saying local officials expected “the possibility of flooding and even spinoff tornadoes in portions of Alabama.” In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves also issued a state of emergency on Saturday, allowing for the use of state resources for response and recovery.
Research over the past decade has found that, on average, such rapid intensification of hurricanes is increasing, in part because the oceans, which provide the energy for hurricanes, are getting warmer as a result of human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases.But Ida will also strengthen quickly because the Gulf, as is usual at the end of the summer, is very warm.
The hurricane center defines rapid intensification as at least a 35-m.p.h. increase in sustained winds over 24 hours. In the extremely active 2020 season, Hurricane Laura intensified by 45 m.p.h. in the 24 hours before making landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 storm in late August.
The National Hurricane Center said Ida was likely to produce heavy rainfall late Sunday into Monday from southeast Louisiana to coastal Mississippi and Alabama. Tropical storm force winds will arrive along the coast as early as Saturday night, according to the National Weather Service, before the storm makes landfall on Sunday afternoon or evening. After moving inland, the storm could contribute to flooding in Tennessee, where flash flooding killed 20 people last weekend.
“Based upon current track and strength of Ida, this storm will test our hurricane protection systems in a way they haven’t been tested before,” Chip Kline, executive assistant to the governor of Louisiana for coastal activities, said on Twitter. “It’s times like these that remind us of the importance of continuing to protect south Louisiana.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the location of Tropical Storm Ida. It was in the Caribbean Sea early Friday, not the Gulf of Mexico.
Hurricane Ida will produce “life-threatening” weather conditions in Louisiana and batter parts of Mississippi, the National Weather Service said, urging people to evacuate inland.
Here is a breakdown of how various parts of the region could be affected when the hurricane makes landfall on Sunday afternoon or evening , according to the Weather Service.
Baton Rouge, La.
River Parishes and Northshore in Louisiana
Residents in the metro area can expect winds of 110 m.p.h. and, potentially, more than 20 inches of rain.
Inundation could reach as high as 11 feet. Residents can also expect winds of 74 m.p.h. and up to 12 inches of rain.
Tornadoes are possible in all of these areas, the Weather Service said.
Hurricane Ida is expected to make landfall Sunday, threatening to bring dangerous wind, storm surge and rain to the Gulf Coast exactly 16 years after the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most costly natural disasters in American history, which left more than 1,800 dead and produced more than $100 billion in damages.
The overall impact of storm surge from Ida is predicted to be less severe than during Katrina. Because that storm began as a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico before weakening as it approached landfall, it generated enormous storm surge, which brought over 20 feet of water to parts of the Mississippi coast. Current projections put the storm surge of Ida at 10 to 15 feet.
“Fifteen-foot sure can do a lot of damage,” said Barry Keim, a professor at Louisiana State University and Louisiana State Climatologist. “But it’s going to be nothing in comparison with Katrina’s surge.”
Improvements to the levee system following Katrina have better prepared the New Orleans metro area for the storm surge.
However, the areas likely to receive the most severe surge from Ida may be less equipped to handle it than the area hit by Katrina, said Dr. Keim.
Ida is expected to make landfall to the west of where Katrina struck, bringing the most severe storm surge impacts to the Louisiana coast west of the Mississippi River rather thaneast of the river along coastal Mississippi, as Katrina did.
“We are testing a different part of the flood protection in and around southeast Louisiana than we did in Katrina,” said Dr. Keim. “Some of the weak links in this area maybe haven’t been quite as exposed.”
While the impacts of Ida’s storm surge are expected to be less severe than Katrina’s, Ida’s winds and rain are predicted to exceed those that pummeled the Gulf Coast in 2005.
Ida is expected to make landfall on the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm with peak winds of 130 mph, while Katrina made landfall as a Category 3 with peak winds of 125 mph.
“It could be quite devastating — especially some of those high rise buildings are just not rated to sustain that wind load,” said Jamie Rhome, acting deputy director of the National Hurricane Center.
The severe damage from Hurricane Laura, which struck southwest Louisiana last year as a Category 4 storm, was caused primarily by high winds peaking at 150 mph. The storm caused 42 deaths and damage costing more than $19 billion.
Ida’s rainfall also threatens to exceed Katrina’s highs.
The National Hurricane Center estimates that Ida will drench the Gulf Coast with 8 to 16 inches of rain and perhaps as much as 20 inches in some places. Katrina brought 5-10 inches of rain with more than 12 inches in the most impacted areas.
“That is a lot of rainfall,” said Mr. Rhome. “Absolutely the flash flood potential in this case is high, very high.” Especially combined with storm surge, he said, such intense levels of rainfall could have a “huge and devastating impact to those local communities.”
NEW ORLEANS — When a hurricane comes roaring toward New Orleans out of the Gulf of Mexico, there is a discernible mood shift on Bourbon Street, the city’s famed strip of iniquity and conspicuous alcohol consumption.
It goes from tawdry to tawdry with a hint of apocalypse. On Friday afternoon, the street was half alive. Daiquiri bars were open and daiquiri bars were boarded up. The doors to Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club were locked. Nearby, a man lay on his back on the sidewalk, a plastic bag at his side, yelling the name “Laura.” Or maybe “Lord.”
Six happy women from New York ambled toward Canal Street in matching black T-shirts that said, “Birthday, beignets and booze.” The birthday girl declined to give her name. They went past the club called The Famous Door, where a listless bar band played “Fat Bottomed Girls.”
The riffs poured out into the street. A member of the birthday team raised a glass of something alcoholic and sugary and shouted out the chorus.
Another of the New York women, Jessika Edouard of Long Island, said that most of her group had been trying to get out of town before the storm’s arrival, to no avail. It was all cancellations and unresponsive airline customer service. “The flights are terrible,” she said.
What choice did they have but to keep the party going? Ms Edouard thought she and some of the others might be able to leave on Monday, after Ida hit.
In the meantime, she said, they had bought a ton of booze in the French Quarter. In the morning they had beignets. They had just met a crew from the Weather Channel. They seemed more excited than scared.
Ms. Edouard even had words for the storm, which she delivered like a threat from one pro wrestler to another.
“If Hurricane Ida thinks she is going to ruin my friend’s 30th birthday, then Ida has another thing coming,” she said.
NEW ORLEANS — With Hurricane Ida likely to bring powerful winds and heavy rain to their city, residents of New Orleans faced a familiar choice: flee or hunker down for the duration.
The storm was expected to make landfall by Sunday afternoon or evening and officials urged people who intended to evacuate to do so by Saturday. Residents came to a variety of decisions on the matter.
Lacy Duhe, 39, and Jeremy Housely, 42, opted to hunker down in their second-story apartment on Deslonde Street in New Orlean’s Lower Ninth Ward. If they evacuated and ended up in a shelter, they said, they worried about the risk of their unvaccinated children contracting Covid-19. They also had just paid their monthly bills and could not afford to go anywhere.
