War, Politics Eclipse Economics on Davos Leaders’ Minds - Kanebridge News
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War, Politics Eclipse Economics on Davos Leaders’ Minds

Hot and cold wars, fragmenting trade and key elections fuel anxiety at annual forum

By GREG IP
Sat, Jan 20, 2024 7:00amGrey Clock 4 min

Never mind interest rates, inflation or recession. The economic concerns that usually preoccupy the global elite at their annual gathering in Davos are taking a back seat to hot war in Ukraine and the Middle East, cold war between the West and China and watershed elections from India to the U.S.

For government and business leaders, it is a disorienting departure from a world in which fortunes were mainly driven by financial forces. The World Economic Forum, which hosts the meeting, is now the de facto world geopolitical forum.

“There’s a higher-level issue than the economy, which is geopolitics,” said Christian Mumenthaler, chief executive of reinsurance giant Swiss Re, which insures risks around the world. Geopolitics hasn’t been so big an economic threat since the height of the first Cold War in the 1980s, he said.

“We’re starting this year with the longest list I ever recall of potential disruptions,” said Christian Ulbrich, chief executive of real-estate company JLL, which operates around the world. “You really have to run your organisation in an extremely agile way so that you can react immediately.”

Longtime Davos attendees came of age in a world in which products, capital and people flowed ever more freely. But globalisation began fragmenting in 2016 when Britain voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected president—and who went on to withdraw from a global climate accord and a trade pact with Pacific nations and then hike tariffs sharply, especially on China.

Deglobalisation has gathered speed with the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the intensifying rivalry between the U.S and China and the newfound appeal of industrial policy—governments directing resources to favoured home industries. That is over and above the hazards thrown up by the natural world, such as extreme weather.

The upshot is that political events that were once peripheral to business leaders’ concerns are now central, especially when optimism is high that major economies will lower inflation without recession, so-called soft landings.

The U.S. election is on everyone’s minds because of the potential for Trump to return to the White House. On Monday, Trump won the first Republican nominating contest, in Iowa, by a wide margin.

“Every conversation begins with a query about my assessment of the outcome of Iowa, who’s going to win New Hampshire, and what are the odds of Trump 2.0,” said Tim Adams, president of the Institute of International Finance, a Washington-based group of international banks, and a former senior Treasury official under President George W. Bush. The questions are driven by trepidation, curiosity and fear that “the U.S. retreats, engages in protectionism, isolationism.”

One European bank chief said he has conducted “game-boarding exercises” to figure out how a Trump administration could play out for his business.

The U.S. election is one of many taking place this year, and for some companies, it isn’t necessarily the most salient. Last Saturday, Taiwan elected as president the candidate most opposed by Communist-ruled China, which is pressing for reunification with the self-governing island. Taiwan is home to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s dominant supplier of the most advanced microchips.

Many major tech companies depend on those chips. They must reckon with the possibility that military or economic coercion by China, or even war that draws in the U.S., could interrupt that supply. U.S. restrictions on investment and trade related to crucial technologies, including chips, have already disrupted what was once one of the world’s most integrated industries.

The threat to the chip supply “is a risk. That needs to be factored into all analyses you can do,” said Börje Ekholm, chief executive of Swedish telecommunications manufacturer Ericsson. The company has been focused on diversifying its supply chain for semiconductors and other parts since 2018, he said. “You also need to think about how you’re going to manage the situation where chip supply will be constrained.”

Gita Gopinath, the No. 2 official at the International Monetary Fund, said business leaders are worried about geopolitics interfering with trade and investment for good reason: “Fragmentation is a reality, it’s not just a threat.”

While trade has slowed everywhere since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has slowed down more between blocs of allied countries—such as between the West and China or Russia—than within blocs. She said this shows that efforts to confine trade restrictions to strategic sectors, such as high tech, are failing, and a more general decoupling between blocs might be under way.

A study released by the McKinsey Global Institute Wednesday echoed the IMF’s findings. China, Germany, the United Kingdom and the U.S. have all reoriented trade toward allies or nonaligned countries like Mexico and Vietnam, it said

China’s share of U.S. imports of laptop computers and mobile phones, though not subject to tariffs, fell between 2017 and 2022, with much of that share going to Vietnam, the report said. Mexico, it noted, became the largest trade partner of the U.S. last year. Germany all but halted imports of natural gas from Russia while vastly increasing imports from Norway, a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

That politics, not economics, might govern where companies sell and invest is a new reality that is taking some getting used to. Mike Henry, chief executive of Australian coal and mineral company BHP, said the company has always advocated free trade as the most efficient way to bring commodities to market. “A world of open trade and where countries are able to compete on natural advantage—that’s the world of the past. That’s not the reality we live in today.”

