The Best Business Reads of April
In “A Day in the Life of a Food Vendor,” The New York Times profiled a co-owner of a cart serving halal offerings.
Every month, the editors of The Atlantic’s Business Channel compile a list of the most insightful and interesting pieces of journalism about money and economics from around the web.
This month’s picks include a peek into the ultra-demanding lives of street vendors, an investigation of the biggest oil trade Wall Street ever saw, and a story that questioned the wisdom of the juicing trend—or at least the wisdom of investing in it.
If you’ve missed previous roundups, you can find recent ones here and here.
Brooke Jarvis | The New York Times
When Elisa Staton found a small house a block from the water in Larchmont-Edgewater in 2005, she was thinking of the neighborhood’s grand trees and Tudor-style houses, of the elementary school she hoped to send her kids to, once she had them. She wasn’t thinking much about flooding, though she knew the house was in a hundred-year flood zone, which meant that to get a federally backed mortgage, she was required to pay for flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (N.F.I.P.), a government-subsidized system overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The insurance was reasonable, and there was no record of the house ever being flooded before. She bought it for $320,000.
A “hundred-year flood” sounds like a factor of time, as if the land were expected to flood only once every 100 years, but what it’s really meant to express is risk—the land has a 1 percent chance of flooding each year. As waters rise, though, flooding in low-lying places without sea walls, like Larchmont-Edgewater, will become more and more common until the presence of water is less about chance and more about certainty. And few insurers are willing to bet against a certainty.
Ellen Huet and Olivia Zaleski | Bloomberg
One of the most lavishly funded gadget startups in Silicon Valley last year was Juicero Inc. It makes a juice machine. The product was an unlikely pick for top technology investors, but they were drawn to the idea of an internet-connected device that transforms single-serving packets of chopped fruits and vegetables into a refreshing and healthy beverage.
Doug Evans, the company’s founder, would compare himself with Steve Jobs in his pursuit of juicing perfection. He declared that his juice press wields four tons of force—“enough to lift two Teslas,” he said. Google’s venture capital arm and other backers poured about $120 million into the startup. Juicero sells the machine for $400, plus the cost of individual juice packs delivered weekly. Tech blogs have dubbed it a “Keurig for juice.”
But after the product hit the market, some investors were surprised to discover a much cheaper alternative: You can squeeze the Juicero bags with your bare hands.
* * *
Maryjean Wall | The Wall Street Journal
Ninety miles west of Aleppo and some 300 years ago, a tight convoy of merchant ships set sail across the Mediterranean Sea. Warring nations and pirates imperiled the group as it lifted anchor for a four-month voyage to England. In the hold of one of the nine ships lay treasured contraband: a young desert stallion, a purebred Arabian born in 1700 and acquired along the caravan route from Basra. The ship’s captain was gambling that the authorities would never learn about the animal, for Ottoman law forbade export of its prized desert horses.
* * *
Alex Mayyasi | Priceonomics
Over the past 12 years, Lt. [Gary] Megge has increased the speed limit on nearly 400 of Michigan’s roadways. Each time, he or one of his officers hears from community groups who complain that people already drive too fast. But as Megge and his colleagues explain, their intent is not to reduce congestion, bow to the reality that everyone drives too fast, or even strike a balance between safety concerns and drivers’ desire to arrive at their destinations faster. Quite the opposite, Lt. Megge advocates for raising speed limits because he believes it makes roads safer.
* * *
Alex Goldmark | Planet Money
Bots are cheaper than stock-picking humans. They’re less emotional and more disciplined. They can process more information at once. They are doing things like scanning social media for consumer trends and counting the number of cars parked in Walmart parking lots, then using that to trade.
Our bot is doing something seemingly simple: It looks at President Trump’s Twitter feed, and when he tweets about a company, it trades stocks, with real money. Because the official Twitter handle of the president of the United States is @POTUS, we named our bot @BOTUS, bot of the United States.
* * *
John Cassidy | The New Yorker
Underlying all of these developments is a message from the Trump Administration to corporate America: the rules of the game are changing. The message has been heard, and the players are reacting to it accordingly.
* * *
Javier Blas | Bloomberg
Everybody knew the world was tipping into a financial crisis at the time, but because of its excellent banking and political connections in the U.S., Mexico may well have had special insight into just how bad things would get. What’s more, as one of the world’s top oil exporters, the country generally has better information than, say, hedge funds, about where the market is heading. In 2008, that information led those in the room to believe global supply was well in excess of global demand.
* * *
Tejal Rao | The New York Times
Mr. Ahmed, 46, is in the business of chicken and rice. He immigrated from Bangladesh 23 years ago, and is now one of two partners in a halal food cart that sets up on Greenwich Street close to the World Trade Center, all year long, rain or shine. He is also one of more than 10,000 people, most of them immigrants, who make a living selling food on the city’s sidewalks: pork tamales, hot dogs, rolled rice noodles, jerk chicken.
These vendors are a fixture of New York’s streets and New Yorkers’ routines, vital to the culture of the city. But day to day, they struggle to do business against a host of challenges: byzantine city codes and regulations on street vending, exorbitant fines for small violations (like setting up an inch too close to the curb) and the occasional rage of brick-and-mortar businesses or residents. Not to mention the weather, the whims of transit and foot traffic, and the trials of standing for hours, often alone, with no real shelter or private space.
“What’s hard about this job?” Mr. Ahmed says. “Everything is hard. If I get old, I can’t do it anymore.”