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S&P Futures Hit All Time Highs On Stimulus, Vaccine Hopes; Gold, Silver Tumble

S&P Futures Hit All Time Highs On Stimulus, Vaccine Hopes; Gold, Silver Tumble



S&P Futures Hit All Time Highs On Stimulus, Vaccine Hopes; Gold, Silver Tumble Tyler Durden Tue, 08/11/2020 - 08:27

S&P 500 futures hit a record high as investors shrugged off continuing U.S.-China tensions and instead focused on news of an approved, if largely unclear, Russian vaccine, and more stimulus optimism as President Donald Trump said he’s considering a tax cut on capital gains. According to Reuters calculations at the current levels, the benchmark index is set to open about 12 points below its Feb. 19 record peak of 3,393.52.

American Airlines and Carnival led a boom in travel shares in the premarket. The S&P 500 closed less than 1% below its record high on Monday as investors extended a rotation into value stocks from heavyweight tech-related names. At 8:00 a.m. ET, S&P 500 e-minis were up 23.25 points, or 0.69%, topping an all-time high of 3,372.25 points last hit on Feb. 20.
A rally in the tech megacaps including, Netflix and Apple that thrived during the shutdowns helped the Nasdaq reclaim its all-time high in June, while the Dow still remains about 6% below its peak.

“Equity has never looked cheaper compared to fixed income and the like,” Jun Bei Liu, portfolio manager at Tribeca Investment Partners, said in a Bloomberg TV interview. “If you want any return, any yield, any income or even any growth you have to go to equities.”

In Europe and Asia, a broad rally from industrial goods to health-care shares set the Stoxx Europe 600 Index headed for its best increase since mid-June. The Stoxx 600 Europe index rose more than 2% , with auto shares leading the way after a surge in Chinese car sales. The Stoxx 600 Travel & Leisure Index jumps as much as 4.8%, to the highest since June 11, amid investor optimism about the development of a vaccine for the coronavirus and after InterContinental Hotels said it is seeing some very early signs of improvement as traveller confidence returns, sending its stock up 6.1%. The subgroup was among the biggest advancers in Europe’s Stoxx 600 Index, which is up 2.1% after President Vladimir Putin said Russia has registered its first Covid-19 vaccine, though some pharmaceutical companies have called Russia’s rushed registration dangerous. Airline stocks also rose: IAG +7.8%, EasyJet +6.5%, Lufthansa +4.7%, Ryanair +4%, Turkish Airlines +8%.

Earlier in the session, Asian shares ex-Japan gained nearly 1%, with Japan's Nikkei rising 1.9% after a Monday holiday. There were hopes Beijing’s sanctions on 11 U.S. citizens  may end this round of tit-for-tat moves between the two powers.

“It has left the White House untouched,” said Vishnu Varathan, head of economics at Mizuho Bank in Singapore. “That gives some relief that China is still giving some priority to the (trade deal) dialogue,” he said.

Elsewhere, the resignation of Lebanon’s government after the devastating explosion in Beirut threatened to upend prospects of a debt restructuring deal in the next few months.

Market participants remain eager to see an agreement on the fifth federal aid bill to help Americans battle with the health crisis was far from over with U.S. cases surpassing 5 million last week. The mood remains cautious as sparring continues in the U.S. Congress over extending fiscal stimulus while economic data such as a steep drop in South Korean exports and a rise in UK jobless rates remain a cause for concern. But upbeat comments by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on the prospects for a bipartisan stimulus deal supported Brent crude futures at near five-month highs and kept the dollar index near a one-week peak.

Commerzbank analysts said markets were shrugging off doubts over the legality of Trump’s order and appeared convinced Congress would agree a deal

"Not without good reason, because in the election campaign both parties have an interest in presenting  themselves well,” they said. "Who wants to be seen as the stingy bad guy even in times of great need?"

General optimism kept safe haven assets under gentle pressure, with gold falling back under $2000 an ounce, down more than 2%, even as the dollar slumped. Precious metals dropped with spot gold south of $2000 and spot silver just about holding onto a USD 28/oz handle having briefly dipped below the figure. No fundamental news flow coincided with the losses across precious metals but action could merely be a function of tech play alongside some profit taking/stops being triggered. But the most likely reason for the back down in gold prices is that 10Y real rates - which gold has been tracking tick for tick - also dipped from recent record lows.

In FX, the dollar slipped as European stocks follow Asian equities higher, with markets taking encouragement from falling hospitalization rates in California and New York and decreasing new infections in Hong Kong. The euro rose as much as 0.5% after ZEW data revealed investors raised their expectations of a rebound for the German economy in August. Italy’s 10-year yield premium over its German equivalent tightened to its lowest level since February.

In rates, ten-year U.S. Treasury yields were near a two-week high of 0.5870% while German yields likewise rose to two-week highs. Treasury yields were cheaper by 1bp to 2.5bp across the curve led by long end, steepening 2s10s, 5s30s by 1.6bp and 1bp; 10-year yields around 0.60% while bunds, gilts both lag by ~1bp. Ahead of 3-year auction, WI yield is ~0.160%, 3bp richer than July’s record low stop at 0.19%; refunding includes $38b 10-year Wednesday and $26b 30-year Thursday; all sizes are records.

In commodities, WTI and Brent continue to grind higher in early trade, with upside more-so a function of the overall risk tone as opposed to fresh fundamental catalysts, albeit prices remain underpinned by the recent upbeat assessment from Saudi, Iraq and Gulf members alongside the constructive outlook by Saudi Aramco post-earnings. Looking ahead, traders will be eyeing the weekly API inventory release, with expectations for crude stockpiles to decline by almost 4mln barrels, but ahead of the weekly release, participants will pay attention to the EIA Short Term energy Outlook which will include US crude production forecasts for the rest of 2020 and 2021. In terms of base metals, Dalian iron ore futures snapped its two-day losing streak as prices were bolstered by falling portside inventories, whilst LME copper prices saw early downside.

