As the world economy struggles to find its footing, the resurgence of the coronavirus and supply chain chokeholds threaten to hold back the global recovery’s momentum, a closely watched report warned on Tuesday.
The overall growth rate will remain near 6 percent this year, a historically high level after a recession, but the expansion reflects a vast divergence in the fortunes of rich and poor countries, the International Monetary Fund said in its latest World Economic Outlook report.
Worldwide poverty, hunger and unmanageable debt are all on the upswing. Employment has fallen, especially for women, reversing many of the gains they made in recent years.
Uneven access to vaccines and health care is at the heart of the economic disparities. While booster shots are becoming available in some wealthier nations, a staggering 96 percent of people in low-income countries are still unvaccinated.
restrictions and bottlenecks at key ports around the world have caused crippling supply shortages. A lack of workers in many industries is contributing to the clogs. The U.S. Labor Department reported Tuesday that a record 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in August — to take or seek new jobs, or to leave the work force.
Germany, manufacturing output has taken a hit because key commodities are hard to find. And lockdown measures over the summer have dampened growth in Japan.
Fear of rising inflation — even if likely to be temporary — is growing. Prices are climbing for food, medicine and oil as well as for cars and trucks. Inflation worries could also limit governments’ ability to stimulate the economy if a slowdown worsens. As it is, the unusual infusion of public support in the United States and Europe is winding down.
6 percent projected in July. For 2022, the estimate is 4.9 percent.
The key to understanding the global economy is that recoveries in different countries are out of sync, said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “Each and every economy is suffering or benefiting from its own idiosyncratic factors,” he said.
For countries like China, Vietnam and South Korea, whose economies have large manufacturing sectors, “inflation hits them where it hurts the most,” Mr. Daco said, raising costs of raw materials that reverberate through the production process.
The pandemic has underscored how economic success or failure in one country can ripple throughout the world. Floods in Shanxi, China’s mining region, and monsoons in India’s coal-producing states contribute to rising energy prices. A Covid outbreak in Ho Chi Minh City that shuts factories means shop owners in Hoboken won’t have shoes and sweaters to sell.
worldwide surge in energy prices threatens to impose more hardship as it hampers the recovery. This week, oil prices hit a seven-year high in the United States. With winter approaching, Europeans are worried that heating costs will soar when temperatures drop. In other spots, the shortages have cut even deeper, causing blackouts in some places that paralyzed transport, closed factories and threatened food supplies.
China, electricity is being rationed in many provinces and many companies are operating at less than half of their capacity, contributing to an already significant slowdown in growth. India’s coal reserves have dropped to dangerously low levels.
And over the weekend, Lebanon’s six million residents were left without any power for more than 24 hours after fuel shortages shut down the nation’s power plants. The outage is just the latest in a series of disasters there. Its economic and financial crisis has been one of the world’s worst in 150 years.
Oil producers in the Middle East and elsewhere are lately benefiting from the jump in prices. But many nations in the region and North Africa are still trying to resuscitate their pandemic-battered economies. According to newly updated reports from the World Bank, 13 of the 16 countries in that region will have lower standards of living this year than they did before the pandemic, in large part because of “underfinanced, imbalanced and ill-prepared health systems.”
Other countries were so overburdened by debt even before the pandemic that governments were forced to limit spending on health care to repay foreign lenders.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are fears of a second lost decade of growth like the one experienced after 2010. In South Africa, over one-third of the population is out of work.
And in East Asia and the Pacific, a World Bank update warned that “Covid-19 threatens to create a combination of slow growth and increasing inequality for the first time this century.” Businesses in Indonesia, Mongolia and the Philippines lost on average 40 percent or more of their typical monthly sales. Thailand and many Pacific island economies are expected to have less output in 2023 than they did before the pandemic.
debt ceiling — can further set back the recovery, the I.M.F. warned.
But the biggest risk is the emergence of a more infectious and deadlier coronavirus variant.
Ms. Gopinath at the I.M.F. urged vaccine manufacturers to support the expansion of vaccine production in developing countries.
Earlier this year, the I.M.F. approved $650 billion worth of emergency currency reserves that have been distributed to countries around the world. In this latest report, it again called on wealthy countries to help ensure that these funds are used to benefit poor countries that have been struggling the most with the fallout of the virus.
“We’re witnessing what I call tragic reversals in development across many dimensions,” said David Malpass, the president of the World Bank. “Progress in reducing extreme poverty has been set back by years — for some, by a decade.”
