Category Archives: Cloud Computing

U.S. prosecutors' letter spurred orders in self-driving car lawsuit

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The judge overseeing a lawsuit between Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL] and Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Waymo self-driving car unit issued a series of orders this week, prompted by information shared with him by the U.S. Department of Justice.

FILE PHOTO: The Uber logo is seen on a screen in Singapore August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/File Picture

U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco disclosed on Wednesday that he had received a letter from Justice Department attorneys about the case, which is set for trial in December. The judge did not reveal the letter’s contents.

However, Alsup issued two subsequent orders, including one on Saturday, that discussed some details. He ordered Uber to make three witnesses, including a former Uber security analyst and a company attorney, available to testify on Tuesday at a final pretrial hearing. Trial is scheduled to begin on Dec. 4.

It is unusual for the Justice Department to share information with a judge days before a civil case is set to begin.

Earlier this year Alsup, who is hearing the civil action brought by Waymo, asked federal prosecutors to investigate whether criminal theft of trade secrets had occurred. That probe is being handled by the intellectual property unit of the Northern California U.S. Attorney’s office, sources familiar with the situation said. No charges have been filed.

Representatives for Waymo, Uber and the Justice Department declined to comment. The former Uber security analyst could not be reached for comment.

FILE PHOTO: The Waymo logo is displayed during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Picture

Waymo sued Uber in February, claiming that former Waymo executive Anthony Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 confidential files before leaving to set up a self-driving truck company, called Otto, which Uber acquired soon after.

Uber denied using any of Waymo’s trade secrets. Levandowski has declined to answer questions about the allegations, citing constitutional protections against self-incrimination.

Since the case began, Uber said its personnel have spent thousands of hours scouring its servers and other communications devices but have not found Waymo trade secrets.

In an order on Friday, Alsup referred to a former Uber security analyst in connection with the letter from the U.S. Attorney’s office and to certain “devices” the former employee said were maintained by Uber.

Alsup asked Uber to disclose whether it had searched those devices for relevant evidence in the case.

Reuters is part of a media coalition seeking to maintain public access to the trial.

Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by Sue Horton and Marguerita Choy

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Black Friday, Thanksgiving online sales climb to record high

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Black Friday and Thanksgiving online sales in the United States surged to record highs as shoppers bagged deep discounts and bought more on their mobile devices, heralding a promising start to the key holiday season, according to retail analytics firms.

Customers push their shopping carts after making a purchase at Target in Chicago, Illinois. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

U.S. retailers raked in a record $7.9 billion in online sales on Black Friday and Thanksgiving, up 17.9 percent from a year ago, according to Adobe Analytics, which measures transactions at the largest 100 U.S. web retailers, on Saturday.

Adobe said Cyber Monday is expected to drive $6.6 billion in internet sales, which would make it the largest U.S. online shopping day in history.

In the run-up to the holiday weekend, traditional retailers invested heavily in improving their websites and bulking up delivery options, preempting a decline in visits to brick-and-mortar stores. Several chains tightened store inventories as well, to ward off any post-holiday liquidation that would weigh on profits.

TVs, laptops, toys and gaming consoles – particularly the PlayStation 4 – were among the most heavily discounted and the biggest sellers, according to retail analysts and consultants.

Commerce marketing firm Criteo said 40 percent of Black Friday online purchases were made on mobile phones, up from 29 percent last year.

No brick-and-mortar sales data for Thanksgiving or Black Friday was immediately available, but Reuters reporters and industry analysts noted anecdotal signs of muted activity – fewer cars in mall parking lots, shoppers leaving stores without purchases in hand.

People shop for items in Macy’s Herald Square in Manhattan, New York. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Stores offered heavy discounts, creative gimmicks and free gifts to draw bargain hunters out of their homes, but some shoppers said they were just browsing the merchandise, reserving their cash for internet purchases. There was little evidence of the delirious shopper frenzy customary of Black Fridays from past years.

However, retail research firm ShopperTrak said store traffic fell less than 1 percent on Black Friday, bucking industry predictions of a sharper decline.

A cashier handles money in Macy’s Herald Square in Manhattan, New York. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

“There has been a significant amount of debate surrounding the shifting importance of brick-and-mortar retail,” Brian Field, ShopperTrak’s senior director of advisory services, said.

“The fact that shopper visits remained intact on Black Friday illustrates that physical retail is still highly relevant and when done right, it is profitable.”

The National Retail Federation (NRF), which had predicted strong holiday sales helped by rising consumer confidence, said on Friday that fair weather across much of the nation had also helped draw shoppers into stores.

The NRF, whose overall industry sales data is closely watched each year, is scheduled to release Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales numbers on Tuesday.

U.S. consumer confidence has been strengthening over this past year, due to a labor market that is churning out jobs, rising home prices and stock markets that are hovering at record highs.

Reporting by Richa NaiduEditing by Marguerita Choy

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

U.S. online sales surge, shoppers throng stores on Thanksgiving evening

(Reuters) – U.S. shoppers had splurged more than $1.52 billion online by Thanksgiving evening, and more bargain hunters turned up at stores this year after two weak holiday seasons as retailers opened their doors early on the eve of Black Friday.

