Amazon CEO’s wealth soars to new heights while Trump’s sinks

In this June 16, 2014, file photo, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos walks onstage for the launch of the new Amazon Fire Phone, in Seattle. (AP)
Updated 07 March 2018

Amazon CEO’s wealth soars to new heights while Trump’s sinks

SAN FRANCISCO: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has become the first $100 billion mogul to top Forbes' annual rankings of the world's richest people. But President Donald Trump's fortune sank during his first year in office despite a surging stock market.
The Bezos milestone, revealed in Tuesday's release of Forbes' closely watched list , underscores the growing clout of both Bezos and the company that he founded in 1994 as an online bookstore. Forbes' breakdown provided further evidence that serving as president isn't the most lucrative job, even when most of the rich are getting richer.
All told, the world now holds more than 2,200 billionaires with a combined fortune of $9.1 trillion, up 18 percent from ago, according to Forbes' calculations.
Although Trump is part of that elite group, he saw his fortune sink by about $400 million to $3.1 billion during his first year in office. The decline left him as the world's 766th richest person, more than 200 places lower than his 544th spot on last year's Forbes list.
Bezos seized the top ranking for the first time and has the added the distinction of becoming the first person to break the $100 billion barrier since Forbes began compiling its list in 1987. As of Feb. 9, Bezos' wealth stood at $112 billion as of Feb. 9, up from about $73 billion last year, according to Forbes.
Most of Bezos' fortune is tied up in Amazon stock, which soared 59 percent during the period tracked by Forbes.
Bezos has used a sliver of his wealth to buy The Washington Post — a target in Trump's fusillades against the media — and to finance Blue Origin, a maker of rockets that aim to sell flights into space.
Meanwhile, Amazon has expanded beyond its bookselling origin to become a retailer of almost everything imaginable . It now even sells groceries in brick-and-mortar stores after its $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods Markets last year.
Amazon also has built a network of data centers that hosts the online services of other companies, and produces award-winning shows that compete against traditional TV networks. More recently, it branched into health care in a partnership involving Berkshire Hathaway and its CEO, Warren Buffett, whose $84 billion fortune ranks third on the Forbes list.
Bill Gates, Microsoft's co-founder and an occasional bridge partner of Buffett's, ranks second on the Forbes list with wealth of $90 billion.
Both Gates, 62, and Buffett, 87, have committed to giving away most of their wealth while Bezos, 54, hasn't said much about his philanthropic plans.


How Brazil and Vietnam are tightening their grip on the world’s coffee

Updated 9 min 13 sec ago

How Brazil and Vietnam are tightening their grip on the world’s coffee

  • A plunge in global coffee prices in recent months, to their lowest levels in 13 years, has begun to trigger a massive shake-out in the market in which only the most efficient producers will thrive

SAO JOAO DA BOA VISTA, Brazil: A towering machine rumbles through the fields of Julio Rinco’s farm in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo, engulfing whole coffee trees and shaking free beans that are collected by conveyor belts in its depths.
This automatic harvester is one of several innovations that have cut Rinco’s production costs to a level that few who use traditional, labor-intensive methods can match.
With increasing use of mechanization and other new technologies, the world’s top two coffee producers, Brazil and Vietnam, are achieving productivity growth that outstrips rivals in places such as Colombia, Central America and Africa.
They are set to tighten their grip.
A plunge in global coffee prices in recent months, to their lowest levels in 13 years, has begun to trigger a massive shake-out in the market in which only the most efficient producers will thrive, according to coffee traders and analysts.
Rival producers elsewhere in the world are increasingly likely to be driven to the margins, unable to make money from a crop they have grown for generations. Some are already turning to alternative crops while others are abandoning their farms completely.
Such shifts are almost irreversible for perennial crops like coffee, as the decision to abandon or cut down trees can hit production for several years.
“Brazil and Vietnam have had consistent increases in productivity, other countries have not,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, citing advances in mechanization, selective crop breeding techniques and irrigation technology.
In Colombia and Central America, coffee is typically grown on hillsides where mechanization is more difficult, and hand-picking cherries has kept production costs relatively high. The African sector, meanwhile, is dominated by small-scale farmers often unable to raise the capital needed for new techniques.
Rinco bought his harvesting machine for around 600,000 reais ($155,600) and is paying the agricultural supplies company with coffee, delivering 400 bags a year over four years. This kind of bartering is common in Brazilian farming.
One such machine in Brazil replaces dozens of people in the field. Even with financing and fuel bills, farmers and machine manufacturers say there is a reduction of 40% to 60% on harvesting costs.
“Beyond the lower costs, it made my life less complicated,” said Rinco, relieved at no longer having the gruelling task of hiring suitable pickers every year for the harvest at his farm in the Sao Joao da Boa Vista area.
“People don’t want to pick coffee anymore, they go to town to find something else to do.”
Brazil and Vietnam now produce more than half the world’s coffee, up from less than a third 20 years ago, and the proportion is rising, US Department of Agriculture estimates show.
Leading producer Brazil alone accounts for over a third of global supply. In a clear sign of increased efficiency, it reported a record crop of 62 million bags last year and is expected to produce another record in 2020, the next on-year in the country’s biennial production cycle — despite the fact the coffee-planting area has been falling for the last six years.
Vietnam is also regularly setting production records while, by contrast, in Colombia the largest ever crop was harvested in the early 1990s and in Guatemala nearly two decades ago, USDA data shows.
In countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, growers who are increasingly abandoning farms are swelling the ranks of migrants trying to enter the United States.
Average yields in Brazil have risen sharply over the last decade with figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization showing an increase of more than 40% to about 1.5 tons per hectare. Vietnam has also seen yields rise from already strong levels, climbing about 18% to around 2.5 tons.
Colombia did show some growth, about 12%, but remains well behind at about 1 ton per hectare while in Central America there was a decline of around 3% to a meagre 0.6 tons.
Businessman Alexandre Gobbi and two partners decided to enter coffee farming in Brazil four years ago. They bought an area in Sao Sebastião do Paraíso, in the main producing belt in Minas Gerais state, and sought out state-of-the-art tech.
Today, his farm has equipment including an underground dripping irrigation system with artificial intelligence, considered the world’s most advanced.
“It does almost everything by itself. Reads humidity levels, tells me when to add water and fertilizer and by how much,” he told Reuters, pointing to the digital panels in his control room.
With the system, plus other equipment including harvesters, he has doubled average yields to around 60 bags per hectare, and can make a profit even with current low prices.
Arabica coffee futures on ICE Futures US, the most widely used global benchmark for coffee prices, fell in May to 87.60 cents per lb, the weakest level since September 2005.
Prices have since recovered slightly but remain at a level where few producers outside Brazil and Vietnam can make money.
Arabica beans, which provide a smoother and sweeter taste, constitute nearly two-thirds of the world’s coffee. More bitter and stronger robusta beans largely make up the rest of global supply, much of them hailing from Vietnam.
A warehouse owned by Vietnamese coffee exporter Simexco Dak Lak Ltd. in the town of Di An, near Ho Chi Minh City, illustrates the scale of Vietnam’s coffee operation.
Coffee is stacked in neat piles several meters high, awaiting export to Europe. The warehouse has enough capacity to store 20,000 tons during the harvest season.
“At the height of the harvest, having enough space to create an aisle to walk through the warehouse becomes a luxury,” said Thai Anh Tuan, who manages one of three warehouses for Simexco, which exports over 80,000 tons of robusta a year.
“Every tiny bit of space will be taken up by these little beans,” Tuan added. “We have to hire additional warehouses nearby for extra storage.”
Tuan also credited the steady increase of Vietnamese coffee exports over the last four to five years to an increase in innovative farming techniques, including intercropping — growing different crops together — and the use of better technology in irrigation and cultivation.
Coffee is still the key cash crop for Dak Lak, Vietnam’s largest coffee-producing province, although durians, jack fruit, mangoes and avocado trees have all been intercropped with coffee trees to maximize income in recent years, farmers told Reuters.
Ksor Tung, a coffee grower with a 10-hectare farm, said intercropping coffee with durian trees resulted in better protection from direct sunlight and pests.
“Farmers here have experimented with intercropping for nearly a decade,” Tung told Reuters.
“Peppers used to be the most popular tree when it comes to intercropping but for the past three years, with the prices falling, almost all farmers have turned to fruit trees instead,” said Tung, adding that farmers who intercrop can triple their income per hectare.
Farmers in Colombia face a far different future.
Battered by low prices and high costs, some are contemplating switching to other crops or selling up, despite tens of millions of dollars in government aid.
Jose Eliecer Sierra, 53, has farmed coffee for three decades but low prices have forced him to look at alternatives — Hass avocados and cattle among them.
“Avocados are in high demand abroad and it’s one of the options,” he said, standing amid some of his 41,000 coffee trees on a mist-shrouded mountainside near Pueblorrico, in Antioquia province.
“Another very tempting option that people are thinking about is cattle — knocking down coffee trees and planting grass for cows,” said Sierra.
It is not the first time Colombian coffee growers have looked to other crops for a better living. Many in the south — sometimes under pressure from armed groups — abandoned it for the more lucrative coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine, though coffee has since rebounded.
For some growers, even switching crops may not save them.
Uriel Posada, who worked for more than 30 years as a house painter in the United States, dreamed of coming home to Colombia to grow coffee. Now his land is up for sale.
“I’m up to my neck in debt,” the 52-year-old said, gazing up the steep hill where his 30,000 coffee trees are planted.
“Brazil has a huge advantage over us — the land is flat and they have machinery,” Posada said. “Here I have to pay a human being to go tree by tree, branch by branch and pick the red berries.”
Avocados and cattle are good alternatives, Posada said, but require start-up funds and transition time that many local growers do not have.
“I’ll sell, pay what I owe and go. End my Colombian dream.”