“It feels serious,” said the couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Ja-nyi. “I wasn’t born during Katrina time. But I know it knocked down a lot of places.”
Mary Picot, 71, walked out the door on Saturday afternoon carrying bags of snacks and medicine. She wasn’t worried about flooding and believed the levees would hold. It was the threat of power outages that convinced her to leave.
“My husband is diabetic,” she said. “We have to keep his medicine cold.”
Donald Lyons, 38, was packing up a silver Nissan sedan Saturday afternoon under a cloud-filled sky in Hollygrove, one of the traditionally Black working class neighborhoods that flooded badly when Katrina hit. The car, carrying his wife, three children and mother-in-law, was full of bags and bedding. They were heading to Sugar Land, Texas, 27 miles southwest of Houston, where they had family that had left after Katrina, 16 years ago, and never come back.
“I’m just trying to get somewhere safe,” Mr. Lyons said.
Down the block, Barbara Butler, 65, a housekeeper, said she thought the city was safer now with all of the new flood protection. She intended to ride out the storm at home.
“It gave us some relief,” she said. “It’s better than no relief.”
She was sitting on the porch with her husband, Curtis Duck, 63, and her brother, Ray Thomas, in a house that Ms. Butler said was flooded with eight feet of water after Katrina.
Mr. Duck said he was sick of evacuating time and again.
“We listen to the news,” he said. “People telling us to go, go, go.”
Victor Pizarro, a health advocate, and his husband decided to ride out the storm in their home in the Gentilly Terrace neighborhood, although they said they would leave town if they lost power for an extended period.
“It’s definitely triggering to even have to think about this and make these decisions,” Mr. Pizarro said in a telephone interview while he drove across town in search of a spare part for his generator. “It’s exhausting to be a New Orleanian and a Louisianian at this point.”
Andy Horowitz and his familydecided to vacate their home in the Algiers Point neighborhood, which sits directly across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. Mr. Horowitz is the author of“Katrina: A History, 1915-2015,” and he is among those scholars and Louisiana residents who fear that the city’s new flood protection system, as massive as it is, may prove to be inadequate for a sinking city in the likely path of more frequent and powerful storms in the age of climate change.
“Every summer, New Orleans plays a game of Russian roulette, and every summer we pull the trigger,” Mr. Horowitz said.
NEW ORLEANS — With tracking maps for Hurricane Ida consistently showing an expected pathway toward southeast Louisiana, Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans issued a stern warning on Saturday that city residents who intend to leave should do so immediately.
“In no way will this storm be weakening, and there’s always an opportunity for the storm to strengthen,” Ms. Cantrell said at a news briefing. “Time is not on our side. It’s rapidly growing, it’s intensifying.”
City officials are asking that residents who plan to stay in the city prepare for extended power outages, limited emergency services and several days of high temperatures after the storm passes.
“The first 72 is on you,” said Collin Arnold, director of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “The first three days of this will be difficult for responders to get to you.”
Forecasters are predicting that Hurricane Ida will be a Category 4 storm upon landfall on Sunday, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which left more than 1,800 dead.
“What we learned during Hurricane Katrina is we are all first-responders,” Ms. Cantrell said. “It’s about taking care of one another.”
— Chelsea Brasted
NEW ORLEANS — On Saturday afternoon, the Rev. Willie L. Calhoun Jr., a 71-year-old resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, was in his Lincoln Continental on the brink of getting out of town. He was not quite sure where. Somewhere in Alabama, he figured.
Rev. Calhoun remembers his father smashing a hole in the roof of his family’s home in the Lower Ninth in 1965, when Hurricane Betsy put 10 feet of water in his house. When Katrina came, he and his family made sure to get out of the neighborhood before the storm destroyed their homes — unlike many of his neighbors, some of whom perished when the levees failed.
The pain from Katrina was now an indelible fact of life in the neighborhood. He had hoped to take part in a 16th anniversary commemoration on Sunday, with a high school marching band and a theme, he said, of “healing, unifying and strengthening our communities.”
“The trauma, and the hurt that’s there,” he said. “I have one friend who lost his mother and his granddaughter in Katrina. For that trauma to be revisited every year is a tough thing.”
But his perspective on the neighborhood 16 years on was somewhat nuanced. He felt confident that the improvements to the city’s storm protection system — with its mammoth flood walls and new gates and levees — would keep the Ninth Ward safe. His worry, he said, was the damage from the wind that comes with a Category 4 hurricane.
And yet it was difficult not to be disappointed. The jobs for Black men seemed to have dried up in the city. A revamped post-Katrina educational system, heavily reliant on charter schools, did not seem, in Rev. Calhoun’s opinion, to have done much good. The neighborhood was in need of economic stimulus. Still full of empty lots, and ghostly foundations of homes, many of them owned by Black families, long washed away.
After $20 billion in infrastructure improvements, it felt, at best, like partial progress, and like survival with an asterisk.
LAKE CHARLES, La. — Not again. That was the widespread sentiment among residents of Lake Charles, a city of about 76,000 residents some 200 miles from New Orleans, on Saturday.
A year after Hurricane Laura left many here without power — and some without homes — for long periods of time, residents were preparing for perhaps yet another weather catastrophe.
When Laura, a powerful Category 4 storm, barreled through Lake Charles last August, it shattered the windows of the home that Juan Jose Galdames, 55, a construction worker, shared with his five children. On Saturday, he was at Home Depot, buying plywood to protect the windows and other vulnerable parts of his house ahead of the storm.
“Yes, I am a little afraid,” Mr. Galdames said. “I don’t want a repeat of that day. It was scary. I want my children to feel safe. I’m trying to get everything ready before nightfall.”
Water and bread were in short supply at an area Target store, and traffic stretched for miles as residents sought safety elsewhere.
Tracy Guillory, 57, a carpenter, tried to prepare by stocking up on supplies and staying on top of weather reports. She said she and her family were weary after a long year of weather crises that included Hurricane Delta and a winter storm that caused pipes to burst and knocked out water systems throughout the region.
Ms. Guillory said her neighborhood was still recovering from flooding in May, which left her SUV beyond repair. She plans to hunker down with her 83-year-old father and 21-year-old daughter.
Josue Espinal, 34, who also works in construction, was trying to reassure his 4-year-old son, Anderson, that everything would be all right. The boy sat on top of a generator box as his father loaded a cart with bottles of water at a Home Depot. Truth was, Mr. Espinal admitted, he too was worried. He and his family live in a mobile home near a lake, and he was looking for a better option to spend the next two nights.
In Louisiana, where daily deaths from Covid reached their highest levels this week, stretched hospitals are having to modify the intense preparations they would normally make ahead of an expected strike from Hurricane Ida.