Looking at the day ahead, and data releases out include UK unemployment data for June, the German ZEW survey for August, as well as July’s PPI reading and the NFIB small business optimism index from the US. Otherwise, Fed speakers today include Barkin, Daly and Brainard.

Market Snapshot

  • S&P 500 futures up 0.6% to 3,371.75
  • STOXX Europe 600 up 1.8% to 371.07
  • MXAP up 1.1% to 169.75
  • MXAPJ up 0.6% to 562.38
  • Nikkei up 1.9% to 22,750.24
  • Topix up 2.5% to 1,585.96
  • Hang Seng Index up 2.1% to 24,890.68
  • Shanghai Composite down 1.2% to 3,340.29
  • Sensex up 0.9% to 38,507.25
  • Australia S&P/ASX 200 up 0.5% to 6,138.65
  • Kospi up 1.4% to 2,418.67
  • German 10Y yield rose 1.3 bps to -0.513%
  • Euro up 0.3% to $1.1768
  • Brent Futures up 0.8% to $45.33/bbl
  • Italian 10Y yield fell 0.8 bps to 0.795%
  • Spanish 10Y yield fell 0.2 bps to 0.253%
  • Brent Futures up 0.8% to $45.33/bbl
  • Gold spot down 2.1% to $1,985.04
  • U.S. Dollar Index down 0.2% to 93.44

Top Overnight News from Bloomberg

  • Britain’s mounting labor market crisis was underscored by a 220,000 slump in employment during the height of the coronavirus lockdown, the worst decline since the global financial crisis
  • Even as China continues to hit back at the Trump administration, leaders in Beijing are also signaling they want to ease tensions with the U.S. as the clock ticks down to the presidential election
  • Lebanon’s political leaders are expected to launch parliamentary consultations to choose a new prime minister after Hassan Diab’s government resigned on Monday over the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port
  • Hong Kong’s worst coronavirus outbreak is showing signs of coming under control as the city reported the lowest number of new local infections since its resurgence began over a month ago

A quick look at global markets courtesy of NewsSquawk:

Asian equity markets traded higher as risk appetite in the region improved on the tepid performance seen on Wall St where most major indices finished in the green but tech underperformed and indecision lingered amid the ongoing stimulus talks stalemate, mixed views on President Trump’s recent executive orders and ongoing US-China tensions. ASX 200 (+0.5%) was positive as top-weighted financials spearheaded the advances and with the broad sector gains offsetting the weakness in gold miners and tech, while Nikkei 225 (+1.8%) was buoyed on return from an extended weekend helped by a predominantly weaker currency and after bank lending increased by its fastest pace on record. Hang Seng (+2.1%) and Shanghai Comp. (-1.2%) conformed to the upbeat mood after the PBoC upped its liquidity efforts with a CNY 50bln reverse repo injection and although China announced sanctions against officials in retaliation to US sanctions on Hong Kong, they refrained from imposing them on Trump administration officials. Furthermore, casino stocks are red-hot after reports China is to remove the quarantine requirement for Macau effective tomorrow and Next Digital shares surged over 400% in an extension of yesterday’s sharp intraday turnaround as activists piled into the shares in a show of support following the founder’s recent arrest and amid speculation it could sell its listed entity as a shell for other firms to acquire for a back-door listing. Finally, 10yr JGBs were lower and approached 152.00 to the downside as they played catch up to the recent weakness in T-notes and as havens were shunned amid gains in riskier assets, while the lack of BoJ presence in the market also added to the dampened mood for JGBs.

Top Asian News

  • One of World’s Strongest Rallies Propels Kospi to Two-Year High
  • Tough-to-Impress Harvard Grad Molds Fortunes of China’s Rich
  • Singapore’s Economy Posts Worse Contraction in Second Quarter
  • Iron Ore Futures Gain as China’s Economic Recovery Fuels Demand

European equities trade higher across the board [Euro Stoxx 50 +2.7%], with upside accelerating after the cash open as sentiment improved following an initially bleak APAC handover – prompting DAX cash and Sept futures to gain above 13k, albeit fresh fundamental catalysts remain light throughout the session thus far; some modest impetus coincided with vaccine updates from Russia. Firm gains are also seen across all European sectors, with cyclicals/value clearly outpacing defensives, whilst the breakdown paints a similarly performance, with Travel & Leisure topping the chart, closely followed by Oil & Gas, Autos and Banks, whilst the other side of the spectrum sees Healthcare and Chemicals as the laggards. In terms of individual movers, UK listed Cineworld (+17%) extended on earlier gains and resides at the top of the Stoxx 600 amid reports that the group could go private. BP (+3.7%) coattails on the back of firmer energy prices coupled with source reports the group is said to be mulling the sale of its German chemicals’ unit DHC Solvent Chemie. Mediobanca (+5.9%) extends on opening gains after the ECB gave the green-light for shareholder Del Vecchio to increase his stake in the Co. to 13-14% from 10%.

Top European News

  • Hungary Inflation Surges, Putting Rate Policy Back in Focus
  • U.K. Jobs Crisis Worsens as Employment Drops Most Since 2009
  • Vestas Shares Surge as 2020 Revenue Guidance Reintroduced
  • Unilever Warns of Dutch Tax Proposal’s Risk for Plan to Move

In FX, another back up in US Treasury yields and mild steepening along the curve into record refunding has underpinned the Dollar to a degree, but a deeper retracement in spot bullion to test support around the psychological Usd 2000/oz level coincided with the DXY marginally eclipsing Monday’s high at 93.729. However, the Greenback has lost momentum against the backdrop of extended gains in global equities that is keeping high beta/cyclical currencies supported and safe-haven demand suppressed.

