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A New Ship’s Mission: Let the Deep Sea Be Seen



In 2014, when crude oil was selling for more than $100 a barrel, the cost of a new drill ship for oil exploration could run to $100 million.

So when the price of oil crashed, Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, an investment firm in Westport, Conn., saw an opening. In 2016, he bought a lightly used oil drilling ship at a very attractive price and transformed it into his dream — a vessel for big science, big technology and big storytelling. Mr. Dalio’s aim is to help Homo sapiens connect more intimately with the ocean, with what he calls “our world’s greatest asset.”

OceanXplorer is now making its operational debut, after years of rebuilding, upgrading and outfitting. So is Mr. Dalio, 71, as a new kind of entrepreneur. He sees his glistening, high-tech ship as a superstar not only of oceanic research but of video production, nature television shows and livestreaming events that will open the abyss to an unusually wide audience.

“It’s going to change things,” in part by inspiring a new generation of ocean explorers, Mr. Dalio said. Schoolchildren in classrooms will be able to guide the ship’s undersea robot through the primal darkness, uncovering riots of life.

“This isn’t a dream,” Mr. Dalio said in a recent interview. “This is it.”

At 286 feet from bow to stern, OceanXplorer is nearly the length of a football field. Side-to-side thrusters can hold it steady in pounding waves. It can house 85 crew members and explorers. Its hangar can hold three miniature submarines for taking humans into the sunless depths. It has two undersea robots, one that runs on a tether and one smart enough to roam on its own. At the bow, an automated system watches for whales, scanning the chop to avoid collisions.

ImageRay Dalio in a deep-sea submersible in the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean.
Credit…Ian Kellett
Credit…Andy Mann
Credit…Andy Mann

In 2013, Mr. Dalio was exploring the deep Pacific with scientists from Yale University and the American Museum of Natural History when, in pitch darkness, a camera was flashed. The surrounding creatures proceeded to light up in bioluminescent waves. “It was like a fireworks display,” Mr. Dalio recalled. “Everything was responding. It was unbelievable.”

Vincent Pieribone accompanied Mr. Dalio on that voyage. He is an author of “Aglow in the Dark: The Revolutionary Science of Biofluorescence” and a neuroscientist at the Yale School of Medicine who uses the chemistry of ocean biofluorescence to study human nerve impulses. Mr. Dalio talked him into serving as vice chairman of OceanX, an undertaking of Dalio Philanthropies to explore the ocean. As the organization’s chief scientist, Dr. Pieribone helped rig the new ship for science investigations and directed much of its exploratory planning.

“I walked on the boat and was literally in tears because of all these things we were able to do,” he said recently. “It’s like something out of a Bond movie.”

Mr. Dalio is one of a growing number of billionaire philanthropists seeking to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research. According to Forbes, he has an estimated net worth of $16.9 billion, making him one of the world’s richest individuals. His firm, Bridgewater Associates, is regularly described as the world’s largest hedge fund.

Mr. Dalio said his ocean journey had begun while he was growing up on Long Island as the only son of a professional jazz musician — his father — and a stay-at-home mother. On television, he loved watching the sea adventures of Jacques Cousteau, the French oceanographer. Then, in his early 20s, Mr. Dalio learned how to scuba dive and, ever since, has been going deeper.

A turning point came in 2011 as he deepened his relationship with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The complex of shingled houses and brick laboratories is famous for devising Alvin, a submersible that was the first to illuminate the Titanic and to carry scientists down to the hot springs of the global seabed. The dark ecosystems teem with crabs, shrimp and tube worms.

Mr. Dalio was thinking of buying the Alucia when a team of Woods Hole experts used the vessel and an undersea robot to find the shattered remains of Air France Flight 447, which in 2009 had vanished over the South Atlantic with 228 passengers. Other search teams had failed, and Mr. Dalio saw the 2011 success as an indication of the field’s exploratory promise.

“It was a needle in a haystack,” he said of the jetliner hunt. “I was shocked and elated.”

Credit…Andy Mann
Credit…Andy Mann
Credit…Andy Mann

He quickly bought Alucia and, late in 2011, also bought his first bubble sub after doing a test dive in the Bahamas. Almost immediately, the pair of vehicles made a major discovery.

The giant squid — huge and slimy, its tentacles lined with sucker pads, its big eyes unblinking — is a fixture of horror fiction, including Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” But it had long eluded science. A 1994 book by Richard Ellis, “Monsters of the Sea,” called the creature so mysterious that “no one has seen a giant squid feeding — in fact, no one has ever seen a healthy giant squid doing anything at all.”

In the summer of 2012, off Japan, Alucia and its bubble subs hosted a team of scientists who found and filmed one of the beasts. The discovery made a global splash in 2013 on newscasts and documentaries.

Mr. Dalio’s youngest son, Mark, was then an associate producer at National Geographic’s television network. Fascinated by the squid hunt, he persuaded his father to finance a multimedia venture, Alucia Productions, that would chronicle Alucia’s research. In 2017, the ship appeared in the BBC documentary series “Blue Planet II,” which was credited with producing a surge in applications for the study of marine biology.

By that point, Mr. Dalio had purchased the drill ship and was turning it into a suite of mobile laboratories for deep science and public education. For expert advice, he turned not only to his son, to Woods Hole and to Dr. Pieribone of Yale but to the film director James Cameron. The Hollywood mogul knew a great deal about marine science and technology, having plunged to the ocean’s deepest spot in an undersea craft of his own design that he then donated to Woods Hole.

Among other things, Mr. Cameron suggested banks of lighting that would illuminate not only the sea creatures being studied but the experts examining them. Last year, he told Variety that the giant ship, as a set, would illuminate the passion that drove exploration of the ocean.

“You are going to have adversity and psychological challenges,” he said. “The crew will be disappointed, the explorers will be disappointed. But for every moment there’s a setback or challenge, there’s going to be that moment of discovery. You want to take the audience on that roller coaster journey, because that’s what exploration is all about.”

Credit…Andy Mann
Credit…Andy Mann
Credit…Andy Mann

The ship’s giant hangar is designed to hold not only the compact bubble subs the ship has already been outfitted with but larger undersea craft as well. A few of them, including Mr. Cameron’s, can plunge down nearly seven miles to the ocean’s deepest recesses. Their spherical hulls are typically made not of plastic but of superstrong metals such as titanium that can resist the crushing pressures.

Another innovation on OceanXplorer lets the bubble subs send video signals from their cameras to the surface on beams of light, allowing not only rapid consultations with experts aboard the vessel but the live broadcasting of exploratory findings.

“There’s nothing like OceanXplorer,” said Rob Munier, head of marine facilities and operations at Woods Hole. “It’s geared toward taking the concept of great science and great media to the next level.”

The ship’s inaugural voyage is to be profiled in “Mission OceanX,” a six-part series for National Geographic television. BBC and OceanX Media (previously Alucia Productions) are producing the series, and Mr. Cameron is an executive producer. OceanXplorer, after being reconfigured and outfitted in Europe, is now in sea trials. Filming for the television series is to begin early next year.

Mr. Dalio has long called investigations of the oceans more important than space exploration — doing so, for instance, in his best-selling 2017 book, “Principles: Life and Work.”

“The return on investment is so much greater,” he said in the interview, referring to ocean exploration.

A riddle of the modern world, Mr. Dalio added, is why understanding and protecting the ocean gets relatively little money, time and effort compared with outer space. “If you think about the excitement and the importance, there’s no comparison.”


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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.



The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.


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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.



The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.


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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.



As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.


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