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As Trillions Flow Out the Door, Stimulus Oversight Faces Challenges

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have unleashed more than $5 trillion in relief aid over the past year to help businesses and individuals through the pandemic downturn. But the scale of that effort is placing serious strain on a patchwork oversight network created to ferret out waste and fraud.

The Biden administration has taken steps to improve accountability and oversight safeguards spurned by the Trump administration, including more detailed and frequent reporting requirements for those receiving funds. But policing the money has been complicated by long-running turf battles; the lack of a centralized, fully functional system to track how funds are being spent; and the speed with which the government has tried to disburse aid.

The scope of oversight is vast, with the Biden administration policing the tail end of the relief money disbursed by the Trump administration last year in addition to the $1.9 trillion rescue package that Democrats approved in March. Much of that money is beginning to flow out the door, including $21.6 billion in rental assistance funds, $350 billion to state and local governments, $29 billion for restaurants and a $16 billion grant fund for live-event businesses like theaters and music clubs.

The funds are supposed to be tracked by a hodgepodge of overseers, including congressional panels, inspectors general and the White House budget office. But the system has been plagued by disagreements and, until recently, disarray.

released a scathing report accusing other Treasury officials of blocking him from conducting more extensive investigations.

Mr. Miller was selected to oversee relief programs managed by the Treasury Department, but the agency’s officials believed his role was to track only a $500 billion pot of money for the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending programs and funds for airlines and companies that are critical to national security. Mr. Miller said that Treasury officials were initially cooperative during the Trump administration, but that after the transition to the new administration started, his access to information dried up.

After Mr. Miller’s requests for program data were denied, he appealed to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which ruled against him last month. His team of 42 people has been left with little to do.

Economic Injury Disaster Loans. But federal oversight experts and watchdog groups say the exact scale of problems in the $2 trillion bipartisan stimulus relief bill in March 2020 is virtually impossible to determine because of insufficient oversight and accountability reporting.

Mr. Miller has been pursuing cases of business owners double dipping from various pots of relief money, such as airlines taking small-business loans and also receiving payroll support funds. The Small Business Administration’s inspector general said last year that the agency “lowered the guardrails” and that 15,000 economic disaster loans totaling $450 million were fraudulent.

The Government Accountability Office also placed the small-business lending programs on its “high risk” watch list in March, warning that a lack of information about the recipients of aid and inadequate safeguards could lead to many more problems than have been reported. The report identified “deficiencies within all components of internal control” in the Small Business Administration’s oversight and concluded that officials “must show stronger program integrity controls and better management.”

proposal to revamp many, but not all, of its procedures.

Oversight veterans and some lawmakers say they want to see a more cohesive approach and more transparency from the Biden administration.

“It is just staggering how little oversight there is,” said Neil M. Barofsky, who was the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program from 2008 to 2011. “Not because of the fault of the people who are there, but because of the failure to empower them and give them the opportunity to do their jobs.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, said she had pushed hard for more oversight last year because she believed that Trump administration officials had conflicts of interest. Despite improvements, she said, the Biden administration could be doing more.

“I kept pushing for more oversight — we got some of it, but not all of what we need,” Ms. Warren said. “We are talking hundreds of billions here.”

She added: “The Biden administration is definitely doing better, but there’s no substitute for transparency and oversight — and we can always do better.”

programs intended to speed $25 billion for emergency housing relief passed last year.

Watchdog groups are wary that speed could sacrifice accountability.

Under Mr. Trump, the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for setting policy in federal agencies, refused to comply with all the reporting requirements in the 2020 stimulus that called for it to collect and release data about businesses that borrowed money under the small-business lending programs.

To some observers, Mr. Biden’s budget office has not moved quickly enough to reverse the Trump-era policy. Instead, Mr. Sterling’s team is working on a complex set of benchmarks — tailored to individual programs included in the $1.9 trillion relief bill — which will be released one by one in the coming months.

stymied by disagreements about a program to prop up struggling state and local governments.

Its legally mandated report to Congress was delayed for weeks, and a member of the panel, Bharat Ramamurti, accused his Republican colleagues of stalling the group’s work. Mr. Ramamurti has since left to work for the Biden administration, and the five-person panel now has three commissioners and no chair. Its latest report was only 19 pages.

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As Scrutiny of Cryptocurrency Grows, the Industry Turns to K Street

The board of advisers at the digital chamber is stuffed with former federal regulators, including a former member of Congress and a recent chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, J. Christopher Giancarlo, who was named to the board of BlockFi, a financial services company that tries to link cryptocurrencies with traditional wealth managers.

Max Baucus, the Democratic former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Jim Messina, a former top Obama adviser, also have recently been named to senior industry posts.

Lobbying disclosure records show that at least 65 contracts as of early 2021 addressed industry matters such as digital currency, cryptocurrency or blockchain, up from about 20 in 2019. Some of the biggest spenders on lobbying include Ripple, Coinbase — the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the United States — and trade groups like the Blockchain Association.

The lobbying burst is one of several recent signs nationwide that the industry is becoming a bigger presence in the economy. FTX, the cryptocurrency trading firm, is spending $135 million to secure the naming rights to the home arena of the Miami Heat.

The billionaire Elon Musk, who hosted “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, was asked about Dogecoin, a cryptocurrency featuring the face of a Shiba Inu dog that was created as a joke but has recently surged in value. “It’s the future of currency. It’s an unstoppable financial vehicle that’s going to take over the world,” Mr. Musk said, before adding, “Yeah, it’s a hustle.” The price of Dogecoin plunged nearly 35 percent in the hours after the show aired.

With the industry’s hires of recent government officials, claims of conflicts of interest are already starting to emerge.

Jay Clayton, who was the S.E.C. chairman until December, is now a paid adviser to the hedge fund One River Digital Asset Management, which invests hundreds of millions in Bitcoin and Ether, two cryptocurrencies, for its clients. Mr. Clayton declined to comment.

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Jobless Claims Continue to Fall: Live Updates

filed first-time applications for state jobless benefits, the Labor Department said Thursday, down more than 100,000 from a week earlier. In addition, 101,000 people filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t qualify for regular benefits. Neither figure is seasonally adjusted.

Applications for unemployment benefits remain high by historical standards, but they have fallen significantly in recent weeks after progress stalled in the fall and winter. Weekly filings for state benefits, which peaked at more than six million last spring, fell below 700,000 for the first time in late March and has now been below that level for four straight weeks.

“In the last few weeks we’ve seen a pretty dramatic improvement in the claims data, and I think that does signal that there’s been an acceleration in the labor market recovery in April,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at the employment site ZipRecruiter.

Economists should get a clearer picture of the labor market’s progress on Friday when the Labor Department will release data on hiring and unemployment in April. The report is expected to show that employers added about one million jobs last month, up from 916,000 in March. The leisure and hospitality industry, which was hardest hit by the initial phase of the pandemic last spring, has led the way in the recovery in recent months, a trend that forecasters believe continued in April.

Many employers have said in recent weeks that they would like to hire even faster but have struggled to find enough workers. Some have blamed enhanced unemployment benefits for discouraging people from returning to work. On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana said his state would pull out of a federal program offering enhanced benefits to unemployed workers and would instead pay a $1,200 bonus to recipients when they find new jobs.

Economic research has found that unemployment benefits can reduce the intensity with which workers search for jobs. But most studies find that the impact on the overall labor market is small, especially when unemployment is high. And Mr. Zhao and other economists say there are other reasons that labor supply might be rebounding more slowly than labor demand. Many potential workers are juggling child care or other responsibilities at home; others remain cautious about the health risks of returning to in-person work.

“I think we will see labor supply improve pretty dramatically in the coming months as the pandemic abates,” Mr. Zhao said.

The Bank of England in London. Policymakers forecast unemployment in Britain to peak at 5.5 percent later this year, thanks to the extension of the government’s furlough program.
Credit…Matt Dunham/Associated Press

The Bank of England unveiled a much brighter outlook for the British economy on Thursday, saying it would return to its prepandemic levels at the end of this year as lockdowns ended, consumers spent billions of pounds in extra savings and the vaccine rollout reduced public health worries.

The central bank, in its quarterly monetary report, raised its growth forecasts and slashed its predictions for unemployment. The British economy is now projected to grow 7.25 percent this year, compared to a forecast of 5 percent growth three months ago. This would be the fastest pace of expansion for the economy since official records began in 1949, pulling Britain out of its worst recession in three centuries.

The higher forecast comes after the government has announced tens of billions of pounds in additional spending to see workers and businesses through the summer, and outlined its plan to end lockdown restrictions by late June.

Britain’s economic output “recovers strongly over the course of 2021, albeit only back to pre-Covid levels,” Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, said in a news conference on Thursday.

“Of course, there remains uncertainty around how the pandemic might evolve and so there are risks around this projection, including from renewed waves of infections in the U.K. and other countries,” he said.

He added that there was also an “enormous amount of uncertainty” about how the pandemic might permanently change people’s working and living patterns, and the effect that will have on the shape of the economy.

Even though inflation is expected to rise above the central bank’s 2 percent target, policymakers voted unanimously to keep the benchmark interest rate at 0.1 percent. It cut rates to that level in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The central bank also said it would slow the pace of its £875 billion government bond-buying program, which was projected to run through 2021, so that it does not finish the program before the end of the year. If the central bank had continued at its current pace, the buying program would have ended several months early. Instead of buying £4.4 billion government bonds a week, the central bank will buy £3.4 billion. The program helps keep government borrowing costs low and supports the economy by encouraging investors to buy other assets.

The minutes of the central bank’s policy meeting showed that officials don’t intent to tighten monetary policy until “there is clear evidence that significant progress” is made on the economic recovery and inflation is sustainably at the bank’s target.

The Bank of England now forecasts unemployment to peak at 5.5 percent later this year, because of the extension of the government’s furlough program. In February, the central bank predicted the unemployment rate would rise as high as 7.75 percent.

The easing of pandemic restrictions will also increase consumer spending. The central bank added that it now expected people to spend about 10 percent of the excess savings they built up in lockdown based on new survey evidence. The previous estimate was just 5 percent.

But these extra savings are “not evenly distributed,” Mr. Bailey said. And they are concentrated among people who are older and already wealthier.

Gary Gensler, Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

Gary Gensler, the newly installed chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, is testifying on Thursday, at noon Eastern time, before the House Financial Services Committee. He will address the meme-stock volatility in January that led to trading restrictions and prompted an outcry about Wall Street’s relationship with retail investors.

“I think these events are part of a larger story about the intersection of finance and technology,” Mr. Gensler will say in his prepared remarks, highlighting seven factors at play that also hint at his regulatory priorities in the months ahead:

Volkswagen’s display at the Shanghai auto show in China last month. China is the German carmaker’s largest market.
Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

A spike in sales to Chinese customers helped Volkswagen rebound strongly from the disruption caused by the pandemic, the carmaker said Thursday, underlining China’s importance to the German economy.

Sales in the first three months of 2021 rose 13 percent compared to a year earlier, to 62.4 billion euros, or $75 billion, while profit rose nearly sevenfold to 3.4 billion euros, the company said. Vehicle sales in China, which is Volkswagen’s largest market, rose more than 60 percent.

The recovery in sales bodes well for the German economy. Vehicles are the country’s biggest export product. But Volkswagen also illustrates Germany’s dependence on China when tensions between Beijing and the European Union are rising because of the Chinese government’s treatment of minority groups and its crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.

As is typical for Volkswagen, the company’s Audi and Porsche divisions generated most of the profit. The luxury vehicles have a higher profit margin than the more affordable cars that account for most of Volkswagen’s volume.

Volkswagen said it was able to manage the shortage of semiconductors that has afflicted all carmakers in recent months, but warned that the chip famine could become more acute in months to come.

Volkswagen sold 60,000 battery-powered vehicles out of a total of 2.4 million during the quarter. That may be a disappointment to the company, which has staked its future on a new line of electric cars, the first of which went on sale late in 2020.

A coronavirus testing center in Soweto, South Africa. The World Trade Organization is considering a proposal to provide drugmakers around the world access to the patents behind coronavirus vaccines.
Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times
A Eurostar train in London’s St. Pancras International station in December. As an independent train operator, Eurostar isn’t eligible for direct state aid.
Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

Consider it a small victory.

Eurostar, the sleek and speedy high-speed train service that ties London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and other cities, will increase as of May 27 its timetable to two trains per day on its once heavily-traveled Paris-London route, up from just one round-trip train per day imposed during the pandemic.

The slightly increased service comes as governments in Europe plan to slowly lift longstanding national restrictions on travel designed to combat the spread of the virus. From a peak of running more than 60 trains a day, Eurostar cut service during the pandemic to one daily round-trip between London and Paris, and one on its London-Brussels and Amsterdam routes.

The Brussels/Amsterdam route will remain the same with one train in each direction per day, a spokesman said, adding that Eurostar will adapt its timetable should demand increase, which still depends on travel restrictions across its routes.

Eurostar’s future has been thrown into turmoil as pandemic measures led last year to a 95 percent slump in ridership, creating a cash crunch and pushing the iconic company to the brink of bankruptcy.

While some airlines and other tourist-related businesses in Europe have been able to rely on government support during the crisis, Eurostar, an independent train operator, isn’t eligible for direct state aid.

Last month, the company, which is now owned by a consortium that includes the French and Belgium national railways, reportedly secured a deal with its lenders to refinance a debt pile worth £400 million ($553 million). The British government, which in 2015 sold its stake in the rail company, last month declined to back a broader financial rescue package.

A spokesman for Eurostar said it had no new details on a financial rescue, but said that “conversations are still progressing.” The spokesman added that it is “too early to predict a recovery to prepandemic levels, this would be very much dependent on the easing of international travel restrictions which are yet to be confirmed.”

Eurostar trains will continue to maintain some vacant seats onboard to allow for social distancing. The company said it is advising riders to check with their embassies before traveling, and to consult the company’s website for the latest information.

Tim Lorentz with the LaBoata in Spokane, Wash.
Credit…Allie Lorentz

Tim Lorentz, a special-education teacher in Spokane, Wash., loves both cars and boats. He has raced cars and has owned a variety of muscle and exotic vehicles.

“Car guys always want to own or drive a unique car that no one else owns,” Mr. Lorentz said. “I created an eight-passenger convertible. Why not a boat mounted over a convertible? I have never seen another one like it.”

And so the LaBoata was born. Mr. Lorentz, now 65, built it in 2009 using a white 1993 LeBaron a used 17-foot boat he got for $100, Mercedes Lilienthal reports for The New York Times.

The LaBoata was “instant fun,” he said, until he received a letter from the Washington Department of Motor Vehicles canceling his registration and title. The authorities had noticed his converted convertible, and they weren’t amused. He removed the boat shell, drove the car to the D.M.V. and had it reinspected, reinstated and relicensed. He went home and popped the boat back on, and he has had no issues since.

Mr. Lorentz is part of a community that builds cars out of scrap. Kelvin Odartei Cruickshank, who is 19 and lives in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, built, from scratch, a two-person car that looks like a ramshackle DeLorean. It took three years to complete. Mr. Cruickshank used about $200 of scrap metal and parts not normally used in cars because of financial constraints.

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Is the Fight Against Sexism in Australia’s Politics Different This Time?

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email.

For most of the past week, I’ve been interviewing current and former members of Parliament about the mistreatment of women in Australian politics. I’ve spoken mainly to those with direct experience inside the system, and I found myself starting off with the same question: Does what’s happening now feel different?

Everyone — from Tanya Plibersek in Labor, to Dr. Anne Webster of the National Party, to Julia Banks, who gave up her Liberal Party seat in 2019 — responded with the same answer. Yes.

They all told me that, six weeks after Brittany Higgins spoke up with her allegation of rape in the defense minister’s office when she was a staffer in 2019, the dynamic has changed. Women are angry and unified, speaking up in politics and beyond. More of the men who used to brush off complaints of sexism as whining about the always-tough arena of politics have started to see that it’s an uneven playing field, where women compete with extra burdens and threats.

But is that enough to change the system, to make it fair and equal? Maybe not, they said — not yet.

“It feels different in terms of momentum, in terms of moving toward change,” Ms. Banks told me. “But I do worry about the leadership and the lack of accountability. That’s what it comes down to. We’ve seen a lack of accountability before — it can’t be treated like a P.R. issue.”

Dr. Webster, a sociologist who is the National party’s point person on gender issues, compared the level of public outrage to a tsunami, with an impact still unknown.

“The events of the last six weeks, nobody is taking them lying down,” she said. “Everyone is on alert and wondering: Where are we going from here?”

What many of the women found discouraging was the lack, so far, of demonstrable reform. The most obvious solutions I heard proposed by current and former lawmakers, along with political scientists and legal experts, have yet to become a reality, or even a likely possibility.

Susan Harris-Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University and a former parliamentary staffer, noted that Parliament still does not have an independent reporting system for workplace complaints, even after Ms. Higgins’s allegations and a slew of additional scandals and accusations against men in government.

An independent reporting system has long been the standard in most big businesses, universities and large institutions of any kind. Over the past few years, Canada and England have updated workplace protocols in their parliaments with a more modern system that makes it easier for victims of bullying or abuse to come forward without repurcussions.

Australia has not. In Parliament and in politics generally, everything still goes through the parties. That creates obvious conflicts of interest and contributes to the kind of situation that Ms. Higgins described, where she said she felt pressured not to report the rape allegation to police because it would have hurt the Liberal Party’s chances in the 2019 election.

Just as importantly if not more so, I was also told, men — not just women — need to do a better job of enforcing reasonable standards of behavior. Men need to redraw the lines of what is acceptable and then enforce the rules with zero tolerance.

“We need to recognize that it wasn’t women who established the culture in Parliament; it wasn’t women who set up the practices,” said Kate Ellis, a Labor Party lawmaker from 2004 to 2019. “It’s been men and it’s those men who need to stand up now and change.”

Louise Chappell, a political scientist at the University of New South Wales who has studied gender in politics since the ’90s, said the current approach tends to involve adding more ministers for women, as the prime minister did earlier this week with his cabinet reshuffle.

The suggestion, she said, is that women are somehow responsible — “It’s still how can we fix up women rather than fix the system,” she said.

She offered up an intriguing alternative.

“Why don’t we have a minister for men behaving better? Why don’t we shift the lens?”

Another suggestion that she said might sound radical but isn’t: Quotas for men. Instead of saying parties need to have 40 or 50 percent women, why not put a limit on how many men can be selected by the parties as candidates?

“We’ve gotten so used to looking at women’s absences rather than men’s privileges and access,” she said. “The first thing we need to do is get men to stop behaving so badly that when women get in there, they just want to flee.”

My article about the chauvinist culture of Australian politics will be out in the next few days.

In the meantime, here are our stories of the week.


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José Baselga, Who Advanced Breast Cancer Treatments, Dies at 61

José Baselga was born in Barcelona on July 3, 1959, and earned his medical and doctoral degrees from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He caught the attention of cancer researchers after participating in a medical fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where he worked with Dr. John Mendelsohn in researching the use of monoclonal antibodies in targeting certain proteins associated with aggressive cancers, including lung and breast cancers.

Dr. Larry Norton, a senior vice president at Memorial Sloan Kettering and the medical director of the hospital’s Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center, quickly took an interest in Dr. Baselga and served as an early mentor. “He was an artist,” Dr. Norton recalled, adding that he had “a driving force within him, and he would focus all of his energies on accomplishing what was necessary to fulfill that vision.”

Dr. Baselga returned to Spain in 1996 to found the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology at Vall d’Hebron University Hospital in Barcelona. Under his leadership, the center became an international powerhouse in cancer research, testing targeted cancer therapies in early-stage clinical trials. Dr. Baselga became a well-known figure in Spain.

“Spain was not known in the world as a cancer research place,” Dr. Antoni Ribas, the president of the American Association for Cancer Research, who did his medical residency at Vall d’Hebron just before Dr. Baselga assumed his role there, said in a phone interview. “He put Vall d’Hebron, Barcelona and Spain on the map of cancer research.”

Following a stint from 2010 to 2013 at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was the chief of the division of hematology and oncology, Dr. Baselga returned to Memorial Sloan Kettering in 2013 to become physician in chief and, later, chief medical officer.

He also held several leadership roles in the world of cancer research, including president of the American Association for Cancer Research and editor of Cancer Discovery and other medical journals.

Dr. Baselga resigned from Sloan Kettering in September 2018 under pressure after The Times and ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism outfit, reported that he had failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from drug and health care companies in dozens of research articles in The New England Journal of Medicine and other publications.

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Young South Koreans Erupt in Anger Over Housing Scandal

SEOUL — ​The 10 people bought $8.8 million worth of land in an undeveloped area southwest of Seoul, registering it for farming and planting numerous trees. It’s a common trick used by shady real estate speculators in South Korea: Once the area is taken over for housing development, the developers must pay not only for the land, but the trees, too.

A national outrage erupted this month when South Koreans learned that the 10 people were officials from the Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH) — the government agency in charge of building new towns and housing — suspected of using privileged information to cash in on government housing development programs.

The incident has thrown President Moon Jae-in’s government into crisis mode just weeks before key mayoral elections that are largely seen as a referendum on him and his party ahead of next year’s presidential race. Young South Koreans are saying they are fed up with corruption and the president’s failed policies on runaway housing prices. The LH scandal is now set to become a critical voter issue in Mr. Moon’s final year in office.

“When my girlfriend and I discuss how we are going to find a house in Seoul for the family we are going to start, we can’t find an answer,” said Park Young-sik, 29, an office worker. “The LH scandal shows how some people in South Korea make a quick fortune through real-estate foul play, while the rest of us can barely buy a house even if we toil and save for a lifetime.”

urban slums.

Seoul and Busan — go to the polls on April 7 to choose their mayors, and many observers said the elections could reflect poorly on Mr. Moon’s performance. Survey results showed that the LH news was dragging down approval ratings for both him and his party, most sharply among South Koreans in their 20s.

“I am sorry for worrying the people greatly, and for deeply disappointing those people who have lived honestly,” Mr. Moon said last week, vowing to eliminate “real estate corruption widespread in our society” as a priority of his last year in power.

Apartment prices in Seoul have soared by 58 percent during Mr. Moon’s tenure, according to data from the government-run Korea Real Estate Board. Some of the units in popular residential districts in Seoul have nearly doubled in price in the same period.

Rising housing costs have been blamed for creating a vicious cycle in which families believe real estate investments are foolproof, despite being warned otherwise by the authorities. Experts believe the soaring housing costs have also contributed to the country’s declining fertility rate, one of the lowest in the world, by discouraging young Koreans from starting a family.

The insidious​ divide among young people in South Korea has become a popular topic in K-dramas and films, including Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.”​ The “dirt-spoons” struggle to manage an ever-expanding income gap while the “gold-spoons,” the children of the elites, glide through a life of privilege. The problem also featured prominently in the real-life downfall of the former president, Park Geun-hye,​ and the jailing of the Samsung Electronics vice chairman, Lee Jae-yong.

When Mr. Moon took office in 2017, he promised a “fair and just” society. His government has introduced dozens of regulatory steps to curb housing prices, including raising capital-gains taxes on house flipping and property taxes on multiple-home owners.

None of these measures have worked.

Last month, the Moon administration announced plans to supply more than 836,000 new housing units in the next four years, including 70,000 homes to be built in the area southwest of Seoul at the center of the LH scandal. Two civic groups were the first to report that 10 LH officials bought land there months before the highly secretive development plan was announced, accusing the officials of capitalizing on insider information for personal gain, a crime in South Korea.

The government has identified 20 LH officials who are suspected of using privileged information to buy land in various areas before projects were slated to begin there. The investigation has been expanded to target government employees outside of LH, including members of Mr. Moon’s staff. As the dragnet grew larger, two LH officials were found dead this month in apparent suicides. One of them left a note confessing to an “inappropriate deed,” according to the local media.

“LH officials had more access to information on public housing projects than any other, but sadly, we also learned through our investigation that they were ahead of others in real estate speculation,” said Lee Kang-hoon, a lawyer at the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, one of the two civic groups that uncovered the corruption among the LH officials.

Mr. Moon’s political enemies have been quick to fan the flames among angry voters.

“Stealing public data for real estate speculation is a crime that ruins the country,” the former prosecutor-general, Yoon Seok-youl, told the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo this month while criticizing the government’s handling of the situation.

Mr. Yoon has become a darling among the conservative opposition, and recent surveys showed him to be one of the most popular potential candidates in next year’s presidential election. He recently clashed with Mr. Moon over the president’s effort to curtail the power of prosecutors, and resigned early this month.

Lee Jae-myung, the governor of Gyeonggi Province, is another potential candidate in next year’s race. The liberal governor hopes to represent Mr. Moon’s party in the election and has promoted a “basic housing” policy in which the government would provide cheap and long-term rentals for South Koreans.

He recently urged Parliament to enact a comprehensive law banning conflicts of interest among public servants. “If you want to clean the house, you must first clean the mop,” he said. “If you want to make South Korea a fair society, you must first ensure that those who make and implement policies act fairly.”

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‘The Market Seems Crazy’: Start-Ups Wrestle With Flood of Offers

The frenzy has already led to trouble. The stock of Nikola, an electric car start-up that went public via a SPAC in June, has plunged more than 80 percent after Hindenburg Research, an investment fund, accused the company in September of lying about its technology, overstating business deals and deceptively rolling a truck down a hill in a product video. Trevor Milton, Nikola’s founder and chairman, resigned, and the Securities and Exchange Commission and Justice Department have started investigating the company.

The S.E.C. has also opened inquiries into Clover Health, a health insurance start-up, and Lordstown Motors, an electric truck start-up, which both went public through blank check companies in recent months.

On March 10, the S.E.C. warned that SPACs face distinct risks and potential conflicts of interest. The agency was particularly critical of those backed by celebrities, concluding that “celebrities, like anyone else, can be lured into participating in a risky investment.”

For now, the special purpose vehicles remain on the prowl for targets.

Jedidiah Yueh, chief executive of Delphix, a data infrastructure company in Redwood City, Calif., has experienced the interest firsthand. Mr. Yueh, who founded Delphix 13 years ago, said SPACs began reaching out last summer as his business picked up in the pandemic. The company, which helps customers process and automate data, recently became profitable and is a candidate to go public.

But Mr. Yueh said he hadn’t decided if Delphix would go public through a traditional offering or another route, such as a “direct listing” or SPAC. As he has sorted through the options, SPACs have flooded his inbox with messages almost every day. One even sent a mailer to Delphix’s unoccupied office last year while everyone worked from home in the pandemic.

Mr. Yueh said he had met with some SPACs out of curiosity. But he quickly got the sense that sponsors were telling him whatever they thought he wanted to hear. Once they learned that Delphix was profitable, “they just switch gears and talk about how easy they are to work with,” he said.

He said he had stopped responding to cold pitches and created a canned response to ward off others. The investors he met with weren’t the kind of long-term backers that Delphix wanted, he said. But in a nod to the trend of celebrity-backed SPACs, he added, “I would have taken a meeting with Shaq.”

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Despite Investors’ Worries, Inflation Remains Subdued: Live Updates

the index rose by 0.1 percent, the Labor Department reported Wednesday morning. With the prospect of faster economic growth on the horizon, investors and market watchers have been paying close attention to the threat of heightened inflation, although it has yet to materialize for the most part.

The imminent passage of the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package has intensified those worries, with some concerned that the money will pour fuel on an economy that is already poised to heat up as businesses reopen this spring and the pandemic recedes in the face of widespread vaccinations.

Gasoline prices alone were up 6.4 percent in February. But over all, the data matched expectations, suggesting inflation remains under control, despite a recent rise in prices for commodities like oil and copper.

“Outside of another buoyant advance in energy prices in February, consumer price inflation remains very tame,” said Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics.

Over the long term, inflation is a concern because it erodes the value of assets, especially stocks and bonds. An uptick in bond yields in recent weeks, which correlate with inflation fears, helped prompt a sell-off on Wall Street, particularly among high-flying tech stocks.

What’s more, once inflation becomes entrenched it can be hard to subdue, reawakening memories of the 1970s, when rampant inflation haunted the American economy.

But conditions are far different than they were back then, and most mainstream economists doubt a sustained bout of inflation is on its way. The Federal Reserve, which is committed to preserving price stability, has signaled that it intends to maintain its support for the economy and not tighten monetary policy anytime soon.

“The inflation narrative has switched to concerns about rising prices,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. “For the Fed, price response to the economy reopening is seen as transitory and is unlikely to cause too much angst, given inflation pressures are not expected to be sustained.”

Stocks on Wall Street rose on Wednesday after a monthly reading of inflation in the United States came in within economists expectations and bond yields stabilized.

Investors and policymakers have been closely watching inflation and expectations about where it will go next. After years of very low inflation, some economists and investors argue that too much fiscal stimulus during the recovery from the pandemic could cause the economy to overheat and send prices surging. But many central bankers say there are long-term disinflationary forces and an increase in inflation is likely to be temporary.

Inflation rose modestly last month, nudged by an increase in gasoline prices that lifted the overall Consumer Price Index by 0.4 percent. Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, the C.P.I. rose by 0.1 percent, the Labor Department reported Wednesday morning.

Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had forecast an increase of 0.4 percent for overall C.P.I., and 0.2 percent for the “core” measure, which had excludes food and energy costs.

U.S. stocks, especially shares of tech companies, have been rattled by higher bond yields for various reasons, including the fact that higher interest rates increase borrowing costs and eat into the value of a company’s future earnings.

The S&P 500 index rose about 0.5 percent on Wednesday, adding to a gain of 1.4 percent on Tuesday. The Nasdaq composite climbed more than 1 percent, adding to a sharp rebound on Tuesday. The yield on 10-Year U.S. Treasury notes was unchanged at 1.54 percent.

The American Rescue Plan, which was passed by the Senate over the weekend and is now back before the House of Representatives, would put pump $1.9 trillion into the economy.

The New York Times’s personal finance experts, Ron Lieber and Tara Siegel Bernard, combed through the bill to explain what it means in real terms to real people. Here are some of the questions they answer:

A jet engine at GE’s aviation engine overhaul facility in Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro, in 2016.
Credit…Yasuyoshi Chiba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

General Electric said on Wednesday that it would sell its airplane leasing unit to a rival, AerCap, in a deal that would reshape an aviation industry already transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The deal, valued at $30 billion, would combine the world’s two largest aircraft leasing companies, creating a behemoth that owns or manages about one out of every six leased planes globally, according to Cirium, an aviation data firm. If the sale is approved, the combined company will have about 300 customers globally and more than 2,000 aircraft in its portfolio, AerCap said in a statement.

The sale of the unit, GE Capital Aviation Services, could give the new business even more negotiating power over aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus as well as the airlines to which AerCap and G.E. lease planes. It would also advance G.E.’s yearslong effort to simplify its business and reduce debt.

For years, G.E. has been focusing on its core industrial businesses and moving away from the financing activities of its G.E. Capital unit, which included the plane leasing arm. From the end of 2018 to the end of 2020, the value of G.E. Capital’s assets shrank from $86 billion to $68 billion. If the sale to AerCap goes through, the finance arm would go down to $21 billion.

“I hope what you see here this morning is a truly tremendous catalyst in the journey that we’re on to transform G.E.,” the company’s chairman and chief executive, H. Lawrence Culp Jr., said in a conference call with investors and analysts.

If the sale is approved, G.E. will also have reduced its debt by more than $70 billion since the end of 2018, G.E.’s chief financial officer, Carolina Dybeck Happe, said on the call.

Under the terms of the deal, which has been approved by the boards of both companies, G.E. will receive more than 111 million AerCap shares, $24 billion in cash and $1 billion of AerCap notes or cash. The transaction is expected to close in nine to 12 months, pending shareholder and regulatory approval.

G.E. is expected to own about 46 percent of the combined company and will be entitled to nominate two directors to the board of AerCap, which is based in Dublin.

Marathon Petroleum plans to sell its Speedway convenience store business to the owner of 7-Eleven.
Credit…Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Months into a contract dispute with Marathon Petroleum, the Teamsters union is objecting to the company’s $21 billion deal to sell its Speedway convenience store business to the owner of 7-Eleven, DealBook reported exclusively. Its effort is in part a bet that the Biden administration will be tougher on antitrust and more favorable toward unions — and pits the union against Elliott Management, the huge hedge fund that helped make the proposed sale possible.

The Teamsters asked the Federal Trade Commission to pause its review of the deal. In a letter sent on Wednesday to the agency’s acting chairwoman, Rebecca Slaughter, the union requested that the F.T.C. wait for one of two things:

There are other issues at play. Marathon has locked out 200 union workers at a refinery in Minnesota. And unions have had an often tense relationship with activist hedge funds like Elliott, which they have accused of calling for layoffs that affect union members. (In its letter to the F.T.C., the Teamsters union criticized what it called “Elliott’s singular desire to liquidate Marathon’s assets to fund enormous share buybacks and special dividends.”)

But the agency is already far along in its review. Marathon executives, who hope to close the deal by the end of the first quarter, confirmed on a call with analysts last month that they had responded to a second request for information from the F.T.C. and were working on solutions. (The proposed buyer of Speedway, Seven and I Holdings, is reportedly looking to sell up to 300 gas stations to ease the agency’s concerns.)

The F.T.C. must follow statutory timelines for reviewing deals, which means the agency can delay its examination only for so long, even if it wanted to. And it’s not clear whether Ms. Klobuchar’s bill will pass, or in what form.

The election of Bob Sternfels as the global managing partner of McKinsey comes weeks after the firm’s partners effectively voted out Kevin Sneader from the firm’s top role.
Credit…Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

Partners of McKinsey & Company chose Bob Sternfels as their new global managing partner, the consulting giant said on Wednesday, as it seeks to recover from a series of scandals that damaged its reputation in recent years.

The election of Mr. Sternfels, 51, comes weeks after McKinsey partners effectively voted out Kevin Sneader from the firm’s top role. The ousting of Mr. Sneader, who did not make the final ballot of the election, was the first time a McKinsey leader had been denied re-election in decades.

When Mr. Sneader took the top role in 2018, he was confronted with controversy over the firm’s role advising a South African state-owned power company, and later criticism over its work for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and over conflicts of interest in its bankruptcy practice.

Now Mr. Sternfels will inherit blowback from the consultancy’s agreement to pay nearly $600 million to settle an investigation into its role in the opioid crisis. The settlement with 49 states and the District of Columbia centered on McKinsey’s work advising drug makers on how to “turbocharge” opioid sales.

Other recent controversies include the firm’s work advising the French government on its coronavirus vaccine rollout, which has been derided for being too slow.

Among the most pressing internal priorities facing Mr. Sternfels is how to tighten oversight of a 650-member partnership that has traditionally operated with significant autonomy — and sometimes resisted efforts to impose more centralized authority.

A 26-year McKinsey veteran based in San Francisco, Mr. Sternfels leads the firm’s client capabilities operations. He beat out Sven Smit, a partner based in Amsterdam who is co-chairman of the McKinsey Global Institute, its research division.

Mr. Sternfels said in a statement that he was “committed to build on the important changes that Kevin helped launch and our partnership embraced — and on the good work our firm does with our clients and in society.”

Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston last week. Some experts have raised concerns about intensifying the spread of the virus while the vaccination process is underway.
Credit…Mark Felix for The New York Times

HOUSTON — Orders requiring masks and limiting the occupancy of restaurants and other businesses were lifted across Texas on Wednesday, a move that federal health officials and medical experts said was premature while the state was still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

Businesses are still allowed to require employees and customers to cover their faces and limit the number of people they allow inside. Cities can choose to keep limits in place in municipal facilities, and masks remain required on federal property.

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced the changes last week, he argued that he was pushing back against the economic devastation wrought by months of limitations on movement and commerce. In a news conference at a restaurant in Lubbock, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, noted the hindrances for workers and small businesses.

“This must end,” he said. “It is now time to open Texas 100 percent.”

Hours before restrictions were lifted across the state, City officials in Austin announced they planned to defy the governor’s new orders and would continue to impose a citywide mask mandate.

The open defiance puts Austin, the state capitol and Democrat-led city, on yet another likely collision course with the Republican-led state Legislature following years of clashes on a range of issues, from homeless regulations to police funding.

A city council member Greg Casar, who co-sponsored an ordinance last year that authorized the city’s health director to establish Covid-19 public health mandates, said in a telephone interview Tuesday night that city officials believe their stance is “legal and it’s right.”

“If the state chooses to sue us, then it’s basically them going out of their way to undermine the health of Texas,” said Mr. Casar. “My hope is that they focus on vaccine distribution rather than messing with Austin and putting more lives at risk.”

It was not immediately clear whether the city can legally enforce its mask mandate, which calls for a fine up to $2,000 if violated. Mr. Abbott, in his decree last week, said no jurisdiction in the state can impose fees or jail time if residents choose to not wear a mask.

But in San Antonio, moments after Mr. Abbott’s announcement, patrons at Barflys removed the plexiglass dividers separating themselves from the bartenders.

At Barflys on Tuesday, an hour before the mask mandate was to expire, Amber Jowers, 32, was the bartender on duty. She welcomed the policy change. From now on, she will no longer wear a mask at work, she said.

“And we’re taking the sign down at midnight,” she added. “We have to get back to normal now.”

Barflys is a softly lit pub with a pool table, dartboard, and a slot machine. Metallica, Salt-N-Pepa, and the Texas Tornados play from the sound system.

On the smokey back patio, Sophie Bojorquez, 47, sat at a table with friends. She is a vaccinated nurse and a self-proclaimed anti-masker.

“I’m happy about the governor’s decision. The masks impeded the herd immunity we need. Now they want to vax so fast,” she said, shaking her head.

The patio bartender, Britt Harasmisz, 24, said that most of her customers didn’t wear a mask even before the mandate ended. And though her employer decided that Barflys would no longer require face covers, she said that she would continue to wear one while working.

“A lot of people have been vaccinated, Governor Abbott was vaccinated, but a lot of us on the front lines have not,” she said. “I’m going to wear a mask everywhere I go.”

The move to open Texas has faced intense resistance. The governor’s medical advisers have said that they were not involved in the decision. And federal health officials and some experts have raised concerns that the moves, especially repealing the mask mandate, could intensify the spread of the virus while the vaccination process is underway. Texas, which is averaging about 5,500 new cases a day, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Lina Hidalgo, the county judge in Harris County, which includes Houston, has argued that lifting the mask mandate means workers must be the ones to enforce rules in retail establishments and restaurants.

“We know better than to let our guard down simply because a level of government selected an arbitrary date to issue an all-clear,” Ms. Hidalgo, a Democrat and a persistent critic of Mr. Abbott, said in an op-ed column published this week by Time magazine. “I am working to clearly explain to the residents of my county that we will spare ourselves unnecessary death and suffering if we just stick with it for a little bit longer.”

Bert Rossel, 39, stopped in for a drink at Barflys on Tuesday evening. He said he had known the pub’s owner for many years and worked for him at one time. Mr. Rossel is in the insurance business nowadays. He said he believed that the pandemic had been hyped on social media as another distraction, or as he calls it, “the latest hot topic.”

“It’s survival of the fittest,” Mr. Rossel said. “My B.M.I. is higher than normal. Obese people are more susceptible to corona, but it’s been over a year. I would have gotten it already.”

As the evening advanced, the patrons at Barflys drank beer and downed shots, smoked and gossiped, enjoying each other’s company. No one paid attention when, at midnight, Ms. Jowers pulled the sign from the front door that read, “MASKS REQUIRED UPON ENTRY.”

Rick Rojas, James Dobbins and

Joe Donlon interviews President Donald J. Trump in September on “NewsNation.” The show has since grown into a network.

The highest ranking editor at NewsNation, a newcomer to cable news that markets itself as delivering “straight-ahead, unbiased news reporting,” has resigned. She is the third top editor to quit in recent months as some staff have complained of a rightward shift at the network.

Jennifer Lyons, NewsNation’s vice president of news, had decided to depart the channel, effective immediately, the company’s staff were told at a meeting on Tuesday.

Sandy Pudar, the news director, left on Feb. 2, and Richard Maginn, the managing editor, resigned on March 1.

Ms. Lyons did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the Texas-based Nexstar Media, which owns NewsNation, said in a statement that it was Ms. Lyons’s decision to leave and that the search for her replacement was underway.

At Tuesday’s staff meeting in Chicago, Perry A. Sook, the chief executive of Nexstar, sought to reassure staff of his commitment to NewsNation after several employees raised concerns about its editorial direction and the involvement of Bill Shine, a former Fox News co-president who was hired to lead communications for the Trump White House. The concerns among employees were detailed in a New York Times article earlier this week.

“Despite reports to the contrary that you may read, we’re committed to the vision of unbiased reporting,” he said during the meeting, according to a recording of the comments obtained by The New York Times. “But obviously along the way there will be growing pains. In order for us to establish our product and to grow our viewership we’re going to have to try new things to gain some traction.”

Mr. Sook, asked by a staff member about Mr. Shine, said he had not been in the NewsNation building and did not dictate content.

“This guy was in the room where it happened 25 years ago and helped to build the channel to where it is,” Mr. Sook said of Mr. Shine’s experience at Fox News. “Why would we not avail ourselves of his expertise?”

“NewsNation” launched on Sept. 1 as a prime-time national newscast on the cable channel WGN America. It promised an antidote to the more partisan programming of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. On March 1, WGN America was rebranded as NewsNation and more news shows were introduced.

Lina Khan, an associate professor at Columbia Law School, wrote an influential 2016 paper accusing Amazon of abusing its power.
Credit…Lexey Swall for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Biden is expected to name Lina Khan, a law professor and leading critic of the tech industry’s power, to a seat on the Federal Trade Commission, a person with knowledge of the decision said on Tuesday.

An appointment of Ms. Khan, the author of a breakthrough Yale Law Journal paper in 2016 that accused Amazon of abusing its monopoly power, would be the latest sign that the Biden administration planned to take an aggressive posture toward tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Last week, the administration said Tim Wu, another top critic of the industry, would join the National Economic Council as a special assistant to the president for technology and competition policy.

Ms. Khan recently served as legal counsel for the House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee and was among aides who conducted a 19-month investigation into the tech giants’ monopoly power. The committee produced a report advocating major changes to antitrust laws. Before that, she served as an aide to a member of the Federal Trade Commission, Rohit Chopra, a champion of her ideas on antitrust policy.

Ms. Khan, an associate professor at Columbia Law School, would fill one of three Democratic seats on the five-member F.T.C. In December, the commission sued Facebook, accusing it of antitrust violations, and called for breaking up the company. The agency is also investing Amazon for antitrust violations.

Rumors of Ms. Khan’s appointment, which were reported earlier by Politico, immediately sparked strong reactions on Tuesday. Public Citizen, a left-leaning nonprofit public advocacy group, cheered the possibility. The organization and many progressive groups have denounced the F.T.C.’s history — particularly during the Obama administration — for lax enforcement of technology companies. They argue that the federal government’s permissive attitude toward mergers by the tech giants, including Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014, helped the Silicon Valley companies grow quickly and dominate their rivals.

“The F.T.C. has failed to take on corporate abuses of power including rampant antitrust violations, privacy intrusions, data security breaches and mergers, and Khan’s appointment as a commissioner at the agency hopefully will herald a new day,” Public Citizen said in a statement.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Senate antitrust subcommittee, said Ms. Khan would be a bad fit for the job, however.

“Her views on antitrust enforcement are also wildly out of step with a prudent approach to the law,” Mr. Lee said in a statement. “Nominating Ms. Khan would signal that President Biden intends to put ideology and politics ahead of competent antitrust enforcement, which would be gravely disappointing at a time when it is absolutely critical that we have strong and effective leadership at the enforcement agencies.”

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The Times Is Adding Disclosures About David Brooks’s Outside Work to His Columns

The New York Times said Saturday that it was adding disclosures to past articles by the opinion columnist David Brooks that mention the Weave Project, a community-building program that he founded, and the project’s donors, including the social media company Facebook.

The Times also said that Mr. Brooks had resigned from a paid position at the Aspen Institute, a think tank where the Weave Project is one of dozens of programs and initiatives. Mr. Brooks will continue to be involved with the Weave Project only on a volunteer basis, and will need to disclose the relationship should he write about the project in the future.

The moves came after reports in BuzzFeed News about Facebook’s donation that raised questions about whether Mr. Brooks should have informed readers of the nature of his involvement with the Weave Project.

Mr. Brooks had received approval to take the paid position at Aspen in 2018, according to Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman, but the current editors of the opinion section did not know about the arrangement. Upon learning of it, Ms. Murphy said, they “concluded that holding a paid position” for the Weave Project “presents a conflict of interest for David in writing about the work of the project, its donors or the broader issues it focuses on.

James Bennet, then the Opinion editor, left the paper after an internal outcry over a polarizing Op-Ed by Senator Tom Cotton that argued for a military response to civic unrest. This year, Kathleen Kingsbury was named the editor of The Times’s Opinion section, which is run separately from the newsroom.

On Wednesday, BuzzFeed reported that Mr. Brooks had been drawing a salary from the Aspen Institute for his work on the Weave Project, which he did not disclose in several columns he wrote about Weave, and that in December 2018 Facebook earmarked a $250,000 donation to Aspen for the Weave Project to do research. BuzzFeed News also reported last month that Mr. Brooks offered qualified praise for Facebook’s Groups feature in a post on Facebook’s corporate website.

Mr. Brooks has not been involved in the Weave Project’s day-to-day management for the last year, since the project hired a new executive director and Mr. Brooks became chair, according to a statement from the Aspen Institute. Mr. Brooks, who joined The Times in 2003, founded the Weave Project in 2018.

Ms. Murphy, The Times’s spokeswoman, said that Mr. Brooks had not been paid by Facebook and “was not involved in soliciting funding from Facebook for Aspen or Weave.”

Mr. Brooks did not reply to a request for comment. In a regular appearance on Friday night on “PBS NewsHour,” he defended himself, saying that the situation “hasn’t affected my journalism.” Mr. Brooks added that “everything is public.” But, according to BuzzFeed, Aspen had not disclosed some of the donors to the Weave Project, including Facebook, until BuzzFeed reporters began asking for them this year.

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