  • AUD/NZD/CAD/NOK – As noted above, the Aussie is benefiting from bullish risk sentiment to the extent that declines in NAB business sentiment and conditions have not weighed on Aud/Usd unduly, while the Kiwi is just keeping tabs with 0.6600 ahead of Wednesday’s RBNZ policy meeting even though the bias may be skewed towards a more dovish event compared to the prior assessment and guidance, while NZ reports a local outbreak of COVID-19 cases after a 100+ day run of no infections at all. Elsewhere, elevated crude prices are helping the Loonie and Norwegian Crown remain afloat around 1.3300 and 10.5800 vs the Buck and Euro respectively, with the former now looking for some independent impetus via Canadian housing starts.
  • EUR/CHF/GBP – All benefiting from the aforementioned Dollar fade, with the index now back under 93.500 again and Euro rebounding between 1.1723-83 parameters following a somewhat mixed ZEW survey, the Franc paring losses within a 0.9168-34 range and Pound maintaining 1.3050+ status, but not quite able to retest yesterday’s best a few pips over 1.3100 in wake of mostly weaker than forecast UK labour and pay data.
  • JPY – The Yen is marginally underperforming either side of 106.00 on a loss of safety premium and with Japanese markets back from their long holiday weekend, but little lasting reaction to a wider than anticipated Japanese current account surplus.
  • EM – Oil’s ongoing resurgence is helping the Rouble and Mexican Peso supplement gains vs the flagging Greenback. but the SA Rand has not been deterred by Gold’s meltdown or looming data and has breached key technical resistance in the form of the 100 DMA (17.6240) on the way up towards 17.5400. Similarly, the Turkish Lira is back in recovery mode as tighter CBRT funding conditions prompt some short covering, while Brazil’s Real awaits BCB COPOM minutes from the last meeting.

In commodities, WTI and Brent front-month futures continue to grind higher in early trade, with upside more-so a function of the overall risk tone as opposed to fresh fundamental catalysts, albeit prices remain underpinned by the recent upbeat assessment from Saudi, Iraq and Gulf members alongside the constructive outlook by Saudi Aramco post-earnings. The benchmarks experienced modest downside heading into the European cash open, in which prices briefly dipped below 45/bbl for the Brent Oct contract, whilst WTI Sep tested 42/bbl, before recovering lost ground and some more. Looking ahead, traders will be eyeing the weekly Private Inventory release, with expectations for crude stockpiles to decline by almost 4mln barrels, but ahead of the weekly release, participants will pay attention to the EIA Short Term energy Outlook which will include US crude production forecasts for the rest of 2020 and 2021. Elsewhere, precious metals are under pressure this morning with spot gold south of USD 2000/oz and spot silver just about holding onto a USD 28/oz handle having briefly dipped below the figure. No fundamental news flow coincided with the losses across precious metals but action could merely be a function of tech play alongside some profit taking/stops being triggered. In terms of base metals, Dalian iron ore futures snapped its two-day losing streak as prices were bolstered by falling portside inventories, whilst LME copper prices saw early downside amid the firming USD at the time; albeit, has since nursed losses.

US Event Calendar

  • 6am: NFIB Small Business Optimism 98.8, est. 100.5, prior 100.6
  • 8:30am: PPI Final Demand MoM, est. 0.3%, prior -0.2%; PPI Ex Food and Energy MoM, est. 0.1%, prior -0.3%
  • 8:30am: PPI Final Demand YoY, est. -0.7%, prior -0.8%; PPI Ex Food and Energy YoY, est. 0.0%, prior 0.1%

DB's Jim Reid concludes the overnight wrap

The last 24 hours has pretty much fit the bill as far as slow news days are concerned in markets. That being said there was a somewhat notable milestone reached yesterday as the S&P 500 surpassed the all-time highs from February on a total return basis. This is a fairly astonishing feat when you consider that in late-March the index was down as much as -33.79% from those highs. In price terms it finished +0.27% yesterday which means it’s just -0.76% lower than its all-time closing high. That move also marked the S&P’s 7th consecutive advance for the first time since April 2019.

While the S&P nudged higher, the Dow Jones saw a much larger +1.30% gain, which is somewhat unusual given the strong correlation between the two indices. Indeed, it’s only the 6th time in the last decade that the Dow’s daily move has been more than one percentage point different to the S&P’s (even if 5 of them have been since the pandemic hit). At the other end of the spectrum though, the NASDAQ (-0.39%) slipped for a rare second consecutive session. At the margin the macro news acted as a bit of headwind and included the news of further Chinese sanctions on US officials after similar measures were announced by the US on Friday, with those sanctioned by China including the Republican senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijan said yesterday that “China has decided to impose sanctions on those individuals who behaved badly on Hong Kong-related issues”. And in a further sign that US-China tensions are showing no sign of abating any time soon, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted yesterday that the arrest of Jimmy Lai under Hong Kong’s national security law was “further proof that the CCP has eviscerated Hong Kong’s freedoms and eroded the rights of its people.”

Meanwhile, markets continue to turn a bit of a blind eye to the lack of any progress on the next US fiscal package with no updates to report of yesterday. Nevertheless there was some more positive coronavirus news from the US, with the number of hospitalisations in New York State at the lowest since the start of the pandemic, and the number of cases in Florida at their lowest in over 6 weeks. California and Texas also reported a fall in hospitalizations. Overall, cases in the US grew by 44,647 in last 24 hours or +0.9% while at the same point last week cases had grown by 46,918 or 1.0%. Globally, the number of cases have crossed the 20 million mark. It is worth highlighting that it took 6 months for cases to reach 10 million after the first infection surfaced in China while the second 10 million took only 6 weeks. On the positive side, China has said that it will resume issuing tourist visas for visitors to Macau which has helped casino stocks rally in the region.