A customer loads her shopping cart during the Black Friday sales event on Thanksgiving Day at Target in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

At the start of the holiday season consumer spending rose 16.8 percent year-over-year until 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracked 80 percent of online transactions at the top 100 U.S. retailers.

Surging online sales and a shift away from store shopping have thinned the crowds typically seen at stores on Thanksgiving evening and the day after, Black Friday, for the past two years. But a strong labor market, rising home prices and stock markets at record highs have improved shopper appetite this year.

Crowds at stores in many locations around the country were reported to be strong, according to analysts and retail consultants monitoring shopper traffic across the U.S.

“The turnout is clearly better than the last couple of years,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. “The parking lots are full and the outlet malls are busy.”

The retail consultancy has 20 members studying customer traffic in different parts of the country.

Moody’s retail analyst Charlie O’ Shea, who was in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, reported healthy traffic at local stores including consumer electronics chain Best Buy, clothing store Old Navy and retailer Kohl’s Corp.

“The weather is cooperating and people here are out,” he said.

Customers shop during the Black Friday sales event on Thanksgiving Day at Target in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski

The National Retail Federation is projecting that sales for November and December will rise 3.6 percent to 4 percent this year, versus a 4 percent increase last year. Non-store sales, which include online sales and those from kiosks, are expected to rise 11 percent-15 percent to about $140 billion.

In New Jersey, around 50 people lined up a Macy’s at the Westfield Garden State Plaza mall before it opened and around 200 people stood outside the Best Buy store, many to pick up their online orders.

Slideshow (9 Images)

“Me and my husband have a bigger place and we need a bigger TV for the living room,” said Jenipher Gomes, who bought a 50-inch Samsung TV at Best Buy for $399.99. Shopper Hammad Farooq said he waited at the store for an hour to shop for laptops and monitors.

In Chicago, shoppers appeared to be slightly less enthusiastic to emerge from their turkey slumber and crowds were thin along the city’s popular shopping destination, State Street.

“There’s a few more people than normal but I wouldn’t call this crowded at all,” Deloitte auditor Eugenia Liew said as she shopped at discount retailer Target. “I expected a lot more people.”

The holiday season spanning November and December is crucial for retailers because it can account for as much as 40 percent of annual sales. Retailers try to attract shoppers with deep discounts.

Average discounts ranged between 10 and 16 percent with the best deals online on Thanksgiving evening available for computers, sporting goods, apparel and video games, according to date from Adobe.

The number of customers shopping on their smartphones surged, accounting for 46 percent of the traffic on retail websites, while traffic from desktop and laptop computers declined 11 percent and nearly 6 percent respectively, according to the data.

Reporting by Richa Naidu in Chicago and Nandita Bose in West Hartford, Connecticut; Additional reporting by Jenna Zucker in New Jersey; Editing by Susan Thomas

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Uber’s Cover-Up of Its Massive Data Breach May Lead to E.U. Investigations

(BRUSSELS) – European Union privacy regulators will discuss ride-hailing app Uber‘s massive data breach cover-up next week and could create a task-force to coordinate investigations.

Uber faces regulatory scrutiny after CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the company covered up a data breach last year that exposed personal data from around 57 million accounts.

The chair of the group of European data protection authorities – known as the Article 29 Working Party – said on Thursday the data breach would be discussed at its meeting on Nov. 28 and 29.

While EU data protection authorities cannot impose joint sanctions, they can set up task-forces to coordinate national investigations.

When a new EU data protection law comes into force next May, regulators will have the power to impose much higher fines – up to 4 percent of global turnover – and coordinate more closely.

Uber paid hackers $100,000 to keep secret the massive breach.

The stolen information included names, email addresses and mobile phone numbers of Uber users around the world, and the names and license numbers of 600,000 U.S. drivers, Khosrowshahi said. Uber declined to say what other countries may be affected.

For more on the Uber data breach, see Fortune’s video:

“We cannot but voice our strong concern for the breach suffered by Uber, which was reported belatedly by the U.S. company. We initiated our inquiries and are gathering all the information that can help us assess the scope of the data breach and take the appropriate steps to protect any Italian citizens involved,” said Antonello Soro, President of the Italian Data Protection Authority on Wednesday.

The British data protection authority also said the concealment of the breach raised “huge concerns” about Uber‘s data policies and ethics.

Long known for its combative stance with local taxi regulators, Uber has faced a stream of top-level executive departures over issues from sexual harassment to data privacy to driver working conditions, which led its board to remove Travis Kalanick as CEO in June.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

WIRED's Product Reviews Have a New Look, and a New Mission

Here at WIRED, we approach product reviews a little differently than everyone else. There are literally dozens of places on the web where you can scan all the specs and read about every feature in a new phone or a new speaker. But we try to be more helpful than that. When we write a product review, we tell you what an object is trying to achieve, how it could potentially fit into your life, and whether it’s worth caring about—or buying.