Louisiana’s medical director, Dr. Joseph Kanter, asked residents on Friday to avoid unnecessary emergency room visits to preserve the state’s hospital capacity, which has been vastly diminished by its most severe Covid surge of the pandemic.
And while plans exist to transfer patients away from coastal areas to inland hospitals ahead of a hurricane, this time “evacuations are just not possible,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a news conference.
“The hospitals don’t have room,” he said. “We don’t have any place to bring those patients — not in state, not out of state.”
The governor said officials had asked hospitals to check generators and stockpile more water, oxygen and personal protective supplies than usual for a storm. The implications of a strike from a Category 4 hurricane while hospitals were full were “beyond what our normal plans are,” he added.
Mr. Edwards said he had told President Biden and Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to expect Covid-related emergency requests, including oxygen.
The state’s recent wave of Covid hospitalizations has exceeded its previous three peaks, and staffing shortages have necessitated support from federal and military medical teams. On Friday, 2,684 Covid patients were hospitalized in the state. This week Louisiana reported its highest ever single-day death toll from Covid — 139 people.
Oschner Health, one of the largest local medical systems, informed the state that it had limited capacity to accept storm-related transfers, especially from nursing homes, the group’s chief executive, Warner L. Thomas, said. Many of Oschner’s hospitals, which were caring for 836 Covid patients on Friday, had invested in backup power and water systems to reduce the need to evacuate, he said.
The pandemic also complicated efforts to discharge more patients than usual before the storm hits. For many Covid patients who require oxygen, “going home isn’t really an option,” said Stephanie Manson, chief operating officer of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, which had 190 Covid inpatients on Friday, 79 of them in intensive care units.
The governor said he feared that the movement of tens or hundreds of thousands of evacuees in the state could cause it to lose gains made in recent days as the number of new coronavirus cases began to drop. Dr. Kanter urged residents who were on the move to wear masks and observe social distancing. Many of the state’s testing and vaccination sites were slated to close temporarily.
NEW ORLEANS — As Hurricane Ida heads toward a possible Sunday landfall on Louisiana’s coastline, the National Weather Service’s storm surge forecast has local officials warning about the potential for water to overtop some of the levees that protect parts of New Orleans.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans noted at a news briefing on Friday evening that water overtopping the levees “is as it was structured to do.” That reflects the updates to the local system of earthen and reinforced levees that protects much of southeast Louisiana in the years after Hurricane Katrina stretched it to a breaking point.
The system, officials said, was rebuilt to defend against a so-called “100-year-storm,” or a storm that has a 1 percent chance in happening every year, but to remain reinforced up to a 500-year-event. It includes armoring, splash pads — concrete areas designed to keep the ground behind an overtopped wall from being washed away — and pumps with backup generators, officials said.
Heath Jones, an emergency operation manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, said that some levees protecting New Orleans on the western side of the Mississippi River were at risk of overtopping in line with the Weather Service’s forecast calling for between 10 and 15 feet of storm surge. A federal levee database shows sections of levee there as low as 10 feet.
Levees in this part of the state have rarely been challenged since they were shored up in the years after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“The previous big tests were (hurricanes) Isaac and Gustav,” said Matt Roe, a public affairs specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers, which occurred in 2012 and 2008, “but it’s important to note that each storm is different.”
Ida’s strength, according to Chip Cline, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, “will test our hurricane protection system in a way they haven’t been tested before.”
— Chelsea Brasted
Hurricane Ida threatens to be the first major storm to strike the Gulf Coast during the 2021 season, hitting a region in many ways still grappling with the physical and emotional toll of a punishing run of hurricanes last year.
The Atlantic hurricane season of 2020 was the busiest on record, with 30 named storms, 13 of which reached hurricane strength. There were so many storms that forecasters ran through the alphabet and had to take the rare step of calling storms by Greek letters.
Louisiana was dealt the harshest blow, barraged repeatedly by storms, including Hurricane Laura, which was one of the most powerful to hit the state, trailed six weeks later by Delta, which was weaker than Laura but followed a nearly identical path, inflicting considerable pain on communities still gripped by the devastation from the earlier storm.
The state is still struggling to claw its way back. Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said the state had $3 billion in unmet recovery needs. In Lake Charles, which was ravaged by direct hits from both hurricanes followed by a deadly winter storm and flooding in May, local officials recently renewed a plea for federal aid as the city has failed to regain its footing; much of it has yet to recover and many residents, unable to find adequate or affordable housing, have fled.
The looming impact of Ida underscores the persisting danger imperiling coastal communities as a changing climate stands to intensify the destructive force of the storms that have always been a seasonal part of life.
President Biden cited the growing danger in May when he announced a significant increase in funding to build and bolster infrastructure in communities most likely to face the wrath of extreme weather.
Hurricane Nora formed in the eastern Pacific on Saturday morning, threatening much of Mexico’s western coastline as the storm strengthens and barrels its way toward Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco and the tip of the Baja California Peninsula, forecasters said.
As of 10 a.m. on Saturday, Nora was about 425 miles from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and had maximum sustained winds of 80 miles per hour as it moved north, according to the National Hurricane Center.
A hurricane warning was in effect for parts of western Mexico.
Forecasters said the storm was expected to cause flooding, mudslides and perilous surf along much of Mexico’s central and northern Pacific Coast.
The remnants of the storm are expected to produce heavy rainfall in parts of the southwestern U.S. and central Rockies toward the middle of next week, forecasters said.
A forecast track from the National Hurricane Center showed Nora skirting close to Mexico’s coastline by Sunday morning before moving toward the Gulf of California a day later.
“Some additional strengthening is forecast through tonight if Nora’s center does not make landfall,” the National Hurricane Center said in an update. “Some gradual weakening is expected to begin by Sunday night or Monday, but Nora is forecast to remain as a hurricane through Tuesday.”
Nora is expected to produce rainfall totals of up to 12 inches this weekend along Mexico’s western coast.
It has been a dizzying few weeks for meteorologists who are monitoring Hurricane Ida this weekend after having monitored three named storms that formed in quick succession in the Atlantic, bringing stormy weather, flooding and damaging winds to different parts of the United States and the Caribbean.
The links between hurricanes and climate change are becoming more apparent. A warming planet can expect to see stronger hurricanes over time, and a higher incidence of the most powerful storms — though the overall number of storms could drop because factors like stronger wind shear could keep weaker storms from forming.
Hurricanes are also becoming wetter because of more water vapor in the warmer atmosphere; scientists have suggested that storms like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 produced far more rain than they would have without the human effects on climate. Also, rising sea levels are contributing to higher storm surges — the most destructive element of tropical cyclones.
OAKLAND, Calif. — The seeds of a company’s downfall, it is often said in the business world, are sown when everything is going great.
