The Emerging Evidence Of Hyperinflation
The Emerging Evidence Of Hyperinflation
Authored by Alasdair Macleod via GoldMoney.com,
Note: all references to inflation are of the quantity of money and not to the effect on prices unless otherwise indicated.
In last week’s article I showed why empirical evidence of fiat money collapses are relevant to monetary conditions today.
In this article I explain why the purchasing power of the dollar is hostage to foreign sellers, and that if the Fed continues with current monetary policies the dollar will follow the same fate as John Law’s livre in 1720. As always in these situations, there is little public understanding of money and the realisation that monetary policy is designed to tax people for the benefit of their government will come as an unpleasant shock. The speed at which state money then collapses in its utility will be swift. This article concentrates on the US dollar, central to other fiat currencies, and where the monetary and financial imbalances are greatest.
In last week’s Goldmoney Insight, Lessons on inflation from the past, I described how there were certain characteristics of Germany’s 1914-23 inflation that collapsed the paper mark which are relevant to our current situation. I drew a parallel between John Law’s inflation and his Mississippi bubble in 1715-20 and the Federal Reserve’s policy of inflating the money supply to sustain a bubble in financial assets today. Law’s bubble popped and resulted in the destruction of his currency and the Fed is pursuing the same policies on the grandest of scales. The contemporary inflations of all the major state-issued currencies will similarly risk a collapse in their purchasing powers, and rapidly at that.
The purpose of monetary inflation is always stated by central banks as being to support the economy consistent with maximum employment and a price inflation target of two per cent. The real purpose is to fund government deficits, which are rising partly due to higher future welfare liabilities becoming current and partly due to the political class finding new reasons to spend money. Underlying this profligacy has been unsustainable tax burdens on underperforming economies. And finally, the coup de grace has been administered by the covid-19 shutdowns.
The effect of monetary inflation, even at two per cent increases, is to transfer wealth from savers, salary-earners, pensioners and welfare beneficiaries to the government. In no way, other than perhaps from temporary distortions, does this benefit the people as a whole. It also transfers wealth from savers to borrowers by diminishing the value of capital over time.
Inflation of the money supply is now going into hyperdrive, so those negative effects are going to get much worse. It is time to move from empirical evidence to the situation today, which is the unprecedented increase in the global rate of monetary inflation and specifically that of the world’s reserve currency, the US dollar.
The dollar’s inflation
No doubt, the reluctance to reduce, or at least contain budget deficits is ruled out by the presidential election in November. But whoever wins, it seems unlikely that government spending will be reined in or tax revenue increased. For the universal truth of unbacked state currencies is that so long as they can be issued to cover budget deficits they will be issued. And as an inflated currency ends up buying less, the pace of its issuance all else being equal will accelerate to compensate. It is one of the driving forces behind hyperinflation of the quantity of money.
Since the Lehman crisis in August 2008, the pace of monetary inflation has accelerated above its long-term average, and the effect is illustrated in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1 includes the latest calculation of the fiat money quantity, to 1 August 2020. FMQ is the sum of Austrian money supply and bank reserves held at the Fed — in other words fiat dollars both in circulation and not in public circulation. Because commercial banks are free to deploy their reserves within the regulatory framework, either as a basis for expanding bank credit or to be withdrawn from the Fed and put into direct circulation, whether in circulation or not bank reserves at the Fed should be regarded as part of the fiat money total.
It can be seen that the rate of FMQ’s growth was fairly constant over a long period of time — 5.86% annualised compounded monthly to be exact — until the Lehman crisis when the rate of growth then took off. Since Leman failed in 2008 FMQ’s total has grown nearly 300%.
Since last March growth in the FMQ has been unprecedented, becoming almost vertical on the chart, triggered by the Fed’s response to the coronavirus. And now a second wave of it has hit Europe and the early stages of a resurgence appears to be hitting the land of the dollar as well. With lingering hopes of a V-shaped recovery being banished, a further substantial increase in FMQ is all but certain.
Already, FMQ exceeds GDP. If we take the last time things were normal, say, in 2005 when the US economy had recovered from the dot-com crash and before bank credit expansion and mortgage lending become overblown, we see that in a functioning relationship FMQ should be between 35%—40% of GDP. But with the US economy now crashing and FMQ accelerating, FMQ is likely to be in excess of 125% of GDP in the coming months.
What is the source of all that extra money? It is raised through quantitative easing by the central bank in a system that bends rules that are intended to stop the Fed from just printing money and handing it to the government. Yet it achieves just that. The US Treasury issues bonds by auction in the normal fashion. The major banks through their prime brokers bid for them in the knowledge that the Fed sets the yield for different maturities through its market operations. The Fed buys Treasury bonds up to the previously announced monthly QE limit, only now there is no limit, giving the primary brokers a guaranteed turn and crediting the selling banks’ reserve accounts with the proceeds.
This arm’s length arrangement absolves the Fed of the sin of direct money-printing but evades the rules by indirect money-printing. The Treasury gets extra funding through this roundabout arrangement. Participating banks generally expand their bank credit to absorb the new issue, which they then sell to the Fed, which in turn credits the banks’ reserve accounts. The Treasury gets the proceeds of the bonds to cover the deficit in government spending, and the banks get expanded reserves. The Fed’s balance sheet sees an increase in its liabilities to commercial banks and an increase in its assets of Treasury bonds. The Fed also funds agency debt in this manner, mostly representing mortgage finance.
Under President Trump, the Treasury’s current deficit initially expanded as a planned supply-side stimulus to the US economy to the tune of just over a trillion dollars before covid-19 created additional financial chaos. Businesses experienced severe dislocation and have suffered a widespread collapse. Consequently, and together with the direct injection of money into each household, the Congressional Budget Office revised its trillion-dollar deficit for the financial year just ended as the following screenshot from its website indicates:
Note how half the government’s income arose from revenues and half is covered by sales of government debt to the public (i.e. the commercial banks), which at the end of fiscal 2020 (ended yesterday) is estimated to total $20.3 trillion. But given that the first half of that fiscal year was pre-lockdown and the annualised rate of the deficit at that time was about a trillion dollars, simplistically the annualised rate of the deficit’s increase since last March is in the region of $4.4 trillion. Incidentally, the CBO’s economic projections look too optimistic given recent events, in which case budget projections for this new calendar year will be adjusted for considerably lower revenue figures, and significantly greater outlays at the least. We shall address the price inflation estimates later in this article.
Why QE is inflationary
On 23 March the Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) announced unlimited QE for both US Treasury stock and agency debt as well as however much liquidity commercial banks need.[i] While judging the expansion of the budget deficit to be inflationary, it is only inflationary to the extent that it is not financed by savers, either increasing the proportion of their savings relative to immediate spending, or to the extent they divert their savings from other investment media. In the latter case, citizens have been committing their savings more to equity markets than bond markets. The returns for discretionary portfolios managed on the public’s behalf have also found better returns in equities than in government and corporate bonds, though when assessing increasing investment risk Treasury stock is seen to be a safe haven in bond portfolios. Pension funds and insurance companies also allocate cash flow to US Treasuries and to the extent that this is the case, the issuance of further government debt is non-inflationary.
Furthermore, if a bank does not increase its balance sheet by expanding bank credit, its participation in the Fed’s QE programme is not inflationary either. For this to be the case, it would have to sell existing stock, call in loans or subscribe on behalf of clients.
By seeing them through a Nelsonian blind eye these factors give some encouragement to the Fed in funding the Treasury through QE, particularly since the statistics reflect a jump in savings, as the following chart from the St Louis Fed illustrates.
More correctly, the chart reflects the fall in spending when people locked down, as well as the $1,200 stimulus checks distributed to households at end-April, which marked the peak in the chart. Since then, there has been some downward adjustment, partly because some spending has returned, and the backlog of essential spending, such as property maintenance, is being addressed.
The evidence is not yet strong enough to claim this statistical shift in savings habits is permanent. Furthermore, being calculated as the percentage of personal disposable income that is not spent and given the high levels of personal debt throughout the population, much of these so-called savings will have disappeared into credit card and debt repayments. It is more likely that with rising unemployment and roughly 80% of the American salaried population living paycheque to paycheque, that far from there being a higher savings rate, personal finances have deteriorated so much that money is being withdrawn from savings on a net basis, to acquire life’s essentials. In fact, the savings rate is one of those unmeasurable economic concepts, and the reality is that Joe Average is worse off in today’s contracting economy and is drawing down on savings in order to subsist.
The non-inflationary element of QE then boils down roughly to increases in insurance company and pension fund investments in Treasury stock and the increase in bank holdings and reserves at the Fed not funded through the expansion of bank credit. But this creates another factor: the extent to which existing bond investments are sold in order to subscribe for Treasury stock inevitably undermines corporate bond markets and their ability to satisfy their funding requirements. And it is for this reason the Fed has appointed BlackRock to spearhead its purchases of corporate debt to ensure liquidity is available for those markets and to put a cap on risk premiums. Therefore, where banks do not expand credit to buy new Treasury stock, the Fed steps in to compensate with additional monetary inflation.
It has been necessary to go into the mechanisms behind funding government deficits in some detail to establish the inflationary consequences of QE, and to refute claims by monetary authorities and others that QE is either not or only partly inflationary, and so is consistent with the Fed’s mandate. No, with the exception of insurance and pension fund subscriptions, the Fed’s QE is almost pure monetary inflation
The relationship between inflation and prices
Assuming no change in the average cash balances held by a population, over time there must be an inverse relationship between the expansion in the quantity of money in circulation and the diminution of its purchasing power. This is unarguable in logic and to argue otherwise is to subscribe to a version of monetary perpetual motion. By the same token, while the effects on individual prices also have to allow for changes in the factors specific to them, the effects of monetary debasement on the general level of prices should be clear. Now it is time to introduce a second factor; changes in the average cash balances held by a population.
Changes in cash balances are an expression of relative preferences between money and goods. If a population as a whole is satisfied with the stability of money as the medium of exchange, it will be happy to retain balances surplus to its immediate needs. We see this even with inflating currencies, such as the Japanese yen, where irrespective of the level of interest rates monetary expansion merely accumulates as bank deposits. It is unusual for a population to go to the extremes evident in Japan, but equally, a population which realises its currency is declining in purchasing power has every reason to dispose of it in favour of goods, maintaining lower balances in consequence.
The complete rejection of a currency as the medium of exchange renders it utterly valueless and is the common outcome to every hyperinflationary collapse. Governments that become ensnared by inflationary financing face the growing certainty of a Venezuelan outcome.
For now, monetary authorities around the world are relying on public ignorance about money and the theory of exchange. Those who trouble themselves to consider how their currency’s purchasing power is actually changing will notice how it is declining more rapidly than official statistics say. This is deliberate. After the introduction of widespread indexation in the early 1980s governments devised methods to reduce the costs incurred. Changes in statistical methodology have achieved that, with consumer price indices now entirely suppressed, so much so that central banks claim to be struggling to get the CPI to rise to its two per cent target.
The evidence from independent analysts in America such as Shadowstats and the Chapwood Index is that real world prices there are rising at closer to a ten per cent rate and have been for the last ten years. With the FMQ having grown at a monthly compounding annualised rate of 9.6% from the Lehman crisis to the end of 2019, the truth about price inflation appears closer to independent analysts’ calculation than the official CPI. Furthermore, there is little evidence of noticeable change in savings rates or cash hoarding over the period, which would have affected the general level of prices.
The first to realise that the purchasing power of a currency is declining and will continue to do so are usually those who own it for reasons other than as a normal medium of exchange. These are foreign holders who have accumulated currencies other than their own government’s fiat money as a result of trade and have chosen to retain it instead of selling it in the foreign exchanges. And there is a second group of foreign holders which has diversified investment portfolios into foreign financial markets.
These groups are primarily sensitive to external economic and financial factors, such as changes in the outlook for trade, financial asset values and their requirements to hold liquidity in their own currencies. It stands to reason that a state that manages to run continuing deficits on the balance of trade and retain an accumulation of foreign ownership of its currency is vulnerable to changes in international sentiment. This is the situation the dollar finds itself in, with US Treasury TIC figures revealing foreigners own financial securities worth approximately $20.6 trillion, and additionally bank deposits and commercial and US Treasury short-term bills totalling $6.15 trillion. In other words, foreign ownership of the dollar is 130% of the CBO’s estimate of current US GDP.
The accumulation of foreign dollar positions was due to a number of factors: the dollar is the international reserve currency, trade expectations were of continual global growth, the perpetuation of US trade deficits, increasing portfolio investment and a rising dollar. Global trade is now contracting, and the dollar has begun to decline. Commercial priorities are changing from global expansion to conserving capital.
With the global economic outlook deteriorating rapidly, the dollar is notably over-owned by foreigners, which is not counterbalanced by American ownership of foreign currencies. Most of US foreign financial interests are denominated in dollars with exposure to foreign currencies remarkably small at $714bn at end-June.
China has already declared a policy of reducing her dollar investments in US Treasury bonds and is selling her dollars to buy commodities. Few realise it, but China is doing what ordinary people do when they begin to abandon a currency — dumping it for tangible goods which will cost more in future due to the dollar’s declining purchasing power. And as the dollar’s purchasing power declines measured in commodities more nations are likely to follow China’s lead.
When you see a chart of the expansion of money supply, as illustrated in Figure 2 below and combine that with a falling dollar in the foreign exchanges, it is only a matter of time before increasing members of the domestic population begin to follow the foreigners’ lead.
Compared with the past, there is a generation of millennials which through their understanding of cryptocurrencies has learned about the debasement of fiat currencies by their governments. It remains to be seen whether this knowledge will bring forward the general public’s understanding of monetary affairs for an earlier abandonment of money for goods.
Banking and its cyclical consequences
Not only are some of the global systemically important banks (G-SIBs) highly leveraged on their balance sheets — which one would expect at the end of a period of bank credit expansion — but in most cases stock markets are valuing their equity at a fraction of their balance sheet book values, contrasting with outrageously high valuations for non-financial stocks in the most severe economic downturn ever seen in peacetime.
Table 1 below illustrates the point by incorporating the combination of balance sheet gearing and stock market valuations for all the G-SIBs to give a multiple of balance sheet assets to market capitalisation, ranking them from most dangerous to the least on this measure. The only banks in the list with market capitalisations higher than balance sheet equity — price to book ratios of more than one — are North American banks, which might explain why critical leverages are not recognised as a systemic problem in US financial markets
The three highest leverages by a country mile are of Eurozone banks: remember these are just the G-SIBs — there will be many commercial banks as highly leveraged which are not on this list. To have your equity valued at only 15% of book value, which is the indignity suffered by the French bank, Société Générale, should send warning signals to French banking regulators. But they insist on only looking at the ratio of balance sheet assets to balance sheet equity; which for Soc Gen is still an eye-watering 21.4 times. Unlike the regulator, investors appear to think this bank is most likely bankrupt, its share price little more than a call option on its survival.
It is a problem which particularly affects banks in the Eurozone. And experience tells us that the numbers reported by banks are bolstered by their gaming of the regulatory system, which is why when a bank fails the outcome is always worse than the pre-failure numbers would suggest possible.
Large banks do not operate in national silos, having trade finance activities, foreign exchange and derivative trading, lending in foreign currencies and even substantial branches and subsidiary operations abroad. The idea that a crisis in the Eurozone, or Britain for example, can be contained to national boundaries is wishful thinking. With the exception of Wells Fargo, US G-SIBs come out better than those of other jurisdictions, but that will not save them from a systemic crisis originating elsewhere.
While we can point to the end of the credit cycle, there is no doubt that Covid-19 has precipitated a more immediate crisis for commercial banks. The official talk is no longer of a V-shaped recovery, and businesses are on life support.
In the near future, a banking crisis seems inevitable. The best case is it is contained by either governments nationalising all banks subject to failure, or they end up supported directly by their respective central banks, which given the crisis in the US repo market a year ago can be said to be already happening. For the inflationists there is the consolation that money-printing can then be used to support failing businesses through the banks with obstructive commercial considerations removed.
The principal control mechanism deployed by monetary planners is management of interest rates. They are under the delusion that a reduction of interest rates is a stimulus to industrial investment and therefore the betterment of the economy, whereas all their suppression achieves is the destruction of savings and the advancement of malinvestments.
Their delusions were Keynes’s, and remain so with all his acolytes, among which monetary policy planners are numbered. Interest rates are simply the expression of time preference, the cost that a borrower pays to achieve temporary possession. All goods share this feature, and sound money in free markets reflects an average of the time preference of these goods.
In Keynes’s General Theory, a search of the index reveals just one reference to time preference, which occurs three times on the same page and nowhere else. This vital topic is thus dismissed. Keynes accepted that there is time preference but became confused as to what it represents. He merely saw it as a psychological counterpart to his invention of the propensity to consume and failed to make the connection between time preferences for goods and their monetary representation. Since he judged it to be solely related to money as opposed to possession, for him it left open the possibility that interest rates can be managed for a desired economic outcome. This was despite the evidence of which he was otherwise aware, that managing interest rates with a view to controlling the rate of inflation did not work, and that the correlation was between wholesale borrowing costs and the general price level, not its rate of change represented by an inflation rate.[iv] Keynes named it Gibson’s paradox after its discoverer, but since he could not explain the paradox, he chose to ignore it as have all his followers.
For these reasons, managing interest rates to achieve economic outcomes, including recent introductions of negative rates, has proved to be a lamentable failure. But as the currency loses purchasing power, the reflection of time preferences for goods will see an additional factor related to money itself. Thus, time preference expressed in dollar terms becomes significantly higher than justified solely by the deferred ownership of goods. The foreign exchanges insistence that future currency depreciation due to monetary inflation be taken into account will then render the authority’s task of suppressing interest rates impossible.
The Fed will find that in the absence of a significant increase in savings — something it is determined should not happen anyway — as well as financing a deteriorating Federal deficit, it will have to absorb foreign sales of US Treasury, agency and corporate bonds. Foreigners are then reluctant possessors of surplus dollars.
In the absence of a rising level of domestic savings, a rapidly deteriorating budget deficit feeds through to one or both of two outcomes. As an identity of national accounting and in the absence of an increase in savings, a budget deficit is mirrored by a trade deficit, both of which in this new fiscal year on present indications are likely to expand to anything between three and five trillion dollars. That is the first outcome, and if President Trump is re-elected next month this deterioration will likely lead to increased hostility against America’s importers.
The second problem, in view of the first, is how importers already overloaded with dollars will respond to the increasing quantity of additional dollars accumulating in their bank accounts from an increasing trade imbalance. The answer must be that they have no reason to hold on to them. And unless the US Treasury buys these unwanted dollars, deflating the quantity in circulation, these dollars will end up driving the exchange rate lower and inflating prices in the domestic economy.
We can see the conditions where the dollar is driven down against other currencies as only a first step, and we are now aware that China is in the vanguard of selling dollars for commodities, likely to be joined by others as the dollar declines. Consequently, the purchasing power of the dollar — already deteriorating at a ten per cent clip according to independent estimates — is bound to deteriorate at a greater pace.
By its statements and actions, the Fed confirms a belief that an increase in price inflation can be controlled by raising interest rates. Consequently, a falling dollar in the foreign exchanges will present it with an insuperable dilemma: does it raise interest rates to protect the dollar and thereby burst the bubble in financial assets and force the Federal Government’s finances into insolvency? Or does it just let price inflation rip? The choice will be as black or white as that.
Almost always, central banks in this invidious position end up with a compromise, raising interest rates too little too late. Just occasionally, they raise overnight interest rates to stratospheric levels in an attempt to restore order by squeezing the speculators. Other than the temporary effects of the latter expedient, we know from Gibson’s paradox that raising interest rates to control price inflation does not work. And with 130% of the GDP statistic currently represented by foreign ownership of dollars, the bulk of nearly $27 trillion like an elephant in the room is overhanging the foreign exchanges. Worse still for the Fed, Gibson’s paradox tells us that even if the Fed raised interest rates to compensate fully for loss of purchasing power it would not be sufficient to stabilise the currency: that requires the adoption of sound money policies and a stop to inflationism.
The way to look at it is by understanding the foreigners’ assessment of time preference, comprised of a general level for the exchange of goods and an additional level peculiar to a depreciating currency. Therefore, irrespective of the Fed’s interest rate policy market forces represented by foreign interests will take over control of interest rates, and the Fed’s bond bubble will be burst. Rising yields for US Treasuries will collapse the equity market and the market for corporate debt. These events will threaten any remaining foreign interest in the dollar and its capital markets even further. In short, the policy of inflating a financial asset bubble becomes impossible to sustain and its failure will take the dollar down with it as well.
This was why when John Law’s Mississippi bubble burst three hundred years ago, by October 1720 his currency, the livre, was worthless on the foreign exchanges. The collapse had started eleven months earlier, when Law accelerated the inflation of the livre to support a failing share price. The Fed embarked on a doppelganger acceleration of monetary inflation on 23 March for the whole US bond market. If we replicate the John Law experience, the dollar could become valueless in a matter of months.
It is becoming clear to a growing audience that in the absence of a change in inflationary policies, the days of an unbacked dollar are rapidly coming to an end, and it will take down the international fiat order upon which it is based.
Spread & Containment
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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 TechCrunchtesting covid-19 singapore japan europe
Waymo retires its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan
More than five years ago, a newly minted Waymo took the wraps off of what would become its first commercialized autonomous vehicle: a Chrysler Pacifica…
More than five years ago, a newly minted Waymo took the wraps off of what would become its first commercialized autonomous vehicle: a Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan loaded with sensors and software.
Now, the minivan, a symbol of the early and hypey AV days, is headed for retirement as Waymo transitions its fleet to the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace vehicles equipped with its fifth-generation self-driving system.
When the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid AV was first revealed, it might not have been what people expected from the former Google self-driving project turned Alphabet-owned business. The design wasn’t ripped from the pages of a graphic sci-fi novel and it was hardly flashy. But the white minivan — highlighted with the same blue and green accent colors found on the Waymo logo — embodied the company’s aim. Waymo wanted a friendly looking vehicle people would feel comfortable using.
The partnership with established manufacturer Fiat Chrysler — now Stellantis — also derisked an already risky frontier tech pursuit. Under the deal, Fiat Chrysler would handle the manufacturing and provide Waymo with minivans that built in redundancies designed for autonomous driving.
Waymo never got close to the 62,000-minivan order it agreed to in 2018 as part of an expanded partnership with Fiat Chrysler. But the minivan did become a critical part of its commercialization plan and over its lifespan the fleet provided tens of thousands of rides to the public, according to the company. (Waymo has never revealed detailed figures of its minivan fleet beyond that its total global fleet is somewhere around 700 vehicles.)
“It’s bittersweet to see it go,” Chris Ludwick, product management director at Waymo who has been at the company since 2012, told TechCrunch. “But I’m also happy for this next chapter.”
A bit of history
Waymo revealed the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid in December 2016 and then provided more technical and business model details a month later at the 2017 North American International Auto Show. The first look at the minivan in December came just five days after Google’s self-driving project officially announced that it was a business with a new name and slightly tweaked mission.
At the time, little was known about what the Google self-driving project — also known as Chauffeur — intended to do beyond a stated goal to commercialize self-driving cars. The Google self-driving project had developed a custom low-speed vehicle without a steering wheel called the Firefly, but that cute gumdrop-shaped car never made it to commercial robotaxi status.
The lowly minivan seemed to represent a more grounded realistic vision toward the goal. By spring 2017, the company had launched an early rider program that let real people in the Phoenix area (who had been vetted and signed an NDA) use an app to hail a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan with a human safety operator behind the wheel.
Waymo eventually opened up the service to the public — no NDA required — and grew its service area to Phoenix suburbs Chandler, Tempe, Ahwatukee and Mesa. Waymo repeated that process as it took the important step of removing the human safety operator from behind the wheel, launching driverless rides in 2019 and eventually a driverless robotaxi service in 2020 that was open to the public.
Minivan proving ground
The minivan’s initial reveal represented the moment when “Chauffeur” became Waymo and less of a science project, he noted. But there was still considerable work to be done.
The Chrysler Pacifica was the ultimate commercial proving ground, according to anecdotes from Ludwick, who recounted the progress of moving from autonomous driving 10 miles in one day, then 100 miles, and then a 100 miles everyday.
For instance, the company discovered that families were far more enthusiastic to use the minivan than it assumed. The minivan also helped develop the company’s AV operations playbook, including how to park vehicles in between rides and where to locate depots for maintenance and charging.
The minivan also became a testbed for how to operate a driverless fleet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to COVID, the fleet in Phoenix was a mix of driverless vehicles and those with human safety operators behind the wheel.
“In three months we turned it fully driverless and figured out how to disinfect the vehicles between each ride,” he said.
The next chapter for Waymo is focused on its all-electric Jaguar I-Pace vehicles, which will be pulled into the service area in the Phoenix suburbs of Chandler and Tempe that the minivan covered. The Jaguar I-Pace is currently the go-to driverless vehicle for robotaxi rides in downtown Phoenix and to the Phoenix International Sky Harbor Airport. The 24/7 service runs on a five-mile stretch between downtown Phoenix and an airport shuttle stop, specifically, the 44th Street Sky Train station.
On Thursday, the White House gave a shout-out to Waymo (along with other companies) for its commitment to an all-electric fleet as part of the White House EV Acceleration Challenge.
Waymo intends to deploy the all-electric Jaguar I-Pace across all of its ride-hailing service territories this spring now that the minivan has been retired. The nod to Waymo was part of a larger announcement from the Biden administration around public and private sector investments into EVs as part of its goal of having 50% of all new vehicle sales be electric by 2030.
The next task for Waymo may be its most challenging: The company has to figure out how to grow the service, charge its all-electric fleet efficiently and eventually turn a profit.
But Ludwick believes the company is well positioned thanks, in part, to the Chrysler Pacifica.
“When I look at what the Pacifica got us, it’s a lot,” he said, noting that the vehicle had to travel at higher speeds and make unprotected left turns.
Waymo retires its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan by Kirsten Korosec originally published on TechCrunchwhite house pandemic covid-19
FDA approval of over-the-counter Narcan is an important step in the effort to combat the US opioid crisis
The Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Narcan will make the lifesaving drug more widely available, especially to those who might be likely to…
On March 29, 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Narcan for over-the-counter sale. Narcan is the 4-milligram nasal spray version of naloxone, a medication that can quickly counteract an opioid overdose.
The FDA’s greenlighting of over-the-counter naloxone means that it will be available for purchase without a prescription at more than 60,000 pharmacies nationwide. That means that, for 90% of Americans, naloxone nasal spray will be accessible at a pharmacy within 5 miles from home. It will also likely be available at gas stations, supermarkets and convenience stores. The transition from prescription to over-the-counter status is expected to take a few months.
We are pharmacists and public health experts who seek to increase public acceptance of and access to naloxone.
We think that making naloxone available over the counter is an essential step in reducing deaths due to overdose and destigmatizing opioid use disorder. Over-the-counter access to naloxone will permit more people to carry and administer it to help others who are overdosing. Moreover, increasing naloxone’s over-the-counter availability will convey the message that risks associated with substance use disorder warrant a pervasive intervention much as with other illnesses.
Deaths from opioid overdoses across the U.S. have increased nearly threefold since 2015. Between October 2021 and October 2022, approximately 77,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the U.S. Since 2016, the synthetic opioid fentanyl has been responsible for most of the drug-involved overdose deaths in America.
What is naloxone?
Naloxone reverses overdose from prescription opioids like fentanyl, oxycodone and hydrocodone and recreational opioids like heroin. Naloxone works by competitively binding to the same receptors in the central nervous system that opioids bind to for euphoric effects. When naloxone is administered and reaches these receptors, it can block the euphoric effects of opioids and reverse respiratory depression when opioid overdose occurs.
There are two common ways to administer naloxone. One is through the prepackaged nasal sprays, such as Narcan and Kloxxado or generic versions of the drug. The other method is via auto-injectors, like ZIMHI, which deliver naloxone through injection, similar to the way epinephrine is delivered by an EpiPen as an emergency treatment for life-threatening allergic reactions.
The FDA will review a second over-the-counter application for naloxone auto-injectors at a later date. Although no interaction with a health care provider will be needed to purchase over-the-counter naloxone, when naloxone is purchased at a pharmacy, a knowledgeable pharmacist will be able to help people choose a product and explain instructions for use.
Research shows that when people who are likely to witness or respond to opioid overdoses have naloxone, they can save patients’ lives. This also includes bystanders as well as first responders like police officers and paramedics.
But until now, people in those situations could intervene only if they were carrying prescription naloxone or knew where to retrieve it quickly. Friends and family of people who use opioids are often given prescriptions for naloxone for emergency use. Over-the-counter naloxone will help make the drug more accessible to members of the general public.
Reducing stigma and saving lives
Naloxone is a safe medication with minimal side effects. It works only for those with opioids in their system, and it’s unlikely to cause harm if given by mistake to someone who’s not actively overdosing on opioids.
Since approximately 40% of overdoses occur in the presence of someone else, we believe public access to naloxone is extremely important. People may wish to have naloxone on hand if someone they know is at an increased risk for opioid overdose, including people who have opioid use disorder or people who take high amounts of prescribed opioid medications.
Community centers and recreational facilities may also keep naloxone on hand, similar to the placement of automated external defibrillators in public spaces for emergency use when someone has a heart attack.
There’s a long-held public stigma that suggests addiction is a moral failing rather than a chronic yet treatable health condition. Those who request naloxone or who have an opioid use disorder experience stigma and often aren’t comfortable disclosing their drug use to others, or seeking medical treatment. Removing naloxone’s prescription requirements by making it over the counter could decrease the stigma experienced by individuals since they no longer must request it from a health care provider or behind the pharmacy counter.
In addition, we encourage health care providers and members of the general public to use less stigmatizing language when discussing addiction.
Often, medications switched from prescription to over the counter are not covered by insurance. It remains unclear if this will be the case with Narcan. If so, the costs will shift to the patient, highlighting the reason continued support of programs that offer naloxone free of charge remains important.
What’s more, over-the-counter access could paradoxically cause a decrease in the drug’s availability. A rise in purchases could make it harder to buy naloxone if manufacturer supply does not keep up with increased consumer demand. The U.S. experienced such shortages of over-the-counter drugs in late 2022 during the nationwide surges in flu, respiratory syncytial virus and COVID-19.
Federal and state governments could lessen these potential barriers by subsidizing the cost of over-the-counter naloxone and working with drug manufacturers to provide production incentives to meet public demand.
The effects of nationwide access to over-the-counter naloxone on opioid-related deaths remain to be seen, but making this medication more widely available is an important next step in our nation’s response to the opioid crisis.
Lucas Berenbrok is part owner of the consulting company, Embarx, LLC.
Janice L. Pringle is affiliated with C4 Recovery.
Joni Carroll receives grant funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Overdose Data to Action.depression covid-19 disease control treatment fda medication deaths recovery
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