Since this publication’s birth in 1993, we’ve been bringing you coverage not only of the latest mainstream products like smartphones and TVs but also the crazy, boundary-pushing stuff. WIRED is probably the first place you read about 3-D printers and VR headsets. While much has changed over these 25 years, we’re still intent on reviewing the best products (and the gloriously odd ones) with insight, wit, and expertise. Personal technology is always marching off into unfamiliar territory. From autonomous robot vacuums to headphones that do real-time language translation to a smartphone that lets you authenticate your identity using your face, we’re here to help you navigate these new frontiers.

So, we’ve got some good news. We’re expanding our coverage to include even more product reviews. By widening our purview and testing more products across a broader range of categories, we’ll be able to help you make informed buying decisions about more things in your life. We’ve hired a staff of expert product reviewers who will be able to recommend the best cameras, parenting products, headphones, e-readers, computers, and outdoors gear, among other things.

As part of this expansion, we’re also making our product review pages more beautiful. The reviews pages now show more useful information, and they’ll be easier to read and navigate.

What’s New

Most of the changes to the redesigned product review pages are right at the top. We’ve increased the visibility of our rating, the item’s price, and the WIRED/TIRED block where we list the products’ successes and stumbles.

On some reviews, you’ll also see a new badge—something we call WIRED Recommends. This is an award we give to only the best products we’ve tested, the stuff we really love. It’s not just the items that earn the highest numerical rating, either. Only products that excel in design, technology, or value will earn that badge. This makes WIRED Recommends more than just an award; it’s a filter to get right to the gear we think truly rocks.

Also right at the top is a big blue “Buy Now” button that leads you to a storefront where you can purchase whatever amazing thing we’re telling you about. That button often leads to retailers with whom WIRED has an affiliate relationship. This is an important revenue stream for us—and it helps fund the journalism that we do, not just on the product reviews desk but across the whole organization, from our narrative stories in the magazine to our investigative online features.

A few things about the affiliate revenue we earn. First, we’re not shy about it. You can find an “Affiliate Links” disclaimer on the right-hand side of every product review. We think it’s important that publications are forthcoming about how they make money from their content. Second, this isn’t something we just tossed together to keep pace with our competitors. WIRED has had an affiliate revenue program in place for two years, and these changes you’re seeing this week are the result of careful study over that time. We’ve spent 24 months learning how this works and what’s appropriate, and now we feel like we can make these changes to our pages (and our buttons!) with confidence. Lastly, our affiliate relationships are managed by a business team that works separately from our writers and editors, and we will never let those relationships determine what products we review or recommend. We’re always going to prioritize reviewing products that are newsworthy, that add value to your life, and that make an impact in the world of consumer technology. We’ll never recommend something silly just so we can make a buck from Amazon.

You can read our full affiliate policy for more information. There are also instructions on that page that show you how to spot and disable our retail affiliate code if you want.

I think we’ve come a long way in our product coverage. We have more than 3,000 reviews in our database, a body of work that represents over 12 years of effort. I’ve seen us constantly improve our recommendations over that span of time. Our reviews are always getting more informative, more impactful, and more helpful. With this new design, I hope we can continue assisting you in make educated decisions about the beautiful, amazing, crazy things you surround yourself with.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Uber Hid 57-Million User Data Breach For Over a Year

By now, the name Uber has become practically synonymous with scandal. But this time the company has outdone itself, building a Jenga-style tower of scandals on top of scandals that has only now come crashing down. Not only did the ridesharing service lose control of 57 million people’s private information, it also hid that massive breach for more than a year, a cover-up that potentially defied data breach disclosure laws. Uber may have even actively deceived Federal Trade Commission investigators who were already looking into the company for distinct, earlier data breach.

On Tuesday, Uber revealed in a statement from newly installed CEO Dara Khosrowshahi that hackers stole a trover of personal data from the company’s network in October 2016, including the names and driver’s license information of 600,000 drivers, and worse, the names, email addresses, and phone numbers of 57 million Uber users.

As bad as that data debacle sounds, Uber’s response may end up doing the most damage to the company’s relationship with users, and perhaps even exposed it to criminal charges against executives, according to those who have followed the company’s ongoing FTC woes. According to Bloomberg, which originally broke the news of the breach, Uber paid a $100,000 ransom to its hackers to keep the breach quiet and delete the data they’d stolen. It then failed to disclose the attack to the public—potentially violating breach disclosure laws in many of the states where its users reside—and also kept the data theft secret from the FTC.

“If Uber knew and covered it up and didn’t tell the FTC, that leads to all kinds of problems, including even potentially criminal liability,” says Williams McGeveran, a data-privacy focused law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. “If that’s all true, and that’s a bunch of ifs, that could mean false statements to investigators. You cannot lie to investigators in the process of reaching a settlement with them.”