It is hard to argue that things aren’t going great for Google. Revenue and profits are charting new highs every three months. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is worth $1.6 trillion. Google has rooted itself deeper and deeper into the lives of everyday Americans.
But a restive class of Google executives worry that the company is showing cracks. They say Google’s work force is increasingly outspoken. Personnel problems are spilling into the public. Decisive leadership and big ideas have given way to risk aversion and incrementalism. And some of those executives are leaving and letting everyone know exactly why.
“I keep getting asked why did I leave now? I think the better question is why did I stay for so long?” Noam Bardin, who joined Google in 2013 when the company acquired mapping service Waze, wrote in a blog post two weeks after leaving the company in February.
Sundar Pichai, the company’s affable, low-key chief executive.
Fifteen current and former Google executives, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering Google and Mr. Pichai, told The New York Times that Google was suffering from many of the pitfalls of a large, maturing company — a paralyzing bureaucracy, a bias toward inaction and a fixation on public perception.
The executives, some of whom regularly interacted with Mr. Pichai, said Google did not move quickly on key business and personnel moves because he chewed over decisions and delayed action. They said that Google continued to be rocked by workplace culture fights, and that Mr. Pichai’s attempts to lower the temperature had the opposite effect — allowing problems to fester while avoiding tough and sometimes unpopular positions.
A Google spokesman said internal surveys about Mr. Pichai’s leadership were positive. The company declined to make Mr. Pichai, 49, available for comment, but it arranged interviews with nine current and former executives to offer a different perspective on his leadership.
“Would I be happier if he made decisions faster? Yes,” said Caesar Sengupta, a former vice president who worked closely with Mr. Pichai during his 15 years at Google. He left in March. “But am I happy that he gets nearly all of his decisions right? Yes.”
a fixture at congressional hearings. Even his critics say he has so far managed to navigate those hearings without ruffling the feathers of lawmakers or providing more ammunition to his company’s foes.
The Google executives complaining about Mr. Pichai’s leadership acknowledge that, and say he is a thoughtful and caring leader. They say Google is more disciplined and organized these days — a bigger, more professionally run company than the one Mr. Pichai inherited six years ago.
challenge Amazon in online commerce a few years ago. Mr. Pichai rejected the idea because he thought Shopify was too expensive, two people familiar with the discussions said.
to select Halimah DeLaine Prado, a longtime deputy in the company’s legal team.
Ms. Prado was at the top of an initial list of candidates provided to Mr. Pichai, who asked to see more names, several people familiar with the search said. The exhaustive search took so long, they said, that it became a running joke among industry headhunters.
Mr. Pichai’s reluctance to take decisive measures on Google’s volatile work force has been noticeable.
vowing to restore lost trust, while continuing to push Google’s view that Dr. Gebru was not fired. But it fell short of an apology, she said, and came across as public-relations pandering to some employees.
David Baker, a former director of engineering at Google’s trust and safety group who resigned in protest of Dr. Gebru’s dismissal, said Google should admit that it had made a mistake instead of trying to save face.
“Google’s lack of courage with its diversity problem is ultimately what evaporated my passion for the job,” said Mr. Baker, who worked at the company for 16 years. “The more secure Google has become financially, the more risk averse it has become.”
Some critiques of Mr. Pichai can be attributed to the challenge of maintaining Google’s outspoken culture among a work force that is far larger than it once was, said the Google executives whom the company asked to speak to The Times.
“I don’t think anyone else could manage these issues as well as Sundar,” said Luiz Barroso, one of the company’s most senior technical executives.
acquire the activity tracker Fitbit, which closed in January, took about a year as Mr. Pichai wrestled with aspects of the deal, including how to integrate the company, its product plans and how it intended to protect user data, said Sameer Samat, a Google vice president. Mr. Samat, who was pushing for the deal, said Mr. Pichai had identified potential problems that he had not fully considered.
“I could see how those multiple discussions could make somebody feel like we’re slow to make decisions,” Mr. Samat said. “The reality is that these are very large decisions.”
It was seven years ago when Waymo discovered that spring blossoms made its self-driving cars get twitchy on the brakes. So did soap bubbles. And road flares.
New tests, in years of tests, revealed more and more distractions for the driverless cars. Their road skills improved, but matching the competence of human drivers was elusive. The cluttered roads of America, it turned out, were a daunting place for a robot.
The wizards of Silicon Valley said people would be commuting to work in self-driving cars by now. Instead, there have been court fights, injuries and deaths, and tens of billions of dollars spent on a frustratingly fickle technology that some researchers say is still years from becoming the industry’s next big thing.
Now the pursuit of autonomous cars is undergoing a reset. Companies like Uber and Lyft, worried about blowing through their cash in pursuit of autonomous technology, have tapped out. Only the most deep pocketed outfits like Waymo, which is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, auto industry giants, and a handful of start-ups are managing to stay in the game.
said that fully functional self-driving cars were just two years away. More than five years later, Tesla cars offered simpler autonomy designed solely for highway driving. Even that has been tinged with controversy after several fatal crashes (which the company blamed on misuse of the technology).
Perhaps no company experienced the turbulence of driverless car development more fitfully than Uber. After poaching 40 robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon University and acquiring a self-driving truck start-up for $680 million in stock, the ride-hailing company settled a lawsuit from Waymo, which was followed by a guilty plea from a former executive accused of stealing intellectual property. A pedestrian in Arizona was also killed in a crash with one of its driverless cars. In the end, Uber essentially paid Aurora to acquire its self-driving unit.
But for the most deep-pocketed companies, the science, they hope, continues to advance one improved ride at a time. In October, Waymo reached a notable milestone: It launched the world’s first “fully autonomous” taxi service. In the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz., anyone can now ride in a minivan with no driver behind the wheel. But that does not mean the company will immediately deploy its technology in other parts of the country.
Dmitri Dolgov, who recently took over as Waymo’s co-chief executive after the departure of John Krafcik, an automobile industry veteran, said the company considers its Arizona service a test case. Based on what it has learned in Arizona, he said, Waymo is building a new version of its self-driving technology that it will eventually deploy in other geographies and other kinds of vehicles, including long-haul trucks.
The suburbs of Phoenix are particularly well suited to driverless cars. Streets are wide, pedestrians are few and there is almost no rain or snow. Waymo supports its autonomous vehicles with remote technicians and roadside assistance crews who can help get cars out of a tight spot, either via the internet or in person.
“Autonomous vehicles can be deployed today, in certain situations,” said Elliot Katz, a former lawyer who counseled many of the big autonomous vehicle companies before launching a start-up, Phantom Auto, that provides software for remotely assisting and operating self-driving vehicles when they get stuck in difficult positions. “But you still need a human in the loop.”
Self-driving tech is not yet nimble enough to reliably handle the variety of situations human drivers encounter each day. They can usually handle suburban Phoenix, but they can’t duplicate the human chutzpah needed for merging into the Lincoln Tunnel in New York or dashing for an offramp on Highway 101 in Los Angeles.
