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Financial Stimulus Deal Takes Form in Congress: Dwell Market Updates

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Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Congressional leaders on Wednesday closed in on an agreement on a coronavirus relief measure that could infuse the economy with as much as $900 billion, as they raced to complete both a pandemic aid package and a catchall federal spending measure before government funding lapses on Friday.

The top two Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill appeared to be coalescing around a plan that would include both another round of direct stimulus payments to Americans and additional unemployment benefits, according to people familiar with the emerging compromise who described it on condition of anonymity.

While the details were not yet final, the plan was also expected to provide billions of dollars for vaccine distribution, schools and small businesses, but omit coronavirus liability protections long sought by Republicans and a dedicated funding stream for state and local governments insisted upon by Democrats — the two most contentious sticking points.

The contours of the deal, reported earlier by Politico, became clear after a flurry of late-night negotiations among the four leaders and their staff on Capitol Hill. With Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, joining by phone, the four met twice on Tuesday in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office suite in the Capitol to work out the details.

“We committed to continuing these urgent discussions until there’s an agreement,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said Wednesday morning in a speech on the Senate floor.

It was unclear how large the direct payments would be, though the $2.2 trillion stimulus law enacted in March provided $1,200 per adult, and progressives and at least one conservative Republican has recently called for the same amount or more to be included in the new round of aid.

Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, told reporters on Wednesday that the direct payments are likely to be in between $600 and $700 per person.

Negotiators were also still haggling over an expansion and extension of unemployment benefits and how long they would last. They were also discussing reinstituting supplemental jobless payments — which were at $600 per week when they lapsed over the summer, but would likely be revived at a smaller amount. Although Democrats appeared to have dropped their demand for a major new infusion of aid for state and local governments, some officials familiar with the discussions said privately that there were other avenues to provide some of those funds in the final package.

An agreement on both the relief measure and must-pass legislation including the dozen spending bills needed to keep the government funded beyond Friday could emerge later on Wednesday.

Shoppers at Gateway Mall in Lincoln, Neb., on Black Friday. Retail sales fell 1.1 percent in November, the Commerce Department reported.Credit…Walker Pickering for The New York Times

For the first time since spring, U.S. retail sales have declined, raising questions about the strength of consumer spending and how retailers are faring in the all-important holiday shopping season.

Retail sales fell 1.1 percent in November as spending on categories like automobiles, electronic stores, clothing and restaurants and bars softened, according to a report from the Commerce Department on Wednesday.

Economists had expected a smaller decline amid robust holiday sales, driven by online spending. But the Commerce Department also revised its tally for October to a 0.1 percent decline, from an increase of 0.3 percent reported earlier.

The U.S. economy has slowed in recent months amid a surge in coronavirus cases and a steady increase in the ranks of the unemployed. Even as businesses have come under fresh pressure, lawmakers have yet to reach an agreement on a new stimulus package.

The uncertainty around holiday spending has been exacerbated as retailers pushed annual sales events into October, in a bid to jump-start the season and prevent crowded stores and shipping delays in November. Many major chains reported sales gains in October, but they were not certain about how it would affect spending in November and December.

Black Friday, which has traditionally signaled the start of the holiday shopping season, was also largely a bust for many retailers amid the rise in cases. Some companies reported that in-person traffic that day declined by as much as 50 percent from last year, as shoppers concerned about the virus stayed away from the stores.

With the new concerns around shopping in person, retailers have been racing to accommodate a surge in shipping demand, grappling with new surcharges and delays with major carriers including UPS and FedEx.

By: Ella Koeze·Source: Refinitiv

  • A surprisingly dour report on retail sales took some of the enthusiasm out of the stock markets on Wednesday.

  • Shares in Europe and the United States had been heading for a second day of solid gains before the Commerce Department said that retail sales fell 1.1 percent in November, a far sharper decline than economists had expected and fresh evidence of the resurgent coronavirus’s impact on the world’s largest economy.

  • Instead, the S&P 500 started the day with a small decline, and shares in Europe were also off their highs of the day. The Stoxx Europe 600 index and the FTSE 100 in Britain were both about half a percent higher.

  • Before the retail sales report, markets had been bolstered by signs of progress toward an economic stimulus package in Washington, and after the latest Purchasing Managers Index report offered a positive outlook on the European economy. The manufacturing index reached 56.6 points, up from 55.3 in November, and the composite output index hit 49.8 points, from 45.3 last month.

  • “The data hint at the economy close to stabilizing after having plunged back into a severe decline in November amid renewed Covid-19 lockdown measures,” said Chris Williamson, the chief business economist at IHS Markit, which compiles the reports.

  • Further insight on the state of the U.S. economy will come later on Wednesday when the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, speaks to reporters after the end of the central bank’s final scheduled meeting of the year. The Fed has been offering reassurance that it will continue supporting the economy, but some policymakers are divided over how much needs to be done now.

  • U.S. lawmakers held talks late Tuesday seeking an agreement on a pandemic stimulus bill ahead of a Friday deadline. Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, said afterward that “we’re making significant progress,” and Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered a similar appraisal. On the table is a package of funding to support unemployed workers and troubled businesses, as well as an omnibus spending bill to keep government money flowing.

The trading app Robinhood has faced blowback over huge losses run up by inexperienced investors who say it provided no guardrails or support for them.Credit…Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Massachusetts regulators charged the stock-trading app Robinhood on Wednesday with aggressively courting and manipulating inexperienced investors and then failing to protect them.

The enforcement action is the latest headache for Robinhood, whose popularity has soared with a new generation of day traders. The company has faced blowback over huge losses run up by inexperienced investors who say it provided no guardrails or support for them.

In the complaint, the Massachusetts secretary of the commonwealth, William F. Galvin, said that the online brokerage firm focused on signing up young traders with perks like free shares, and then used “gamification” marketing techniques to persuade them to trade often. Many of these investors were allowed to trade risky options without proper screening, the filing said.

Customers of Robinhood tend to trade the riskiest products more often than people at other retail brokerage firms and at the fastest pace, The New York Times has reported. The company’s business model is geared toward encouraging more trading: Robinhood makes money from “payment for order flow,” in which Wall Street firms pay per trade for the privilege of buying or selling securities on customers’ behalf.

A representative for Robinhood defended the company’s policies, saying in a statement that it did not make investment recommendations. “We disagree with the allegations in the complaint by the Massachusetts Securities Division and intend to defend the company vigorously,” the statement said.

The representative added that it had added safeguards and educational offerings to help better inform customers about options trading.

Mr. Galvin also criticized technological outages on the app, which customers have said cost them money when they were unable to gain access to their accounts at crucial moments in market trading.

“Although successful in rapidly expanding its customer base, Robinhood failed to take adequate steps to set up internal controls to protect both its customers and its platform,” the complaint read.

The enforcement action was made under a fiduciary standard that Massachusetts adopted this year, which requires broker-dealers to act in their clients’ best interests.

Mr. Galvin’s office is seeking an unspecified fine and a requirement that Robinhood alter its policies for options trading and submit to a review of its technological infrastructure.

The enforcement move comes as Robinhood is preparing a potential initial public offering, seizing on its popularity and stock investors’ hunger for shares of fast-growing technology companies. The brokerage firm has hired Goldman Sachs as an adviser, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

Credit…WhistlePig

Moët Hennessy, the premium spirits arm of French luxury giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is taking a stake in WhistlePig, in a bet that it can make typically American rye whiskey a global hit, the DealBook newsletter reports.

It’s the second American whiskey brand that Moët Hennessy, has invested in after Washington’s Woodinville in 2017. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

WhistlePig brews its Whiskey in Vermont oak, and its 15-year aged whiskey sells for more than $200 a bottle. The company was founded by Wilco Faessen, now a senior banker at Evercore, and Raj Bhakta, an entrepreneur and onetime “Apprentice” contestant.

Mr. Bhakta sold his shares in the company when Byron Trott’s investment firm, BDT Capital, took a minority stake last year. BDT will keep its stake following the deal, in which no investors cashed out. The deal with Moët Hennessy does not include a path to an outright sale, Mr. Faessen said.

Mr. Faessen said that formal talks about a partnership began in January, and the pandemic that did not alter the deal, besides lengthening the time it took to work through the details. Sales for both WhistlePig and Moët Hennessy came under pressure as bars and restaurants shut, but the companies also noticed a shift to premium liquor during lockdowns.

“It’s just easier to treat yourself when you’re stuck at home and sick of doing Zoom meetings,” said Jeff Kozak, WhistlePig’s chief executive, who noted that sales were up this year.

Rye whiskey is consumed mostly in the United States, but Moët Hennessy thinks it can entice drinkers elsewhere. Connoisseurs who want to “expand their repertoire in the category of high-end whiskies” have recently turned to Japanese brands, said Philippe Schaus, the Moët Hennessy chief executive, “and we don’t see why we will not succeed to bring them to high-end American whiskeys.”

  • Domino’s Pizza said this week that it would pay a bonus of up to $1,200 apiece to more than 11,500 hourly workers in December. The bonuses will total more than $9.6 million, the pizza chain said. Earlier this year, Domino’s paid a bonus to frontline workers at its corporate stores and supply chain centers. “We have the honor and privilege of being open and operating throughout the U.S. during this crisis, and we recognize that we could not be doing it without the hard work and dedication of our team members,” Ritch Allison, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Philadelphia is a case study in the simple-but-not-easy task of helping tenants with the rent. Like most places, it isn’t close to satisfying the need.Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

Almost from the moment the pandemic spread across the United States, advocacy groups have warned that the economic fallout could cause mass displacement of low-income tenants.

In response, more than 400 state and local governments have used money from the federal CARES Act to set up funds to cover at least $4.3 billion in rental assistance — money that has helped tenants pay their bills and landlords stay current on their mortgages, according to a database set up by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a policy group.

But many jurisdictions are reporting trouble spending it, and with barely two weeks left in the year, they are on pace to have more than $300 million left over, according to the coalition’s database. In a pattern that predated the pandemic, the programs have been complicated by bureaucratic hurdles, competing budget demands and a reluctance among landlords to take part, reports Conor Dougherty for The New York Times.

Philadelphia is a case study in the simple-but-not-easy task of helping tenants with the rent. Social programs are often a partnership in which cities provide funding and lay out rules but delegate the execution to quasi-governmental nonprofit organizations like the one Gregory Heller works at.

Like most places, Philadelphia is not close to satisfying the need for help. But through rounds of rejiggering and three phases of funding — each with its own maze of rules and requirements — Mr. Heller’s group built a team to distribute aid, whittled down the processes that delayed it and concluded that the best way to help was the most straightforward: Give the money directly to renters.

“There’s a societal belief that poor people can’t spend money the right way, and I think it’s important to start questioning that assumption,” Mr. Heller said.

The companies drawing Wall Street’s attention are notable for how niche their products and services are.Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

Until recently, the temperature-controlled storage and shipping of pharmaceutical products, known as the “cold chain,” was a relatively sleepy corner of the health care industry.

But the virus, and the temperature-sensitive vaccines that are poised to combat it, have brought new attention to the cold-chain delivery systems in the United States and beyond, Kate Kelly reports for The New York Times. Wall Street, which likes nothing better than a hot trade with the potential for big profits, is rushing to grab a piece of the action.

The companies getting attention from Wall Street are notable for how niche their operations are. Many use an elaborate network of freezers and specialized trucks and aircraft to move temperature-sensitive materials — such as blood, stem cells and tissue — around the world without compromising their efficacy. It’s a delicate process, because a product can go from vital to useless within minutes of being removed from cold storage.

Potential investors are constantly calling Stirling Ultracold, whose freezer equipment is powering UPS’s “freezer farms” in Louisville, Ky., and the Netherlands, where vaccines will be stored. “There’s not a day that goes by” that an inquiry doesn’t come in,” said Dusty Tenney, Stirling’s chief executive, who is running his Athens, Ohio, production lines around the clock.

Demand for Stirling’s freezer engines — the core component of their upright, under-the-counter and portable freezers — has soared, and the estimated waiting time for new orders is six to eight weeks, the company said. On Dec. 8, after multiple prospective investors studied the company’s financial metrics in a due diligence process, Stirling received a capital injection of an undisclosed amount that it planned to use to buy new equipment and expand production.

In October, Blackstone, the private equity giant, invested $275 million in Cryoport, a Nashville company that specializes in shipping sensitive medical materials at freezing temperatures. Investors have also been bullish on Ember, the beverage-heating company that has developed a refrigerated medical shipping box with built-in GPS and already counts two Jonas Brothers and the Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant as shareholders.

The European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany. Banks can begin paying dividends again, the central bank said, but with strict limits.Credit…Daniel Roland/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The European Central Bank said Tuesday that it would allow banks to resume limited payouts to shareholders, an indication that regulators are slightly less worried that the pandemic will set off a financial meltdown.

Since March, the central bank has been pressuring commercial banks to stockpile cash to deal with possible losses stemming from the devastating impact on the eurozone economy caused by the pandemic.

Banks can begin paying dividends again after consulting with regulators, the European Central Bank said in a statement on Tuesday, but it set strict limits on how much they can pay out as a percentage of profit and capital. The limits will remain in effect until at least the end of September 2021.

Still, the end of the dividend moratorium, which was technically a recommendation, is a sign that the banking system and the eurozone economy are inching toward normalcy.

“In revising its recommendation, the E.C.B. acknowledges the reduced uncertainty in macroeconomic projections,” the central bank said. An analysis earlier this year “confirmed the resilience of the European banking sector,” it said.

The economic crisis has forced most banks to set aside large sums to cover losses from borrowers who lost their jobs and businesses that suffered severe declines in sales. But there have been no major bank failures as a result of the pandemic, in part because regulators have forced lenders to stockpile capital in recent years and take less risk.

The central bank said that lenders should discuss dividend payments with regulators beforehand, and it cautioned banks to exercise “extreme moderation” in bonuses and other payouts to executives.

The European Central Bank is responsible for supervising banks in the eurozone that are considered big enough or important enough to set off a financial crisis. The bank said Tuesday that national regulators should apply the same standards to the smaller banks under their purview.

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