The Hack

According to Bloomberg, Uber’s 2016 breach occurred when hackers discovered that the company’s developers had published code that included their usernames and passwords on a private account of the software repository Github. Those credentials gave the hackers immediate access to the developers’ privileged accounts on Uber’s network, and with it, access to sensitive Uber servers hosted on Amazon’s servers, including the rider and driver data they stole.

While it’s not clear how the hackers accessed the private Github account, the initial mistake of sharing credentials in Github code is hardly unique, says Jeremiah Grossman, a web security researcher and chief security strategist at security firm SentinelOne. Programmers frequently add credentials to code to allow it automated access to privileged data or services, and then fail to restrict how and where they share that credential-laden software.

“This is all too common on Github. It’s not a forgiving environment,” says Grossman. He’s far more shocked by the reports of Uber’s subsequent coverup. “Everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you respond to those mistakes that gets you in trouble.”

Who’s Affected

Uber’s count of 57 million users covers a significant swath of its total user base, which reached 40 million monthly users last year. The company hasn’t notified affected users, writing in its statement that it’s “seen no evidence of fraud or misuse tied to the incident,” and that it’s flagged the affected accounts for additional protection. As for the 600,000 drivers whose information was included in the breach, Uber says it’s contacting them now, and offering free credit monitoring and identity theft protection.

How Serious Is This?

Mass spills of names, phone numbers, and email addresses represent valuable data for scammers and spammers, who can combine those data points with other data leaks for identity theft, or use them immediately for phishing. The even more sensitive driver data that leaked may offer even more useful private information for fraudsters to exploit. All of it contributes to the dreary, steady erosion of the average person’s control of their personal information.

But it’s Uber, not the average user whose data it spilled, that may face the most severe and immediate consequences. The company has already fired its chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, who previously led security at Facebook, and before that worked as a federal prosecutor. By failing to publicly disclose the breach for over a year, the company has likely violated breach disclosure laws, and should be bracing for hefty fines in many states where its users live, as well as its home state of California, says the University of Minneapolis Law School’s McGeveran. (In statements on Twitter embedded above, former FTC attorney Whitney Merrill echoed that interpretation of those breach disclosure laws.) “I would not be surprised to see states pursuing Uber on that basis,” McGeveran says.

Former FTC attorney Whitney Merrill echoed that interpretation Tuesday on Twitter:

If the cover-up included making false statements to the FTC during its investigation of the 2014 breach—even though it was a separate incident—that could have even more dire consequences. Making false statements to the commission’s investigators, McGeveran points out, is a federal criminal offense. “This is not just a casual chat over a cup of tea. it’s a formalized investigative procedure,” McGeveran says. “They’re already being asked investigative questions by a government official. They not only know about the breach, but they’re allegedly paying hackers to cover it up. They presumably omit this 57 million person breach from their disclosure to the FTC.”

“If all of that is true,” McGeveran reiterates, “that’s huge.”

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Toshiba $5 billion stock issue results in huge dilution but delisting risk removed

TOKYO (Reuters) – Toshiba Corp’s plan to raise some $5.4 billion through a sale of new shares will help it avoid a delisting, but will also see more than 30 overseas investors, including activist funds, own 35 percent of the embattled conglomerate.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Toshiba Corp is seen as window cleaners work on the company’s headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai/File Photo

The move, decided at a board meeting on Sunday, will allow Toshiba to pay off billions of dollars in liabilities at its bankrupt U.S. nuclear power business, Westinghouse. That in turn gives it the funds to return to positive net worth by the end of the financial year in March, as an $18 billion sale of its prized memory chip unit is unlikely to close before then.

The issue of 2.28 billion new shares at 262.8 yen per share, a 10 percent discount to Friday’s close, will result in a massive 54 percent dilution in earnings per share.

Toshiba’s shares were, however, down just 5 percent in early afternoon trade as the delisting risk was removed and as the capital raising had been expected. The stock was last trading at 277 yen – a level above the sale price.

“Toshiba’s fund raising news eliminates the risk of Toshiba being delisted so that part is positive,” said Takatoshi Itoshima, chief portfolio manager at Commons Asset Management.

“What’s also positive is that the fund raising will improve the company’s financial health. There is an argument that the company will be left with nothing (without the chip business), but it’s good that the company’s capital will recover.”

Third Point LLC, Oasis Management Company and Cerberus Capital Management were among the more than 30 investors which invested through some 60 funds.

Singapore-based fund Effissimo Capital Management, established by former colleagues of Japan’s best-known activist investor, Yoshiaki Murakami, will become the largest shareholder in Toshiba with an 11.34 percent stake.

Payments for the new investment are due to be completed on Dec. 5.

Toshiba also confirmed that it is looking at selling Westinghouse assets.

Sources told Reuters in September that Westinghouse is working with investment bank PJT Partners Inc on a sale process.

Private equity firms Blackstone Group LP and Apollo Global Management LLC have teamed up to bid for the business while Cerberus Capital Management LP was in talks with U.S. nuclear power plant component provider BWX Technologies Inc about submitting a joint bid, the sources said at the time.