“You have to peel back every layer before you can see the next layer” of challenges for the technology, said Nathaniel Fairfield, a Waymo software engineer who has worked on the project since 2009, in describing some of the distractions faced by the cars. “Your car has to be pretty good at driving before you can really get it into the situations where it handles the next most challenging thing.”
Like Waymo, Aurora is now developing autonomous trucks as well as passenger vehicles. No company has deployed trucks without safety drivers behind the wheel, but Mr. Urmson and others argue that autonomous trucks will make it to market faster than anything designed to transport regular consumers.
Long-haul trucking does not involve passengers who might not be forgiving of twitchy brakes. The routes are also simpler. Once you master one stretch of highway, Mr. Urmson said, it is easier to master another. But even driving down a long, relatively straight highway is extraordinarily difficult. Delivering dinner orders across a small neighborhood is an even greater challenge.
“This is one of the biggest technical challenges of our generation,” said Dave Ferguson, another early engineer on the Google team who is now president of Nuro, a company focused on delivering groceries, pizzas and other goods.
Mr. Ferguson said that many thought self-driving technology would improve like an internet service or a smartphone app. But robotics is a lot more challenging. It was wrong to claim anything else.
“If you look at almost every industry that is trying to solve really really difficult technical challenges, the folks that tend to be involved are a little bit crazy and little bit optimistic,” he said. “You need to have that optimism to get up everyday and bang your head against the wall to try to solve a problem that has never been solved, and it’s not guaranteed that it ever will be solved.”
Uber and Lyft aren’t entirely giving up on driverless cars. Even though it may not help the bottom line for a long time, they still want to deploy autonomous vehicles by partnering with the companies that are still working on the technology. Lyft now says autonomous rides could arrive by 2023.
“These cars will be able to operate on a limited set of streets under a limited set of weather conditions at certain speeds,” said Jody Kelman, the executive of Lyft. “We will very safely be able to deploy these cars, but they won’t be able to go that many places.”
The Atlantic Ocean recorded its first named storm of hurricane season on Saturday after a subtropical storm developed northeast of Bermuda, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm, Ana, developed well before June 1, when hurricane season begins. It was the seventh year in a row that a named storm developed in the Atlantic before the official start of the season.
Early on Saturday, the storm had winds of up to 45 miles per hour and was slowly moving west at 3 m.p.h. For Subtropical Storm Ana to become a hurricane, it would need to reach wind speeds of up to 74 m.p.h., which is not expected to happen, the Hurricane Center said.
Jack Beven, a senior hurricane specialist with the center, said in a forecast update that Subtropical Storm Ana’s strength was not expected to change during the day on Saturday, and that it would weaken by Saturday night and Sunday.
Subtropical Storm Ana, however, was the first in what is expected to be a busy hurricane season.
The Climate Prediction Center said that the Atlantic could have 13 to 20 named storms this year, of which six to 10 could become hurricanes. Three to five could become major hurricanes, with winds greater than 111 m.p.h. — enough to damage well-built homes, uproot trees and make electricity and water unavailable for days to weeks.
“Although NOAA scientists don’t expect this season to be as busy as last year, it only takes one storm to devastate a community,” Ben Friedman, the acting administrator of NOAA, the nation’s climate science agency, said this week.
Last year, a record-breaking 30 storms developed in the Atlantic, 13 of which became hurricanes, including six that strengthened into major hurricanes, according to NOAA.
next named storm that develops in the Atlantic this year will be Bill, followed by Claudette.
LANY, Czech Republic — In a region long fought over by rival ethnic and linguistic groups, archaeologists in the Czech Republic have discovered something unusual in these turbulent parts: evidence that peoples locked in hostility for much of the modern era got along in centuries past.
A few yards from a Czech Army pillbox built as a defense against Nazi Germany, the archaeologists discovered a cattle bone that they say bears inscriptions dating from the sixth century that suggest that different peoples speaking different languages mingled and exchanged ideas at that time.
Perhaps fitting for a such a fractious region, the find has set off a furious brawl among academics and archaeologists, and nationalists and Europhiles, about what it all means.
The bone fragment, identified by DNA analysis and carbon dating as coming from the rib of a cow that lived around 1,400 years ago, was found in a Slavic settlement in 2017, said Jiri Machacek, the head of the archaeology department at Masaryk University in the Czech city of Brno. But in what is considered a major finding, a team of scholars led by Dr. Machacek recently concluded that the bone bears sixth-century runes, a system of writing developed by early Germans.
article by Czech, Austrian, Swiss and Australian scholars in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
The scratching, according to the Masaryk University team, turned out to be runic lettering, an ancient alphabet that was used by Germanic tribes before the adoption of the Latin script.
Inscribed on the bone are six of the last eight runes from a 24-letter alphabet known as Old Futhark, the oldest runic alphabet used by Germanic tribes during the first half of the first millennium.
Unlike Germanic tribes, who used runic lettering as early as the first century, speakers of Slavic tongues in places like Moravia, the site of an early Slav polity known as Great Moravia, were not thought to have had a written language until the ninth century.
“Suddenly, because of an archaeological find, the situation looks different,” said Dr. Machacek. “We see that people from the very beginning were connected, that Slavic people used runes” developed by early Germans, or at least had contact with them.
That Slavs also used or intermingled with people who used Germanic runes long before the arrival of the Greek monks who created Cyrillic, he added, upsets a conviction entrenched over centuries that Slavic culture developed separately from that of Germanic peoples and rests on its unique alphabet.
That was a major factor in the uproar that greeted the Masaryk University group’s findings.
Zuzana Hofmanova, a member of the Brno team who analyzes ancient DNA, said she recently received an anonymous message denouncing her and fellow scholars working on the inscribed sixth-century bone as traitors who deserved to be killed.
“Archaeological information can sometimes be misconstrued by people searching for ethnic purity,” she lamented.
Exclusive: L Brands will spin off Victoria’s Secret
L Brands has decided to spin off Victoria’s Secret rather than sell it, DealBook is first to report. The company said last year it was considering separating Victoria’s Secret from the rest of its business, and we previously reported that it was testing private equity’s interest. Ultimately, sources say, L Brands has decided to split itself into two independent, publicly listed companies: Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. The deal is expected to close in August.
Bids didn’t match what Victoria’s Secret expects to get in a spinoff. DealBook hears that L Brands received several bids north of $3 billion. It turned them down, because it expects to be valued somewhere between $5 billion and $7 billion in a spinoff to L Brands shareholders. Analysts at Citi and JPMorgan recently valued Victoria’s Secret as a stand-alone company at $5 billion.
The pandemic torpedoed a sale last year for much less. That agreement, announced in February 2020 with the investment firm Sycamore Partners, valued Victoria’s Secret at $1.1 billion. Apart from a pandemic that was about to upend the retail industry, Victoria’s Secret was dealing with a series of challenges: a brand that had fallen out of touch, accusations of misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace and revelations about the ties between Les Wexner, the company’s founder and former chairman, and Jeffrey Epstein. (Wexner stepped down as C.E.O. last year and said in March that he and his wife are not running for re-election on the company’s board.)
As the pandemic shuttered stores and battered sales, Sycamore sued L Brands to get out of the deal, and L Brands countersued to enforce it, heralding a spate of similar battles between buyers and sellers. Eventually, in May 2020, the sides agreed to call off the deal.
Dick’s Sporting Goods, Michaels and others were able to accelerate digital transformations that may have otherwise taken years. Direct sales at Victoria’s Secret in North America rose to 44 percent of the total last year, from 25 percent the year before. It’s unclear whether pandemic shopping trends will stick, and “it would be reasonable to expect some reversion,” Stuart Burgdoerfer, the L Brands C.F.O., said at a March event. “But I also think that people have very much enjoyed some of the benefits that were forced on us or triggered through the pandemic.”
bump in inflation and that factory-gate prices in China rose more than expected last month. April’s Consumer Price Index data is set to be released today, and is expected to show a sharp rise from a pandemic-depressed level last year.
China’s birthrate slows again. The country’s population is growing at its slowest pace in decades, posing grave social and economic risks to the world’s second-largest economy. While the U.S. also reported a drastic slowdown in population expansion, China “is growing old without first having grown rich,” The Times’s Sui-Lee Wee writes.
President Biden defends federal unemployment benefits. He rejected claims that $300-a-week supplemental payments are deterring unemployed Americans from seeking work, but he ordered the Labor Department to help reinstate work search requirements. Separately, Chipotle said it was raising wages, to an average of $15 an hour, to attract workers.
The Colonial Pipeline is expected to “substantially” reopen within days. The pipeline, which supplies nearly half of the East Coast’s fuel, is expected to restore most services by the weekend after a ransomware attack. U.S. authorities formally blamed a hacker group and pledged to “disrupt and prosecute” the perpetrators.
12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S., potentially helping reopen schools and other parts of the economy more quickly. But while cases are declining worldwide, they are surging in countries that lack vaccines. And the W.H.O. labeled a virus variant spreading fast in India as “of concern.”
Does Amazon need more money?
Amazon sold $18.5 billion worth of bonds yesterday, joining other corporate giants taking advantage of ultralow interest rates to raise money because … well, why not? The e-commerce titan sold some of its debt at a record-low interest rate for a corporate issuer — barely above what the U.S. government pays.
About $1 billion worth of two-year bonds has a yield just 0.1 percentage points above the equivalent in Treasuries. That’s a huge vote of confidence in Amazon, which has emerged as a winner during the pandemic. The company also set a record for yields on a 20-year bond, besting Alphabet. Over all, investors placed $50 billion worth of orders, underscoring enthusiasm for debt that yields next to nothing.
Today in Business
It raised another $1 billion in the form of a sustainability bond, which is meant to finance investments in environmentally minded projects like zero-carbon infrastructure and cleaner transportation. Amazon is the latest company to sell bonds aimed at E.S.G. investors, a market that reached $270 billion last year and could double this year.
To be sure, the bulk of the offering will finance typical corporate maneuvers like share buybacks, acquisitions and capital expenditures, according to the bond prospectus. It will add to the nearly $34 billion in cash that Amazon had on hand at the end of March — as will profits that are growing at extraordinary rates for a company of its size.
a bold bet by the beleaguered retailer that shoppers and workers will flood back there after the pandemic.
offshore tax evasion. “The tax gap is a massive problem, especially the part driven by ultrarich individuals and corporations stashing income overseas,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the subcommittee chair, told DealBook. That gap “could be as much as a trillion dollars,” he said. “That’s trillion with a ‘T.’” This money would help fund President Biden’s spending plans, which also run into the trillions.
It’s difficult to quantify just how much money goes uncollected each year, officials say. Corporate tax collections in the U.S. are “at historic lows and well below what other countries collect,” according to a recent Treasury report. U.S. multinational companies can be taxed at a 50 percent discount compared with their domestic peers, an incentive to shift profits abroad. “Bermuda, a country of merely 64,000 people, shows 10 percent of all reported U.S. multinational foreign profit,” the report explained.
“The Biden administration is serious about stopping tax cheats and so are we,” Whitehouse said. The hearing, which features I.R.S. and Treasury officials, will discuss legislation to end corporate tax breaks that incentivize profit shifting, a proposed $80 billion investment in I.R.S. enforcement, a new approach to international tax diplomacy and proposed changes to the tax code.
THE SPEED READ
The investment firm TPG named Jon Winkelried as its sole C.E.O.; Jim Coulter, who previously shared the role, will become executive chairman and lead the firm’s E.S.G.-focused funds. (Bloomberg)
Vice Media is closing in on a deal to merge with a SPAC at a $3 billion valuation, which would leave existing investors in control. (WSJ)
Elliott Management has reportedly taken a stake in Duke Energy and plans to push for a change in strategy, after the utility rejected a takeover bid by NextEra Energy. (WSJ)
Politics and policy
In Wall-Streeters-seeking-political-office news: Glenn Youngkin, the former Carlyle Group co-C.E.O., won the Republican nomination for Virginia governor; and Alex Lasry, the son of the hedge fund mogul Marc Lasry, is running for the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin as a Democrat. (NYT, WaPo)
Big semiconductor makers and their customers have formed a new group to push for billions in federal funding to promote chip manufacturing in the U.S. (NYT)
Forty-four state attorneys general warned Facebook against plans to introduce a version of Instagram for children. (NYT)
The Pentagon reportedly may scrap its JEDI cloud-computing program, the subject of a lawsuit by Amazon and criticism from lawmakers. (WSJ)
Veteran traders are bringing old Wall Street tricks to crypto market-making. (Bloomberg)
Best of the rest
NBC said it won’t air next year’s Golden Globes ceremony, the biggest blow yet to the awards show as its organizers face criticism over a lack of diversity. (NYT)
An American court rejected an Australian company’s bid to scrap Ugg as a U.S. trademark. In Australia, it’s a catchall term for sheepskin boots with fleece linings. (NYT)
“How the Zoom era has ruined conversation” (WaPo)
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Mary Beth Meehan is an independent photographer and writer. Fred Turner is a professor of communication at Stanford University.
The workers of Silicon Valley rarely look like the men idealized in its lore. They are sometimes heavier, sometimes older, often female, often darker skinned. Many migrated from elsewhere. And most earn far less than Mark Zuckerberg or Tim Cook.
This is a place of divides.