SAVANNAH, Ga. — Like toy blocks hurled from the heavens, nearly 80,000 shipping containers are stacked in various configurations at the Port of Savannah — 50 percent more than usual.
The steel boxes are waiting for ships to carry them to their final destination, or for trucks to haul them to warehouses that are themselves stuffed to the rafters. Some 700 containers have been left at the port, on the banks of the Savannah River, by their owners for a month or more.
“They’re not coming to get their freight,” complained Griff Lynch, the executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority. “We’ve never had the yard as full as this.”
As he speaks, another vessel glides silently toward an open berth — the 1,207-foot-long Yang Ming Witness, its decks jammed with containers full of clothing, shoes, electronics and other stuff made in factories in Asia. Towering cranes soon pluck the thousands of boxes off the ship — more cargo that must be stashed somewhere.
turmoil in the shipping industry and the broader crisis in supply chains is showing no signs of relenting. It stands as a gnawing source of worry throughout the global economy, challenging once-hopeful assumptions of a vigorous return to growth as vaccines limit the spread of the pandemic.
Germany’s industrial fortunes are sagging, why inflation has become a cause for concern among central bankers, and why American manufacturers are now waiting a record 92 days on average to assemble the parts and raw materials they need to make their goods, according to the Institute of Supply Management.
On the surface, the upheaval appears to be a series of intertwined product shortages. Because shipping containers are in short supply in China, factories that depend on Chinese-made parts and chemicals in the rest of the world have had to limit production.
But the situation at the port of Savannah attests to a more complicated and insidious series of overlapping problems. It is not merely that goods are scarce. It is that products are stuck in the wrong places, and separated from where they are supposed to be by stubborn and constantly shifting barriers.
The shortage of finished goods at retailers represents the flip side of the containers stacked on ships marooned at sea and massed on the riverbanks. The pileup in warehouses is itself a reflection of shortages of truck drivers needed to carry goods to their next destinations.
Vietnam, a hub for the apparel industry, was locked down for several months in the face of a harrowing outbreak of Covid. Diminished cargo leaving Asia should provide respite to clogged ports in the United States, but Mr. Lynch dismisses that line.
“Six or seven weeks later, the ships come in all at once,” Mr. Lynch said. “That doesn’t help.”
Early this year, as shipping prices spiked and containers became scarce, the trouble was widely viewed as the momentary result of pandemic lockdowns. With schools and offices shut, Americans were stocking up on home office gear and equipment for basement gyms, drawing heavily on factories in Asia. Once life reopened, global shipping was supposed to return to normal.
But half a year later, the congestion is worse, with nearly 13 percent of the world’s cargo shipping capacity tied up by delays, according to data compiled by Sea-Intelligence, an industry research firm in Denmark.
Many businesses now assume that the pandemic has fundamentally altered commercial life in permanent ways. Those who might never have shopped for groceries or clothing online — especially older people — have gotten a taste of the convenience, forced to adjust to a lethal virus. Many are likely to retain the habit, maintaining pressure on the supply chain.
“Before the pandemic, could we have imagined mom and dad pointing and clicking to buy a piece of furniture?” said Ruel Joyner, owner of 24E Design Co., a boutique furniture outlet that occupies a brick storefront in Savannah’s graceful historic district. His online sales have tripled over the past year.
On top of those changes in behavior, the supply chain disruption has imposed new frictions.
Mr. Joyner, 46, designs his furniture in Savannah while relying on factories from China and India to manufacture many of his wares. The upheaval on the seas has slowed deliveries, limiting his sales.
He pointed to a brown leather recliner made for him in Dallas. The factory is struggling to secure the reclining mechanism from its supplier in China.
“Where we were getting stuff in 30 days, they are now telling us six months,” Mr. Joyner said. Customers are calling to complain.
His experience also underscores how the shortages and delays have become a source of concern about fair competition. Giant retailers like Target and Home Depot have responded by stockpiling goods in warehouses and, in some cases, chartering their own ships. These options are not available to the average small business.
Bottlenecks have a way of causing more bottlenecks. As many companies have ordered extra and earlier, especially as they prepare for the all-consuming holiday season, warehouses have become jammed. So containers have piled up at the Port of Savannah.
Mr. Lynch’s team — normally focused on its own facilities — has devoted time to scouring unused warehouse spaces inland, seeking to provide customers with alternative channels for their cargo.