Toshiba had initially planned to use funds from the sale of its chip unit to cover its Westinghouse liabilities, but a highly competitive and contentious auction process led to delays in deciding on the buyer and has meant that Toshiba may not obtain the necessary anti-trust clearance by the end of March.

The chip deal still faces legal challenges from its chip joint venture partner Western Digital, which argues no deal can proceed without its consent and has sought an injunction through an international arbitration court.

Toshiba is demanding that Western Digital drop the litigation as a condition over a coming round of a joint investment in Toshiba’s new flash-memory chip production line in Yokkaichi, Japan. The two companies held talks in the United States last week for settlements, but have yet to agree on details, sources familiar with the matter said.

(This story adds dropped word “than” in first paragraph, clarifies number of investors in paragraph 7.)

Additional reporting by Ran Kim and Naomi Tajitsu in Tokyo and Miyoung Kim in Singapore; Editing by Edwina Gibbs

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Amazon's Hidden Platform Labor Startups

For the past couple of years, Amazon has trialed last-mile delivery with individuals, in a program called Amazon Flex, and with small-courier companies using “white vans.” Both of these initiatives are designed to rival UPS and FedEx.

As Amazon prepares for the holiday season, these programs are ramping up to take on more of the load. But that’s not all. Amazon recently launched Amazon Relay, an app aimed at making it easier for truck drivers to make pickups from Amazon warehouses, and is soon to launch a trucking cargo app. All of these services are being trialed internally at Amazon and slowly being turned into platform businesses, specifically services marketplaces.

Amazon Flex: What Uber Rush Aspires To

Amazon Flex lets individuals with cars pick-up packages from an Amazon warehouse and deliver them to customers’ doorsteps. Amazon advertises that drivers can earn $18-25 per hour. The B2C delivery model has been tried before by platforms like Postmates, Deliv and UberRush. However, UberRush has been reported to be struggling after launching a couple years ago.

UberRush also focused on small businesses as its primary customer. These businesses, like restaurants, would use UberRush to deliver products to their customers. Postmates is different. The customer places the order through Postmates and pays Postmates the delivery fee.

Amazon Flex can subsidize the cost of the B2C delivery model to small businesses with its own package volume. As Amazon Flex gains a more public presence, it’s rumored that Amazon will let other small businesses use the program for their own needs. However, the cost structure is completely different if a driver is already on a scheduled route to deliver Amazon’s packages and is adding incremental volume from small businesses.

Amazon’s Trucking Apps

Amazon Relay is primarily for internal use and will likely not be opened up as a stand-alone platform. It helps trucker drivers coordinate their drop offs at Amazon warehouses. The app makes this tedious process more organized and efficient. However, the app also will prove to be a great learning experience for Amazon in advance of the rumored release of Amazon’s cargo delivery app for truckers.

Uber Freight launched in May of 2017 and began a national roll-out just a few months after launch. The service provides a seamless booking process for truck drivers to accept freight delivery jobs similar to the Uber process for passenger drivers. Uber Freight also provides driver benefits like payment within a few days of completing a job when the industry norm can be payment after a month or more. For this reason and others, Uber Freight seems to be making good progress.

Amazon’s competing app should be coming out soon and will probably follow a similar process of leveraging the existing demand from Amazon’s routes as we have seen with Amazon Flex.

Act as a Consumer

One of the hardest elements of building a successful platform is the chicken and egg problem. Existing businesses have an advantage in launch a platform because they can act as the producer or consumer at launch to seed the marketplace with liquidity. In Amazon’s case, it is acting as a consumer for both individual delivery drivers as well as truckers.

As Amazon builds a fluid network of producers (drivers), it can scale its network by opening the service up to other customers. If not opened up, this would still be considered a linear business; however, platforms like Amazon are masters at building new platform businesses on top of its core modern monopoly: the product marketplace.

Just like Google built platform moats around its modern monopoly in search. Google built Android, YouTube, Gmail and others which leverage Search’s advertising network and protect the business that drivers over 95% of Google’s profits.

As Amazon expands further into logistics, it seems to be heading down a similar path.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Record Earnings And A 10% Yield On Qualified Dividends – Buy This Niche MLP On The Dip (No K-1)

When does an LP not act like an LP? When it issues a 1099 at tax time, so you can avoid the complications of a K-1. KNOT Offshore Partners LP (KNOP) is one of a few LPs that has elected to be treated as a C-Corp, and issues 1099s to unit-holders at tax time. Thus, we are spared what some investors refer to as the “dreaded K-1.”

Profile:

KNOT Offshore Partners LP owns and operates shuttle tankers under long-term charters in the North Sea and Brazil. The company provides crude oil loading, transportation, and storage services under time charters and bareboat charters. KNOT Offshore Partners GP LLC serves as the general partner of the company, and Knutsen NYK Offshore Tankers AS is their sponsor. The company was founded in 2013 and is headquartered in Aberdeen, UK.