As the valley’s tech companies have driven the American economy since the Great Recession, the region has remained one of the most unequal in the United States.
During the depths of the pandemic, four in 10 families in the area with children could not be sure that they would have enough to eat on any given day, according to an analysis by the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies. Just months later, Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, who recently added “Technoking” to his title, briefly became the world’s richest man. The median home price in Santa Clara County — home to Apple and Alphabet — is now $1.4 million, according to the California Association of Realtors.
For those who have not been fortunate enough to make billionaire lists, for midlevel engineers and food truck workers and longtime residents, the valley has become increasingly inhospitable, testing their resilience and resolve.
Seeing Silicon Valley,” from which this photo essay is excerpted.
Ravi and Gouthami
it would give $1 billion in loans, grants and land toward creating more affordable housing in the area. Of that pledge, $25 million would go toward building housing for educators: 120 apartments, including for Konstance and the other teachers in the original pilot as long as they were working in nearby schools.
At the time of the announcement, Facebook said the money would be used over the next decade. Construction on the teacher housing has yet to be completed.
One day Geraldine received a phone call from a friend: “They’re taking our churches!” her friend said. It was 2015, when Facebook was expanding in the Menlo Park neighborhood where she lived. Her father-in-law had established a tiny church here 55 years before, and Geraldine, a church leader, couldn’t let it be torn down. The City Council was holding a meeting for the community that night. “So I went to the meeting,” she said. “You had to write your name on a paper to be heard, so I did that. They called my name and I went up there bravely, and I talked.”
Geraldine doesn’t remember exactly what she said, but she stood up and prayed — and, ultimately, the congregation was able to keep the church. “God really did it,” she said. “I didn’t have nothing to do with that. It was God.”
In 2016, Gee and Virginia bought a five-bedroom house in Los Gatos, a pricey town nestled beside coastal foothills. Houses on their street cost just under $2 million at the time, and theirs was big enough for each of their two children to have a bedroom and for their parents to visit them from Taiwan.
Together, the couple earn about $350,000 a year — more than six times the national household average. Virginia works in the finance department of Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, and Gee was an early employee of a start-up that developed an online auctioning app.
They have wanted to buy nice furniture for the house, but between their mortgage and child care expenses, they don’t think they can afford to buy it all at once. Some of their rooms now sit empty. Gee said that Silicon Valley salaries like theirs sounded like real wealth to the rest of the country, but that here it didn’t always feel that way.
Jon lives in East Palo Alto, a traditionally lower-income area separated from the rest of Silicon Valley by Highway 101.
By the time Jon was in the eighth grade he knew he wanted to go to college, and he was accepted by a rigorous private high school for low-income children. He discovered an aptitude for computers, and excelled in school and professional internships. Yet as he advanced in his career, he realized that wherever he went there were very few people who looked like him.
“I got really troubled,” he said. “I didn’t know who to talk to, and I saw that it wasn’t a problem for them. I was just like ‘I need to do something about this.’”
Jon, now in his 30s, has come back to East Palo Alto, where he has developed maker spaces and brought tech-related education projects to members of the community.
“It is amazing living here,” said Erfan, who moved to Mountain View when her husband got a job as an engineer at Google. “But it’s not a place I want to spend my whole life. There are lots of opportunities for work, but it’s all about the technology, the speed for new technology, new ideas, new everything.” The couple had previously lived in Canada after emigrating from Iran.
“We never had these opportunities back home, in Iran. I know that — I don’t want to complain,” she added. “When I tell people I’m living in the Bay Area, they say: ‘You’re so lucky — it must be like heaven! You must be so rich.’”
But the emotional toll can be weighty. “We are sometimes happy, but also very anxious, very stressed. You have to be worried if you lose your job, because the cost of living is very high, and it’s very competitive. It’s not that easy — come here, live in California, become a millionaire. It’s not that simple. ”
Elizabeth studied at Stanford and works as a security guard for a major tech firm in the area. She is also homeless.
Sitting on a panel about the issue at San Jose State University in 2017, she said, “Please remember that many of the homeless — and there are many more of us than are captured in the census — work in the same companies that you do.” (She declined to disclose which company she worked for out of fear of reprisal.)
While sometimes homeless co-workers may often serve food in cafeterias or clean buildings, she added, many times they’re white-collar professionals.
“Sometimes it takes only one mistake, one financial mistake, sometimes it takes just one medical catastrophe. Sometimes it takes one tiny little lapse in insurance — it can be a number of things. But the fact is that there’s lots of middle-class people that fell into poverty very recently,” she said. “Their homelessness that was just supposed to be a month or two months until they recovered, or three months, turns out to stretch into years. Please remember, there are a lot of us.”
OAKLAND, Calif. — Cosmetics. Digital dances called “emotes” A currency called V-Bucks. Virtual concerts. Fortnite, the popular gaming platform, is more than just a game. It is a “metaverse,” full of virtual life, said Tim Sweeney, chief executive of Epic Games, the company that created Fortnite.
And Apple, he argued in federal court on Monday, wants an unfair cut of the money to be made in the Fortnite metaverse.
Mr. Sweeney offered a granular explanation of Fortnite to paint an expansive portrait of his company’s world on the first day of what is expected to be a three-week trial, pitting Epic against Apple in a fight over Apple’s App Store fees and other rules that could reshape the $100 billion app economy.
Epic sued Apple in August, arguing that Apple is unfairly leaning on its control of the App Store to extract an unfair cut of the money Epic makes from selling digital goods inside Fortnite.
antitrust claims by state and federal governments in the United States and Europe. Apple is also battling two potential class-action lawsuits from consumers and developers over its App Store fees.
Fortnite, Mr. Sweeney said, “is a phenomenon that transcends gaming,” he said. “Our aim of Fortnite is to build something like a metaverse from science fiction.”
Metaverse? A court reporter needed clarification. It’s a virtual world for socializing and entertainment, Mr. Sweeney said.
The legal arguments in the case center on the boundaries of the market the two companies are fighting over. Apple’s lawyers focused their opening statements on gaming, arguing that people can get access to Fortnite in many places other than the App Store, like gaming consoles.
an interview last year, is “completely unprecedented in human history.”
But Mr. Sweeney was so soft-spoken in his testimony on Monday, a court reporter had to repeatedly ask for clarification on gaming and technology terms. He wore a suit, ditching his usual, T-shirt and cargo shorts. He also wore a clear face shield.
In his testimony, Mr. Sweeney explained Epic’s decision to pursue the lawsuit. “I wanted to show the world through actions exactly what the ramifications of Apple’s policy were,” he said.
In a cross-examination, Richard Doren of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher hammered at Mr. Sweeney with a rapid series of yes-or-no questions to make the point that Epic also publishes Fortnite on other platforms, like gaming consoles — and that Epic is not complaining about them.