Recently, a major retailer completely filled its 3 million square feet of local warehouse space. With its containers piling up in the yard, port staff worked to ship the cargo by rail to Charlotte, N.C., where the retailer had more space.
Such creativity may provide a modicum of relief, but the demands on the port are only intensifying.
On a muggy afternoon in late September, Christmas suddenly felt close at hand. The containers stacked on the riverbanks were surely full of holiday decorations, baking sheets, gifts and other material for the greatest wave of consumption on earth.
Will they get to stores in time?
“That’s the question everyone is asking,” Mr. Lynch said. “I think that’s a very tough question.”
LONDON — The top economic officials from the world’s advanced economies reached a breakthrough on Saturday in their yearslong efforts to overhaul international tax laws, unveiling a broad agreement that aims to stop large multinational companies from seeking out tax havens and force them to pay more of their income to governments.
Finance leaders from the Group of 7 countries agreed to back a new global minimum tax rate of at least 15 percent that companies would have to pay regardless of where they locate their headquarters.
The agreement would also impose an additional tax on some of the largest multinational companies, potentially forcing technology giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google as well as other big global businesses to pay taxes to countries based on where their goods or services are sold, regardless of whether they have a physical presence in that nation.
Officials described the pact as a historic agreement that could reshape global commerce and solidify public finances that have been eroded after more than a year of combating the coronavirus pandemic. The deal comes after several years of fraught negotiations and, if enacted, would reverse a race to the bottom on international tax rates. It would also put to rest a fight between the United States and Europe over how to tax big technology companies.
has been particularly eager to reach an agreement because a global minimum tax is closely tied to its plans to raise the corporate tax rate in the United States to 28 percent from 21 percent to help pay for the president’s infrastructure proposal.
EU Tax Observatory estimated that a 15 percent minimum tax would yield an additional 48 billion euros, or $58 billion, a year. The Biden administration projected in its budget last month that the new global minimum tax system could help bring in $500 billion in tax revenue over a decade to the United States.
The plan could face resistance from large corporations and the world’s biggest companies were absorbing the development on Saturday.
“We strongly support the work being done to update international tax rules,” said José Castañeda, a Google spokesman. “We hope countries continue to work together to ensure a balanced and durable agreement will be finalized soon.”
said this month that it was prepared to move forward with tariffs on about $2.1 billion worth of goods from Austria, Britain, India, Italy, Spain and Turkey in retaliation for their digital taxes. However, it is keeping them on hold while the tax negotiations unfold.
Finishing such a large agreement by the end of the year could be overly optimistic given the number of moving parts and countries involved.
“A detailed agreement on something of this complexity in a few months would just be lighting speed,” said Nathan Sheets, a former Treasury Department under secretary for international affairs in the Obama administration.
The biggest obstacle to getting a deal finished could come from the United States. The Biden administration must win approval from a narrowly divided Congress to make changes to the tax code and Republicans have shown resistance to Mr. Biden’s plans. American businesses will bear the brunt of the new taxes and Republican lawmakers have argued that the White House is ceding tax authority to foreign countries.
Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said on Friday that he did not believe that a 15 percent global minimum tax would curb offshoring.
“If the American corporate tax rate is 28 percent, and the global tax rate is merely half of that, you can guarantee we’ll see a second wave of U.S. investment research manufacturing hit overseas, that’s not what we want,” Mr. Brady said.
At the news conference, Ms. Yellen noted that top Democrats in the House and Senate had expressed support for the tax changes that the Biden administration was trying to make.
In the story of how the modern world was constructed, Toyota stands out as the mastermind of a monumental advance in industrial efficiency. The Japanese automaker pioneered so-called Just In Time manufacturing, in which parts are delivered to factories right as they are required, minimizing the need to stockpile them.
Over the last half-century, this approach has captivated global business in industries far beyond autos. From fashion to food processing to pharmaceuticals, companies have embraced Just In Time to stay nimble, allowing them to adapt to changing market demands, while cutting costs.
But the tumultuous events of the past year have challenged the merits of paring inventories, while reinvigorating concerns that some industries have gone too far, leaving them vulnerable to disruption. As the pandemic has hampered factory operations and sown chaos in global shipping, many economies around the world have been bedeviled by shortages of a vast range of goods — from electronics to lumber to clothing.
In a time of extraordinary upheaval in the global economy, Just In Time is running late.
“It’s sort of like supply chain run amok,” said Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School. “In a race to get to the lowest cost, I have concentrated my risk. We are at the logical conclusion of all that.”
shortage of computer chips — vital car components produced mostly in Asia. Without enough chips on hand, auto factories from India to the United States to Brazil have been forced to halt assembly lines.
But the breadth and persistence of the shortages reveal the extent to which the Just In Time idea has come to dominate commercial life. This helps explain why Nike and other apparel brands struggle to stock retail outlets with their wares. It’s one of the reasons construction companies are having trouble purchasing paints and sealants. It was a principal contributor to the tragic shortages of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, which left frontline medical workers without adequate gear.
a shortage of lumber that has stymied home building in the United States.
Suez Canal this year, closing the primary channel linking Europe and Asia.
“People adopted that kind of lean mentality, and then they applied it to supply chains with the assumption that they would have low-cost and reliable shipping,” said Mr. Shih, the Harvard Business School trade expert. “Then, you have some shocks to the system.”
An Idea That Went ‘Way Too Far’
presentation for the pharmaceutical industry. It promised savings of up to 50 percent on warehousing if clients embraced its “lean and mean” approach to supply chains.
Such claims have panned out. Still, one of the authors of that presentation, Knut Alicke, a McKinsey partner based in Germany, now says the corporate world exceeded prudence.
“We went way too far,” Mr. Alicke said in an interview. “The way that inventory is evaluated will change after the crisis.”
Many companies acted as if manufacturing and shipping were devoid of mishaps, Mr. Alicke added, while failing to account for trouble in their business plans.
“There’s no kind of disruption risk term in there,” he said.
Experts say that omission represents a logical response from management to the incentives at play. Investors reward companies that produce growth in their return on assets. Limiting goods in warehouses improves that ratio.
study. These savings helped finance another shareholder-enriching trend — the growth of share buybacks.
In the decade leading up to the pandemic, American companies spent more than $6 trillion to buy their own shares, roughly tripling their purchases, according to a study by the Bank for International Settlements. Companies in Japan, Britain, France, Canada and China increased their buybacks fourfold, though their purchases were a fraction of their American counterparts.
Repurchasing stock reduces the number of shares in circulation, lifting their value. But the benefits for investors and executives, whose pay packages include hefty allocations of stock, have come at the expense of whatever the company might have otherwise done with its money — investing to expand capacity, or stockpiling parts.
These costs became conspicuous during the first wave of the pandemic, when major economies including the United States discovered that they lacked capacity to quickly make ventilators.
“When you need a ventilator, you need a ventilator,” Mr. Sodhi said. “You can’t say, ‘Well, my stock price is high.’”
When the pandemic began, car manufacturers slashed orders for chips on the expectation that demand for cars would plunge. By the time they realized that demand was reviving, it was too late: Ramping up production of computer chips requires months.
stock analysts on April 28. The company said the shortages would probably derail half of its production through June.
The automaker least affected by the shortage is Toyota. From the inception of Just In Time, Toyota relied on suppliers clustered close to its base in Japan, making the company less susceptible to events far away.
‘It All Cascades’
In Conshohocken, Pa., Mr. Romano is literally waiting for his ship to come in.
He is vice president of sales at Van Horn, Metz & Company, which buys chemicals from suppliers around the world and sells them to factories that make paint, ink and other industrial products.
In normal times, the company is behind in filling perhaps 1 percent of its customers’ orders. On a recent morning, it could not complete a tenth of its orders because it was waiting for supplies to arrive.
The company could not secure enough of a specialized resin that it sells to manufacturers that make construction materials. The American supplier of the resin was itself lacking one element that it purchases from a petrochemical plant in China.
One of Mr. Romano’s regular customers, a paint manufacturer, was holding off on ordering chemicals because it could not locate enough of the metal cans it uses to ship its finished product.
“It all cascades,” Mr. Romano said. “It’s just a mess.”
No pandemic was required to reveal the risks of overreliance on Just In Time combined with global supply chains. Experts have warned about the consequences for decades.
In 1999, an earthquake shook Taiwan, shutting down computer chip manufacturing. The earthquake and tsunami that shattered Japan in 2011 shut down factories and impeded shipping, generating shortages of auto parts and computer chips. Floods in Thailand the same year decimated production of computer hard drives.
Each disaster prompted talk that companies needed to bolster their inventories and diversify their suppliers.
Each time, multinational companies carried on.
The same consultants who promoted the virtues of lean inventories now evangelize about supply chain resilience — the buzzword of the moment.
Simply expanding warehouses may not provide the fix, said Richard Lebovitz, president of LeanDNA, a supply chain consultant based in Austin, Texas. Product lines are increasingly customized.
“The ability to predict what inventory you should keep is harder and harder,” he said.
Ultimately, business is likely to further its embrace of lean for the simple reason that it has yielded profits.
“The real question is, ‘Are we going to stop chasing low cost as the sole criteria for business judgment?’” said Mr. Shih, from Harvard Business School. “I’m skeptical of that. Consumers won’t pay for resilience when they are not in crisis.”
HOUSTON — When OPEC barred oil exports to the United States in 1973, creating long gasoline lines, President Richard Nixon pledged an effort that would combine the spirit of the Apollo program and the determination of the Manhattan Project.
“By the end of this decade, we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources,” he said in a televised address.
His timing was off — it took more than 40 years — but the country has come pretty close to energy independence in recent years thanks to a surge in domestic shale oil and natural gas production and the harnessing of solar and wind energy.
That independence, however, is fragile. Last week, cars lined up at gas stations across much of the Southeast after the Colonial Pipeline was paralyzed by a cyberattack by a criminal group seeking a ransom. The electric grid is also coming under greater stress because of climate change. In the last year, a heat wave in California and a deep freeze in Texas forced rolling blackouts as demand for power outstripped supply.
panic buying rarely seen in decades produced shortages, and prices at the pump rose as much as 20 cents a gallon for regular gasoline in some states in a few days, according to AAA.
Mr. Yergin said that drivers who lined up at pumps to fill gas cans and even plastic bags made the situation worse. The impulse to hoard harkened back to the oil shocks of the 1970s and appeared to touch a chord in the national psyche.
“People remembered gas lines even though they weren’t born yet,” Mr. Yergin said.
Colonial Pipeline, a private company, resumed full operations over the weekend, but it will take at least several more days before many gas stations are restocked.
Energy companies will come under greater pressure from governments and investors to bulk up their defenses against cyberattacks, but those and other vulnerabilities will not be easily overcome, especially after years of underinvestment.
Upgrading the energy system will not be easy. Dozens of competing companies that operate a vast web of oil and gas wells and pumping stations, transmission lines and power plants will need coaxing to make their operations more resilient to weather and criminal attacks. Considerable funding will have to come from business and government, as well as research to keep ahead of the cybercriminals. President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan devotes $100 billion to the transmission grid.
The quest for energy independence has never been a straight line, and there have been many unfortunate twists. Reliance on Middle East oil was a major consideration in military action and diplomatic strategy, including alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia with disturbing human rights records. A half-century ago, the country shifted from burning heating oil to relying more heavily on coal, which contributed to climate change.
But the search for energy independence also led to innovation. Fracking — the hydraulic fracturing of shale oil and natural gas deposits — not only slashed energy imports but also made the United States a major exporter. Suddenly oil and gas were not a national security vulnerability but a tool to further American interests.
nearly half of the transportation fuel needs of the region.
When hurricanes hit, and refineries on the Gulf shut down, gasoline and diesel prices tend to rise along the East Coast. Normally, that is not a huge problem because companies store lots of fuel close to where it is used and trucks and barges can usually make up the difference. This time, however, uncertainty about how long it would take to restore supplies made the Colonial Pipeline’s shutdown much more disruptive.
The ransomware attack was the work of DarkSide, an extortionist ring that has been responsible for scores of attacks on companies in several countries. But it is hardly the only group that infiltrates computer systems to extort money. Others go by names like REvil, Maze and LockBit.
“The technology moves so quickly, you solve one or two or twenty possible vulnerabilities in your computer systems and the hackers find a different way to get in.” said Drue Pearce, a former deputy administrator of the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
The criminal groups represent a threat to industries beyond energy. But experts say energy is of particular concern because it is essential to a functioning economy. The peril is no less complex than reducing the United States’ reliance on foreign oil, said Bill Richardson, a former energy secretary.
“This is a new threat that we are not prepared for,” he said.
In much of the developed world, vaccine orders are soaring into the billions of doses, coronavirus cases are easing and economies are poised to roar back to life. In many less developed nations, though, the virus is raging on, while vaccinations are far too slow to protect even the most vulnerable.
That split screen — clubs and restaurants reopening in the United States and Europe while people gasp for oxygen in India — was never supposed to be so stark.
New variants could emerge in reservoirs of untamed infections, prolonging the pandemic for rich and poor nations alike. The global economy stands to suffer trillions of dollars in losses.
Western nations have promised vaccines to the developing world. But these “donations” are a drop in the bucket, and have in some cases been haphazardly planned.
And even as richer nations inoculate their own citizens, they might start saving vaccine-making capacity for booster shots to deploy against new variants, another blow to countries bereft of manufacturing bases.
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.
President Biden is expected to unveil a $1.5 trillion “human infrastructure” plan next week that will focus on education, child care and paid leave for workers, among other things. It would be paid for in part by new taxes on the rich, including the end of a tax break that lawmakers have tried to eliminate for years.
The White House will propose a major change to capital gains taxes, with people earning more than $1 million per year paying the top marginal tax rate on their investment gains. Mr. Biden wants to raise that rate to 39.6 percent.
The carried interest loophole might finally disappear. Profits earned from funds owned by real estate investors and managers of private equity and venture capital firms are taxed as capital gains at about 20 percent, instead of as regular income, which is taxed at more than double that rate when state levies and other taxes are taken into account.
Financial industry executives and their lobbyists have long asserted that carried interest merely represents a return on investment, not income, an argument that survived challenges as recently as 2017. (Here’s Andrew back in 2007 writing about how lawmakers were trying, unsuccessfully, to end the “longstanding, but little understood, practice.”)
In a 2015 DealBook Op-Ed, the law professor Victor Fleischer, a top proponent for raising taxes on carried interest, estimated that such a move could raise $180 billion.
In a 2011 Times Op-Ed, Warren Buffett decried the treatment of carried interest, which allowed him to report a lower tax rate than his secretary. A minimum tax on millionaires was proposed shortly thereafter and dubbed the “Buffett rule.”
JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon has been a regular critic of carried interest, even though it benefits many of the bank’s clients. In his latest letter to shareholders, he said it could be seen as “another example of institutional bias and favoritism toward special interest groups.”
Other changes to the tax code could be in the works, including to the estate tax. Private equity executives are also worried that the Biden administration may limit the tax deductibility of corporate interest payments, which would be another hit to their business model.
they may be on board with eliminating some business tax loopholes. The White House wants that tax revenue to fund the infrastructure bill it unveiled last month. But another group of Republican senators yesterday proposed a much smaller infrastructure bill — $568 billion, versus Mr. Biden’s $2.3 trillion — that would do away with any corporate tax increases.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
U.S. health officials may soon lift the pause on Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine. A committee of outside experts will meet today to discuss whether to resume giving the shot; they’re expected to vote in favor. But the damage may be done: The Biden administration has reportedly written off the J&J shot’s importance to U.S. vaccination efforts.
President Biden sets a new climate goal. At the first day of a climate summit that the U.S. convened, he pledged to cut America’s emissions in half by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, and offered more funding for developing countries to help them meet their targets. Swiss Re estimated that climate change could cost the global economy as much as $23 trillion in the coming decades.
Airlines see clearer skies ahead. Carriers expect travel to return almost to normal levels by the summer, with the largest airlines expected to offer as many seats this July as they did in July 2019, by one estimate. The industry plans to call back thousands of employees and hire hundreds of pilots.
Scrutiny over a fatal Tesla crash intensifies. Two senators asked regulators to create recommendations for autonomous vehicle software, following the deaths of two men in a Tesla, in which police said no one was behind the wheel. Consumer Reports said it was able to trick Tesla’s Autopilot into operating without anyone in the driver’s seat.
AT&T gains ground in the streaming race. The company added 2.7 million subscribers to HBO and HBO Max in the first quarter. Also worth noting: AT&T collects nearly three times more revenue per streaming user than Disney, and trails only Netflix by that measure.
reckoning on corporate political donations that will be a prominent feature of proxy season, with many shareholder proposals demanding greater disclosure of company spending.
Today in Business
“Companies are reading the writing on the wall,” Thomas DiNapoli, New York State’s comptroller and trustee for the state’s public pension fund, told DealBook. “Political and social polarization are bad for their business, and they need to decide if political donations are worth the risk.”
“Time will tell if their increased attention to these issues is lip service or if it represents a sincere change in corporate culture,” Mr. DiNapoli said. “At a minimum, investors need disclosure of this spending.” New York’s public pension fund is the third-largest in the U.S. and since 2010 it has filed more than 155 shareholder proposals on political spending, winning more than 40 adoptions or agreements, including from Bank of America, Delta Air Lines and Pepsi. Three of five resolutions it has advanced this year have already been withdrawn, with the companies agreeing to make changes without putting them to a vote. That’s a 60 percent hit rate, and companies that wouldn’t engage before are now at least responsive, a spokesperson for the fund said.
The fund got CMS Energy, a Michigan public utility, to agree to be more transparent about political spending, DealBook is first to report; First Energy, an Ohio utility, and the multinational brewer Molson Coors also agreed to more disclosure.
“Companies are now expected to have core values — almost personalities,” said Bruce Freed, the president of the Center for Political Accountability, a nonprofit that partners with shareholders on proposals. Recent agreements, like the ones brokered by Mr. DiNapoli, are a “strong indication” that corporations are feeling “real pressure,” he said. Nine of 30 companies (including those noted above) have agreed this year to provide more disclosure on political donations. Last year, eight of 40 companies facing similar proposals agreed to act instead of putting the question to shareholders in a vote. The Capitol riot “raised the stakes,” Mr. Freed said, and the pressure on companies has not relented since.
read this comprehensive account by The Times’s Tariq Panja and Rory Smith.
Chicago, Flat Rock, Mich., and Kansas City, Mo., through the first two weeks of May. The Kansas City factory makes the F-150 pickup, Ford’s most profitable model.
G.M. has kept its factory in Kansas City, Kan. — which makes the Chevy Malibu sedan — closed since February, and has cut production at other plants.
Daimler has temporarily halted production at two plants in Germany that produce lower-cost C-class vehicles.
Jaguar Land Rover, Britain’s biggest carmaker, will temporarily shut two of its factories there starting next week.
Renault scrapped production forecasts, and said it was prioritizing the manufacturing of its most profitable models.
The shortage is unlikely to end anytime soon, according to Intel’s C.E.O., Pat Gelsinger: “This will take a while until people can put more capacity in the ground,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
In the papers
Some of the academic research that caught our eye this week, summarized in one sentence:
Exclusive: Master P to invest in racial equity
Percy Miller, better known to hip-hop fans as Master P, plans to invest $10 million in companies led by or serving people who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, DealBook is first to report. He sees ownership and equity as keys to bridging racial wealth gaps, and wants other investors to follow his lead.
“This is all about economic empowerment,” Mr. Miller told DealBook. Early in his career, Mr. Miller opened a record store from which he launched No Limit Records, once one of the largest independent labels. More recent projects have been aimed at social entrepreneurship, like an “Uncle P” line of food products to replace Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s (both have since been renamed) that would dedicate a portion of profits to supporting Black communities.
Mr. Miller wants to invest in an array of industries, with education, including financial literacy, a priority. “I always tell people, product outweighs talent — at the same time, education and wisdom are so important,” he said. “That’s the longevity of my success.”
UBS will help connect him to potential prospects. “Our DNA is around entrepreneurship, and our DNA is around facilitating capitalism, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about here,” said Mark Wilkins, a private wealth manager at the bank. The two are treating the initiative as an investment, on which they’re planning to make a return.
THE SPEED READ
Blackstone reported $1.75 billion in profit in its latest quarter, setting a record and swinging from a $1 billion loss a year ago. (WSJ)
L Brands may seek as much as $5 billion in a sale of Victoria’s Secret, far more than the failed deal with Sycamore Partners last year. (Bloomberg)
Politics and policy
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously limited the F.T.C.’s ability to seek financial relief for consumers wronged by deceptive business practices. (CNBC)
Union officials reportedly told Senate Democrats to back legislation strengthening protections for organizing efforts — or risk losing their political support. (Politico)
Norway has led the world in going cashless. Now its central bank is testing out a digital currency. (Insider)
Is Europe’s approach to tech regulation visionary, or misguided? (NYT On Tech)
Best of the rest
Inside Elon Musk’s $150 million philanthropy blitz. (Recode)
The Hamptons property market is on fire: A summer rental went for $2 million, while a 42-acre estate sold for over $100 million. (CNBC)
Do you need to wear a mask outside? (NYT)
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The Biden administration on Thursday barred American banks from purchasing newly issued Russian government debt, signaling the deployment of a key weapon in Washington’s intensifying conflict with Moscow — threatening Russia’s access to international finance.
The curbs on debt were part of new measures against Russia that primarily involved sanctions on dozens of entities and individuals and the expulsion of 10 diplomats from the Russian embassy in Washington. The moves aim to exploit Russia’s weak economy to pressure Moscow to relent in its campaign to disrupt American political life and menace Ukraine. The limits on debt purchases, which apply to bonds issued by the Russian government after June 14, could raise the cost of borrowing within the Russian economy, limiting investment and economic growth.
For now, that threat remains minuscule. Russian government debt held outside the country amounts to about $41 billion, according to the Russian central bank — a relative pittance in the global economy. For comparison, the U.S. Treasury issued a total of $274 billion in sovereign debt over the first three months of this year alone.
Russia’s government sells most of its debt domestically, and it finances much of its operations through the sale of energy. American investors hold only 7 percent of Russian government debt denominated in rubles, according to Oxford Economics in London.
European business interests seek access to the potentially vast Iranian marketplace. Russia, by contrast, is a major supplier of energy across Western Europe. Russia sits on the region’s doorstep, making European leaders — especially Germany — loath toward greater conflict.
Limiting Russia’s access to the international bond markets amounts to “nibbling around the edges,” said Simon Miles, a Russia expert at Duke University. A meaningful hit would threaten Russia’s market for natural gas in Western Europe.
severed Iran from the global financial system, something Washington could bring about given that the American dollar is the world’s reserve currency, the means of exchange in transactions around the planet. Any bank anywhere on earth that handled business for Iran risked being cut off from the international payment network and denied access to dollars.
Russia has very limited need to borrow money from abroad, having cut its deficits sharply following sanctions that were imposed after its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“We’ve had a period of austerity, fiscal austerity, ever since that sanctions shock,” said Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance, a trade association representing international banks. “They prepared themselves.”
Thursday’s order on Russian debt applies only to American financial institutions, but it could prompt multinational companies beyond the United States to recalculate the risks of transacting with the Russian government.
“It puts them on notice, if you like,” said Mr. Nixey. “Every company that is significantly in Russia is listening to this very, very carefully and wondering if it is a good idea, reputationally or in terms of political risk, whether they should continue doing business at the same volume that they are.”
Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.
Container ships stretch far out into the Pacific, waiting days for their turn to unload goods at California ports. Automakers pause production because they can’t get enough of the computer chips that make a modern car work. Long-dormant restaurants finally see a surge of customer demand, but they can’t find enough cooks.
These are all headlines of recent days, and they have one thing in common: They show how America’s great economic challenge has turned 180 degrees in a breathtakingly short time.
Just a few months ago, the nation faced an enormous shortage of demand for goods and services, which threatened to prolong the pandemic-induced downturn long beyond the point at which the virus was contained. The central economic problem of 2021 is looking like the polar opposite. Businesses are beginning to face the challenge of producing adequate supplies of goods and services — whether of lumber or of cold beer — to satiate that resurgent demand.
Huge swaths of the economy shut down last spring and are now being turned back on. But as roughly three million Americans are vaccinated per day and nearly $3 trillion in federal money courses through the economy, it is an open question how long it will take businesses to get up to speed. Their collective success or failure will determine whether this is a year of Goldilocks economic conditions, or a frustrating mix of price spikes and persistent shortages.
idled the factory that makes its popular F-150 trucks, for example. Over all, analysts at IHS Markit forecast one million fewer vehicles will be made in the first quarter of 2021 because of the disruptions. That means American consumers who want to put their new stimulus checks toward a car may face fewer options and have little negotiating leverage on price.
The labor market, meanwhile, presents a paradox. The unemployment rate, at 6 percent, is far above its prepandemic level, and the job market is even worse if you include Americans who say they are no longer looking for work. Yet many employers, especially in restaurants and related service industries, describe a shortage of labor.
research on earlier rounds of expanded benefits, which found that a shortage of job opportunities was a bigger factor in joblessness than people staying on unemployment benefits.
The combination of a surge in demand and disruptions in the economy’s supply has important global dimensions, too. Many businesses rely on imports, including from countries that are far behind the United States in vaccinating their people, and in some cases facing new outbreaks.
Moreover, the backup in container ships at the Port of Los Angeles and some other American ports, especially on the West Coast, shows the world trade system has continued to be stressed by the whipsaw effect of last year’s shutdowns followed by surging demand.
“There are companies that have changed the way they operate from before the pandemic and are more digitally enabled, and reopening is not as big a deal for them,” said James Manyika, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute, the in-house research arm of the giant consultancy. “The problem is those are not the majority of companies, and those other companies will find they are highly dependent on their ecosystems and their supply chains.”
You can’t turn the world economy off, then turn it back on, and expect everything to come back to normal instantly, in other words. The question for 2021 is just how slow that rebooting process turns out to be.