Last week was a scorcher in most of the U.S. and, if the weathermen are to be believed (always a dicey proposition), this week will be another. And payments and commerce players — being the dogged competitors that they are — are not about to let a little hot weather beat them down. While the sun may be keeping things baking at the beach, the headlines last week kept things cooking in commerce.
Here’s a quick recap:
Amazon got the attention of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over discounts. Ethereum managed a big boost in its battle with Bitcoin — care of a little help from their friends at Mastercard. In other news, Wells Fargo is saying goodbye to some of its segments as post-2016-scandal reset efforts roll along.
We suggest grabbing a cool drink, and get ready to be refreshed with data.
Amazon, the FTC and Discounting Duplicity
It can’t be good news all the time, even if you’re Amazon. After a summer during which the eCommerce firm has seemed bound and determined to take the world by storm (the Whole Foods buy, Prime Wardrobe’s release, Prime Day — we could go on, but you get the gist), a storm cloud or two was inevitable.
One particular cloud comes in the form of a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation into the site’s discounting practices. The investigation was triggered by complaints from a consumer watch group, aptly named Consumer Watchdog. They allege that Amazon shows higher “original” list prices on items so that discounts seem larger than they really are.
After an analysis of 1,000 products on Amazon’s site, Consumer Watchdog found that Amazon’s referenced prices (placed on approximately 46 percent of items) were “too high” 61 percent of the time. “Too high,” in this case, means Amazon had not sold the items at the highest listed prices within the last 90 days.
When Consumer Watchdog wrote the formal complaint in February, the FTC reportedly responded with informal inquiries at the time. Those informal inquiries have now shifted to a formal investigation as the FTC also investigates Amazon’s proposed acquisition of Whole Foods. Consumer Watchdog has requested the merger be blocked until Amazon cleans up its discounting act.
The FTC policy does explicitly bar firms from listing goods at a higher-than-actual price in an attempt to make the mark down look more impressive.
Amazon has responded that the allegations are without merit.
“The conclusions the Consumer Watchdog group reached are flat out wrong,” said Amazon in a statement. “We validate the reference prices provided by manufacturers, vendors and sellers against actual prices recently found across Amazon and other retailers.”
Amazon had to settle a similar issue with Canada’s Competition Bureau earlier this year.
The FTC has not yet offered a comment on the matter.
Ethereum Gets A Bump
Cryptocurrency Ethereum saw recent losses in price reversed pretty dramatically midweek, jumping more than 50 percent almost overnight. Not only did Ethereum’s price surge, but reports also indicate the cryptocurrency has doubled the volume of its main competitor, Bitcoin.
As of Wednesday (July 19), there was a $10 billion difference between the market caps of Bitcoin and Ethereum, and continued price increases could see Ethereum’s value rise to challenge Bitcoin once again. Ethereum hit its all-time high of $408 in June, but quickly began logging losses afterward. At its peak price, Ethereum’s market cap swelled to $35 billion — $3 billion away from surpassing Bitcoin.
So why the big jump?
The most popular explanation is a valuable endorsement.
Mastercard recently announced it had joined the Ethereum Alliance. The Enterprise Ethereum Alliance brings Fortune 500 companies together with startups, academics and technology vendors that are regarded as Ethereum experts. Mastercard was one of 34 organizations, companies and groups Ethereum announced adding to the alliance — Cisco and the government of India have also recently signed on.
The string of very mainstream endorsements has many cryptocurrency watchers betting on Ethereum’s real chance to take on Bitcoin, the most prominent and lucrative cryptocurrency out there.
And Ethereum’s partnerships may soon be getting a lot more interesting. Russian President Vladimir Putin is reportedly looking into investing in Ethereum. While Russia’s central bank has already put an Ethereum-based blockchain pilot project in motion for its online payments, there have been talks of a national virtual currency in the future. Putin met with Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum last week to discuss the possibility of implementing Bitcoin-competitor Ethereum in a broader sense.
Bitcoin, until now, has been the cryptocurrency of the cool kids. If Ethereum can add the rich, powerful, serious and scaled kids to its roster, this race just might get very interesting.
And speaking of interesting: Wells Fargo, the financial services world’s best answer to Days of Our Lives.
Wells Fargo’s Post-Scandal Spinoffs
It’s not easy being Wells Fargo. The walk back from the massive account creation scandal — which started breaking a little over a year ago — has turned out to be a much longer, more obstacle-filled and more onerous walk than perhaps initially anticipated.
That latest update from the Great Resetting is that Wells Fargo is eliminating large swaths of its smaller banking businesses via a series of spin-off projects. The goal is to recenter on higher-value, higher-margin business line and product areas while slowly phasing out less value-connected endeavors. What is on the block, specifically, is a bit of an unknown.
Wells Fargo has already struck deals to sell its share registration arm in London to technology, finance and administrative services provider Equinti for $227 million. Wells Fargo has also sold its commercial insurance businesses for an undisclosed amount.
“There are a handful of businesses in our mindset,” said John Shrewsberry, CFO of Wells Fargo. “They’re not at the scale of most of our businesses…not top-tier providers.”
The bank — according to company CEO Tim Sloane — is not considering a major slim down, as the executive team still maintains the bank benefits from its diversified business model.
So what did we learn this week? When you’re big and successful, you’re a target — words to live by as Ethereum is in prime position to best Bitcoin. And, when you’re a big bank that’s done things with consumer accounts that you shouldn’t have, you end up getting smaller — one way or the other.
Stay cool out there.