By Paul Page
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Amazon.com Inc. has ambitions in the medical-supply business go far beyond just offering rapid delivery. The company is trying to become a major player in the high-value, high-stakes business of delivering health-care supplies to hospitals, a strategy aimed at pushing providers to change the medical world's distributor-based procurement system. The WSJ's Melanie Evans and Laura Stevens report Amazon is advancing a "marketplace concept" that would compete with the entrenched network of distributors and manufacturers that deliver items from gauze to major surgical products. The company has been meeting with hospital executives and testing new buying systems at a large hospital system as it seeks to expand its business-to-business marketplace into the specialized arena. The effort thrusts Amazon into a medical-supply business in upheaval, with ongoing consolidation blurring the lines between players in the supply chains. Amazon aims to show it can lower costs, but medical providers say they can't let lower prices come at the cost of missed or late deliveries.
Big players in pharmaceutical supply chains aren't simply waiting for Amazon to change their distribution models. Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. is moving to take over AmerisourceBergen Corp., the latest combination of a drug distributor with the consumer-facing retail side of the business. The WSJ's Michael Siconolfi, Dana Mattioli and Joseph Walker report the companies are in the early stage of talks to combine, a complicated effort made easier because Walgreens already owns about 26% of Amerisource, one of the country's largest drug distributors. A deal would come as drugstore owners are seeking to insulate their businesses from external threats. In December, Walgreens rival CVS Health Corp. agreed to buy health insurer Aetna Inc., a deal likely spurred by Amazon's interest in entering the pharmacy business. Even without that direct competition, the consumer shift to online shopping is eating into the sales of basic staples at drug stores, adding to the pressure to maintain margins in pharmacy business.
Private-equity firms aren't seeing much to like in public-private partnerships. Many of the big firms that raised a record sum for infrastructure investment last year don't expect the plan to pump new funding into America's aging roads and bridges will open the floodgates for privatization deals. The WSJ's Miriam Gottfried and Cezary Podkul report the plan, which seeks to use federal spending to lure private investment, has a paradox at its heart: It creates incentives for investment that most infrastructure funds aren't much interested in. Fund fund managers say they are mainly looking for assets that are already privately owned -- such as renewable energy, railroads, utilities and pipelines -- and not the deteriorating government-owned infrastructure that helped attract the capital in the first place. Even Blackstone Group LP, which plans to raise as much as $40 billion for North American infrastructure, may only devote 10% to public assets.
SUPPLY CHAIN STRATEGIES
Blue Apron Holdings Inc. has been cutting its logistics costs but its been shedding customers at the same time. The meal-kit company's customer ranks fell by 15% in the fourth quarter, the WSJ's Heather Haddon reports, as the food home-delivery service suffered from the big logistics problems that have eaten into profits and the ability to market its business. Blue Apron has made progress on fulfillment challenges at a Linden, N.J., warehouse the company opened last year. The company says it now has the "nimble infrastructure" needed to get its subscription meals delivered to homes. But Blue Apron also looks to be losing market share, and it's struggling to get its infrastructure in place as other operators push into the market. Blue Apron canceled plans last quarter to open a site in California, a blow for a business that needs a stronger physical footprint to match its online ambitions.
The supply chain for minerals critical to electric cars begins in Congo but increasingly runs through China. Wholesalers in the central African nation that is the world's biggest producer of cobalt sell most of their products in makeshift markets to Chinese buyers, launching a long journey in which bags of the mineral are shipped to China and processed into lithium-ion batteries for electronics. The WSJ's Scott Patterson and Russell Gold write the process is part of a world-wide race to lock up the supply chain for cobalt, and that China is far in the lead. Chinese imports of cobalt from Congo totaled $1.2 billion in the first nine months of 2017, compared with just $3.2 million by India, the second-largest importer. The concentration is raising questions about market control and conditions at the mines, where significant production comes from freelance diggers working under grueling circumstances likely to gain more attention as the demand for cobalt grows.
IN OTHER NEWS
Small-business owners' confidence reached a near-record high in January. (WSJ)
U.S. household debt rose for the 14th straight quarter in the final three months of 2017. (WSJ)
The Japanese yen is at a five-month high against the dollar. (WSJ)
Canada says U.S. inflexibility has left "fairly limited progress" in talks to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement. (WSJ)
Congressional leaders may split the Trump administration's infrastructure plan into smaller pieces of legislation. (WSJ)
General Motors Co. is closing a South Korean factory and pressuring union officials there for additional cost cuts to stem losses. (WSJ)
A new report says U.S. shale companies are churning out crude oil at a record pace that could overwhelm global demand. (WSJ)
Walmart Inc. is eliminating some management positions at its 4,700 U.S. stores, while investing in higher wages and e-commerce efforts. (WSJ)
PepsiCo Inc. is accelerating cost-cutting efforts after reporting flat quarterly sales. (WSJ)
Under Armour Inc. is expanding a restructuring plan aimed at saving $75 million annually. (WSJ)
Barnes & Noble Inc. is laying off a significant number of workers as a result of poor holiday-season sales. (WSJ)
Top executives at Royal Dutch Shell PLC are facing trial in Italy on charges they bribed oil officials in Nigeria. (WSJ)
J.C. Penney will close a 2 million-square-foot distribution center outside Milwaukee as it scales down its supply chain network. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
U.S. apparel imports from Vietnam rose 7% while shipments from China slipped 3.2%. (Sourcing Journal)
McKinsey & Co. says container lines have returned an average of less than 2% on invested capital in the last two decades. (The Loadstar)
South Korea's Hyundai Merchant Marine full-year loss more than doubled to $1.1 billion. (Shipping Watch)
Danaos Corp. swung to a $22.8 million fourth-quarter profit as the impact of Hanjin Shipping's collapse faded. (Associated Press)
Taiwan's Yang Ming Marine Transport will order 20 ships in a fleet renewal program. (Lloyd's List)
An explosion at India's Cochin shipyard killed five workers and injured more than a dozen others. (Splash 247)
The Philadelphia International Airport bought a large land parcel it plans to use for air-cargo facilities. (Philadelphia Inquirer)
Trade technology provider Amber Road rejected a $300 million buyout offer from supply-chain software company E2open. (American Shipper)
Paul Page is deputy editor of WSJ Logistics Report. Follow him at @PaulPage, and follow the entire WSJ Logistics Report team: @brianjbaskin , @jensmithWSJ and @EEPhillips_WSJ. Follow the WSJ Logistics Report on Twitter at @WSJLogistics.
Write to Paul Page at firstname.lastname@example.org