Indeed most Asian bourses have posted strong gains this morning. The Hang Seng (+2.40%) has led the way after underperforming on Monday, while the Nikkei (+1.81%) is up following Monday’s holiday. The Kospi (+1.60%) and ASX (+0.84%) all also up while futures on the S&P 500 are also up +0.26%. It’s been fairly quiet for overnight news, however President Trump did say that he’s “very seriously” considering a capital gains tax cut “which would create a lot more jobs”.

Back to yesterday, and over in Europe the moves were pretty similar to the US in terms of the upward direction for equities, though the STOXX 600 (+0.30%) still remains nearly 16% beneath its own record high in February, with European indices having underperformed their US counterparts since the pandemic hit. Energy stocks led the rally on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to a strong performance in oil prices, and both WTI (+1.75%) and Brent (+1.33%) saw solid gains. Staying with the commodities sphere, it’s worth noting that silver was up +2.93% at a 7-year high of $29.13/oz yesterday, though gold (-0.40%) continued to come down from Thursday’s record high with a 2nd successive decline. Looking at other markets, sovereign bonds advanced modestly in Europe, with yields on 10yr bunds (-1.7bps), OATs (-2.3bps) and BTPs (-0.8bps) all moving lower. Indeed yields on 10yr BTPs were down to 0.918%, their lowest level in nearly 6 months. US Treasuries gave up their gains however, with 10yr yields ending the session up +1.2bps at 0.577%. The MOVE index of implied Treasury volatility did nudge up yesterday however still remains just 2 points off the all-time lows from the end of July. Speaking of volatility, the VIX is now down to 22.13, the lowest since 21 February.

Elsewhere, in terms of data yesterday there weren’t a great deal of releases, though we did get the JOLTS job openings from the US, which rose to 5.889m in June (vs. 5.3m expected). That’s their second monthly increase since their low of 4.996m in April, but still over a million lower than their levels in January and February of just over 7m. On a less positive note however, the New York Fed’s Survey of Consumer Expectations showed that households’ expectations on their employment prospects and year-ahead financial situation worsened in July following two months of improvements.

To the day ahead now, and data releases out include UK unemployment data for June, the German ZEW survey for August, as well as July’s PPI reading and the NFIB small business optimism index from the US. Otherwise, Fed speakers today include Barkin, Daly and Brainard.

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Asking the right dumb questions

You’ll have to forgive the truncated newsletter this week. Turns out I brought more back from Chicago than a couple of robot stress balls (the one piece…



You’ll have to forgive the truncated newsletter this week. Turns out I brought more back from Chicago than a couple of robot stress balls (the one piece of swag I will gladly accept). I was telling someone ahead of the ProMat trip that I’ve returned to 2019 travel levels this year. One bit I’d forgotten was the frequency and severity of convention colds — “con crud,” as my comics friends used to call it.

I’ve been mostly housebound for the last few days, dealing with this special brand of Chicago-style deep-dish viral infection. The past three years have no doubt hobbled my immune system, but after catching COVID-19 three times, it’s frankly refreshing to have a classic, good old-fashioned head cold. Sometimes you want the band you see live to play the hits, you know? I’m rediscovering the transformative properties of honey in a cup of tea.

The good news for me is that (and, hopefully, you) is I’ve got a trio of interviews from ProMat that I’ve been wanting to share in Actuator. As I said last week, the trip was really insightful. At one of the after-show events, someone asked me how one gets into tech journalism. It’s something I’ve been asked from time to time, and I always have the same answer. There are two paths in. One is as a technologist; the other is as a journalist.

It’s obvious on the face of it. But the point is that people tend to enter the field in one of two distinct ways. Either they love writing or they’re really into tech. I was the former. I moved to New York City to write about music. It’s something I still do, but it’s never fully paid the bills. The good news for me is I sincerely believe it’s easier to learn about technology than it is to learn how to be a good writer.

I suspect the world of robotics startups is similarly bifurcated. You enter as either a robotics expert or someone with a deep knowledge of the field that’s being automated. I often think about the time iRobot CEO Colin Angle told me that, in order to become a successful roboticist, he first had to become a vacuum salesman. He and his fellow co-founders got into the world through the robotics side. And then there’s Locus robotics, which began as a logistics company that started building robots out of necessity.

Both approaches are valid, and I’m not entirely sure one is better than the other, assuming you’re willing to surround yourself with assertive people who possess deep knowledge in areas where you fall short. I don’t know if I entirely buy the old adage that there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but I do believe that dumb questions are necessary, and you need to get comfortable asking them. You also need to find a group of people you’re comfortable asking. Smart people know the right dumb questions to ask.

Covering robotics has been a similar journey for me. I learned as much about supply chain/logistics as the robots that serve them at last week’s event. That’s been an extremely edifying aspect of writing about the space. In robotics, no one really gets to be a pure roboticist anymore.

Q&A with Rick Faulk

Image Credits: Locus Robotics

I’m gonna kick things off this week with highlights from a trio of ProMat interviews. First up is Locus Robotics CEO, Rick Faulk. The full interview is here.

TC: You potentially have the foundation to automate the entire process.

RF: We absolutely do that today. It’s not a dream.

Lights out?

It’s not lights out. Lights out might happen 10 years from now, but the ROI is not there to do it today. It may be there down the road. We’ve got advanced product groups working on some things that are looking at how to get more labor out of the equation. Our strategy is to minimize labor over time. We’re doing integrations with Berkshire Grey and others to minimize labor. To get to a dark building is going to be years away.

Have you explored front-of-house — retail or restaurants?

We have a lot of calls about restaurants. Our strategy is to focus. There are 135,000 warehouses out there that have to be automated. Less than 5% are automated today. I was in Japan recently, and my meal was filled by a robot. I look around and say, “Hey, we could do that.” But it’s a different market.

What is the safety protocol? If a robot and I are walking toward each other on the floor, will it stop first?