To say that shuttle tankers are a niche industry would be putting it mildly – shuttle tankers comprise only around 1% of the world’s conventional tanker fleet, and are a vital key solution for oil companies looking to monetize their product. Since many ports don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate large tankers, producers charter shuttle tankers to get their oil into port. These are specialized vessels that take 2.5-3 years to build, so there isn’t a lot of speculative new-building going on in this industry.

Fleet:

Like many of the high-yield stocks and LPs we cover in our articles, KNOP works on long-term, fee-based contracts, with strong counter-parties such as Statoil (NYSE:STO), Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM), and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) (NYSE:RDS.B).

This serves to provide stable cash flow for KNOP’s distributions. The company now has an average of 4.4 years left on their fleet’s contracts, with an additional average of 4.5 years extension at the charters’ option.

Since their 2013 IPO, KNOP’s fleet has grown 230% to 14 vessels with a low average vessel age of about 4.5 years, compared to the rest of the industry average, which is much older – around 12 years.

(Source: KNOP site)

Distributions:

Our High Dividend Stocks By Sector Tables track KNOP’s price and current distribution yield (in the Services section).

KNOP pays their distributions in the usual Feb-May-Aug-Nov. cycle for LPs, but there’s a big difference at tax time: unlike most LPs, it’s elected to be treated as a C-Corporation for tax purposes, so investors receive the standard 1099 form and not a K-1 form. (Tell your accountant he owes you a beer.)

Management has held the quarterly distribution steady, at $.52, since October 2015 – it’s ~39% above their targeted minimum distribution of $.375. Since their 2013 IPO, KNOP has paid common unit distributions of $8.74.

When asked about future distribution hikes on the Q3 earnings call, management replied, “The MLP has an elevated yield compared to most MLPs, and we therefore are focused on first rebuilding coverage and then deleveraging when not making accretive investments. There is little benefit to the MLP in the short term (in) paying much more than the current yield.”

KNOP achieved record distribution coverage in the past two quarters, at 1.46x in Q3 ’17 and 1.43X in Q2 ’17:

Options:

KNOP has options, which we feature in our premium service, and didn’t list here. But you can see details for over 25 other income-producing trades in both our Covered Calls Table and also in our Cash Secured Puts Table.

Earnings:

After a sub-par Q1 ’17, KNOP has bounced back strongly in Q2 and Q3 ’17. Q3 ’17 saw 34% growth in Revenue, 29% EBITDA growth and 18% DCF growth.

KNOP hit record amounts for revenue, EBITDA, DCF, and net income in Q3 ’17, due to their new vessels contributing to earnings.

In the last 12 months, the MLP has acquired the Raquel Knutsen in 2016 Q4, Tordis in Q1 2017, Vigdis in Q2 2017 and Lena Knutsen in Q3. “The fleet achieved strong performance with 99.7% utilization for scheduled operations and 99.3% utilization, taking into account the scheduled drydocking and repair of Carmen Knutsen. We completed the acquisition of Lena Knutsen, which is a five-year charter to Shell.” (Source: Q3 ’17 earnings call)

Even with the unit count growing by 9%, distribution coverage has grown from an already strong 1.24x factor to 1.28x, over the past four quarters:

This table compares the low end of KNOP’s 2017 guidance, pro-rated for three quarters, to their actual figures for Q1-3 ’17. So far, they’ve exceeded their net income and EBITDA guidance, and narrowly missed their DCF, distributions and coverage ratio guidance:

Risks:

Dilution/Coverage: Since LPs pay out the lion’s share of their cash flow, they must periodically go to the debt and equity markets to raise more capital for further expansion. (See the Financials and Debt and Liquidity sections at the bottom of the article for more information about current debt levels.)

On 11/6/17, management announced a secondary public offering of 3,000,000 common units, representing limited partner interests in the Partnership. This 10% dilution caused their price to fall well over 12%, to around $20.00.

But therein lies the opportunity – with KNOP’s ample distribution coverage, that $.52 quarterly distribution isn’t going away. Even with a 10% higher unit base, they should still achieve good coverage.

3M more units at $.52/unit = $1.56M in additional payouts/quarter. In Q3, they paid out $17.39M in total distributions, so this would rise to ~$18.95M. If DCF is flat, coverage would still be ~1.26x, with plenty of leeway.

Management did warn on the earnings release that in Q4 ’17, “the Partnership’s earnings for the fourth quarter of 2017 will be affected by the planned drydocking and repair of the Carmen Knutsen, which is expected to be offhire for 73-75 days until mid-December 2017. Offsetting this offhire will be the Lena Knutsen, which is expected to operate for the entire fourth quarter. There is no further expected offhire for the fleet during the fourth quarter of 2017″ (Source: Q3 ’17 earnings release).

So we could see DCF fall, with the Carmen Knutsen being out for ~2.5 months, unless the new vessel, the Lena Knutsen is able to pick up the entire slack. Either way, we see KNOP maintaining good distribution coverage for the long term, which is why we bought more units on the dip.

Contract Expirations – Management has been working on renewing/extending contracts for some of their vessels which had contracts expiring in late 2017 (Windsor Knutsen) and in 2018 (Hilda and Torill Knutsen). So far, it’s gotten the Windsor extended to October 2018.