A few years ago China, upset with Australia for demanding an inquiry into Covid’s origins, cut many imports from the country, including coal from BHP, which saw its sales there fall. Though relations between Australia and China have since improved, BHP has since found other markets for that coal. Still, Henry said that in time, economic factors such as shipping rates will once again influence where it sells.

Some executives see hopeful signs, in particular that a rapprochement between China and the U.S. that began last fall will continue, in part because China is trying to help its faltering economy.

Geopolitical tensions also have beneficiaries. After artificial intelligence, the loudest buzz in Davos might be directed at India. Many executives called it their most promising foreign market, and its appeal has only grown now that Russia and much of China are off limits.

“When disruptions take place, people are trying to hedge,” said Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s minister of oil and gas. “But India has a growth story of its own. That is what is driving interest in India.”

For some companies, geopolitical tensions are weighing on employees, not just management. “People are concerned about what’s going on in the world,” JLL’s Ulbrich said. Conflict, or the threat of it, in Europe, Israel/Gaza and China weighs on people, he added. “They don’t know what’s going to happen and look to other people, leaders, for what’s going to happen, but leaders don’t know either.”

—Chip Cutter and Alex Frangos contributed to this article.



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Platforms are paying less for popular posts, brands are pickier about partnerships and a possible TikTok ban looms

By SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN
Wed, Jun 19, 2024 9 min

Many people dream of becoming social-media stars like YouTube’s MrBeast or TikTok’s Charli D’Amelio . But for most who pursue careers as content creators, just making ends meet is a lofty goal.

Clint Brantley has been a full-time creator for three years, posting videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch where he comments on news and trends related to the online game “Fortnite.” Despite having more than 400,000 followers, and posts that average 100,000 views, his income last year was less than the median annual pay for full-time U.S. workers in 2023—$58,084, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Clint Brantley, a full-time creator, draws an average of 100,000 views for his ‘Fortnite’-related videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The 29-year-old is hesitant to commit to an apartment lease because the money he gets, mainly from online tips and sponsorship deals, arrives randomly and could vanish at any moment. For now, he’s living with his mom in Washington state.

“I’m vulnerable,” he says.

Earning a decent, reliable income as a social-media creator is a slog—and it’s getting harder. Platforms are doling out less money for popular posts and brands are being pickier about what they want out of sponsorship deals. The real possibility of TikTok potentially shutting down in 2025 is adding to creators’ anxiety over whether they can afford to stick with the job for the long haul.

Few overnight sensations

Hundreds of millions of people around the globe regularly post videos and photos to entertain or educate social-media users. About 50 million earn money from it, according to a 2023 report from Goldman Sachs . The investment bank expects the number of creator-earners to grow at an annual rate of 10% to 20% through 2028, crowding the field even further. The Labor Department doesn’t track wages for these creators, also known as influencers.

It can take months or years to earn money as a creator, often through a combination of direct revenue from social-media platforms, sponsorship deals, merchandise sales and affiliate links. But those who stick with it eventually see some returns, surveys show. Creators say that’s because you can learn what kind of posts most resonate with an audience, which can lead to more followers and, in turn, more moneymaking opportunities.

But money doesn’t mean big bucks . Last year, 48% of creator-earners made $15,000 or less, according to NeoReach, an influencer marketing agency. Only 13% made more than $100,000.

The gap reflects multiple factors, including whether creators work full- or part-time, the kind of content they put out and when they started. People who jumped into the space during the height of Covid-19 lockdowns—and who focused on a niche such as fashion, investing or lifestyle hacks—say they benefited from the surge in social-media use during that time.

A small number of creators shot to fame, propelling the occupation to the top of career wish lists for many teens (and adults). But behind the scenes, creators say the job is gruelling. They need to constantly produce compelling posts or risk losing momentum. They spend their days planning, filming and editing posts while also working to make inroads with advertisers and interacting with fans.

“It is a lot more work than most people realise,” says Emarketer analyst Jasmine Enberg. “Creators who make a living doing it have been at it for many years. Most are not overnight sensations.”

