a comeback in the US, according to CNBC. Thank Gen Z for this. The demographic is increasingly swapping smartphones for ‘dumb phones’ that have GPS or hotspot capabilities. All in a bid to reduce screen time (you can tear yourself away from smartphones too though, just saying). HMD Global, the Finnish company that produces Nokia phones, is reaping the rewards: its sales of flip phones picked up last year. Companies such as Punkt and Light are also cashing in on back-to-basics handsets. The irony is that a handful of influencers are pimping these ‘dumb phones’ on YouTube. Bring back the Blackberry, and we could live in the 2000s all over again.

Today’s edition also features writing by Julie Koshy Sam and Srijonee Bhattacharjee.

If you enjoy reading us, why not give us a follow at @thesignaldotco on Twitter and Instagram.

The Market Signal*

Stocks & economy: Indian equities may rise on cues from global counterparts.

US tech shares propped up indices while banking stocks weighed. The S&P 500 technology index was up 1%; the KBW regional bank Index fell 2%.

Banking stocks were subdued as the US government announced stringent norms for regulation of mid-sized banks following the recent turmoil. The US Fed Reserve officials indicated that there could be more rate hikes aimed at lowering inflation.

Latest data on US jobs and GDP warranted for slower liquidity tightening, nevertheless chances of a 25 bps-hike in May stood at 51%. In Germany, inflation in March, even after moderation, outpaced expectations pointing towards more hikes in Europe.

Among currencies, the US dollar lost ground to the euro. Bitcoin fell 1.6% on concerns regarding legal issues at cryptocurrency exchange, Binance.

Back home, Adani Group stocks may be weighed as Bloomberg published fresh reports of further slowdown in the petrochemicals business.

E-COMMERCE

Good Glamm Wants To Be Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi

It’s been a while since Thrasio, the rollup commerce OG that spawned copycats in Mensa Brands, Goat Brand Labs, GlobalBees, etc. reviewed its India plans. But a funding slowdown is no wrench in The Good Glamm Group’s (TGGG’s) ambitions just yet. The D2C brand aggregator has joined forces with Akshay Kumar to launch men’s wellness and personal care products. The line may retail between ₹150-₹350 (~$2-$4) and launch in mid-2023.

TGGG has long wanted to crack men’s personal care. But acquisition discussions with the Raymond Group, which owns Kama Sutra and Park Avenue, fizzled out. Its buyout of grooming brand Ustraa is seemingly in limbo. A 2022 fundraise didn’t culminate. Roping in Kumar, who’s also the spouse of Twinkle Khanna—founder of TGGG-owned Tweak Media—seemed to be a no-brainer.

But: This is a crowded space, with deep-pocketed FMCG companies (Marico, Hindustan Unilever, Reckitt Benckiser, Emami) jostling for male attention.

AGRICULTURE

A Sobering Grain Of Truth

Annual yield increases of rice—which feeds more than half the world’s population—are falling by the year. In other words, rice productivity isn’t keeping pace with population growth. Factor in parched water tables and climate change—which is also wreaking havoc on other food crops—and you realise that food (in)security is the most pressing crisis of our times.

Rising sea levels are causing ‘salt intrusion’ in the low-lying Mekong delta in southeast Asia, a region witnessing the sharpest drops in rice yields. In India, where rice output dropped in 2022, the size of the average farm has reduced from 2.3 hectares to 1.1 hectares due to development-induced land and labour shortages.

Double-edged sword: Rice is water-intensive and a hotbed for methane-emitting bacteria, thus responsible for 12% of methane emissions. India’s Millet Initiative won’t fly unless there’s a substantial market for millets—enough to incentivise farmers to diversify.

🎧 A global rice crisis could jeopardize food security. Also in today's edition: there's Disney's Marvel mess explained. Listen to The Signal Daily on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Google’s Big Bard Shuffles

Code Red is real, and Google is moving fast to ring in changes. The Information reports that two of (parent company) Alphabet’s rival divisions—the AI lab DeepMind, and Google’s Brain AI team—will set aside their differences to steer the company ahead of AI rival ChatGPT, operated by Microsoft-backed OpenAI. The common ground is a joint project named ‘Project Gemini’, whose objective is to fine-tune Google’s recently-launched AI chatbot, Bard. The two units will work on large-language models that’d have up to one trillion parameters, much like GPT-4.

There’s more: The team building Google Assistant will also focus more on Bard, CNBC reported, citing an internal memo.

Elsewhere: Microsoft’s BingGPT will now show ads.

The Signal

Google’s “forced marriage” between rival divisions, for the sake of an AI rejig, highlights the challenges it faces with OpenAI’s head start on chatbots.

All that said, Google could have an ace up its sleeve with voice, i.e. Integrating Bard with its category leader, Assistant. Launched in 2017 in Pixel smartphones, Assistant has become a fixture across Google’s hardware offerings and apps. Voice is also a blind spot for Microsoft, (hello, Cortana!) as the Satya Nadella-led company focuses more on integrating AI in enterprise and retail products.

An integration of Bard and Assistant could give Google a potential edge (also in use cases such as customer care) even as its core ads-fuelled Search business is potentially squeezed by Bing. The big question, however, is if voice will make a comeback from the dead.

BUSINESS

Stopping In Its Tracks

Call it the Hindenburg hangover. Bloomberg reports that the Adani Group is focusing on “core projects” and retreating from planned entries into petrochemicals and deeper forays into iron and steel and roads. It’s also stalling its $4 billion power plant in Mundra. This is effectively a volte-face on the group’s debt-fuelled expansion.

Change in tack: Going forward, Adani is unlikely to raise funds from share-backed funding and instead explore alternatives such as an equity stake sale and private bond placements. For the latter, the group has met investors from US-based funds such as Pimco, Blackstone, and BlackRock to raise $1 billion. That money, per another Bloomberg report, is likely to come this year in two tranches.

Also: Viral Acharya, the former Reserve Bank of India deputy governor, reckons that India’s largest conglomerates’ ownership of key sectors may just be “making inflation more persistent”. His solution? Do what Alibaba did.

ENTERTAINMENT

Disney’s Unheroic Drama

No tickets required for this Marvel tea. Disney chief Bob Iger has shown controversial Marvel Entertainment chairman Isaac Perlmutter the door. Perlmutter had backed an unsuccessful proxy fight to recruit activist investor Nelson Peltz to the Disney board. The development comes a week after the high-profile exit of Marvel Studios veteran Victoria Alonso, who’d worked on several Marvel tentpoles.

Superhero fatigue?: In more problems for Disney-Marvel, its latest release Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania failed to stick at the box office, much like the studio’s recent releases.

In other news: Netflix is bringing gaming to TV. Chinese gamers lost access to Activision Blizzard games in January because of miscommunication between the American video game developer and Chinese gaming company NetEase. And FIFA publisher Electronic Arts is letting go of 800 employees from its workforce as part of a restructuring move.

FYI

No deal: Walmart-owned payments company PhonePe has called off a deal to acquire buy-now-pay-later startup ZestMoney over due-diligence concerns.

Pink slips: Edtech unicorn Unacademy will cut its workforce by a further 12% in a fresh round of layoffs. The development comes a day after it hived off CodeChef, a competitive programming platform for students and programmers it acquired in 2020.

Breaking ranks: TikTok found an unlikely ally in Republican senator Rand Paul, who blocked a bid in the Senate to ban the app. Longtime TikTok-sceptic senator Josh Hawley had sought unanimous consent for his ‘No TikTok On US Devices’ act.

Not so hush: Donald Trump has been indicted for paying hush money to a porn star ahead of the 2016 presidential election, making him the first former US Prez to face a criminal charge.

Fresh dough: Reliance-backed hyperlocal delivery startup Dunzo has reportedly collected about $50 million in its latest funding round, according to Techcrunch.

Spin(off) and win: Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics arm, is set to be the first of its six post-breakup divisions to hit the bourses. The company is seeking to raise $20 billion via a listing in Hong Kong end of the year.

Add to cart: Nestle is closing in on a $1 billion+ deal to acquire Mumbai-based Capital Foods Ltd, the makers of Ching’s Secret noodles and Smith & Jones cooking pastes, Bloomberg reported.

THE DAILY DIGIT

₹369 crore

Or ~$45 million, the price industrialist JP Taparia’s family paid for a sea-view luxury triplex in Mumbai’s Malabar Hill, making it India’s most expensive apartment deal. (The Economic Times)

FWIW

There’s no winning this: What's the best way to eat an Oreo? The experts—from one of the world’s most prestigious universities, no less—have weighed in. Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists released a paper titled ‘On Oreology, the fracture and flow of 'milk's favorite cookie’, which literally gives you the lowdown on the best way to twist open the biscuit so both sides have an even layer of creme. They tested about 1,000 Oreos to solve the mystery, and found that the sugary goop stuck to one side of the biscuit 80% of the time. The experiment is doubling as a crash course on rheology or a science of how matter flows, especially when it’s thick or gooey.

Licence to thrill: You can now travel like 007. Eon Productions, the team behind the James Bond series, has joined hands with a luxury travel company to create a European itinerary for fans to live like the world's most famous superspy. Travellers get a chance to try a high-speed cruise down the Thames, learn some moves from Daniel Craig's stunt double, sip on Bollinger champagne, drive an Aston Martin with a Bond special-effects supervisor, and water-ski across Lake Como. Five-night trips start at $18,523, and could go up to $74,000. We're honestly shaken by that price tag. Aside: we wonder if the James Bond Island in Phuket (look it up) is facing an existential crisis.

Panda propaganda: The ongoing Cold War between the US and China has now seeped into panda diplomacy. That’s what the Chinese think, anyway. As if the death of Memphis Zoo panda Le Le in February didn’t distress China enough, the poor health of Le Le’s female companion Ya Ya (“cute girl”) has become a major bone of contention. Diplomats and Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens say that age has naturally caught up with Ya Ya, who’s due to return to her homeland in April. But animal lovers are having none of it. They reckon Russia treats its on-loan pandas better than the US does. Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, no animal deserves to be turned into a geopolitical scapegoat.

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