It will stop or they’ll navigate around. It’s unbelievably smart. If you saw what happened on the back end — it’s dynamically planning paths in real time. Each robot is talking to other robots. This robot will tell this robot over here, “You can’t get through here, so go around.” If there’s an accident, we’ll go around it.

They’re all creating a large, cloud-based map together in real time.

That’s exactly what it is.

When was the company founded?

[In] 2014. We actually spun out of a company called Quiet Logistics. It was a 3PL. We were fully automated with Kiva. Amazon bought Kiva in 2012, and said, “We’re going to take the product off the market.” We looked for another robot and couldn’t find one, so we decided to build one.

The form factors are similar.

Their form factor is basically the bottom. It goes under a shelf and brings the shelf back to the station to do a pick. The great thing about our solution is we can go into a brownfield building. They’re great and they work, but it will also take four times the number of robots to do the same work our robots do.

Amazon keeps coming up in my conversations in the space as a motivator for warehouses to adopt technologies to remain competitive. But there’s an even deeper connection here.

Amazon is actually our best marketing organization. They’re setting the bar for SLAs (service-level agreements). Every single one of these 3PLs walking around here [has] to do same- or next-day delivery, because that’s what’s being demanded by their clients.

Do the systems’ style require in-person deployment?

The interesting thing during COVID is we actually deployed a site over FaceTime.

Someone walked around the warehouse with a phone?

Yeah. It’s not our preferred method. They probably actually did a better job than we did. It was terrific.

As far as efficiency, that could make a lot of sense, moving forward.

Yeah. It does still require humans to go in, do the installation and training — that sort of thing. I think it will be a while before we get away from that. But it’s not hard to do. We take folks off the street, train them and in a month they know how to deploy.

Where are they manufactured?

We manufacture them in Boston, believe it or not. We have contract manufacturers manufacturing some components, like the base and the mast. And then we integrate them together in Boston. We do the final assembly and then do all the shipments.

As you expand sales globally, are there plans to open additional manufacturing sites?

We will eventually. Right now we’re doing some assemblies in Amsterdam. We’re doing all refurbishments for Europe in Amsterdam. […] There’s a big sustainability story, too. Sustainability is really important to big clients like DHL. Ours is an inherently green model. We have over 12,000 robots in the field. You can count the number of robots we’ve scrapped on two hands. Everything gets recycled to the field. A robot will come back after three or four years and we’ll rewrap it. We may have to swap out a camera, a light or something. And then it goes back into service under a RaaS model.

What happened in the cases where they had to be scrapped?

They got hit by forklifts and they were unrepairable. I mean crushed.

Any additional fundraising on the horizon?

We’ve raised about $430 million, went through our Series F. Next leg in our financing will be an IPO. Probably. We have the numbers to do it now. The market conditions are not right to do it, for all the reasons you know.

Do you have a rough timeline?

It will be next year, but the markets have got to recover. We don’t control that.

Q&A with Jerome Dubois

Image Credits: 6 River Systems

Next up, fittingly, is Jerome Dubois, the co-founder of Locus’ chief competitor, 6 River Systems (now a part of Shopify). Full interview here.

TC: Why was [the Shopify acquisition] the right move? Had you considered IPO’ing or moving in a different direction?

JD: In 2019, when we were raising money, we were doing well. But Shopify presents itself and says, “Hey, we’re interested in investing in the space. We want to build out a logistics network. We need technology like yours to make it happen. We’ve got the right team; you know about the space. Let’s see if this works out.”

What we’ve been able to do is leverage a tremendous amount of investment from Shopify to grow the company. We were about 120 employees at 30 sites. We’re at 420 employees now and over 110 sites globally.

Amazon buys Kiva and cuts off third-party access to their robots. That must have been a discussion you had with Shopify.

Up front. “If that’s what the plan is, we’re not interested.” We had a strong positive trajectory; we had strong investors. Everyone was really bullish on it. That’s not what it’s been. It’s been the opposite. We’ve been run independently from Shopify. We continue to invest and grow the business.

From a business perspective, I understand Amazon’s decision to cut off access and give itself a leg up. What’s in it for Shopify if anyone can still deploy your robots?

Shopify’s mantra is very different from Amazon. I’m responsible for Shopify’s logistics. Shopify is the brand behind the brand, so they have a relationship with merchants and the customers. They want to own a relationship with the merchant. It’s about building the right tools and making it easier for the merchant to succeed. Supply chain is a huge issue for lots of merchants. To sell the first thing, they have to fulfill the first thing, so Shopify is making it easier for them to print off a shipping label.

Now, if you’ve got to do 100 shipping letters a day, you’re not going to do that by yourself. You want us to fulfill it for you, and Shopify built out a fulfillment network using a lot of third parties, and our technology is the backbone of the warehouse.

Watching you — Locus or Fetch — you’re more or less maintaining a form factor. Obviously, Amazon is diversifying. For many of these customers, I imagine the ideal robot is something that’s not only mobile and autonomous, but also actually does the picking itself. Is this something you’re exploring?

Most of the AMR (autonomous mobile robot) scene has gotten to a point where the hardware is commoditized. The robots are generally pretty reliable. Some are maybe higher quality than others, but what matters the most is the workflows that are being enacted by these robots. The big thing that’s differentiating Locus and us is, we actually come in with predefined workflows that do a specific kind of work. It’s not just a generic robot that comes in and does stuff. So you can integrate it into your workflow very quickly, because it knows you want to do a batch pick and sortation. It knows that you want to do discreet order picking. Those are all workflows that have been predefined and prefilled in the solution.

With respect to the solving of the grabbing and picking, I’ve been on the record for a long time saying it’s a really hard problem. I’m not sure picking in e-comm or out of the bin is the right place for that solution. If you think about the infrastructure that’s required to solve going into an aisle and grabbing a pink shirt versus a blue shirt in a dark aisle using robots, it doesn’t work very well, currently. That’s why goods-to-person makes more sense in that environment. If you try to use arms, a Kiva-like solution or a shuttle-type solution, where the inventory is being brought to a station and the lighting is there, then I think arms are going to be effective there.

