Zoomcar is a wreck

Also in today’s edition: Sports CSR is hot rn; Beijing crackdown on finbro paychecks

Good morning! Notwithstanding a ban in the US unless court comes to its rescue, TikTok has quietly rolled out an Instagram knockoff named Whee. If you haven’t heard of it, it is probably by design. TechCrunch reports TikTok’s parent company ByteDance isn’t advertising Whee on app stores, which explains why it is not catching on with users. So what’s TikTok thinking then? Maybe ByteDance wants a backup plan to stay in the US if the TikTok ban sticks. Oh, and Whee isn't TikTok's first Instagram copycat either. There's also Lemon8. Well, all these attempts at alternative social media shows that, if nothing else, TikTok is at least going down swinging.

Dinesh Narayanan, Roshni Nair, and Anup Semwal also contributed to today’s edition.

The Market Signal*

CSR

Corporates Are Being Good Sports

Indian companies typically direct corporate social responsibility (CSR) resources towards education, healthcare, gender equality, and environment. This mix is changing as conglomerates make aggressive pushes into sport as a sector offering more than promotional value.

Take Reliance Foundation, which established an ‘India House’ in Paris for next month’s Olympics. Coca-Cola India has a three-year initiative to support women’s hockey. JSW, which signed track and field star Neeraj Chopra as brand ambassador, has had a Sports Excellence Program (SEP) since 2012. SEP has backed Chopra and women wrestlers such as Sakshi Malik and the Phogat sisters for years.

Details of CSR spending are voluntary, but The Economic Times estimates that sports initiatives accounted for Rs 280 crore in FY23, up from the Rs 248 crore average during FY19-FY22. This will increase in the run-up to India bidding for the 2036 Olympics, though the endeavour will require more grassroots programmes to back ‘newer’ sports like fencing. 

WORK

Bottled Payouts

While the rest of the world debates whether or not to tax the wealthy, China is determined to make the well-heeled pay by not letting them earn. Senior executives in finance companies not only have their payouts capped, some have even been asked to return previously earned remuneration. 

Bond traders, investment bankers and fund managers, who typically earned fat bonuses and lavish lifestyles, now have a 2.9 million yuan or $400,000 pay ceiling. The cap is a result of Beijing’s anti-corruption drives that have ensnared at least 130 executives and officials in the financial sector, Bloomberg reported.

The crackdown has caused a talent exodus from the industry even as deals dry up in a weak economic environment. The Chinese economy has struggled to revive despite government efforts. China first began graft inspections in the finance industry in 2021 and this is the second round.

TECH

Zoomcarcrash

It’s hard to sell subscriptions in India (ask us in the media 🥲). It’s harder still to rent or sell subscriptions to something expensive, like cars. Zoomcar, founded in 2012, had a rare dream run: big-name backers (Accel VC, Sequoia Capital) and a listing on the Nasdaq during a global bull run (2021).

But the company is now a penny stock. The board has fired co-founder and CEO Greg Moran as Zoomcar worries about getting delisted. 

Bad biz: This didn’t happen overnight. Zoomcar has been bleeding money both globally and in India. In the nine months ended December 2023 (pdf), Zoomcar Holdings’ revenue grew 16%, but on losses of $26.7 million. It lost money the previous year, too. In FY23, its India arm’s revenue shrank 27% to Rs 69 crore in operating revenue, and losses more than doubled to Rs 237 crore. Last year, it defaulted on loans from Mahindra & Mahindra Financial Services and venture debt firm Blacksoil. 

The Signal 

Even car market leaders Hyundai and Maruti Suzuki have found little success in their subscription businesses. Zoomcar’s rivals such as Myles are struggling as customers complain of poorly-maintained cars, which is a routine problem with Zoomcar too. Others like Revv were acquired

Moran and Zoomcar’s early investors seem to have timed their IPO to perfection. Tech valuations were sky high in the pandemic years and plentiful capital fuelled a flurry of IPOs. His unceremonious exit may not pinch Moran too much in the long run. 

FYI

Deal: India’s largest cement maker, Aditya Birla Group-owned UltraTech Cement, will buy 23% of Chennai-based India Cements for Rs 1,885 crore (~$225 million). 

Pay ji for 5G: Brokerages tracking India’s telecom sector estimate that Airtel, Jio, and Vodafone Idea will hike tariffs by <25% within the next six months. The telcos may also charge a separate premium for 5G services.

Masa’s blessing: Softbank’s Vision Fund 2 is investing $10-20 million in Perplexity AI at a $3 billion valuation, Bloomberg reports.

Dark energy: Moscow is reportedly building a dark fleet of liquefied natural gas carriers, similar to its shadow fleet of oil tankers. On an unrelated note, the Kremlin is also considering downgrading relations with western countries due to their “hostile” intervention in the Russia-Ukraine war.

Fizzles out: Soldiers made an unsuccessful attempt to storm the presidential palace in Bolivia in what was described as a failed coup to overthrow President Luis Arce. 

THE DAILY DIGIT

$210 billion

The estimated value of Elon Musk’s SpaceX based on a tender offer for insider shares at $112 each. (Bloomberg

FWIW

All that hullabaloo: Have we over-intellectualised the phenomenon that is Taylor Swift? Sure, when Ms. Swift rolls into town with her entourage, hotels and restaurants cash in, merch flies off shelves, and Swifties flock from all corners of the globe. But does her concert really wield such economic clout that we're crafting odes to "Swiftonomics"? Economists in Stockholm, for one, aren't sold on Swift saving sluggish economies. Their argument is simple: all that splurging happens over a weekend, and that's about it. A Swift concert doesn’t alter spending habits in ways that could revive economies; instead, all that extra cash blown on tickets ties up wallets later. Oh, and did we mention that most of the cash flows straight back to America? You definitely can’t argue that. 

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