The company addressed this on the Q2 earnings call:

The Windsor Knutsen has been on a two-year contract from 13th of October 2015 with Brazil Shipping, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell with a further six years of extension options. In July ’17, the first option is listed taken charter codes reaching October 2018.”

The company still has plenty of time to re-contract the Hilda Knutsen and Torill Knutsen, whose contracts expire at the end of Q3 ’18 and Q4 ’18, respectively. Also in their favor is the fact that these are highly specialized vessels, which would take 2.5 to 3 years to replace.

Privately held Preferred Units: Management sold a total of 4.1M preferred units in two private placements in February and May.

These 8% (~$2/unit annually) preferred distributions will take seniority over common units in any liquidation scenario, in addition to lessening the amount of DCF available to pay common unit distributions, by around $1-2M/quarter.

However, as we detailed above, KNOP’s distribution coverage hit records in Q2 and Q3 ’17, even after accounting for the preferred payouts.

Positive Developments:

Management elaborated about current trends and developments concerning their sub-industry and their sponsor Knutsen NYK on the Q3 earnings call.

As our production moves further offshore, these tankers operate in a space which will see substantial growth in the coming years. Some of the largest discovered oil reserves in the southern hemisphere are in pre-salt layer, 130 kilometers off the coast of Brazil. And Petrobras, for the month of September, oil and natural gas output on those proportions of 1.68 million barrels of oil equivalent average daily production, a 6.6% increase from the previous months and higher than last year’s average.”

Petrobras Transpetro have requested tenders for shore tankers and whilst have not been specific about numbers, we believe their requirement will be for at least 4 vessels initially. Although our MLP is young, our sponsor is a very experienced operator, having been involved in the design and construction of these type of vessels for over 30 years.”

Concerning future dropdowns, they said, “We will see when we get this Torill financing out of the way and perhaps, we’ll see how the equity market looks. I think probably early next year, first quarter next year, we might send that ship dropping to the MLP. But that’s subject to the factors on equity we can raise and what kind of financings we do. So it can be longer than that. But after that, we’d probably take a bit of a breather.”

Analysts’ Price Targets:

At $20.25, KNOP is over 16% below the average price target of $23.57, and 23.5% below the high price target of $25.00.

Estimates are mixed – with average EPS estimates rising over the past seven days for Q1 ’18, 2017, and 2018, but a mix of upward and downward EPS revisions for those same periods, and two downward revisions for next quarter:

(Source: YahooFinance)

Performance:

KNOP was outperforming the market and the Guggenheim Shipping ETF (NYSEARCA:SEA) over the past year, until the November pullback. At $20.25, the stock is only 2% above its 52-week low.

Valuations:

Although KNOP isn’t an LNG tanker company, we’ve added them this LNG shipping company valuations table to compare the company to other tanker companies we cover in our articles, such GasLog Partners LP (GLOP), Golar LNG Partners LP (GMLP), and Dynagas LNG Partners LP (DLNG). The table also includes Teekay Offshore Partners L.P. (NYSE:TOO), the closest comparative company we could find, and Hoegh LNG Partners LP (HMLP).

KNOP is in the lowest tier of this small group, for price/DCF, price/book, and price/sales. Their 10.27% distribution yield is above average also:

Financials:

Like most LPs, KNOP’s debt levels wax and wane over time as the company takes on debt to finance new vessels, and those vessels begin to contribute to earnings. The company ended Q3 ’17 at a net debt/EBITDA level of 6.11x, up substantially from Q3 ’16, but also much lower than their peak of 7.15x. Their ROE ratio has improved over the past two quarters, while their ROA is lower than it was in Q3-4 ’16, due to a higher asset base and higher depreciation and amortization charges:

KNOP is in a lower margin business than these LNG carriers, but their financial metrics are certainly much better than Teekay’s, the other shuttle company in the group:

Debt and Liquidity:

In the year-to-date, to finance the growth of acquisitions, we have raised both $145 million of new equity and $100 million of long-term debt, and $25 million of credit facilities, all on attractive terms.”

At the end of Q3, we had a very solid liquidity position with cash and cash equivalents of $38.1 million and undrawn credit facility of $12 million. And the credit facilities are available until mid-2019.”

The Partnership announced that its subsidiary, KNOT Shuttle Tankers 15 AS, which owns the vessel Torill Knutsen, has entered into a term sheet for a new $100 million senior secured term loan facility with The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, which will act as agent. The New Torill Facility is expected to be repayable in 24 consecutive quarterly installments with a balloon payment of $60.0 million due at maturity. The New Torill Facility is expected to bear interest at a rate per annum equal to LIBOR plus a margin of 2.1%. The facility is expected to mature in 2023 and be guaranteed by the Partnership. The new Torill Facility would refinance a $74.4 million loan facility associated with the Torill Knutsen that bears interest at a rate of LIBOR plus 2.5% and is due to be paid in full in November 2018. Closing of the New Torill Facility is anticipated to occur by the end of 2017.” (Source: KNOP Q3 ’17 release)

With the new Torill Facility, KNOP’s first maturity is in 2019:

(Source: KNOP Q3 ’17 release)

Summary:

We rate KNOP a long-term buy, based on their very attractive yield, their distribution coverage, and their secure position, via long-term contracts within their niche industry.

