OpenAI and Sam Altman Face More Scrutiny

Sam Altman has been back as OpenAI’s C.E.O. for three months, running one of the world’s most important tech companies at the forefront of the artificial intelligence boom.

But a report by The Wall Street Journal that the S.E.C. is investigating whether Altman misled investors is a reminder that OpenAI and its hyper-ambitious chief face a level of scrutiny that could dent their global plans.

The S.E.C.’s inquiry arose in the wake of Altman’s brief ouster, and is tied to assertions by former OpenAI directors that he hadn’t been “consistently candid in his communications,” The Journal reported, citing unidentified sources. (It’s unclear whether the examination will lead to a full-blown investigation; the agency’s involvement was practically a given, considering the nature of the accusations.)

The S.E.C. isn’t the only regulator looking at the Altman drama: Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have also been asking questions, according to The Journal.

Meanwhile, the law firm WilmerHale is close to finishing its review of Altman, The Times reports. Altman had agreed to have outside lawyers review the circumstances of his brief exit; they have since interviewed OpenAI executives and directors. WilmerHale could deliver the findings to the company’s board — which no longer includes Altman — as soon as next month.

OpenAI is confronting more legal challenges. Digital media outlets, including Raw Story and The Intercept, sued the company on Wednesday in Manhattan federal court, saying that ChatGPT was trained on their work without permission or compensation. The case adds to a growing number of lawsuits by media companies (including The Times) and content creators about whether OpenAI’s tools infringed on their copyrights.

Perhaps more consequential are examinations by U.S. and European regulators into OpenAI’s relationship with Microsoft, and whether the tech giant’s most recent investment in the start-up constitutes a takeover.

All of this comes at an inopportune time for Altman, even as he has a history of bouncing back from adversity. OpenAI’s success has made him into the de facto global ambassador of the A.I. industry. But the company is locked in a race with competitors to innovate — while avoiding the sort of pitfalls that threaten to erode trust among users and regulators alike.

Meanwhile, Altman is thinking even bigger. He’s pursuing investors from the Middle East and elsewhere to finance a wildly ambitious initiative to produce new A.I. chips. (Altman has pushed back against reports that he wants to raise $7 trillion, but no one disputes that he’s aiming big.)

The project, and more specifically the secrecy around it, was one of the reasons OpenAI’s previous directors mounted a coup against him.

Donald Trump has a mixed day in some of his multiple legal cases. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Trump’s claim that he would be immune from prosecution on allegations that he plotted to subvert the 2020 election. A New York appeals court denied Trump’s request to pause the more than $450 million penalty he faces in a civil fraud case; his lawyers have said he may need to sell some properties to pay it.

Congressional leaders reach a stopgap government funding deal. The accord, which provides money for some agencies through March 8 and others through March 22, averts a partial shutdown that would have started on Saturday. That said, lawmakers must still struggle to reach consensus on a final spending bill. Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell said he’d step down as the Republicans’ leader in the Senate after the November elections.

Two companies’ stocks tank after prominent departures. Shares in WW International are down nearly 24 percent in premarket trading after the parent company of Weight Watchers said that Oprah Winfrey was leaving its board. (It also announced an earnings forecast that fell short of Wall Street expectations.) And shares in Snowflake are down 23 percent in premarket hours after the cloud software maker said that Frank Slootman, its highly regarded C.E.O., was retiring, effective immediately.

Crypto trading officially entered mainstream finance last month when the S.E.C. greenlit a bunch of new Bitcoin investment products. The move came with a warning from the S.E.C.’s chief, Gary Gensler, that investors should remain cautious about the famously volatile asset, but that appears to have done little to dent a torrid rally.

Bitcoin has jumped roughly 35 percent since then, ignited in part by investor demand for the new exchange-traded funds. The value of a Bitcoin token on Thursday topped $63,000, roughly 10 percent away from its November 2021 record.

Investor enthusiasm for these new fund products has been sky-high since Day 1, driving up the prices for the token, the funds that trade it, and crypto stocks like Marathon Digital, a crypto mining company, and MicroStrategy, a software company that owns nearly $12 billion worth of Bitcoin.

The numbers to watch: More than 1 billion shares of spot Bitcoin E.T.F.s traded hands in the first month, according to Morningstar Direct. And $520 million poured into BlackRock’s new Bitcoin E.T.F. on Tuesday alone, Bloomberg reports.