Like other self-employed professionals, creators don’t get paid time off, healthcare benefits, retirement contributions and other perks that companies typically provide for their workers. That reality, coupled with stubbornly high inflation and mortgage rates , is making it more difficult to get by as a creator.

Brantley works on editing a coming video. The online tips and sponsorship deals that make up his income can be erratic, so for now the 29-year-old continues to live with his mom in Spokane, Wash. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Everything is more expensive, especially groceries,” says Jason Cooper of Mobile, Ala.

A few years ago, Cooper dreamed up a sassy sock puppet named Sock Cop, who cracks dad jokes in live and recorded videos for TikTok and Twitch. He currently makes $500 to $600 a month, almost entirely from tips.

He thinks he could probably haul in a lot more if he went full-time. But with no guarantee, the 37-year-old father doesn’t want to quit his marketing job and risk losing health coverage. He now spends a few hours in the evening and on weekends on Sock Cop. If he had more time, he would feel the need to constantly make videos.

“You’ve got to feed the beast,” says Cooper.

Shrinking platform payouts

TikTok’s $1 billion creator fund, which ran from 2020 to 2023, doled out money to eligible creators for posting to the platform. Others joined in. YouTube’s TikTok competitor, Shorts, allowed creators to earn anywhere from $100 to $10,000 a month with its temporary fund. Instagram’s Reels Play bonus program rewarded creators with fluctuating payouts. Snapchat ’s Spotlight rewards program gave $1 million a day to the platform’s top creators.

Today, the platforms have revamped or completely changed how they pay creators—doing away with their funds.

Qualifications for TikTok’s current rewards program include having an account with at least 10,000 followers with a minimum of 100,000 views in the past month. Instagram is currently testing a seasonal, invitation-only program that rewards creators for sharing Reels and photos.

YouTube debuted an ad-revenue share model last year, in which qualifying creators with more than 1,000 subscribers and 10 million public Shorts views in the past 90 days receive 45% of revenue from ads that occur between posts. Snapchat has a program that gives creators who meet certain criteria, such as having at least 50,000 followers and 25 million monthly views, a portion of the ad revenue that appears between Stories. Its Spotlight program also continues to dole out money to creators.

Creators who opt into these programs or bonuses aren’t guaranteed a significant payday.

Yuval Ben-Hayun originally became popular on TikTok in 2020 because of his posts about the word-puzzle game Wordle. The 29-year-old New Yorker eventually expanded into linguistic and other education content, and by early 2023, was able to support himself and his bills of over $4,000 a month.

TikTok had closed its fund by then but was testing its creator rewards program. Ben-Hayun said in March he received about $200 to $400 per million views, and it’s steadily declined since then—even as his follower count reached 2.9 million.

The followers are still there, but the money isn’t. He recently hit a new low, receiving only $120 for a video with 10 million views.

Danisha Carter uses her phone and a ring light to create content for her TikTok channel, where she has 1.8 million followers. PHOTO: JESSICA PONS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

Danisha Carter is frustrated that TikTok and other platforms sold the idea of content creation as a job, but later withdrew the financial incentives. Thanks to creators’ efforts, she says, consumers are now hooked on social feeds, bringing the platforms billions of dollars in annual revenue.

The 26-year-old has 1.8 million TikTok followers, and her posts about beauty and exercise, along with opinions on topics ranging from dating to online bullying, regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views. TikTok has paid her a total of $12,000, Carter says. She sells merchandise for additional income, bringing in about $5,000 last year.

“Creators should be paid a fair percentage based on what the apps are making off creators,” says Carter. “There should be more transparency into how we’re paid, and it should be consistent.”

A TikTok spokeswoman declined to comment.

YouTube said it paid more than $70 billion to creators, artists and media companies in the past three years, and more than 25% of channels in the ad-revenue share model are now making money through it. “We remain committed to putting our full energy into what matters most for our creators, viewers and advertisers,” a spokeswoman said.

A future without TikTok?

Many creators and advertisers credit TikTok, which pioneered the short-form video genre, with driving stronger engagement than its industry peers. TikTok has gained more than 170 million users in the U.S. since its launch in 2016—including, Pew Research Center says, a third of American adults. They spend an average of 78 minutes a day on the app, according to market-intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

TikTok may not be available in the U.S. for much longer, at least not in its current form. In April, President Biden signed a bill into law that will force a sale or ban of the app by Jan. 19, 2025. U.S. lawmakers have expressed worries that TikTok poses a national security risk. TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, has said it can’t and won’t sell its U.S. operations by the deadline.