Are these the kinds of problems you invest R&D in?

Not the picking side. In the world of total addressable market — the industry as a whole, between Locus, us, Fetch and others — is at maybe 5% penetration. I think there’s plenty of opportunity for us to go and implement a lot of our technology in other places. I also think the logical expansion is around the case and pallet operations.

Interoperability is an interesting conversation. No one makes robots for every use case. If you want to get near full autonomous, you’re going to have a lot of different robots.

We are not going to be a fit for 100% of the picks in the building. For the 20% that we’re not doing, you still leverage all the goodness of our management consoles, our training and that kind of stuff, and you can extend out with [the mobile fulfillment application]. And it’s not just picking. It’s receiving, it’s put away and whatever else. It’s the first step for us, in terms of proving wall-to-wall capabilities.

What does interoperability look like beyond that?

We do system interoperability today. We interface with automation systems all the time out in the field. That’s an important part of interoperability. We’re passing important messages on how big a box we need to build and in what sequence it needs to be built.

When you’re independent, you’re focused on getting to portability. Does that pressure change when you’re acquired by a Shopify?

I think the difference with Shopify is, it allows us to think more long-term in terms of doing the right thing without having the pressure of investors. That was one of the benefits. We are delivering lots of longer-term software bets.

Q&A with Peter Chen


Image Credits: Covariant

Lastly, since I’ve chatted with co-founder Pieter Abbeel a number of times over the years, it felt right to have a formal conversation with Covariant CEO Peter Chen. Full interview here.

TC: A lot of researchers are taking a lot of different approaches to learning. What’s different about yours?

PC: A lot of the founding team was from OpenAI — like three of the four co-founders. If you look at what OpenAI has done in the last three to four years to the language space, it’s basically taking a foundation model approach to language. Before the recent ChatGPT, there were a lot of natural language processing AIs out there. Search, translate, sentiment detection, spam detection — there were loads of natural language AIs out there. The approach before GPT is, for each use case, you train a specific AI to it, using a smaller subset of data. Look at the results now, and GPT basically abolishes the field of translation, and it’s not even trained to translation. The foundation model approach is basically, instead of using small amounts of data that’s specific to one situation or train a model that’s specific to one circumstance, let’s train a large foundation-generalized model on a lot more data, so the AI is more generalized.

You’re focused on picking and placing, but are you also laying the foundation for future applications?

Definitely. The grasping capability or pick and place capability is definitely the first general capability that we’re giving the robots. But if you look behind the scenes, there’s a lot of 3D understanding or object understanding. There are a lot of cognitive primitives that are generalizable to future robotic applications. That being said, grasping or picking is such a vast space we can work on this for a while.

You go after picking and placing first because there’s a clear need for it.

There’s clear need, and there’s also a clear lack of technology for it. The interesting thing is, if you came by this show 10 years ago, you would have been able to find picking robots. They just wouldn’t work. The industry has struggled with this for a very long time. People said this couldn’t work without AI, so people tried niche AI and off-the-shelf AI, and they didn’t work.

Your systems are feeding into a central database and every pick is informing machines how to pick in the future.

Yeah. The funny thing is that almost every item we touch passes through a warehouse at some point. It’s almost a central clearing place of everything in the physical world. When you start by building AI for warehouses, it’s a great foundation for AI that goes out of warehouses. Say you take an apple out of the field and bring it to an agricultural plant — it’s seen an apple before. It’s seen strawberries before.

That’s a one-to-one. I pick an apple in a fulfillment center, so I can pick an apple in a field. More abstractly, how can these learnings be applied to other facets of life?

If we want to take a step back from Covariant specifically, and think about where the technology trend is going, we’re seeing an interesting convergence of AI, software and mechatronics. Traditionally, these three fields are somewhat separate from each other. Mechatronics is what you’ll find when you come to this show. It’s about repeatable movement. If you talk to the salespeople, they tell you about reliability, how this machine can do the same thing over and over again.

The really amazing evolution we have seen from Silicon Valley in the last 15 to 20 years is in software. People have cracked the code on how to build really complex and highly intelligent looking software. All of these apps we’re using [are] really people harnessing the capabilities of software. Now we are at the front seat of AI, with all of the amazing advances. When you ask me what’s beyond warehouses, where I see this really going is the convergence of these three trends to build highly autonomous physical machines in the world. You need the convergence of all of the technologies.

You mentioned ChatGPT coming in and blindsiding people making translation software. That’s something that happens in technology. Are you afraid of a GPT coming in and effectively blindsiding the work that Covariant is doing?

That’s a good question for a lot of people, but I think we had an unfair advantage in that we started with pretty much the same belief that OpenAI had with building foundational models. General AI is a better approach than building niche AI. That’s what we have been doing for the last five years. I would say that we are in a very good position, and we are very glad OpenAI demonstrated that this philosophy works really well. We’re very excited to do that in the world of robotics.

News of the week

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

The big news of the week quietly slipped out the day after ProMat drew to a close. Berkshire Grey, which had a strong presence at the event, announced on Friday a merger agreement that finds SoftBank Group acquiring all outstanding capital stock it didn’t already own. The all-cash deal is valued at around $375 million.

The post-SPAC life hasn’t been easy for the company, in spite of a generally booming market for logistics automation. Locus CEO Rick Faulk told me above that the company plans to IPO next year, after the market settles down. The category is still a young one, and there remains an open question around how many big players will be able to support themselves. For example, 6 River Systems and Fetch have both been acquired, by Shopify and Zebra, respectively.

“After a thoughtful review of value creation opportunities available to Berkshire Grey, we are pleased to have reached this agreement with SoftBank, which we believe offers significant value to our stockholders,” CEO Tom Wagner said in a release. “SoftBank is a great partner and this merger will strengthen our ability to serve customers with our disruptive AI robotics technology as they seek to become more efficient in their operations and maintain a competitive edge.”

Unlike the Kiva deal that set much of this category in motion a decade ago, SoftBank maintains that it’s bullish about offering BG’s product to existing and new customers. Says managing partner, Vikas J. Parekh:

As a long-time partner and investor in Berkshire Grey, we have a shared vision for robotics and automation. Berkshire Grey is a pioneer in transformative, AI-enabled robotic technologies that address use cases in retail, eCommerce, grocery, 3PL, and package handling companies. We look forward to partnering with Berkshire Grey to accelerate their growth and deliver ongoing excellence for customers.

Container ships at dock

Image Credits: John Lamb / Getty Images

A healthy Series A this week from Venti Technologies. The Singapore/U.S. firm, whose name translates to “large Starbucks cup,” raised $28.8 million, led by LG Technology Ventures. The startup is building autonomous systems for warehouses, ports and the like.

“If you have a big logistics facility where you run vehicles, the largest cost is human capital: drivers,” co-founder and CEO Heidi Wyle tells TechCrunch. “Our customers are telling us that they expect to save over 50% of their operations costs with self-driving vehicles. Think they will have huge savings.”


Image Credits: Neubility / Neubility

This week in fun pivots, Neubility is making the shift from adorable last-mile delivery robots to security bots. This isn’t the company’s first pivot, either. Kate notes that it’s now done so five times since its founding. Fifth time’s the charm, right?

Neubility currently has 50 robots out in the world, a number it plans to raise significantly, with as many as 400 by year’s end. That will be helped along by the $2.6 million recently tacked onto its existing $26 million Series A.

Model-Prime emerged out of stealth this week with a $2.3 million seed round, bringing its total raise to $3.3 million. The funding was led by Eniac Ventures and featured Endeavors and Quiet Capital. The small Pittsburgh-based firm was founded by veterans of the self-driving world, Arun Venkatadri and Jeanine Gritzer, who were seeking a way to create reusable data logs for robotics companies.

The startup says its tech, “handles important tasks like pulling the metadata, automated tagging, and making logs searchable. The vision is to make the robotics industry more like web apps, or mobile apps, where it now seems silly to build your own data solution when you could just use Datadog or Snowflake instead.”

Image Credits: Saildrone

Saildrone, meanwhile, is showcasing Voyager, a 33-foot uncrewed water vehicle. The system sports cameras, radar and an acoustic system designed to map a body of water down to 900 feet. The company has been testing the boat out in the world since last February and is set to begin full-scale production at a rate of a boat a week.

Image Credits: MIT

Finally, some research out of MIT. Robust MADER is a new version of MADER, which the team introduced in 2020 to help drones avoid in-air collisions.

“MADER worked great in simulations, but it hadn’t been tested in hardware. So, we built a bunch of drones and started flying them,” says grad student Kota Kondo. “The drones need to talk to each other to share trajectories, but once you start flying, you realize pretty quickly that there are always communication delays that introduce some failures.”

The new version adds in a delay before setting out on a new trajectory. That added time will allow it to receive and process information from fellow drones and adjust as needed. Kondo adds, “If you want to fly safer, you have to be careful, so it is reasonable that if you don’t want to collide with an obstacle, it will take you more time to get to your destination. If you collide with something, no matter how fast you go, it doesn’t really matter because you won’t reach your destination.”

Fair enough.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch


Here you go, way too fast. Don’t slow down, you’re gonna crash. Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na. (Subscribe to Actuator!)



Asking the right dumb questions by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

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Cuban election: high turnout despite opposition call for boycott

Cubans turned out in higher numbers than expected at the recent elections.



Results of the five-yearly Cuban national assembly elections on March 26 will have disappointed opposition figures, who had called for a boycott to signal unhappiness with the government’s performance.

Two-thirds of the electorate submitted valid votes (that were not spoiled nor blank) despite opposition calls for people to stay away. Given all the difficulties and tensions of the past few years, the high numbers of voters seems to suggest that, although it is under strain, the Cuban political system is more resilient than expected. Turnout had been dropping since the days of former leader Fidel Castro, and poor voter numbers could have signalled significant dissatisfaction with the current president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez.

One of the reasons for the high turnout may be a sense of communal rejection of US threats to national sovereignty, the importance of which should not be ignored, according to historians such as Louis Pérez. Tightening of US sanctions has certainly contributed to everyday suffering and economic hardship. Another reason for a high turnout may be President Díaz-Canel Bermúdez’s efforts to push ahead with reforms, increasing accountability and creating more opportunities for private enterprise and participation in decision-making at local level.

The election results and turnout of 76% might also be interpreted as an indication that among the majority who still support the government even in the middle of the recession, there is an increased willingness to actively express preferences rather than offer unconditional loyalty. This shift is expressed in the growing proportion (up from 20% of valid votes in 2018 to 28% in 2023) who selected specific candidates from the list for their constituency, rather than fully complying with official encouragement to simply indicate acceptance of the complete slate.

The backdrop

The elections mark the end of the first term of Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, during which the population has suffered from a severe recession.

Since the last election in 2018, the country has witnessed a series of major disasters, including a plane crash, three hurricanes, three tropical storms, a tornado, a gas explosion that destroyed a hotel and a huge fire at the country’s main oil depot. But the economic impact of those disasters were dwarfed by two further blows: the COVID pandemic and, above all, US foreign policy towards Cuba.

Despite the development and successful roll-out of effective vaccines, the possibility of an economic bounce-back from the COVID-induced recession (an 11% fall in GDP) has been effectively blocked by unprecedented restrictions on Cuba’s access to international trade and finance resulting from US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and maintained under Joe Biden’s presidency.

March 2023 election: type of vote

Cuban voting by type of vote. Author based on Cuban electoral commission figures., Author provided

The effects of COVID and tightened US sanctions have combined with the sorry state of the country’s infrastructure. Another factor was caused by the price of food and energy imports soaring between 2020 and 2022, which resulted in power outages and food shortages. A 2021 currency reform exacerbated disruption and hardships by sparking an inflationary surge.

Read more: Cuba: why record numbers of people are leaving as the most severe economic crisis since the 1990s hits -- a photo essay

Long queues and a growing sense of frustration also contributed to unprecedented protests in mid-2021 and a record-breaking wave of emigration. In 2022, almost 250,000 people – over 2% of the population – are reported to have left for the US, including many of Cuba’s youngest and brightest.

How do elections work?

The Cuban electoral system was originally created as a “participatory” rather than “representative” system of democracy in an attempt to avoid the political conflict, violence, corruption and foreign interference experienced before the 1959 revolution, as described by political scientist William LeoGrande.

As the Cuban Communist party is the only legal political party, Cuban elections are not contests between parties. The 470 candidates for the national assembly do not represent the party. Instead, around half of them are representatives of municipal governments (themselves elected in municipal elections) and the rest are nominated by bigger organisations. These include neighbourhood committees, official trade unions, the women’s federation, students’ organisations and the small farmers’ association. Local electoral commissions then select one candidate for each seat from the list of nominated candidates. It is not a requirement for candidates, members of mass organisations or the electoral commission to be members of the party; however, many are, effectively making it impossible for self-proclaimed dissidents to be selected.

The local electoral commissions, whose members are selected from the mass organisations, are responsible for the organisation of the ballots and counting of the vote. Once selected, candidates must receive over 50% of valid votes to become a member of the national assembly. Voters can either accept all the candidates on the list for their constituency (a “united vote”) or select some and not others. Voting is secret and voluntary.

Over the years, and particularly over the past decade, efforts have been made to ensure that candidates are representative of the population. They include ministers, workers, farmers, educators, managers and health workers. The average age of candidates in 2023, at 46 years, is lower than previous elections, while the proportion who are non-white has increased (45% compared with 41% in 2018), and 53% are women.

The national turnout for these elections, confirmed by the national electoral commission, was 76%. Although this is above the turnout in legislative elections in the UK (67.3% in 2019) and US (at 62.8% of the voting age population in 2020 and 47.5% in 2022, according to the Pew Research Center), it is significantly less than the 86% recorded in the last national election in 2018. The abstention rate increased, from 14% registered electors in 2018 to 24% in 2023, and in blank or spoiled ballots, from 5.6% to 9.7%, a possible indication that the hardship of the past few years have taken their toll on public confidence in the government.

Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who lacks the status and charisma of his predecessors Fidel Castro and his brother, Raúl Castro (who were both leaders of the 1959 revolution), will need to be alert to concerns of the electorate as he begins his second term. He will need to find ways to improve living standards quickly. He has pushed ahead with reforms to allow Cubans to create private companies, foster innovation through university-enterprise links, and devolve budgets and decision-making to enable municipal authorities to directly respond to local demands.

However, with inflation persisting and fiscal resources overstretched, his scope for macroeconomic stimulation is restricted. A major obstacle is the US government’s seeming commitment to retain the most important economic sanctions, but Díaz-Canel Bermúdez must prevent further erosion in confidence in Cuba’s government and its political system.

Emily Morris has received funding from University College London, the Ford Foundation and the British Embassy, Havana.

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Aspen looks to rebound in production and revenue after Covid-19

Last year, South African-based vaccine manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare was facing reports that it had not received a single order for its manufactured Covid-19…



Last year, South African-based vaccine manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare was facing reports that it had not received a single order for its manufactured Covid-19 shots and that manufacturing lines were sitting idle. But now the vaccine producer is looking to turn things around.

Aspen’s disclosure of its financial results in March unveiled that manufacturing revenue had decreased by 12% to R 603 million ($33.8 million), which Lorraine Hill, Aspen Group’s COO, said is attributable to lower Covid vaccine sales.

However, things were not all negative as Aspen said it was in negotiations with customers seeking to “secure a portion of Aspen’s sterile manufacturing capabilities.”

Stephen Saad

Aspen CEO Steven Saad said in a release:

The Group’s performance under challenging trading conditions was anticipated and is aligned to guidance previously shared for the first half of the financial year. Consistent with our previous communications, we are optimistic that the results for the second half of this financial year will not only exceed those reported for the first half but will also exceed those of the second half of the prior year.

Aspen had initially invested in three sterile manufacturing lines at its production site in Gqeberha, South Africa, and had plans to invest in two more production lines. The intention was to transition the manufacturing of its own anesthetic products from third-party producers to enhance the supply, Hill told Endpoints News in an email.

“The COVID pandemic, however, fast-tracked our plans to manufacture vaccines as we pivoted and re-prioritized in-housing our anesthetic products to manufacture the COVID vaccine,” Hill said.

Hill stated that in August of last year, Aspen entered a long-term agreement with India’s Serum Institute for Aspen to manufacture, market and eventually distribute four vaccines in Africa. The Serum Institute deal will also help Aspen gain further entry into the routine vaccine market, which has “sustainable” demand and can diversify the manufacturer’s portfolio, Hill told Endpoints.

“This is an important milestone as Aspen seeks to optimize our sterile manufacturing capacity in Gqeberha. The four products are Pneumococcal vaccine, Rotavirus vaccine, Polyvalent Meningococcal Vaccine and the Hexavalent Vaccine with transfer activities currently underway,” Hill said.

The company also secured agreements with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations in the meantime. Hill added that the grant funding from these deals has helped to offset the production costs related to starting production of the Serum Institute vaccines.

Saad added in the release that Aspen expects the new manufacturing business to bring in around R 2 billion ($112 million) in 2024.

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