Expect more volatility. A relatively small percentage of investment advisers are now allowed to invest client funds in these products, analysts say, even as crypto has vastly outperformed the S&P 500 during the past 18 months.

Meanwhile, investors are making bigger leveraged crypto bets to get in on the action.

Bitcoin scarcity could jolt prices. Analysts note that in April, Bitcoin is scheduled to undergo a “halving,” an event that happens roughly every four years in which the production of coins shrinks. Bitcoin boosters see this as another catalyst for higher prices.

The rally has caught bears off guard. Investors who have shorted the new Bitcoin E.T.F.s since their creation are down a combined $97 million as of Wednesday, as they face a squeeze, Ihor Dusaniwsky, managing director of the data provider S3 Partners, told DealBook. (Shorts profit when the price of an asset falls.) “We should expect more short-covering in these E.T.F.s as crypto prices rally,” he added.


Western carmakers have been warning Washington and Brussels about the threat of Chinese rivals upending their markets — and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are listening.

President Biden on Thursday called Chinese-made electric vehicles a national security threat and announced that the Commerce Department would open an investigation to assess the impact.

The measures could initiate a bigger crackdown. They’re designed to stop low-cost E.V.s made in China, or assembled by Chinese companies in Mexico, from flooding the U.S. market. (Chinese carmakers are already subject to a Trump-era 25 percent tariff.) The new investigation will look at whether internet-enabled vehicles expose Americans’ data to the authorities in Beijing.

The move could placate U.S. carmakers and workers. The Alliance for American Manufacturing, a lobbying group for carmakers, and the United Steelworkers union, said in a report last week that cheap Chinese E.V.s posed an “existential threat.” Chinese rivals, the report added, were building manufacturing capacity in Mexico to get around the Trump levies.

The Biden administration has also held discussions with unionized auto workers and with carmakers, including Tesla.

E.V.s drive China’s ambition to become a world-leading car maker and exporter. BYD, a Warren Buffett-backed company, overtook Tesla last quarter to become the world’s best-selling E.V. maker. Analysts say the company did it by keeping costs down and making many of its own components.

European carmakers are feeling the pressure more acutely. While U.S. industry has been somewhat insulated by the Trump tariffs, Chinese cars are being sold in the E.U. in increasing numbers.

The European Commission started an investigation into Chinese imports last year, but some manufacturers warn that it may not be enough. Luca de Meo, C.E.O. of Renault, said this week that governments may need to create a state-backed, pan-continental entity like Airbus to put the brakes on the Chinese threat.


Lawmakers may be intensifying their scrutiny of Saudi Arabian business, but that’s not slowing down the country’s growing push into sports and global business. The oil-rich kingdom’s huge sovereign wealth fund has signed a deal with the professional men’s tennis tour, showing that the growing ties between Western business and the regime are alive and well.

The Saudi imprint will be all over the sport’s biggest events. Financial details of the deal weren’t disclosed. But the Association of Tennis Professionals said on Wednesday that the multiyear partnership would include on-court branding for Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund at big tournaments, starting at Indian Wells in California next month. The ATP ranking and the annual award for the top-ranked player will also be named after the PIF.

The Saudis see sport as key to extending their reach. The Saudi-backed LIV Golf posed an existential threat to the PGA Tour. It lured away top players with huge paychecks before the rival golf competitions agreed to negotiate a peace deal. That set off a congressional investigation.

The kingdom has also spent billions buying into soccer, boxing and Formula One.

Saudi’s investments are meant to achieve two goals. Crown Prince Mohamed bin-Salman’s Vision 2030 plan is an attempt to diversify the economy beyond oil. The kingdom also sees global investing as a way of flexing its geopolitical power, helping to deepen its ties with the west and rehabilitate its reputation after its agents murdered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The kingdom is filling a gap that used to be occupied by China. As tensions grew between Washington and its allies and Beijing, it became harder for U.S. companies to do business and raise money in China. U.S. companies are instead increasingly looking to the Middle East. To wit: Many of America’s corporate elite attended the PIF’s Future Investment Initiative conference in Miami last week, eager to network and even praise the regime in the hope of tapping its wealth.

Deals

  • Disney agreed to merge its Indian operations with a media business controlled by Reliance Industries, the conglomerate run by the billionaire Mukesh Ambani. (NYT)

  • Stripe announced a deal to let employees sell their shares to outside investors, which values the payment processing giant at $65 billion. (TechCrunch)

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