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Europe Proposes Strict Rules for Artificial Intelligence: Live Updates

“The E.U. is spearheading the development of new global norms to make sure A.I. can be trusted,” said Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission executive vice president who oversees digital policy.
Credit…Yves Herman/Reuters

The European Union on Wednesday unveiled strict regulations to govern the use of artificial intelligence, a first-of-its-kind policy that outlines how companies and governments can use a technology seen as one of the most significant, but ethically fraught, scientific breakthroughs in recent memory.

Presented at a news briefing in Brussels, the draft rules would set limits around the use of artificial intelligence in a range of activities, from self-driving cars to hiring decisions, school enrollment selections and the scoring of exams. It would also cover the use of artificial intelligence by law enforcement and court systems — areas considered “high risk” because they could threaten people’s safety or fundamental rights.

Some uses would be banned altogether, including live facial recognition in public spaces, though there would be some exemptions for national security and other purposes.

The rules have far-reaching implications for major technology companies including Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft that have poured resources into developing artificial intelligence, but also scores of other companies that use the technology in health care, insurance and finance. Governments have used versions of the technology in criminal justice and allocating public services.

Companies that violate the new regulations, which are expected to take several years to debate and implement, could face fines of up to 6 percent of global sales.

Artificial intelligence — where machines are trained to learn how to perform jobs on their own by studying huge volumes of data — is seen by technologists, business leaders and government officials as one of the world’s most transformative technologies.

But as the systems become more sophisticated it can be harder to determine why the technology is making a decision, a problem that could get worse as computers become more powerful. Researchers have raised ethical questions about its use, suggesting that it could perpetuate existing biases in society, invade privacy, or result in more jobs being automated.

“On artificial intelligence, trust is a must, not a nice to have,” Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission executive vice president who oversees digital policy for the 27-nation bloc, said in a statement. “With these landmark rules, the E.U. is spearheading the development of new global norms to make sure A.I. can be trusted.”

In introducing the draft rules, the European Union is attempting to further establish itself as the world’s most aggressive watchdog of the technology industry. The bloc has already enacted the world’s most far-reaching data-privacy regulations, and is also debating additional antitrust and content-moderation laws.

In Washington, the risks of artificial intelligence are also being considered. This week, the Federal Trade Commission warned against the sale of artificial intelligence systems that use racially-biased algorithms, or ones that could “deny people employment, housing, credit, insurance, or other benefits.”

The company that began as Krystle Mobayeni's side project, BentoBox, scaled up significantly in the pandemic to help restaurants.
Credit…Gili Benita for The New York Times

The past year has crushed independent restaurants across the country and brought a reality to their doors: Many were unprepared for a digital world.

Unlike other small retailers, restaurateurs could keep the tech low, with basic websites and maybe Instagram accounts with tantalizing, well-lit photos of their food. It meant businesses like BentoBox, which aims to help restaurants build more robust websites with e-commerce abilities, were a hard sell, Amy Haimerl reports for The New York Times.

For many, BentoBox’s services were a “nice to have,” not a necessity, the company’s founder, Krystle Mobayeni, said.

But the pandemic sent chefs and owners flocking to the firm as they suddenly needed to add to-go ordering, delivery scheduling, gift card sales and more to their websites. Before the pandemic the company, based in New York City, had about 4,800 clients, including the high-profile Manhattan restaurant Gramercy Tavern; today it has more than 7,000 restaurants on board and recently received a $28.8 million investment led by Goldman Sachs.

The moment opened a well of opportunity for other companies like it. Dozens of firms have either started or scaled up sharply as they found their services in urgent demand. Meanwhile, investors and venture capitalists have been sourcing deals in the “restaurant tech” sector — particularly seeking companies that bring the big chains’ advantages to independent restaurants.

A growing number of retirees and those approaching retirement are in debt.

The share of households headed by someone 55 or older with debt — from credit cards, mortgages, medical bills and student loans — increased to 68.4 percent in 2019, from 53.8 percent in 1992, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. A survey at the end of 2020 by Clever, an online real estate service, found that on average, retirees had doubled their nonmortgage debt in 2020 — to $19,200.

Susan B. Garland reports for The New York Times on what to do if you’re in this position:

  • Consult a nonprofit credit counseling agency, which will review a client’s expenses and income sources and create a custom action plan. The initial budgeting session is often free, said Bruce McClary, senior vice president for communications at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. An action plan could include cutting unnecessary spending, such as selling a rarely used car and banking some proceeds for taxi fare.

  • Tap into senior-oriented government benefits, such as property tax relief, utility assistance and Medicare premium subsidies. The National Council on Aging operates a clearinghouse website for them, BenefitsCheckUp.org. “The average individual 65-plus on a fixed income is leaving $7,000 annually on the table” in unused benefits, said Ramsey Alwin, the council’s president.

  • Avoid using high-interest credit cards to fill income gaps. Medical bills typically charge little or no interest but turn into high-interest costs if placed on credit cards, said Melinda Opperman, president of Credit.org. Instead, she said, patients should call hospitals or other providers directly to work out an arrangement.

  • Avoid taking out home-equity loans or lines of credit to pay off credit cards or medical bills, said Rose Perkins, quality assurance manager for CCCSMD, a credit counseling service. Though tapping home equity carries a lower interest rate than a credit card, a homeowner could put a home at risk if a job loss, the death of a spouse or illness made it difficult to pay off the lender, she said.

Fans of Chelsea Football Club were among many who protested the European soccer Super League before it unraveled Tuesday. The share price of publicly traded teams tumbled.
Credit…Neil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

European stocks rose slightly on Wednesday, reversing some of the previous day’s drop, while U.S. stock futures indicated the S&P 500 would open lower. The sentiment in stock markets this week has shifted away from the optimism that recently set record highs amid growing concerns about coronavirus variants that are leading to new outbreaks.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index rose 0.3 percent after plunging 1.9 percent on Tuesday. That was the biggest one-day decline since December. The S&P 500 fell 0.7 percent on Tuesday.

Oil prices fell, with futures on West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, declining 1.2 percent to just below $62 a barrel.

  • Netflix shares dropped nearly 8 percent in premarket trading after its latest earnings report. For the first quarter of 2021, Netflix said it added four million new customers, less than the six million it had forecast. It’s another sign that, although Netflix still dominates streaming, its rivals are starting to catch up.

  • As plans for a European Super League for soccer rapidly fell apart on Tuesday, shares in publicly traded football clubs that had joined the group dropped. Manchester United shares fell in premarket trading in New York, extending a 6 percent drop from the previous day. Shares in Juventus, an Italian club, plummeted nearly 13 percent.

  • Inflation in Britain rose less in March than economists predicted. The annual rate of price increases was 0.7 percent, data published Wednesday showed, up from 0.4 percent in February. The jump is notable, but it is less than the 0.8 percent analysts had predicted. As in the United States, policymakers and economists expect some of the increase to be temporary and explained by transitionary factors such as the steep drop in oil prices this time last year. Therefore, bets are that the central bank won’t reduce its monetary stimulus yet.

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Finland Is Again the World’s Happiest Country, Report Finds

In Finland, a relatively egalitarian society, people tend not to be fixated on “keeping up with the Joneses.”

“People often do pretty well in social comparison,” said Antti Kauppinen, a philosophy professor at the University of Helsinki. “This starts from education; everybody has access to good education. Income and wealth differences are relatively small.”

David Pfister, an architect from Austria who lives in Oulunkyla, a suburb of Helsinki, said that he would describe Finns as content, but that it was hard to say if they were happy. “The baby has increased our happiness,” said his wife, Veera Yliniemi, a teacher. Another man in the same suburb, Janne Berliini, 49, said he was happy enough. “I have work,” he said. “The basic things are in order.”

People in Finland also tend to have realistic expectations for their lives. But when something in life does exceed expectations, people will often act with humility, preferring a self-deprecating joke over bragging, said Sari Poyhonen, a linguistics professor at the University of Jyvaskyla. Finns, she said, are pros at keeping their happiness a secret.

The report this year received little attention in the Finnish news media. “Finland is still the happiest country in the world,” began a short article that ran on Page 19 in Ilta-Sanomat, a daily newspaper.

All of the countries that ranked in the top 10 — including the four other Nordic countries — have different political philosophies than in the United States, No. 14 on the list, behind Ireland and ahead of Canada. Lower levels of happiness in the United States could be driven by social conflict, drug addiction, lack of access to health care and income inequality, Dr. Wang said.

Things in Finland are far from perfect. Like other parts of the continent, far-right nationalism is on the rise, and unemployment is 8.1 percent, higher than the average unemployment rate of 7.5 percent in the European Union.

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Restaurants Fought for Covid Survival, With Some Tech Helpers

The past year has crushed independent restaurants across the country and brought a reality to their doors: Many were unprepared for a digital world.

Unlike other small retailers, restaurateurs could keep the tech low, with basic websites and maybe Instagram accounts with tantalizing, well-lit photos of their food.

For the past decade, Krystle Mobayeni had been trying to convince them that they needed more. Ms. Mobayeni, a first-generation Iranian-American, started her company, BentoBox, in 2013 as a side job. She wanted to use her graphic design skills to help restaurants build more robust websites with e-commerce abilities. But it was a hard sell. For many, she said, her services were a “nice to have,” not a necessity.

Until 2020. The pandemic sent chefs and owners flocking to BentoBox, as they suddenly needed to add to-go ordering, delivery scheduling, gift card sales and more to their websites. Before the pandemic the company, based in New York City, had about 4,800 clients, including the high-profile Manhattan restaurant Gramercy Tavern; today it has more than 7,000 restaurants onboard and recently received a $28.8 million investment led by Goldman Sachs.

“I feel like our company was built for this moment,” Ms. Mobayeni said.

The moment opened a well of opportunity for companies like BentoBox that are determined to help restaurants survive. Dozens of companies have either started or scaled up sharply as they found their services in urgent demand. Meanwhile, investors and venture capitalists have been sourcing deals in the “restaurant tech” sector — particularly seeking companies that bring the big chains’ advantages to independent restaurants.

“A lot of what’s happening is reminiscent of what we’ve seen in the broader retail sector in the past decade,” said R.J. Hottovy, a restaurant industry analyst and an investor at Aaron Allen & Associates. “Covid accelerated the transformation quite a bit. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to redefine the experience.”

Part of what Ms. Mobayeni offers restaurants is a one-stop shop and the ability to own their customer data. Many restaurants rely on third-party vendors, such as DoorDash or UberEats, to handle delivery. But those companies charge significant fees and retain customers’ data because the transactions go through their websites. That’s not such a big deal when delivery is 20 percent of a restaurant’s income stream, but it’s a game-changer when delivery becomes 100 percent of income — and you can’t contact any of your customers.

“Restaurants realized they had to think of themselves as larger businesses and brands,” said Camilla Marcus, co-founder of TechTable, which connects the hospitality and tech industries. “You have to expand into other things: e-commerce, delivery, products. You have to think outside the four walls.”

Helping restaurants deepen relationships with customers is where Sam Bernstein saw an opportunity. Before the pandemic he ran a tech start-up that connected students to housing, similar to Airbnb; when universities sent students home last spring, his revenue fell to zero.

He went to his board of directors and offered to return what investment was left and close down. Instead the board suggested he regroup with a smaller team and new vision.

“It was an existential crisis, as you can imagine,” he said.

Mr. Bernstein laid off all but 10 employees and took them for a brainstorming retreat. They considered dozens of business models, looking for the right problem to solve. The more they discussed options, the more the members of the team realized they were all interested in food and hospitality and wanted to help restaurants.

They hit upon the idea for a site that would allow customers to “subscribe” to their favorite restaurants. The new firm, Table22, would help chefs develop and market subscriptions for monthly meal kits and wine clubs, for example, and then manage the sales, recurring billing, scheduling, data analytics and more. In exchange, Table22 takes a percentage of each transaction.

Table22, which is based in New York, went live with its first restaurant in May. Since then, it has grown to more than 150 restaurants in 50 cities. Late last year, the company received about $7 million from investors, who include David Barber, owner of Blue Hill farm and restaurants.

Shelby Allison signed up her Chicago bar, Lost Lake, for the service on a cold email from Table22. She was hesitant at first, planning to listen just long enough to learn how to create a cocktail subscription service herself.

“We get lots and lots of calls from these tech companies trying to help — or prey upon — us struggling businesses,” she said.

But she was impressed by the low service fee and the fact that Table22 shared customer data. She started the service in October, hoping for 30 sign-ups; 100 people joined. Ms. Allison now has 300 subscribers and five employees working on the make-at-home cocktail boxes.

“This will 100 percent stay in the future,” she said. “I love this program. I thought it might cannibalize my to-go business, but it hasn’t at all.”

Ping Ho considered signing up with Table22 to host the wine and meat clubs she offers at her Detroit restaurant and butcher shop, Marrow, and wine bar, the Royce. She decided against it, however, because her existing subscription platform, Zoho, gave her the essential tools.

“It’s a bit more work, but there’s more agency,” she said.

But because her website was mostly informational, she realized she did need help offering online ordering and a delivery system for the butcher shop. So Ms. Ho turned to Mercato, which enables e-commerce for independent grocers. In a bit of fortuitous timing, she had signed up a month before the pandemic struck. When stay-at-home orders were issued, she was able to quickly begin offering grocery items, such as milk and eggs, in addition to meats.

Her sales jumped “tremendously” she said, although they have flattened out in recent months. Still, Ms. Ho intends to maintain the service.

Mercato began in 2015, but 2020 was its year. In February 2020, the service had 400 stores across 20 states; it quickly ramped up to more than 1,000 stores in 45 states. It continues to grow and has added some big-name clients, including the Ferry Building Marketplace on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, with dozens of merchants.

“We’re trying to give independent grocers a sustainable competitive advantage,” said Bobby Brannigan, founder and chief executive of the company, which is based in San Diego.

It’s a mission that he has been training for all his life. Mr. Brannigan’s family owns a grocery store in the Dyker Heights area of Brooklyn, where he started working when he was 8, stocking shelves and delivering groceries.

“It’s ironic that I’m back to doing what I was doing as a kid in Brooklyn,” he said.

Last March and April, Mercato brought on hundreds of new grocers each week — clients that weren’t used to having online orders or weren’t used to the sudden volume of orders. Some stores that were accustomed to 10 orders in a day were flooded with hundreds, Mr. Brannigan said. Thankfully, his dad already had him build tools into the system that would allow grocers to limit the pace of orders and schedule them.

Mr. Brannigan is also adding more data analytics to help his clients better understand what their customers want. They can now see what was bought and what customers searched for.

“You’re amassing a valuable treasure chest of data that lets you sell the products they want today and that they want tomorrow,” he said.

Of course, not all solutions are tech-centric; sometimes, it’s just a grass-roots community of chefs helping chefs. Alison Cayne, for example, has been giving free advice to chefs looking to create packaged goods, like her line of Haven’s Kitchen sauces. Having that extra revenue stream was critical when she shuttered her Manhattan restaurant and cooking school last spring, and she wants others to have the same options.

“This is all very much from my perspective, not the supercapitalized, venture capital-backed, cool-kids business,” she said. “I just want to help them take a brick-and-mortar business and develop a product and build a brand that makes sense and is sustainable.”

In Detroit, the grocer Raphael Wright and the chefs Ederique Goudia and Jermond Booze developed a “diabolical plan,” as Mr. Wright called it, to offer a weekly meal kit cooked by Black chefs during Black History Month.

“Black food businesses are hurting in the city, so we thought, what if we created this meal box in a way that celebrates Black food and Black contributions to American cuisine?” Mr. Wright said.

They named the project Taste the Diaspora Detroit and brought together Black chefs and farmers to create the weekly dishes — like gumbo z’herbes and black-eyed pea masala. The three organized all of the e-commerce and scheduling, which allowed chefs to participate even if they weren’t tech-savvy, and created the packaging and inserts that told the history of the meal. They topped it off with a paired Spotify playlist.

“Being a part of this project woke everyone up and made them think they have a little hope they can push through,” Mr. Wright said.

They hope to reprise the service for Juneteenth and are currently talking to funders to support the effort.

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‘We Were Left With Nothing.’ Argentina’s Misery Deepens in the Pandemic.

Before the pandemic, Carla Huanca and her family were making modest but meaningful improvements to their cramped apartment in the slums of Buenos Aires.

She was working as a hairstylist. Her partner was tending bar at a nightclub. Together, they were bringing home about 25,000 pesos ($270) a week — enough to add a second story to their home, creating extra space for their three boys. They were about to plaster the walls.

“Then, everything closed,” said Ms. Huanca, 33. “We were left with nothing.”

Amid the lockdown, the family needed emergency handouts from the Argentine government to keep food on the table. They resigned themselves to rough walls. They shelled out for wireless internet service to allow their children to manage remote learning.

“We have spent all of our savings,” Ms. Huanca said.

The global economic devastation that has accompanied Covid-19 has been especially stark in Argentina, a country that entered the pandemic deep in crisis. Its economy shrank by nearly 10 percent in 2020, marking the third straight year of recession.

wealth taxes to finance the costs of the pandemic — a measure that Argentina adopted late last year.

The fund’s analysis of Argentina’s debt picture, and its conclusion that the burden was not sustainable, set the groundwork for a settlement with international creditors last year. Investors ultimately agreed to write down the value of some $66 billion in bonds, overcoming the opposition of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock.

The Argentine government is proceeding on the assumption that it can secure a deal from the fund that will allow the country to significantly postpone its debts, providing relief from looming payments — $3.8 billion this year, and more than $18 billion next year — without strict requirements that it cut spending.

“The I.M.F. leadership has made clear that this is the framework,” said Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate economist at Columbia University in New York. The new arrangement will reflect “the new I.M.F.,” he added, “recognizing that austerity doesn’t work, and recognizing their concerns about poverty.”

antagonized the poor with cuts to government programs. His debt binge combined with another recession forced the country to submit to the ultimate humiliation — asking the I.M.F. for a hand.

In elections two years ago, voters rejected Mr. Macri and installed Mr. Fernandez — a Peronist. Some suggested that Mr. Fernandez might stake out an acrimonious position with creditors, including the I.M.F. But the Fernandez administration has proved pragmatic, winning the confidence of the I.M.F., while maintaining relief for the poor.

“We have to avoid following the patterns of the past that did so much damage,” the economy minister, Mr. Guzmán, said in an interview. “We want to be constructive, and resolve these problems in a way that works.”

The most pernicious problem remains inflation, a reality that assails businesses and households, adding to the strain on the poor through higher food prices.

In major economies like the United States, central banks conventionally respond to inflation by lifting interest rates. But that snuffs out economic growth — not a tenable proposition in Argentina, where the central bank already maintains interest rates at the stultifying level of 38 percent.

Brazil. Her partner’s employer reduced his hours, cutting his pay in half.

“I’m scared about what could happen now,” she said. “Everyone is very worried.”

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Zimbabwe Releases Prisoners to Help Curb Coronavirus Spread

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe released at least 320 prisoners from its jails on Saturday to ease congestion in the country’s notoriously overcrowded jails as a second wave of the coronavirus devastates the country.

The move comes amid growing allegations that a government crackdown has sent dozens of activists, journalists and opposition leaders to prisons.

The prisoners were released under an amnesty program established by President Emmerson Mnangagwa in 2018, the year after he seized power, ending decades of the strongarm rule of Robert G. Mugabe. The amnesty does not include prisoners convicted of crimes that include murder, human trafficking, sexual offenses and treason.

Most of those released on Saturday had been convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to Zimbabwe’s Prison and Correctional Service, but were being held in the infamous Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison. That is the country’s largest correctional facility, and it is known for overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

released 4,208 prisoners under the amnesty order.

The decision to release the latest round of prisoners comes after the variant first identified in South Africa, B.1.351, flooded into Zimbabwe at the start of the year, straining a system that already lacked enough drugs, equipment and medical staff. To date, Zimbabwe has recorded nearly 38,000 coronavirus infections, including 1,551 deaths, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In February, the country launched a national vaccine campaign with 200,000 doses donated by the Chinese vaccine maker, Sinopharm. The country is set to receive an additional 1.1 million doses as part of Covax, a global sharing program which is distributing vaccines to poor and middle income countries.

Zimbabwean officials have portrayed the vaccine rollout as a major win in the government-led response to the pandemic. But in recent months, human rights organizations have accused leaders of using coronavirus restrictions as a pretext to arrest opposition leaders in a crackdown on dissent.

A U.S. State Department human rights report released last month accused Zimbabwe’s security forces of engaging in serious human rights violations last year — including arbitrary killing and torturing civilians. The report also noted harsh and life-threatening conditions for political prisoners and detainees inside the country’s prisons.

On Saturday, human rights investigators commended the latest release of some prisoners and called on the Zimbabwean government to expand upon the initiative immediately.

“The Zimbabwe authorities should also release those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, many of whom are political activists whose continued detention is unnecessary and unjustified,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch.

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Coronavirus Deaths Reach 3 Million Worldwide

Three million lives: That is roughly equivalent to losing the population of Berlin, Chicago or Taipei. The scale is so staggering that it sometimes begins to feel real only in places like graveyards.

More than 100,000 people have died of Covid-19 in France. The death rate is inching up in Michigan. Morgues in some Indian cities are overflowing with corpses.

The world’s Covid-19 death toll surpassed three million on Saturday, according to a New York Times database. And as the United States and other rich nations race to vaccinate their populations, new hot spots have emerged in parts of Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

The global pace of deaths is accelerating, too. After the coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the pandemic claimed a million lives in nine months. It took another four months to kill its second million, and just three months to kill a million more.

according to a New York Times tracker.

At the same time, new outbreaks are still cropping up persistently in rich countries. That has shocked millions of people — from Madrid to Los Angeles — who once expected regular life to resume in tandem with vaccine rollouts.

France, which on Thursday became the third country in Western Europe to pass 100,000 deaths, is in the throes of a third national lockdown.

France on Thursday was the third European country to pass the tragic milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths, as it struggles to envision a clear way out of a third wave of infections.

A deep sense of fatigue and frustration has taken root in the country over a seemingly endless cycle of coronavirus restrictions and Paris has been shrouded in gloom for months. The country entered a third national lockdown two weeks ago that has limited outdoor activities, forced nonessential shops to close, banned travel between regions and shut schools for a month.

Michigan, the worst-hit state, is reporting an average of about 50 deaths a day, twice as many as two weeks ago, along with 7,800 or so new cases.

The United States and parts of Western Europe bore the brunt of deaths for the first year of the pandemic. Now, the hot spots for fatalities are in regions like Eastern Europe, South Asia and Latin America.

told The New York Times in Mexico City. “It just never crossed your mind that there would be so many dead in so little time.”

One reason for all the carnage is that richer countries have essentially hoarded vaccines, leaving poorer ones to scramble desperately for doses.

Safety worries about the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, based on a small number of people who developed problems with blood clotting, have also exacerbated vaccine hesitancy around the world — a trend that threatens to prolong the pandemic and subvert nascent vaccination drives.

undone decades of economic progress in India. Now, the country of 1.3 billion people is recording an average of about 1,000 deaths a day as a huge outbreak flares in the western state of Maharashtra, which is home to Mumbai.

India reported 1,341 deaths on Saturday alone, along with nearly a quarter of a million new cases.

Swapnil Gaikwad, 28, whose uncle died on Friday in the Osmanabad district of Maharashtra, said that it had taken seven hours to perform the traditional burial rites because the local crematory was so busy.

“There was absolutely no space, and more ambulances were arriving,” he said.

At one point, Mr. Gaikwad said, he became so angry that he complained to the staff.

One worker there began to cry. Mr. Gaikwad said some workers had told him that they were so busy at the crematory that they had not seen their own families for days.

Oscar Lopez and Monica Pronczuk contributed reporting.

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Rising Debt, Falling Income: How to Dig Out

“It can be depressing when they see their later years of life consumed with making payments and not making much of a difference,” he said. He recommended that retirees ask the credit card company for a lower interest rate.

Older adults often unintentionally increase their high-interest debt by placing expenses on cards that they could pay off in less costly ways, counselors say.

For example, medical bills typically charge little or no interest but turn into high-interest costs if placed on credit cards, Ms. Opperman said. Instead, she said, patients should call hospitals or other providers directly to work out an arrangement. “Many providers can set up repayment plans, and sometimes they will make concessions on behalf of the patient,” she said.

Retirees should also avoid taking out home-equity loans or lines of credit to pay off credit cards or medical bills, said Rose Perkins, quality assurance manager for CCCSMD, a credit counseling service in Columbia, Md. Though tapping home equity carries a lower interest rate than a credit card, a homeowner could put a home at risk if a job loss, the death of a spouse or illness made it difficult to pay off the lender, she said.

“The consumer has increased the amount they owe on their home, so if they cannot meet the down payment for any reason, they are at risk of foreclosure,” Ms. Perkins said. If other cost-cutting options do not work, credit counselors say, a retiree could downsize to a smaller home or take out a federally insured reverse mortgage. A credit counselor or a certified financial planner could help a homeowner decide if a reverse mortgage, which is a complex product, would fit into an overall debt-reduction plan, experts say.

In some instances, a nonprofit agency may recommend that a client enter a debt management plan. Counselors will negotiate with creditors to reduce interest rates and fees and to agree to a repayment plan, which could take up to five years to complete.

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Goldman Sachs’s Top Image Maker, Jake Siewert, Will Leave

Elliott may start a fight at GlaxoSmithKline. The big activist hedge fund has taken a multibillion-pound stake in the British medical and consumer products giant, DealBook has learned. The Financial Times, which first reported the news, said it came as other investors expressed worries that the company was underperforming, particularly in its drug pipeline.

Amazon published its founder’s latest letter to shareholders yesterday. It is likely the last such letter written by Jeff Bezos as C.E.O., since he plans to step down later this year and become executive chairman. In the letter, Mr. Bezos, the richest man in the world, laid out his view of Amazon’s impact during his 27-year tenure.

Mr. Bezos calculated the value he thinks Amazon creates for society. The total came to $301 billion last year, he said, with more than half going to customers (via time savings and the cost improvements of cloud computing), followed by employees (via compensation), third-party sellers (via profits from selling on Amazon) and finally shareholders (via the company’s net income). “Draw the box big around all of society, and you’ll find that invention is the root of all real value creation,” Mr. Bezos wrote. “And value created is best thought of as a metric for innovation.”

Mr. Bezos said that Amazon’s goal is to become “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” He disputed the characterization of Amazon warehouse employees as “being treated as robots” (the jobs have been criticized over workplace safety measures during the pandemic, algorithmic management and productivity quotas), and highlighted Amazon’s $15 minimum hourly wage, which one study suggested led to increased wages at other businesses nearby.

The letter ended on a philosophical note. “We all know that distinctiveness — originality — is valuable,” Mr. Bezos wrote. “We are all taught to ‘be yourself.’ What I’m really asking you to do is to embrace and be realistic about how much energy it takes to maintain that distinctiveness. The world wants you to be typical — in a thousand ways, it pulls at you. Don’t let it happen.”


— Jane Fraser, the C.E.O. of Citigroup, reporting a tripling of profit in its latest quarter.


Greenlight Capital’s quarterly report is out and the hedge fund’s founder, David Einhorn, has a lot to say.

He blames Chamath and Elon for the GameStop frenzy. “The real jet fuel on the GME squeeze came from Chamath Palihapitiya and Elon Musk, whose appearances on TV and Twitter, respectively, at a critical moment further destabilized the situation,” Mr. Einhorn wrote.

He’s not a fan of payment for order flow, which is how Robinhood makes money on free trading. It’s “just disguised commission,” Mr. Einhorn said.

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United Rentals to Acquire General Finance Corporation

STAMFORD, Conn. & PASADENA, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–United Rentals, Inc. (NYSE: URI) (“United Rentals” or “the company”) and General Finance Corporation (NASDAQ: GFN) (“General Finance”) today announced their entry into a definitive agreement under which United Rentals will acquire General Finance for $19 per share in cash, representing a total enterprise value of approximately $996 million, including the assumption of $400 million of net debt. The transaction is expected to be accretive to EPS and free cash flow upon close.

General Finance, which operates as Pac-Van and Container King in the U.S. and Canada, and as Royal Wolf in Australia and New Zealand, is a leading provider of mobile storage and modular office space. Its network of 106 branches and over 900 employees serves diverse end markets, including construction, commercial, industrial, retail, transportation, petrochemical, consumer, natural resources, governmental and education.

As of December 31, 2020, on a trailing 12-month basis, General Finance generated $94 million of adjusted EBITDA on $346 million of total revenue, translating to a 27.2% adjusted EBITDA margin. As of March 31, 2021, General Finance’s rental fleet consisted of approximately 100,000 units at an original cost of approximately $639 million.

The boards of directors of United Rentals and General Finance unanimously approved the transaction, which is subject to customary closing conditions, including the expiration or early termination of the waiting period under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 and other regulatory approvals. United Rentals intends to commence a tender offer by April 26, 2021, to acquire all of the outstanding shares of GFN common stock for $19 per share in cash. Following completion of the tender offer, a wholly-owned subsidiary of United Rentals will merge with and into General Finance and shares of General Finance common stock that have not been tendered and purchased in the tender offer will be converted into the right to receive $19 per share in cash. The transaction is expected to close in the second quarter of 2021. The company plans to update its 2021 financial outlook to reflect the combined operations following the completion of the transaction.

Strong Strategic Rationale

Robust Financial Drivers

CEO Comments

Matthew Flannery, president and chief executive officer of United Rentals, said, “Our acquisition of General Finance will be a significant opportunity for us to further differentiate our value in the eyes of our customers, while providing attractive, long-term returns for our shareholders. We see strong growth potential from this combination, including our ability cross-sell mobile storage and office solutions to our customers. Our expansion into this space comfortably checks all three boxes of our M&A criteria — strategic rationale, financial impact and cultural fit.”

Flannery continued, “We’re confident the time is right to reengage in M&A with this highly strategic combination, as our end markets recover from the challenges of 2020. General Finance is a customer-focused organization with excellent field operators and specialized expertise that complements our own. We look forward to welcoming our new employees and customers as an important part of our future.”

Jody Miller, chief executive officer of General Finance, commented, “Our combination with United Rentals — the industry leader in equipment rentals — is a strong outcome for everyone involved. Our customers will benefit from United’s extensive solutions and geographic footprint, and our employees will have new opportunities as part of the largest rental team in the world.”

Key Acquisition and Transaction Statistics

Financial information in $ millions

Purchase Price

 

$

996

Present Value of Acquired Tax Assets

 

$

19

Total Revenue (full-year calendar 2020)

 

$

346

Adjusted EBITDA (full-year calendar 2020)

 

$

94

Estimated Annualized Cost Synergies Achieved by End of Year Two

 

$

17

Estimated Annualized Cross-selling Benefits Achieved by End of Year Three

 

$

65

Original Equipment Cost of Fleet

 

$

639

Number of Rental Units

 

 

~100,000

Employees

 

 

~930

Rental Branches

 

 

106

Customers

 

 

~50,000

Sullivan & Cromwell LLP acted as United Rentals’ legal advisor in the transaction, and Morrison and Foerster LLP acted as General Finance’s legal advisor.

Conference Call

United Rentals will hold a conference call tomorrow, April 16, 2021, at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Time. The conference call number is (855) 458-4217 (international: (574) 990-3618). The replay of the call can be accessed at (404) 537-3406, passcode 7279967.

Non-GAAP Measures

General Finance’s adjusted EBITDA is a non-GAAP financial measure as defined under the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission. United Rentals believes that this non-GAAP financial measure provides useful information about the proposed transaction; however, it should not be considered as an alternative to GAAP net income. A reconciliation between General Finance’s adjusted EBITDA and GAAP net income, as well as other financial data, is provided in the investor presentation available on the company’s website.

About United Rentals

United Rentals, Inc. is the largest equipment rental company in the world. The company has an integrated network of 1,154 rental locations in North America and 11 in Europe. In North America, the company operates in 49 states and every Canadian province. The company’s approximately 18,250 employees serve construction and industrial customers, utilities, municipalities, homeowners and others. The company offers approximately 4,000 classes of equipment for rent with a total original cost of $13.78 billion. United Rentals is a member of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, the Barron’s 400 Index and the Russell 3000 Index® and is headquartered in Stamford, Conn. Additional information about United Rentals is available at unitedrentals.com.

About General Finance Corporation

Headquartered in Pasadena, California, General Finance Corporation (NASDAQ: GFN) is a leading specialty rental services company offering portable storage, modular space and liquid containment solutions. General Finance’s North America operations consist of wholly-owned subsidiaries Pac-Van, Inc., a leading provider of portable storage and office containers, mobile offices and modular buildings; and Lone Star Tank Rental Inc., a provider of liquid storage tank containers. Additionally, General Finance has wholly-owned subsidiaries Royal Wolf, a leading lessor of portable storage solutions in Australia and New Zealand; and Southern Frac, LLC, a manufacturer of portable liquid storage tank containers in North America and, under the trade name Southern Fabrication Specialties, other steel products.

Cautionary Statement Regarding Forward-Looking Statements

This press release contains forward-looking statements within the meaning of Section 21E of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended, and the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, known as the PSLRA. Forward-looking statements involve significant risks and uncertainties that may cause actual results to differ materially from such forward-looking statements. These statements are based on current plans, estimates and projections, and, therefore, you should not place undue reliance on them. No forward-looking statement, including any such statement concerning the completion and anticipated benefits of the proposed transaction, can be guaranteed, and actual results may differ materially from those projected. Forward-looking statements are not historical facts, but rather are based on current expectations, estimates, assumptions and projections about the business and future financial results of the equipment rental industries, and other legal, regulatory and economic developments. United Rentals and General Finance use words such as “anticipates,” “believes,” “plans,” “expects,” “projects,” “future,” “intends,” “may,” “will,” “should,” “could,” “estimates,” “predicts,” “potential,” “continue,” “guidance” and similar expressions to identify these forward-looking statements that are intended to be covered by the safe harbor provisions of the PSLRA. Actual results could differ materially from the results contemplated by these forward-looking statements due to a number of factors, including, but not limited to, those described in the SEC reports filed by United Rentals and General Finance, as well as the possibility that (1) United Rentals may be unable to obtain regulatory approvals required for the proposed transaction or may be required to accept conditions that could reduce the anticipated benefits of the acquisition as a condition to obtaining regulatory approvals; (2) the length of time necessary to consummate the proposed transaction may be longer than anticipated; (3) problems may arise in successfully integrating the businesses of United Rentals and General Finance, including, without limitation, problems associated with the potential loss of any key employees of General Finance; (4) the proposed transaction may involve unexpected costs, including, without limitation, the exposure to any unrecorded liabilities or unidentified issues that United Rentals failed to discover during the due diligence investigation of General Finance or that are not covered by insurance, as well as potential unfavorable accounting treatment and unexpected increases in taxes; (5) United Rentals’ business may suffer as a result of uncertainty surrounding the proposed transaction, any adverse effects on our ability to maintain relationships with customers, employees and suppliers, or the inherent risk associated with entering a geographic area or line of business in which United Rentals has no or limited experience; and (6) the industry may be subject to future risks that are described in the “Risk Factors” section of the Annual Reports on Form 10-K, Quarterly Reports on Form 10-Q and other documents filed from time to time with the SEC by United Rentals and General Finance. United Rentals and General Finance give no assurance that they will achieve their expectations and do not assume any responsibility for the accuracy and completeness of the forward-looking statements.

The foregoing list of factors is not exhaustive. You should carefully consider the foregoing factors and the other risks and uncertainties that affect the businesses of United Rentals and General Finance described in the “Risk Factors” section of the Annual Reports on Form 10-K, Quarterly Reports on Form 10-Q and other documents filed from time to time with the SEC by United Rentals and General Finance. This press release is not intended to be a recommendation to buy, sell or hold securities and does not constitute an offer for the sale of, or the solicitation of an offer to buy securities in any jurisdiction, including the United States. Any such offer will only be made by means of a prospectus or offering memorandum, and in compliance with applicable securities laws. These forward-looking statements speak only as of the date hereof. United Rentals and General Finance undertake no obligation to publicly update or revise any forward-looking statement, whether as a result of new information, future events or otherwise, except as may be required by applicable securities laws.

Additional Information and Where to Find It

This press release is for informational purposes only and is neither an offer to purchase nor a solicitation of an offer to sell securities. The tender offer described in this press release has not commenced. At the time the tender offer is commenced, United Rentals will file, or will cause to be filed, tender offer materials on Schedule TO with the SEC and General Finance will file a Solicitation/Recommendation Statement on Schedule 14D-9 with the SEC, in each case with respect to the tender offer. The tender offer materials (including an offer to purchase, a related letter of transmittal and other offer documents) and the solicitation/recommendation statement will contain important information that should be read carefully when they become available and considered before any decision is made with respect to the tender offer. Those materials and all other documents filed by, or caused to be filed by, United Rentals and General Finance with the SEC will be available at no charge on the SEC’s website at www.sec.gov. The tender offer materials and related materials also may be obtained for free (when available) under the “Our Company—Investor Relations—SEC Filings” section of United Rental’s website at https://unitedrentals.gcs-web.com/sec-filings, and the Solicitation/Recommendation Statement and such other documents also may be obtained for free (when available) from General Finance under the “Investor Information—SEC Information” section of General Finance’s website at https://generalfinance.com/sec-information/.

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