But Mr. Sweeney countered that the gaming consoles, which typically lose money on the hardware they sell and make it up on fees, have different business models from Apple’s and Google’s app stores, which are highly profitable.
Mr. Doren asked Mr. Sweeney if he knew that the actions Epic took last summer would cause Apple to kick his company’s app out of the App Store. He suggested that Mr. Sweeney had hoped Apple would cave in to the pressure because of Fortnite’s popularity.
“I hoped Apple would seriously reconsider its policy then and there,” Mr. Sweeney said. Apple did not, and Epic sued.
In the coming weeks, top Apple executives, including the chief executive, Tim Cook, and executives from Microsoft and Match Group are expected to testify.
“Most Democrats seem to be on board with narrowing the differential between the tax rate on capital gains and ordinary income, but there’s opposition for treating the rates as the same,” wrote analysts with Beacon Policy Advisors, a political consultancy. “This means there’s probably a middle ground for raising the capital gains rate on top earners to, say, 28 percent.”
If stocks continued their climb, it would largely be in keeping with previous periods when capital gains taxes were raised.
In 2013, when the tax rose to the current 23.8 percent, from 15 percent, on Americans with the highest incomes, the S&P 500 climbed nearly 30 percent. It was the best year for stocks in the last two decades. And after the top rate rose to 28 percent, from 20 percent, at the end of 1986, the market continued to roar higher, by nearly 40 percent through most of 1987.
Stocks eventually suffered their worst single-day collapse ever on Black Monday in October 1987, but that crash had little to do with tax policy, and the markets ended the year slightly higher. In 1991, a small increase to 28.9 percent in the capital gains rate for those with the largest incomes coincided with a 26 percent rise in the S&P 500. The major driver for that gain had nothing to do with taxes; it was the emergence from a recession.
Similarly, investors appear to be focusing on evidence that the economy is on the brink of breakneck growth. That surge is being fueled by a river of federal government spending, rock-bottom interest rates and more Covid-19 vaccinations. In the first three months of the year, the economy grew at an annualized clip of 6.4 percent. At that pace, 2021 would be the best year for growth since 1984.
Economic growth and corporate profits tend to rise together. And signs of additional oomph in the economy are already showing up in earnings reports from publicly traded companies.
Tech giants such as Tesla, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, all reported first-quarter profits that trounced analyst expectations.
In the Great Recession more than a decade ago, big tech companies hit a rough patch just like everyone else. Now they have become unquestioned winners of the pandemic economy.
The combined yearly revenue of Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Facebook is about $1.2 trillion, according to earnings reported this week, more than 25 percent higher than the figure just as the pandemic started to bite in 2020. In less than a week, those five giants make more in sales than McDonald’s does in a year.
The U.S. economy is cranking back from 2020, when it contracted for the first time since the financial crisis. But for the tech giants, the pandemic hit was barely a blip. It’s a fantastic time to be a titan of U.S. technology — as long as you ignore the screaming politicians, the daily headlines about killing free speech or dodging taxes, the gripes from competitors and workers, and the too-many-to-count legal investigations and lawsuits.
America’s technology superpowers aren’t making bonkers dollars in spite of the deadly coronavirus and its ripple effects through the global economy. They have grown even stronger because of the pandemic. It’s both logical and slightly nuts.
have more money in their pockets thanks to government stimulus checks and pandemic savings, and the tech giants are getting a significant share. Their combined revenue is equivalent to roughly 5 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States.
Big Tech’s pandemic big bucks have an understandable root cause: We needed its services.
People gravitated to Facebook’s apps to stay in touch and entertained, and businesses wanted to pay Facebook and Google, which Alphabet owns, to help them find customers who were stuck at home. People preferred to buy diapers and deck chairs from Amazon rather than risk their health shopping in stores. Companies loaded up on software from Microsoft as their businesses and work forces went virtual. Apple’s laptops and iPads become lifelines for office workers and schoolchildren.
Before the pandemic, America’s technology superpowers were already influential in how we communicated, worked, stayed entertained and shopped. Now they are practically unavoidable. Investors have scooped up Big Tech shares in a bet that these companies are nearly invincible.
“They were already on the way up and had been for the best part of a decade, and the pandemic was unique,” said Thomas Philippon, a professor of finance at New York University. “For them it was a perfect positive storm.”
Sales in the first quarter rose 44 percent from a year earlier, and Amazon’s profits before taxes — which have never been exactly robust — more than doubled to $8.9 billion. Businesses are addicted to Amazon’s cloud computer services, where sales rose 32 percent, and shoppers can’t live without Amazon’s delivery. Investors love Amazon, too. The company’s stock market value has nearly doubled since the beginning of 2020 to $1.8 trillion.
For the other tech giants, it’s as if their brief pandemic nosedive never happened. Advertising sales typically rise and fall with the economy. But as other types of ad spending shrank when the U.S. economy contracted last year, ad sales rose for Google and Facebook. The growth was even better for them in the first three months of this year.
A year ago, analysts worried that Apple would be crippled as the pandemic gripped China, which is the hub of the company’s manufacturing operations and its most important consumer market. The fears didn’t last long. In the first three months of 2021, Apple’s revenue from selling iPhones increased at the fastest rate since 2012. Sales in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong nearly doubled from a year earlier.
been on a tear. So have some younger technology companies, such as Snap and Zoom, the maker of the pandemic-favorite videoconferencing app. The crisis forced all sorts of businesses to go digital fast in ways that could help them thrive. Restaurants invested in online sales and delivery, and doctors went full bore into telemedicine.
But the dictionary doesn’t have enough superlatives to describe what’s happening to the five biggest technology companies. It’s all a bit awkward, really. It’s rocket fuel for critics, including some regulators and lawmakers in Europe and the United States, who say the tech giants crowd out newcomers and leave everyone worse off.
peculiarities of the pandemic economy. Some people and sectors are doing awesome, while other families are lining up at food banks and while companies like airlines are begging for cash. Unlike the stock market clobbering in the Great Recession, stock indexes in the United States have reached new highs.
The tech superstars have also capitalized on this moment. Alphabet and Facebook have used the pandemic to cut back in places that matter less, such as promotional costs and travel and entertainment budgets. And the tech giants have generally increased spending in areas that extend their advantages.
Alphabet is now spending more on big-ticket projects, like building computer complexes, than Exxon Mobil spends to dig oil and gas out of the ground. Amazon’s work force has expanded by more than 470,000 people since the end of 2019. That deepens the moat separating the tech superstars from everyone else.
Big Tech is emerging from the pandemic lean, mean and ready for a U.S. economy expected to roar back to life in 2021. Meanwhile, there are still long lines at food banks. Some American workers who lost their jobs last year may never get them back. Housing advocates are worried that millions of people will be evicted from their homes. And being Big Tech is an invitation for everyone to hate you — but you do have towering piles of money.