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. Articles posted on SA aren’t meant to be all-inclusive white papers by any means. Please practice due diligence before investing in any investment vehicle mentioned in this article.

Disclosure: I am/we are long KNOP, GLOP, GMLP.

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.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Tesla unveils electric big-rig truck, sporty Roadster

HAWTHORNE, Calif. (Reuters) – Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) on Thursday unveiled a prototype electric big-rig truck that it will start producing in 2019, throwing itself into a new market even as it struggles to roll out an affordable sedan on which the company’s future depends.

Tesla’s new electric semi truck is unveiled during a presentation in Hawthorn, California, U.S., November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandria Sage

Chief Executive Elon Musk unveiled the big rig, dubbed the Tesla Semi, by riding the truck into an airport hangar near Los Angeles in front of a crowd of Tesla car owners and potential buyers.

Later the semi truck opened its trailer, and a new Roadster drove out. The car is an updated version of Tesla’s first production vehicle. It can seat four and travel 620 miles (1,000 km) on a single charge, a new record for an electric vehicle, Musk said. It can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour (100 km per hour) in 1.9 seconds.

Musk has described electric trucks as Tesla’s next effort to move the economy away from fossil fuels through projects including electric cars, solar roofs and power storage.

Some analysts fear the truck will be an expensive distraction for Tesla, which is burning cash, has never posted an annual profit, and is in self-described “manufacturing hell” starting up production of the $35,000 Model 3 sedan.

Musk did not give a price for the truck.

Tesla also has to convince the trucking community that it can build an affordable electric big rig with the range and cargo capacity to compete with relatively low-cost, time-tested diesel trucks. The heavy batteries eat into the weight of cargo an electric truck can haul.

The truck can go up to 500 miles (800 km) at maximum weight at highway speed, Musk said.

Diesel trucks are capable of traveling up to 1,000 miles (1,600 km) on a single tank of fuel. Musk said diesel trucks were 20 percent more expensive per mile to operate than his electric truck.

The Tesla Semi can also go from 0 to 60 mph in five seconds without cargo or reach 60 mph in 20 seconds at the maximum weight allowed on U.S. highways of 80,000 pounds (36,300 kg).

“I can drive this thing and I have no idea how to drive a semi,” Musk joked.

Ahead of the unveiling, Tesla executives showed off the Class 8 truck to journalists, describing it as “trailer agnostic,” or capable of hauling any type of freight. Class 8 is the heaviest weight classification on trucks.

Tesla’s new electric semi truck is unveiled during a presentation in Hawthorn, California, U.S., November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandria Sage

The day cab – which is not a sleeper – has a less prominent nose than on a classic truck, and the battery is built into the chassis. It has four motors, one for each rear wheel. Tesla designed the cab with a roomy feel and a center seat for better visibility, executives said. Two touch screens flank the driver.

The truck has Tesla’s latest semi-autonomous driving system, designed to keep a vehicle in its lane without drifting, change lanes on command, and transition from one freeway to another with no human intervention. Reuters reported in August that Tesla was discussing self-driving trucks with regulators in Nevada and California, but the company did not mention full autonomy in a release on the new vehicle.

Tesla will guarantee the truck’s drivetrain, which delivers power to the wheels, for 1 million miles.

Old Dominion Freight Line Inc (ODFL.O), the fourth-largest U.S. less-than-truckload carrier, which consolidates smaller freight loads onto a single truck, said it would not use the Tesla truck.

Slideshow (9 Images)

“We met with Tesla and at this time we do not see a fit with their product and our fleet,” Dave Bates, senior vice president of operations, said in an email, without elaborating.

Earlier this week Musk tweeted that the truck would “blow your mind clear out of your skull,” joking, “It can transform into a robot, fight aliens and make one hell of a latte.”

Tesla faces a much more crowded field for electric trucks than it did when it introduced its electric cars.

Manufacturers such as Daimler AG (DAIGn.DE), Navistar International Corp (NAV.N) and Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) are joining a host of start-ups racing to overcome the challenges of substituting batteries for diesel engines as regulators crack down on carbon dioxide and soot pollution.

Still, manufacturers are mostly focused on medium-duty trucks, not the heavy big rig market Tesla is after.

Tesla would need to invest substantially to create a factory for those trucks. The company is currently spending about $1 billion per quarter, largely to set up the Model 3 factory, and is contemplating a factory in China to build cars.

Charging and maintaining electric trucks that crisscross the country could be expensive and complex.

Tesla said the truck can charge 30 minutes and then travel 400 miles.

Shares of Tesla have risen 46 percent this year to make the company the No. 2 U.S. automaker by market value.

Reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Peter Henderson and Lisa Shumaker

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts