“For us, it’s a question of ambition and opportunity, and we are ambitious,” said Jim Bankoff, Vox Media’s chief executive. “We are going to evaluate our options, but we’re going to do it from a position of strength.” He would not comment on financial details or any potential deals.
Group Nine had talks with major publishers, including Vox Media, about a possible merger for its own SPAC listing, but so far none have materialized, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. Ben Lerer, the head of Group Nine, said in an interview that the company was “in an enviable position” given its recent sales growth.
“The SPAC obviously allows us to be even more ambitious,” he said.
An option for Group Nine would be a deal with one of its largest backers: Discovery Inc. The media giant recently orchestrated a daring takeover of WarnerMedia in an effort to better compete in streaming. Group Nine’s properties have helped drive hundreds of thousands of new customers to Discovery’s streaming platform through content partnerships, making it an attractive takeover target.
The digital ad market thrived during the pandemic, as people started spending more online; BuzzFeed, Vox Media and Group Nine all benefited. Still, their gains were nothing compared with the amounts brought in by the digital giants.
“Facebook, Google and Amazon’s crumbs are Vox, Group Nine and Buzzfeed’s cake,” said Brian Wieser, the lead analyst at GroupM, the media investing arm of the ad company WPP.
That disparity underlines the need of the ad-driven publishers to keep getting bigger.
BuzzFeed’s entry into the public markets is likely to give it an advantage. In addition to cash, it will be able to use its stock as currency to make another deal along the lines of its HuffPost purchase.
“We’ll have opportunities to pursue more acquisitions, and there are more exciting companies out there that we want to pursue,” Jonah Peretti, a BuzzFeed co-founder and the chief executive, said last month.
When asked if BuzzFeed would consider entering the subscription business, he said in a recent interview: “Sure, we’d consider it. Why not?”
Nearly a decade ago, the United States began naming and shaming China for an onslaught of online espionage, the bulk of it conducted using low-level phishing emails against American companies for intellectual property theft.
On Monday, the United States again accused China of cyberattacks. But these attacks were highly aggressive, and they reveal that China has transformed into a far more sophisticated and mature digital adversary than the one that flummoxed U.S. officials a decade ago.
The Biden administration’s indictment for the cyberattacks, along with interviews with dozens of current and former American officials, shows that China has reorganized its hacking operations in the intervening years. While it once conducted relatively unsophisticated hacks of foreign companies, think tanks and government agencies, China is now perpetrating stealthy, decentralized digital assaults of American companies and interests around the world.
Hacks that were conducted via sloppily worded spearphishing emails by units of the People’s Liberation Army are now carried out by an elite satellite network of contractors at front companies and universities that work at the direction of China’s Ministry of State Security, according to U.S. officials and the indictment.
like Microsoft’s Exchange email service and Pulse VPN security devices, which are harder to defend against and allow China’s hackers to operate undetected for longer periods.
“What we’ve seen over the past two or three years is an upleveling” by China, said George Kurtz, the chief executive of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. “They operate more like a professional intelligence service than the smash-and-grab operators we saw in the past.”
China has long been one of the biggest digital threats to the United States. In a 2009 classified National Intelligence Estimate, a document that represents the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, China and Russia topped the list of America’s online adversaries. But China was deemed the more immediate threat because of the volume of its industrial trade theft.
But that threat is even more troubling now because of China’s revamping of its hacking operations. Furthermore, the Biden administration has turned cyberattacks — including ransomware attacks — into a major diplomatic front with superpowers like Russia, and U.S. relations with China have steadily deteriorated over issues including trade and tech supremacy.
China’s prominence in hacking first came to the fore in 2010 with attacks on Google and RSA, the security company, and again in 2013 with a hack of The New York Times.
breach of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. In that attack, Chinese hackers made off with sensitive personal information, including more than 20 million fingerprints, for Americans who had been granted a security clearance.
White House officials soon struck a deal that China would cease its hacking of American companies and interests for its industrial benefit. For 18 months during the Obama administration, security researchers and intelligence officials observed a notable drop in Chinese hacking.
After President Donald J. Trump took office and accelerated trade conflicts and other tensions with China, the hacking resumed. By 2018, U.S. intelligence officials had noted a shift: People’s Liberation Army hackers had stood down and been replaced by operatives working at the behest of the Ministry of State Security, which handles China’s intelligence, security and secret police.
Hacks of intellectual property, that benefited China’s economic plans, originated not from the P.L.A. but from a looser network of front companies and contractors, including engineers who worked for some of the country’s leading technology companies, according to intelligence officials and researchers.
It was unclear how exactly China worked with these loosely affiliated hackers. Some cybersecurity experts speculated that the engineers were paid cash to moonlight for the state, while others said those in the network had no choice but to do whatever the state asked. In 2013, a classified U.S. National Security Agency memo said, “The exact affiliation with Chinese government entities is not known, but their activities indicate a probable intelligence requirement feed from China’s Ministry of State Security.”
announced a new policy requiring Chinese security researchers to notify the state within two days when they found security holes, such as the “zero-days” that the country relied on in the breach of Microsoft Exchange systems.
arrested its founder. Two years later, Chinese police announced that they would start enforcing laws banning the “unauthorized disclosure” of vulnerabilities. That same year, Chinese hackers, who were a regular presence at big Western hacking conventions, stopped showing up, on state orders.
“If they continue to maintain this level of access, with the control that they have, their intelligence community is going to benefit,” Mr. Kurtz said of China. “It’s an arms race in cyber.”
Mr. Buser declined to comment on February’s changes.
Amazon also unveiled a cloud service, Luna, in September. It is so far available only to invitees, who pay $6 a month to play the 85 games on the platform. The games can be streamed from the cloud to phones, computers and Amazon’s Fire TV.
Like Google, Amazon has struggled to assemble a vast library of appealing games, though it does offer games from the French publisher Ubisoft for an added fee. Amazon has also had trouble developing its own games, which Mr. van Dreunen said showed that the creative artistry necessary to make enticing games was at odds with the more corporate style of the tech giants.
“They may have an interesting technological solution, but it totally lacks personality,” he said.
Amazon said it remained dedicated to game development: It opened a game studio in Montreal in March and, after a long delay, is releasing a game called New World this summer.
Even console makers have jumped into cloud gaming. Microsoft, which makes the Xbox console, released a cloud offering, xCloud or Xbox Cloud Gaming, last fall. For a $15 monthly subscription, users can play more than 200 games on various devices.
Sony also has a cloud gaming service, PlayStation Now, where games can be streamed to PlayStation consoles and computers.
Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said in an interview last month that he did not think it was possible to be a gaming company “with any level of big ambition” without cloud gaming. Sony declined to comment.
Other companies have waded in, too. Nvidia, the chip maker that produces gaming hardware, has a $10-a-month cloud program, GeForce Now.
WASHINGTON — When the nation’s antitrust laws were created more than a century ago, they were aimed at taking on industries such as Big Oil.
But technology giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple, which dominate e-commerce, social networks, online advertising and search, have risen in ways unforeseen by the laws. In recent decades, the courts have also interpreted the rules more narrowly.
On Monday, a pair of rulings dismissing federal and state antitrust lawsuits against Facebook renewed questions about whether the laws were suited to taking on tech power. A federal judge threw out the federal suit because, he said, the Federal Trade Commission had not supported its claims that Facebook holds a dominant market share, and he said the states had waited too long to make their case.
The decisions underlined how cautious and conservative courts could slow an increasingly aggressive push by lawmakers, regulators and the White House to restrain the tech companies, fueling calls for Congress to revamp the rules and provide regulators with more legal tools to take on the tech firms.
David Cicilline, a Democrat of Rhode Island, said the country needed a “massive overhaul of our antitrust laws and significant updates to our competition system” to police the biggest technology companies.
Moments later, Representative Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican, agreed. He called for lawmakers to adapt antitrust laws to fit the business models of Silicon Valley companies.
This week’s rulings have now put the pressure on lawmakers to push through a recently proposed package of legislation that would rewrite key aspects of monopoly laws to make some of the tech giants’ business practices illegal.
“This is going to strengthen the case for legislation,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, an antitrust expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “It seems to be proof that the antitrust laws are not up to the challenge.”
introduced this month and passed the House Judiciary Committee last week. The bills would make it harder for the major tech companies to buy nascent competitors and to give preference to their own services on their platforms, and ban them from using their dominance in one business to gain the upper hand in another.
including Lina Khan, a scholar whom President Biden named this month to run the F.T.C. — have argued that a broader definition of consumer welfare, beyond prices, should be applied. Consumer harm, they have said, can also be evident in reduced product quality, like Facebook users suffering a loss of privacy when their personal data is harvested and used for targeted ads.
In one of his rulings on Monday, Judge James E. Boasberg of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said Facebook’s business model had made it especially difficult for the government to meet the standard for going forward with the case.
The government, Judge Boasberg said, had not presented enough evidence that Facebook held monopoly power. Among the difficulties he highlighted was that Facebook did not charge its users for access to its site, meaning its market share could not be assessed through revenue. The government had not found a good alternative measure to make its case, he said.
He also ruled against another part of the F.T.C.’s lawsuit, concerning how Facebook polices the use of data generated by its product, while citing the kind of conservative antitrust doctrine that critics say is out of step with the technology industry’s business practices.
The F.T.C., which brought the federal antitrust suit against Facebook in December, can file a new complaint that addresses the judge’s concerns within 30 days. State attorneys general can appeal Judge Boasberg’s second ruling dismissing a similar case.
fined Facebook $5 billion in 2019 for privacy violations, there were few significant changes to how the company’s products operate. And Facebook continues to grow: More than 3.45 billion people use one or more of its apps — including WhatsApp, Instagram or Messenger — every month.
The decisions were particularly deflating after actions to rein in tech power in Washington had gathered steam. Ms. Khan’s appointment to the F.T.C. this month followed that of Tim Wu, another lawyer who has been critical of the industry, to the National Economic Council. Bruce Reed, the president’s deputy chief of staff, has called for new privacy regulation.
Mr. Biden has yet to name anyone to permanently lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division, which last year filed a lawsuit arguing Google had illegally protected its monopoly over online search.
The White House is also expected to issue an executive order this week targeting corporate consolidation in tech and other areas of the economy. A spokesman for the White House did not respond to requests for comment about the executive order or Judge Boasberg’s rulings.
Activists and lawmakers said this week that Congress should not wait to give regulators more tools, money and legal red lines to use against the tech giants. Mr. Cicilline, along with Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that the judge’s decisions on Facebook show “the dire need to modernize our antitrust laws to address anticompetitive mergers and abusive conduct in the digital economy.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat of Minnesota who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on antitrust, echoed their call.
“After decades of binding Supreme Court decisions that have weakened our antitrust policies, we cannot rely on our courts to keep our markets competitive, open and fair,” she said in a statement. “We urgently need to rejuvenate our antitrust laws to meet the challenges of the modern digital economy.”
But the six bills to update monopoly laws have a long way to go. They still need to pass the full House, where they will likely face criticism from moderate Democrats and libertarian Republicans. In the Senate, Republican support is necessary for them to overcome the legislative filibuster.
The bills may also not go as far in altering antitrust laws as some hope. The House Judiciary Committee amended one last week to reinforce the standard around consumer welfare.
Even so, Monday’s rulings have given the proposals a boost. Bill Baer, who led the Justice Department antitrust division during the Obama administration, said it “gives tremendous impetus to those in Congress who believe that the courts are too conservative in addressing monopoly power.”
Facebook and the tech platforms might like the judge’s decisions, he said, “but they might not like what happens in the Congress.”
As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin scrambled to save faltering markets at the start of the pandemic last year, America’s top economic officials were in near-constant contact with a Wall Street executive whose firm stood to benefit financially from the rescue.
Laurence D. Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, was in frequent touch with Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Powell in the days before and after many of the Fed’s emergency rescue programs were announced in late March. Emails obtained by The New York Times through a records request, along with public releases, underscore the extent to which Mr. Fink planned alongside the government for parts of a financial rescue that his firm referred to in one message as “the project” that he and the Fed were “working on together.”
While some conversations were previously disclosed, the newly released emails, together with public calendar records, show the extent to which economic policymakers worked with a private company as they were drawing up a response to the financial meltdown and how intertwined BlackRock has become with the federal government.
60 recorded calls over the frantic Saturday and Sunday leading up to the Fed’s unveiling on Monday, March 23, of a policy package that included its first-ever program to buy corporate bonds, which were becoming nearly impossible to sell as investors sprinted to convert their holdings to cash. Mr. Mnuchin spoke to Mr. Fink five times that weekend, more than anyone other than the Fed chair, whom he spoke with nine times. Mr. Fink joined Mr. Mnuchin, Mr. Powell and Larry Kudlow, who was the White House National Economic Council director, for a brief call at 7:25 the evening before the Fed’s big announcement, based on Mr. Mnuchin’s calendars.
book on funds.
On March 24, 2020, the New York Fed announced that it had again hired BlackRock’s advisory arm, which operates separately from the company’s asset-management business but which Mr. Fink oversees, this time to carry out the Fed’s purchases of commercial mortgage-backed securities and corporate bonds.
BlackRock’s ability to directly profit from its regular contact with the government during rescue planning was limited. The firm signed a nondisclosure agreement with the New York Fed on March 22, restricting involved officials from sharing information about the coming programs.
were contracting and its business outlook hinged on what happened in certain markets.
While the Fed and Treasury consulted with many financial firms as they drew up their response — and practically all of Wall Street and much of Main Street benefited — no other company was as front and center.
Simply being in touch throughout the government’s planning was good for BlackRock, potentially burnishing its image over the longer run, Mr. Birdthistle said. BlackRock would have benefited through “tons of information, tons of secondary financial benefits,” he said.
Mr. Mnuchin could not be reached for comment. Asked whether top Fed officials discussed program details with Mr. Fink before his firm had signed the nondisclosure agreement, the Fed said Mr. Powell and Randal K. Quarles, a Fed vice chair who also appears in the emails, “have no recollection of discussing the terms of either facility with Mr. Fink.”
“Nor did they have any reason to do so because the Federal Reserve Bank of New York handled the process with great care and transparency,” the central bank added in its statement.
Brian Beades, a spokesman for BlackRock, highlighted that the firm had “stringent information barriers in place that ensure separation between BlackRock Financial Markets Advisory and the firm’s investment business.” He said it was “proud to have been in a position to assist the Federal Reserve in addressing the severe downturn in financial markets during the depths of the crisis.”
Daily Business Briefing
The disclosed emails between Fed and BlackRock officials — 11 in all across March and early April — do not make clear whether the company knew about any of the Fed and Treasury programs’ designs or whether they were simply providing market information.
Fed chair’s official schedule from that March. Those calendars generally track scheduled events, and may have missed meetings in early 2020 when staff members were frantically working on the market rescue and the Fed was shifting to work from home, a central bank spokesman said.
Mr. Powell’s calendars did show that he talked to Mr. Fink in March, April and May, and he has previously answered questions about those discussions.
“I can’t recall exactly what those conversations were, but they would have been about what he is seeing in the markets and things like that, to generally exchanging information,” Mr. Powell said at a July news conference, adding that it wasn’t “very many” conversations. “He’s typically trying to make sure that we are getting good service from the company that he founded and leads.”
BlackRock’s connections to Washington are not new. It was a critical player in the 2008 crisis response, when the New York Fed retained the firm’s advisory arm to manage the mortgage assets of the insurance giant American International Group and Bear Stearns.
Several former BlackRock employees have been named to top roles in President Biden’s administration, including Brian Deese, who heads the White House National Economic Council, and Wally Adeyemo, who was Mr. Fink’s chief of staff and is now the No. 2 official at the Treasury.
in early 2009 to $7.4 trillion in 2019. By the end of last year, they were $8.7 trillion.
As it expanded, it has stepped up its lobbying. In 2004, BlackRock Inc. registered two lobbyists and spent less than $200,000 on its efforts. By 2019 it had 20 lobbyists and spent nearly $2.5 million, though that declined slightly last year, based on OpenSecrets data. Campaign contributions tied to the firm also jumped, touching $1.7 million in 2020 (80 percent to Democrats, 20 percent to Republicans) from next to nothing as recently as 2004.
short-term debt markets that came under intense stress as people and companies rushed to move all of their holdings into cash. And problems were brewing in the corporate debt market, including in exchange-traded funds, which track bundles of corporate debt and other assets but trade like stocks. Corporate bonds were difficult to trade and near impossible to issue in mid-March 2020. Prices on some high-grade corporate debt E.T.F.s, including one of BlackRock’s, were out of whack relative to the values of the underlying assets, which is unusual.
People could still pull their money from E.T.F.s, which both the industry and several outside academics have heralded as a sign of their resiliency. But investors would have had to take a financial hit to do so, relative to the quoted value of the underlying bonds. That could have bruised the product’s reputation in the eyes of some retail savers.
fund recovery was nearly instant.
When the New York Fed retained BlackRock’s advisory arm to make the purchases, it rapidly disclosed details of those contracts to the public. The firm did the program cheaply for the government, waiving fees for exchange-traded fund buying and rebating fees from its own iShares E.T.F.s back to the New York Fed.
The Fed has explained the decision to hire the advisory side of the house in terms of practicality.
“We hired BlackRock for their expertise in these markets,” Mr. Powell has since said in defense of the rapid move. “It was done very quickly due to the urgency and need for their expertise.”
OAKLAND, Calif. — The seeds of a company’s downfall, it is often said in the business world, are sown when everything is going great.
It is hard to argue that things aren’t going great for Google. Revenue and profits are charting new highs every three months. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is worth $1.6 trillion. Google has rooted itself deeper and deeper into the lives of everyday Americans.
But a restive class of Google executives worry that the company is showing cracks. They say Google’s work force is increasingly outspoken. Personnel problems are spilling into the public. Decisive leadership and big ideas have given way to risk aversion and incrementalism. And some of those executives are leaving and letting everyone know exactly why.
“I keep getting asked why did I leave now? I think the better question is why did I stay for so long?” Noam Bardin, who joined Google in 2013 when the company acquired mapping service Waze, wrote in a blog post two weeks after leaving the company in February.
Sundar Pichai, the company’s affable, low-key chief executive.
Fifteen current and former Google executives, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering Google and Mr. Pichai, told The New York Times that Google was suffering from many of the pitfalls of a large, maturing company — a paralyzing bureaucracy, a bias toward inaction and a fixation on public perception.
The executives, some of whom regularly interacted with Mr. Pichai, said Google did not move quickly on key business and personnel moves because he chewed over decisions and delayed action. They said that Google continued to be rocked by workplace culture fights, and that Mr. Pichai’s attempts to lower the temperature had the opposite effect — allowing problems to fester while avoiding tough and sometimes unpopular positions.
A Google spokesman said internal surveys about Mr. Pichai’s leadership were positive. The company declined to make Mr. Pichai, 49, available for comment, but it arranged interviews with nine current and former executives to offer a different perspective on his leadership.
“Would I be happier if he made decisions faster? Yes,” said Caesar Sengupta, a former vice president who worked closely with Mr. Pichai during his 15 years at Google. He left in March. “But am I happy that he gets nearly all of his decisions right? Yes.”
a fixture at congressional hearings. Even his critics say he has so far managed to navigate those hearings without ruffling the feathers of lawmakers or providing more ammunition to his company’s foes.
The Google executives complaining about Mr. Pichai’s leadership acknowledge that, and say he is a thoughtful and caring leader. They say Google is more disciplined and organized these days — a bigger, more professionally run company than the one Mr. Pichai inherited six years ago.
challenge Amazon in online commerce a few years ago. Mr. Pichai rejected the idea because he thought Shopify was too expensive, two people familiar with the discussions said.
to select Halimah DeLaine Prado, a longtime deputy in the company’s legal team.
Ms. Prado was at the top of an initial list of candidates provided to Mr. Pichai, who asked to see more names, several people familiar with the search said. The exhaustive search took so long, they said, that it became a running joke among industry headhunters.
Mr. Pichai’s reluctance to take decisive measures on Google’s volatile work force has been noticeable.
vowing to restore lost trust, while continuing to push Google’s view that Dr. Gebru was not fired. But it fell short of an apology, she said, and came across as public-relations pandering to some employees.
David Baker, a former director of engineering at Google’s trust and safety group who resigned in protest of Dr. Gebru’s dismissal, said Google should admit that it had made a mistake instead of trying to save face.
“Google’s lack of courage with its diversity problem is ultimately what evaporated my passion for the job,” said Mr. Baker, who worked at the company for 16 years. “The more secure Google has become financially, the more risk averse it has become.”
Some critiques of Mr. Pichai can be attributed to the challenge of maintaining Google’s outspoken culture among a work force that is far larger than it once was, said the Google executives whom the company asked to speak to The Times.
“I don’t think anyone else could manage these issues as well as Sundar,” said Luiz Barroso, one of the company’s most senior technical executives.
acquire the activity tracker Fitbit, which closed in January, took about a year as Mr. Pichai wrestled with aspects of the deal, including how to integrate the company, its product plans and how it intended to protect user data, said Sameer Samat, a Google vice president. Mr. Samat, who was pushing for the deal, said Mr. Pichai had identified potential problems that he had not fully considered.
“I could see how those multiple discussions could make somebody feel like we’re slow to make decisions,” Mr. Samat said. “The reality is that these are very large decisions.”
“It’s gone from feeling super lonely and now it’s feeling pretty normal,” Mr. Gray added.
Wall Street and the banking sector are pillars of the city’s economy, and they have been among the most aggressive industries in prodding employees to go back to the office. James Gorman, the chief executive of Morgan Stanley, told investors and analysts this month that “if you want to get paid in New York, you need to be in New York.”
Many firms, including Blackstone and Morgan Stanley, have huge real estate holdings or loans to the industry, so there is more than civic pride in their push to get workers to return. Technology companies like Facebook and Google are increasingly important employers as well as major commercial tenants, and they have been increasing their office space. But they have been more flexible about letting employees continue to work remotely.
Google, which has 11,000 employees in New York and plans to add 3,000 in the next few years, intends to return to its offices in West Chelsea in September, but workers will only be required to come in three days a week. The company has also said up to 20 percent of its staff can apply to work remotely full time.
The decision by even a small slice of employees at Google and other companies to stay home part or all of the week could have a significant economic impact.
Even if just 10 percent of Manhattan office workers begin working remotely most of the time, that translates into more than 100,000 people a day not picking up a coffee and bagel on their way to work or a drink afterward, said James Parrott, an economist with the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.
“I expect a lot of people will return, but not all of them,” he said. “We might lose some neighborhood businesses as a result.”
The absence of white-collar workers hurts people like Danuta Klosinski, 60, who had been cleaning office buildings in Manhattan for 20 years. She is one of more than about 3,000 office cleaners who remain out of work, according to Denis Johnston, a vice president of their union, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.
A festive cape, draped from your shoulders, paired with a dress and glitzy heels while you sip on mulled wine. That’s the sort of scene Macy’s was envisioning for holiday parties in 2020, before the reality of Zoom nights in living rooms.
“We really felt good about this dress-up opportunity, people really feeling glam,” said Nata Dvir, Macy’s chief merchandising officer. “We were thinking about outerwear being as bold as capes.”
Bloomingdale’s, which is owned by Macy’s, had forecast “a mix of utility and romanticism,” which would have included puff sleeves, eyelets and maxi dresses, said Denise Magid, an executive vice president at Bloomingdale’s who oversees ready-to-wear apparel.
Major department stores have fashion offices filled with undisclosed numbers of employees who keeping track of new styles, surfing social media and liaising with designers. Big retailers also usually subscribe to online services that aggregate signals from Google Trends and social media. They work with agencies that specialize in fashion forecasting, like Stylus and WGSN, which project broader consumer habits along with more granular details like seasonal color palettes, textiles and silhouettes. They all also obsessively track their competition.
Much of that work used to take place in person. WGSN, for example, offered city guides to American retail buyers on trips abroad. “If a buyer from a department store wanted to go to Paris, we’d have a guide that would tell them where to go and eat and which stores they should see for different things,” said Francesca Muston, the vice president of fashion content at WGSN. Runway shows were also important. At Bloomingdale’s, before the pandemic, “runway was a huge component of what we were forecasting, because what you saw on runway would trickle down to other collections,” Ms. Magid said.
As everything went virtual last year, including runway shows, social media took on new importance, and retailers rushed into anything that smelled like a trend, sometimes tapping Los Angeles-based manufacturers to help them out on a faster timeline.
“Instagram and TikTok have filled that void, and it kind of changes the dynamics again about speed and being reactive because things have a shorter life span,” Ms. Magid said. She recalled an overnight surge in demand for denim joggers in the fourth quarter after a “famous influencer” (the retailer wouldn’t say who) wore a pair by Rag & Bone on an Instagram Story.
President Biden named Lina Khan, a prominent critic of Big Tech, as the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, according to two people with knowledge of the decision, a move that signals that the agency is likely to crack down further on the industry’s giants.
A public announcement of the decision is expected Tuesday, one of the people said.
Earlier in the day, the Senate voted 69 to 28 to confirm Ms. Khan, 32, to a seat at the agency. The commission investigates antitrust violations, deceptive trade practices and data privacy lapses in Silicon Valley.
Ms. Khan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In her new role, Ms. Khan will help regulate the kind of behavior highlighted for years by critics of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple. She told a Senate committee in April that she was worried about the way tech companies could use their power to dominate new markets. She first attracted notice as a critic of Amazon. The agency is investigating the retail giant and filed an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook last year.
Her appointment was a victory for progressive activists who want Mr. Biden to take a hard line against big companies. He also gave a White House job to Tim Wu, a law professor who has criticized the power of the tech giants.
But Mr. Biden has yet to fill another key positions tasked with regulating the industry: someone to lead the Department of Justice’s antitrust division.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
There were two weeks left in the Trump administration when the Treasury Department handed down a set of rules governing an obscure corner of the tax code.
Overseen by a senior Treasury official whose previous job involved helping the wealthy avoid taxes, the new regulations represented a major victory for private equity firms. They ensured that executives in the $4.5 trillion industry, whose leaders often measure their yearly pay in eight or nine figures, could avoid paying hundreds of millions in taxes.
The rules were approved on Jan. 5, the day before the riot at the U.S. Capitol. Hardly anyone noticed.
The Trump administration’s farewell gift to the buyout industry was part of a pattern that has spanned Republican and Democratic presidencies and Congresses: Private equity has conquered the American tax system.
one recent estimate, the United States loses $75 billion a year from investors in partnerships failing to report their income accurately — at least some of which would probably be recovered if the I.R.S. conducted more audits. That’s enough to roughly double annual federal spending on education.
It is also a dramatic understatement of the true cost. It doesn’t include the ever-changing array of maneuvers — often skating the edge of the law — that private equity firms have devised to help their managers avoid income taxes on the roughly $120 billion the industry pays its executives each year.
Private equity’s ability to vanquish the I.R.S., Treasury and Congress goes a long way toward explaining the deep inequities in the U.S. tax system. When it comes to bankrolling the federal government, the richest of America’s rich — many of them hailing from the private equity industry — play by an entirely different set of rules than everyone else.
The result is that men like Blackstone Group’s chief executive, Stephen A. Schwarzman, who earned more than $610 million last year, can pay federal taxes at rates similar to the average American.
Lawmakers have periodically tried to force private equity to pay more, and the Biden administration has proposed a series of reforms, including enlarging the I.R.S.’s enforcement budget and closing loopholes. The push for reform gained new momentum after ProPublica’s recent revelation that some of America’s richest men paid little or no federal taxes.
nearly $600 million in campaign contributions over the last decade, has repeatedly derailed past efforts to increase its tax burden.
Taylor Swift’s back music catalog.
The industry makes money in two main ways. Firms typically charge their investors a management fee of 2 percent of their assets. And they keep 20 percent of future profits that their investments generate.
That slice of future profits is known as “carried interest.” The term dates at least to the Renaissance. Italian ship captains were compensated in part with an interest in whatever profits were realized on the cargo they carried.
The I.R.S. has long allowed the industry to treat the money it makes from carried interests as capital gains, rather than as ordinary income.
article highlighting the inequity of the tax treatment. It prompted lawmakers from both parties to try to close the so-called carried interest loophole. The on-again, off-again campaign has continued ever since.
Whenever legislation gathers momentum, the private equity industry — joined by real estate, venture capital and other sectors that rely on partnerships — has pumped up campaign contributions and dispatched top executives to Capitol Hill. One bill after another has died, generally without a vote.
An Unexpected Email
One day in 2011, Gregg Polsky, then a professor of tax law at the University of North Carolina, received an out-of-the-blue email. It was from a lawyer for a former private equity executive. The executive had filed a whistle-blower claim with the I.R.S. alleging that their old firm was using illegal tactics to avoid taxes.
The whistle-blower wanted Mr. Polsky’s advice.
Mr. Polsky had previously served as the I.R.S.’s “professor in residence,” and in that role he had developed an expertise in how private equity firms’ vast profits were taxed. Back in academia, he had published a research paper detailing a little-known but pervasive industry tax-dodging technique.
$89 billion in private equity assets — as being “abusive” and a “thinly disguised way of paying the management company its quarterly paycheck.”
Apollo said in a statement that the company stopped using fee waivers in 2012 and is “not aware of any I.R.S. inquiries involving the firm’s use of fee waivers.”
floated the idea of cracking down on carried interest.
Private equity firms mobilized. Blackstone’s lobbying spending increased by nearly a third that year, to $8.5 million. (Matt Anderson, a Blackstone spokesman, said the company’s senior executives “are among the largest individual taxpayers in the country.” He wouldn’t disclose Mr. Schwarzman’s tax rate but said the firm never used fee waivers.)
Lawmakers got cold feet. The initiative fizzled.
In 2015, the Obama administration took a more modest approach. The Treasury Department issued regulations that barred certain types of especially aggressive fee waivers.
But by spelling that out, the new rules codified the legitimacy of fee waivers in general, which until that point many experts had viewed as abusive on their face.
So did his predecessor in the Obama administration, Timothy F. Geithner.
Inside the I.R.S. — which lost about one-third of its agents and officers from 2008 to 2018 — many viewed private equity’s webs of interlocking partnerships as designed to befuddle auditors and dodge taxes.
One I.R.S. agent complained that “income is pushed down so many tiers, you are never able to find out where the real problems or duplication of deductions exist,” according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office investigation of partnerships in 2014. Another agent said the purpose of large partnerships seemed to be making “it difficult to identify income sources and tax shelters.”
The Times reviewed 10 years of annual reports filed by the five largest publicly traded private equity firms. They contained no trace of the firms ever having to pay the I.R.S. extra money, and they referred to only minor audits that they said were unlikely to affect their finances.
Current and former I.R.S. officials said in interviews that such audits generally involved issues like firms’ accounting for travel costs, rather than major reckonings over their taxable profits. The officials said they were unaware of any recent significant audits of private equity firms.
No Money Owed
For a while, it looked as if there would be an exception to this general rule: the I.R.S.’s reviews of the fee waivers spurred by the whistle-blower claims. But it soon became clear that the effort lacked teeth.
Kat Gregor, a tax lawyer at the law firm Ropes & Gray, said the I.R.S. had challenged fee waivers used by four of her clients, whom she wouldn’t identify. The auditors struck her as untrained in the thicket of tax laws governing partnerships.
“It’s the equivalent of picking someone who was used to conducting an interview in English and tell them to go do it in Spanish,” Ms. Gregor said.
The audits of her clients wrapped up in late 2019. None owed any money.
The Mnuchin Compromise
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump vowed to “eliminate the carried interest deduction, well-known deduction, and other special-interest loopholes that have been so good for Wall Street investors, and for people like me, but unfair to American workers.”
wanted to close the loophole, congressional Republicans resisted. Instead, they embraced a much milder measure: requiring private equity officials to hold their investments for at least three years before reaping preferential tax treatment on their carried interests. Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who had previously run an investment partnership, signed off.
McKinsey, typically holds investments for more than five years. The measure, part of a $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts, was projected to generate $1 billion in revenue over a decade.
credited Mr. Mnuchin, hailing him as “an all-star.”
Mr. Fleischer, who a decade earlier had raised alarms about carried interest, said the measure “was structured by industry to appear to do something while affecting as few as possible.”
Months later, Mr. Callas joined the law and lobbying firm Steptoe & Johnson. The private equity giant Carlyle is one of his biggest clients.
‘The Government Caved’
It took the Treasury Department more than two years to propose rules spelling out the fine print of the 2017 law. The Treasury’s suggested language was strict. One proposal would have empowered I.R.S. auditors to more closely examine internal transactions that private equity firms might use to get around the law’s three-year holding period.
The industry, so happy with the tepid 2017 law, was up in arms over the tough rules the Treasury’s staff was now proposing. In a letter in October 2020, the American Investment Council, led by Drew Maloney, a former aide to Mr. Mnuchin, noted how private equity had invested in hundreds of companies during the coronavirus pandemic and said the Treasury’s overzealous approach would harm the industry.
The rules were the responsibility of Treasury’s top tax official, David Kautter. He previously was the national tax director at EY, formerly Ernst & Young, when the firm was marketing illegal tax shelters that led to a federal criminal investigation and a $123 million settlement. (Mr. Kautter has denied being involved with selling the shelters but has expressed regret about not speaking up about them.)
On his watch at Treasury, the rules under development began getting softer, including when it came to the three-year holding period.
Monte Jackel, a former I.R.S. attorney who worked on the original version of the proposed regulations.
Mr. Mnuchin, back in the private sector, is starting an investment fund that could benefit from his department’s weaker rules.
A Charmed March
Even during the pandemic, the charmed march of private equity continued.
The top five publicly traded firms reported net profits last year of $8.6 billion. They paid their executives $8.3 billion. In addition to Mr. Schwarzman’s $610 million, the co-founders of KKR each made about $90 million, and Apollo’s Leon Black received $211 million, according to Equilar, an executive compensation consulting firm.
now advising clients on techniques to circumvent the three-year holding period.
The most popular is known as a “carry waiver.” It enables private equity managers to hold their carried interests for less than three years without paying higher tax rates. The technique is complicated, but it involves temporarily moving money into other investment vehicles. That provides the industry with greater flexibility to buy and sell things whenever it wants, without triggering a higher tax rate.
Private equity firms don’t broadcast this. But there are clues. In a recent presentation to a Pennsylvania retirement system by Hellman & Friedman, the California private equity giant included a string of disclaimers in small font. The last one flagged the firm’s use of carry waivers.
The Biden administration is negotiating its tax overhaul agenda with Republicans, who have aired advertisements attacking the proposal to increase the I.R.S.’s budget. The White House is already backing down from some of its most ambitious proposals.
Even if the agency’s budget were significantly expanded, veterans of the I.R.S. doubt it would make much difference when it comes to scrutinizing complex partnerships.
“If the I.R.S. started staffing up now, it would take them at least a decade to catch up,” Mr. Jackel said. “They don’t have enough I.R.S. agents with enough knowledge to know what they are looking at. They areso grossly overmatched it’s not funny.”