ByteDance sued the U.S. government, alleging the new law violates its First Amendment rights. Several U.S. creators also sued. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear arguments in September for both cases.

“To lose TikTok would be kind of devastating,” says Brandon Granberg , a 31-year-old creator from Bayville, N.J., known for interacting with strangers in public places in silly ways.

Granberg struggled for years to attract viewers on the app before one viral post two years ago took his follower count from 5,000 to more than one million. Recently he made $1,000 from a TikTok program that launched last year called TikTok Creative Challenge, which allows creators ​to earn money by making video ads for brands that don’t appear on their personal profiles. He also earned $2,800 for producing four TikTok videos promoting a website for people with foot fetishes. Granberg says he found it creepy, but did it because he needed the money.

While he hasn’t landed many other sponsored posts, he’s grown his income significantly by making marketing videos for small businesses over the past year. Most clients find Granberg on TikTok. “If it gets banned, it will definitely hurt me,” he says.

Changing tastes and algorithms

This year, U.S. social-media creators as a whole are expected to make $13.7 billion, according to Emarketer. The research firm projects the majority of that—$8.14 billion, or 59%—will come from brand sponsorships.

Advertisers have always led in compensating creators, paying out far more money than the social-media platforms and fans who buy merchandise or dole out tips. But these days, advertisers expect more from creators than just large followings, according to agency and talent representatives. They want to see evidence of strong engagement in the form of saved and shared posts, plus the demographics of creators’ audiences.

“Brands are looking at metrics that are far less predictable for creators and also very difficult to price yourself on,” says Sarah Peretz, a business-strategy consultant in Los Angeles who helps creators negotiate partnerships and deals with advertisers.

Some brands are more controlling than in the past, says Sarah Steele , a 34-year-old creator in Tulsa, Okla., who started making TikTok videos about being a working mom in 2020. “Now it’s, ‘We’re paying you and this is what we want you to say.’ ”

Earlier this year, Steele says an advertiser insisted she cite legal disclaimers in a series of sponsored Instagram posts. “It felt like I was reading off a teleprompter,” she says. “As a consumer it even turned me off to the brand a little bit.”

Creators, meanwhile, are having a tougher time attracting viewers, thanks to algorithm changes and other factors beyond their control. And while more advertisers are looking to partner with creators than in the past, “increased activity leads to increased competition,” says Peretz.

Another change is that advertisers now prefer to work with just a handful of creators on long-lasting deals rather than experiment with several on one-off projects, says Jess Hunichen, of Shine Talent Group.

Hunichen co-founded the talent-management agency in 2015, when TikTok didn’t exist and influencer marketing was still relatively new. Back then, an average deal size between an influencer and brand was usually below $1,000. Now, the average deal per campaign is around $10,000, she says.

Worth the hustle

Ronit Halmos of Los Angeles began making TikTok videos earlier this year that she describes as quick-reviews of restaurants, bars and more “with some sass and attitude.”

The 27-year-old, a full-time technology recruiter, recently landed her first advertiser deal. A kombucha brand asked her to make a 30-second post featuring her take on a line of flavors. Though it ended up getting less attention from viewers than her usual fare, she made $1,500 from about 30 minutes of work.

Tyler Haven , a 27-year-old traveling around the Pacific Northwest, charges $250 to $300 to make promotional videos that brands can post to their own social channels, and around $1,200 for posts that appear on either his Instagram account with more than 41,000 followers or his TikTok account with more than 10,000 followers.

Since January, he’s been posting videos documenting his “van-life” with his wife, Oak Haven: Their primary residence is a fully paid, fully decked-out 2004 Mercedes Sprinter T1N.

Haven said it’s been easy to grow his following organically. He believes it’s because his posts don’t depict some unattainable, picture-perfect life.

He quit his job in June to pursue full-time content creation.

“Even if I were to make $2,000 a month, which is absolutely nothing—that’s less than most people’s rent—I could live on that,” Haven says.

With the van fully paid off, the 27-year-old says he and his wife, Oak Haven, can get by with even a small income from his videos. PHOTO: TODD MEIER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL