Only four weeks ago, Donald Trump was brimming with confidence that the coronavirus pandemic would have little impact on the US. “It’s going to disappear,” the president said at the White House on February 28. “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
Just how wrong that prediction turned out to be was made clear by three statistics released on Thursday. The US has overtaken China to have more cases of the virus than any other country, with its death toll now more than 1,300.
The government announced that 3.3m people filed jobless claims in just the previous week — almost five times the previous record — after shutdowns across the country have brought much of the economy to a halt. And in New York, which is fast becoming one of the global epicentres of the disease, the city’s emergency services received more medical calls than they did on September 11 2001.
Across the country, governors and mayors are pleading for help from Washington to secure more ventilators and other medical supplies and imploring residents to stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus.
Mr Trump’s response has been to float the idea of reopening the economy by Easter. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country,” he told Fox News on March 24. “It’ll be a beautiful time.”
This is the split-screen crisis that Americans are witnessing — a tussle of facts and narratives that is shaping the way the federal government manages the pandemic, the outlook for the economy and November’s presidential election. On the one hand, there is a relentless flow of grim news as the disease takes hold in America’s cities. “We’re now looking at a bullet train, because the numbers are going up that quickly,” Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, warned this week.
But the view from the White House is very different. With his eyes firmly fixed on his re-election prospects, Mr Trump has held daily news conferences where he has regularly played down the seriousness of the pandemic.
The almost farcical nature of the situation was highlighted last week when Anthony Fauci, a world renowned infectious diseases expert who serves on the coronavirus task force, was asked how he could stand at the White House podium as the “representative of truth and facts” when the president was providing misleading information.
“I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” a very blunt Mr Fauci told Science magazine.
Some of Mr Trump’s harshest critics had comforted themselves with the idea that while they saw the leader as incompetent, at least the US had not faced an existential crisis during the three years he has been in charge. But the coronavirus crisis has exposed how a president whose trademark response is bluster is ill-prepared to deal with a pandemic.
“Trump’s uneven, confusing, chaotic, self-centred and often ignorant bragging is prompting a growing chorus of criticism from scientists, healthcare professionals, the press and more,” says David Gergen, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who has advised four US presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. “He thinks that he and his team have done ‘amazing’, ‘incredible’ work [while] critics think he has become increasingly dangerous.”
While Congress on Friday passed a $2tn stimulus to deal with the impact of coronavirus, the president has received withering criticism from many Democrats and some Republicans over the slow federal response, the inadequate level of testing and his push to ease social distancing guidelines to rescue the sinking economy.
Mr Trump wants to halt the economic rout — in a move critics view as a brazen effort to help his re-election. But he has faced pushback even from some close allies, including Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney, who said: “There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus.”
A recent poll conducted by Morning Consult found that 80 per cent of American adults thought it was important to continue social distancing even if that sustained the damage to the economy.
On Thursday, Mr Trump wrote to US governors to outline a plan that would see the administration categorise counties as low, medium or high-risk, in a strategy tailored to allow economic activity to return in some areas.
But Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland and chair of the bipartisan National Governors Association, told the Financial Times that Mr Trump had not mentioned the plan when he had spoken to the governors shortly before sending the letter. Moreover, Mr Hogan pours cold water on the plan, saying it was not realistic.
Trump on coronavirus
A president’s reactions as the crisis deepened
‘We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control’
‘It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear’
‘Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!’
When asked how he rated his response: ‘I’d rate it a 10. I think we’ve done a great job’
‘I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic’
“Since we’re not doing enough testing, I don’t know how you could possibly make a determination as to which counties are low risk or high risk or medium risk,” he says, adding that governors would have a “lot of concern”.
Mr Hogan applauds the White House for last week making the Federal Emergency Management Agency responsible for helping states procure masks and ventilators, some of which have been delivered. But he says it was just a “tiny percentage” of the needs. “We’re just so far behind and there doesn’t seem to be enough supply anywhere in the country to handle the surge that we’re expecting . . . in all the states.”
While New York has overtaken Washington as the hardest-hit state, cases have spread across the US with rising numbers reported from Florida to Texas. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, said 11 states had more cases than any Chinese province except Hubei, which includes Wuhan, where the virus originated.
“Our epidemic is likely to be national in scope,” Mr Gottlieb wrote.
In New York, 37,000 people have tested positive, with 5,000 in hospital and almost 400 deaths. Bodies are being stored in refrigerated lorries after the morgues became too full.
Hospitals also face big problems securing equipment to protect staff. On Thursday, Mount Sinai West, a Manhattan hospital, lost one of its nurses to coronavirus. Preparing for a worsening situation, Mr Cuomo has commandeered the Javits Center, an events venue, to become a makeshift hospital, while a military ship will provide another 1,000 beds. He is also requiring hospitals across the state to expand capacity by at least 50 per cent, in an effort to reach a target of 140,000 beds.
But those efforts are nowhere near enough, says Theodora Hatziioannou, a virologist at The Rockefeller University in New York, who estimates that 240,000 New Yorkers may need hospitalisation. “We should have been preparing.”
Mr Trump has angered critics by not using a Korean war-era law that would allow him to force companies to make badly needed equipment. “Ventilators, ventilators, ventilators”, Mr Cuomo said about his biggest need. The president on Friday urged General Motors in a tweet to open its “stupidly abandoned Lordstown plant” and make ventilators “fast”.
The president has received some credit for banning flights from China in January, and imposing travel restrictions on Europe.
Greg Martin, president-elect of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, praised the moves but said he should have procured equipment, such as masks. “We could have increased our stockpile of those things.”
Public health experts are also very concerned about Mr Trump’s push to reopen the economy in two weeks.
“That’s insane. Are you trying to kill the population?” says Ms Hatziioannou.
Mr Trump this week lashed out at suggestions that he was prioritising his re-election over the health of the public. “There are certain people that would like it to do financially poorly, because they think that would be very good as far as defeating me at the polls,” he said.
But fuelling fears that his focus was the politics, he skirted questions about whether his advisers agreed. Mr Fauci later followed in the footsteps of other advisers who have tried to neutralise his comments, by saying Easter was simply an “aspirational” date.
While Mr Trump is being slammed by experts, his opinion poll ratings have risen. According to Gallup, 49 per cent of voters approve of his performance, up 5 points from earlier this month. Sixty per cent approve of his response to the crisis, according to Gallup’s latest tracking poll earlier this week.
“His public approval rating is moving north while his professional reputation is moving south. One rarely sees such a split,” says Mr Gergen, adding that he may be helped by the “rally round the flag” effect that helped George W Bush after the 9/11 terror attacks.
On Thursday, Mr Trump said he wanted to act “pretty quickly” on opening the economy and might start with “large sections of our country that aren’t so seriously affected”, suggesting that he could ease social distancing guidelines for some cities and states next week
But while Mr Trump can ease national social distancing guidelines, the decision to order and reverse lockdowns lies almost entirely with governors, limiting his room to manoeuvre.
Mr Hogan says the US is “nowhere near the point where we can relax and let down our guard” and stressed that most of the governors would take their cues from experts, not the White House.
“You can’t put an artificial timeframe and say it’s all going to be better in two weeks,” says Mr Hogan. “We’re trying to make decisions that . . . save the lives of thousands of people.”
Ross Stripling pitches … financial advice during pandemic
Ross Stripling has spent much of the last two months working on an island —- the one in the kitchen of his Houston home.
With baseball halted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander returned to his offseason job. When not throwing fastballs, he pitches clients as a financial adviser for B. Riley Wealth Management.
The All-Star has retired George Springer in the World Series on a bases-loaded fly that Stripling was sure would be a grand slam. And he’s logged on in the morning, seen a stock drop 30% and felt his heart sink into the pit of his stomach.
“When I have someone else’s money in my hands and that’s their future, their nest egg, there’s a lot of pressure there,” Stripling said. “There’s a lot of anxiety to perform well for their sake.”
Interest rates approaching 0 have been on his mind more these days than spin rates of 2,650. No need to look up ERA, but a daily dissection is essential of an elevated VIX, the “fear index” of market volatility.
Analytic skills and “going with your gut” are indispensable for both vocations.
“I’m a numbers guy, so the ability to scout and do scouting reports and prepare for a lineup has, I think, really transferred over from my stock market stuff,” Stripling said.
The 30-year-old Stripling is bullish. He manages about $10 million in assets across roughly 40 stocks and 10 accounts, including one or two from among teammates.
To be a Bad News Bear has an entirely different meaning on Wall Street.
“Pitchers have to factor in various situational elements like score, fatigue, opposing lineup, weather, and all that stuff is analogous to sector trends, macroeconomic trends,” said Gerry Cardinale, CEO of RedBird Capital Partners and a board member of Yankee Global Enterprises, the team’s parent company.
Stripling reached the big leagues with 7 1/3 hitless innings at San Francisco on April 8, 2016, when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts removed him after 100 pitches.
Last winter, Stripling reached an unusual one-year contract. His $2.1 million agreement, negotiated by Matt Laird of Excel Sports Management, included a $1.5 million signing bonus.
While California’s 12.3% top tax rate applies to Stripling’s salary, the signing bonus was not subject to state income tax because Texas does not have one.
“Looks like I have a crystal ball, right, I got so lucky,” Stripling said.
An infielder who had never played above junior varsity at Carroll Senior High School in Southlake, Texas, Stripling broke his left shinbone during basketball practice in the 11th grade. The injury caused him to switch to pitching, and he went 14-0 as a senior in 2008.
Bypassed in the amateur draft, he went to Texas A&M and was invited to fall ball as a preferred walk-on.
Stripling helped the Aggies reach the College World Series in 2011, going 14-2 and leading Division I in wins. Drafted by Colorado in the ninth round, Stripling stayed for his senior year and got a bachelor’s degree in business finance. He pitched a no-hitter against San Diego State, missing commencement that was taking place simultaneously.
The Dodgers selected him in the fifth round and he signed for $130,000 in 2012.
Two years later, Stripling needed two operations — to remove loose bodies from his elbow in March, then Tommy John surgery.
During Stripling’s rehab that fall, maternal grandfather Bob Thomas telephoned Lynn Houston, his longtime adviser and the head of B. Riley’s local office. Stripling was given an interview with Houston and son Matthew.
“He didn’t know if his arm was going to recover or not, so he started to look at backup plans in case he wasn’t able to pitch,” Matthew Houston recalled. “When he came in for the interview, he had a folder about an inch thick of handwritten stock reports and we sat down with him with no intention of hiring anybody. And before we knew it, we were: `We’ve got to have this kid. He knows what he’s talking about.‘”
Stripling averages four days a week at the office between the end of the season and spring training.
A second occupation used to be common for big leaguers before free agency in 1976. Bob Boone manned the shoe department at a sporting goods store.
“If somebody had the capability of doing a highbrow job like that in the offseason, we’d probably ask him: `Why the hell are you playing baseball?’” Boone said with a laugh.
Said Roberts: “I’m probably leading the board in asking him for tips.”
“When we were coming up, guys essentially weren’t well-rounded. If you weren’t 100% committed to baseball only, it was almost frowned upon because you don’t care as much as the next guy,” the former big league outfielder said.
An All-Star in 2018, Stripling is 20-24 with a 3.51 ERA in four seasons.
For now, he’s content to navigate a fragile financial world rather than stocked batting orders. His won-lost record in the market remains a secret stat — B. Riley won’t let him say.
He does have a regret: missing previous bull markets.
“It would’ve been fun,” he said, “to be able to buy the Walmarts and the Amazons and the Apples of the world 20, 30 years ago and be retired right now, sitting on my yacht.”
Stocks cut gains as tech shares decline, China tensions rise
Stocks pared gains Wednesday as major tech heavyweights pared some of their advances from the past several weeks. The Nasdaq led declines among the three major indices.
A rising threat of heightened tensions with China also weighed on investors. Wednesday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. certified that Hong Kong was no longer political autonomous from China, following new national security measures from Beijing that would encroach on the region. Pompeo’s remarks carry major implications for Hong Kong’s previous special trading status with the U.S., and China has previously threatened to retaliate if the U.S. stepped in over Hong Kong.
A day earlier, Bloomberg reported that U.S. officials were considering sanctioning Chinese officials and entities enforcing the national security law.
These developments add to mounting tensions between the U.S. and China, with relations already strained as the past years’ trade war played out and the coronavirus pandemic that began in China spread across the world.
Also on Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives closed in on passing legislation already cleared by the Senate that would give authority to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for human rights abuses against Muslim minorities in China, in another move that could spark the ire of Chinese officials.
Meanwhile, more positive economic data showing stabilizations in U.S. consumer confidence and a rebound in the housing market April helped push stocks higher earlier this week. Wednesday’s weekly mortgage applications report showed mortgages for home purchases rose on a weekly basis for a sixth straight week, and to the highest level since mid-March.
Some analysts have struck a more cautious tone on the direction of the stock market in the very near-term, however, even as conditions improve off last month’s lows.
“While I do think we’re going to 30,000 [on the Dow] next year, and 40,000 by 2023, I don’t think this is the beginning of the run to new highs, right here,” Paul Schatz, president of Heritage Capital told Yahoo Finance’s On the Move. “I think we need some pause and digestion first.”
12:04 p.m. ET: Stocks cut gains after Pompeo says Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China
Here were the main moves in markets, as of 12:04 p.m. ET:
S&P 500 (^GSPC): +6.65 points (+0.22%) to 2,998.97
Dow (^DJI): +250.11 points (+1.00%) to 25,245.22
Nasdaq (^IXIC): -75.98 points (-0.81%) to 9,263.87
Crude (CL=F): -$1.58 (-4.6%) to $32.77 a barrel
Gold (GC=F): -$8.90 (-0.52%) to $1,696.70 per ounce
10-year Treasury (^TNX): -0.2 bps to yield 0.677%
11:38 a.m. ET: Pompeo says Hong Kong ‘no long autonomous from China’
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Hong Kong no longer maintained its autonomy, “given facts on the ground,” he said in a Twitter post Wednesday morning.
“Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997,” Pompeo said in a statement, according to multiple media reports. “No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground.”
Today, I reported to Congress that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China, given facts on the ground. The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) May 27, 2020
10:00 a.m. ET: Richmond Fed Manufacturing index recovers from record low in May
The Richmond Federal Reserve’s regional manufacturing index rose from a record low of -53 in April to a better than expected reading of -27 in May. Consensus economists expected the index, which tracks regional manufacturing activity, to hold lower at -40 for the month.
Still, May’s reading marked the lowest level since 2009.
“All three components — shipments, new orders and employment — were above their April readings but still in contractionary territory,” the Richmond Fed said in a statement. “The index for local business conditions was also negative, but contacts expected conditions to improve in the next six months.”
”Many survey participants reported decreases in employment and the average workweek in May,” it added. “However, the indexes for wages and the availability of workers with the necessary skills were both close to 0. Respondents expected to see increases in both wages and available skills in the coming months.”
9:32 a.m. ET: Stocks open higher
Here were the main moves in markets, as of 9:32 a.m. ET:
S&P 500 (^GSPC): +28.5 points (+0.95%) to 3,020.27
Dow (^DJI): +321.08 points (+1.28%) to 25,316.19
Nasdaq (^IXIC): +21.46 points (+0.2%) to 9,358.59
Crude (CL=F): -$0.80 (-2.33%) to $33.55 a barrel
Gold (GC=F): -$18.50 (-1.08%) to $1,687.10 per ounce
10-year Treasury (^TNX): +0.2 bps to yield 0.7%
7:27 a.m. ET Wednesday: Stock futures add to gains
Here were the main moves in markets as of 7:27 a.m. ET:
S&P 500 futures (ES=F): 3,026.75, up 32.35 points (+1.08%)
Dow futures (YM=F): 25,345.00, up 343 points (+1.37%)
Nasdaq futures (NQ=F): 9,451.25, up 44.75 points (+0.48%)
Crude (CL=F): -$0.48 (-1.4%) to $33.81 a barrel
Gold (GC=F): -$8.30 (-0.49%) to $1,697.30 per ounce
10-year Treasury (^TNX): +2 bps to yield 0.718%
7:27 a.m. ET Wednesday: Mortgages for home purchases rise for sixth straight week
An index tracking mortgage applications for home purchases rose 9% over last week for the week ending May 22, seasonally adjusted, the Mortgage Bankers Association said in its weekly report Wednesday. This marked the sixth straight advance for the index, and a jump of 54% since early April, when the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing measures were at their peak and led to a slu,p in housing market activity. The unadjusted index for purchases also rose 9% versus the same period last year.
“The home purchase market continued its path to recovery as various states reopen, leading to more buyers resuming their home search,” Joel Kan, MBA’s associate vice president of economic and industry forecasting, said in a statement.
An index tracking refinances declined 0.2% from the previous week, but was still 176% higher from the same week a year ago. Taken together, the composite index tracking both refinances and purchases rose 2.7%, seasonally adjusted, from a week earlier.
6:05 p.m. ET Tuesday: Stock futures open little changed
Here were the main moves at the start of the overnight session for U.S. equity futures, as of 6:05 p.m. ET:
S&P 500 futures (ES=F): 2,992.25, down 2.25 points (-0.08%)
Dow futures (YM=F): 24,993.00, down 9 points (-0.04%)
Nasdaq futures (NQ=F): 9,407.25, up 0.75 points (+0.01%)
Business will be the loser in the US-China fight
It is an old joke among international business people that in China, a win-win deal means that China wins twice. This was never entirely true, of course. If it was, so many corporate supply chains and investment projects would not run through the country. But cratering relations between China and the US have left global businesses confronting lose-lose propositions.
In the past few months, the two sides have exchanged blame and conspiracy theories over Covid-19. The US Senate passed a bill that could force some Chinese companies to drop their US listings. The commerce department has tightened rules against Chinese telecoms champion Huawei, leading China to consider retaliation. Security legislation imposed on Hong Kong has threatened that city’s status as the main commercial link between China and the world.
This is not just a problem for US and Chinese companies. The new controls on Huawei, for example, are a threat to all global chipmakers that supply the company — they all depend on US chipmaking tools. Mercedes and BMW export cars from the US to China. The list goes on, and companies are scared. “While we are nowhere close to the same level of hostility yet, we have seen how the US punishes European companies who deal with Iran and Russia,” says Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU chamber of commerce in Shanghai.
This is not merely a rough patch, or passing hostility stirred up by the pandemic. Even before this terrible spring, politics and corporate attitudes were in flux. In a survey last summer of members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, 21 per cent were pessimistic about the five-year outlook for business in China. Since 2000, that figure had not risen above 9 per cent.
The Chinese market is too large, with companies invested too heavily, for them to consider bailing out. But the trend towards two-track corporate strategies is accelerating. As crossing the border becomes trickier, companies are taking a “for China, in China” approach to the domestic market while deepening and diversifying ex-China supply chains to the rest of the world.
China is exacerbating the split, in deeds if not words. Business people report that Beijing remains eager to please US companies that are investing in China. But, says Mr Wuttke, “while investors get the red carpet, exporters from the US get hammered, because exporters can be substituted”. This fracturing will accelerate as Covid-19 has laid bare supply chains’ monolithic dependence on China. Resilience is bought at a cost to efficiency.
In hardware, companies face impossible dilemmas. They depend on China’s vast market and its unparalleled manufacturing base in mobile technology. US chipmaker Qualcomm has supplied Huawei with chips for its phones. Whether it will be able to do so with the latest 5G models is unclear, given the new rules. If it does, it will be sharing cutting-edge US technology with a company that stands accused of appropriating American intellectual property and which has close ties to China’s military.
If Qualcomm cannot supply Huawei, it will cede market share to foreign rivals and lose billions in revenue (Huawei shipped 240m smartphones last year, more than Apple). This will inevitably reduce its research budget. US leadership in tech will be eroded.
China may respond. Authorities have revived the idea of an “unreliable entities list” for companies such as Qualcomm, Cisco, Apple and Boeing — the equivalent of the commerce department’s “entity list” of companies posing a risk to US national security. “Scalps are going to be taken on both sides — there is no way to avoid this,” says the chief executive of a US multinational with a long history in China. Other than keeping their heads low, making their case to officials, and diversifying, there is little companies can do but hope. But they should not pin those hopes on Donald Trump losing November’s election. The president is not the cause of the bad relations, even if his rhetoric gives them an ugly face.
In its actions China has never shown any intention of participating in the international model of open economies, independent companies, global rules and respect for intellectual property. It will not start thinking win-win now. Nor will the US military allow their supply of the best communications technology to depend on a geopolitical rival. “Semiconductors are the most important national security industry of the 21st century, and the Department of Defense does not want it to move offshore — yet much of it already has,” says Peter Lichtenbaum, a lawyer who helps companies navigate US trade restrictions.
US hostility to China has roots in deep economic imbalances. As Peking University economist Michael Pettis argues, the issue is not a trade imbalance that can be solved with tariffs, but the fact that China and other countries force their excess savings into the open US capital market, forcing up the dollar, US debt and inequality. While in a post-Trump world the dialogue may be “less stupid”, he says, “these problems are not going away”.
Global companies cannot leave China. But they should prepare for a two-track world. Sino-American economic relations are bad and are set to stay that way.
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