At Davos, Zelensky takes center stage
At the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum yesterday, a very un-Davos thing happened: a standing ovation. The applause was for President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who in a virtual speech urged the business world to cut its ties to Russia. “It is necessary to set a precedent so that your brands will not be associated with war crimes,” Zelensky said. (Starbucks said yesterday it was exiting Russia.) Zelenksy went on to say that Ukrainian officials were at Davos and could “inform all of you on the prospects for business.”
There are signs of Russia’s growing isolation from the West. While Ukrainian representatives were at Davos, no Russian officials were invited this year. And what was once called the Russia House, where guests were served chilled vodka and caviar while they talked business, has been converted by a wealthy Ukrainian businessman into a space called the “Russian War Crimes House.”
During a panel at the venue, Lyudmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian reported’s listed human rights commissioner, the misdeeds of Russian troops while some people in the audience wiped their eyes, The Times’s Mark Landler and Matina Stevis-Gridneff. Many attendees wore wristbands or lapel pins with the colors of the Ukrainian flag. What’s more, the EU might be nearing an agreement for an embargo on Russian oil, Germany’s vice chancellor and energy minister, Robert Habeck, told The Times in an interview yesterday from Davos: “I’m positive that Europe will find a solution within the next days.”
US politicians stressed their unity against Russia, even as cracks are forming. At a bipartisan panel of members of Congress, Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, noted the swiftness with which Congress had approved a $40 billion package to Ukraine last week. But he also indicated that future packages may require more transparency. Wicker said the American people need to believe “the money is being spent wisely and efficiencies.”
Beyond the Russia-Ukraine crisis, CEOs are anxious and worried about the economy. Inflation and the ramifications of China’s zero-Covid policy were among the points of discussion among CEOs yesterday. Shelley Stewart III of McKinsey told DealBook that the firm’s private equity clients are looking for potential business opportunities of a downturn and “quickly getting smart” on investing in distressed debt.
Among the notables at Davos were Michael Dell, Paul Ryan, Jared Kushner and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff. The scaled-down atmosphere didn’t stop Salesforce from throwing its regular lavish party, even though other parties, like the one hosted by JPMorgan Chase, were canceled.
And what did they wear? Everything from business casual to outfits typically seen at pricey country clubs, from sneakers to Manolo Blahnik heels. The variety perhaps nods at the reality that many people, after two years of a pandemic, are just confused about what to wear at an event where the dress code is officially “business informal.” And Davos in the spring allows for more footwear versatility than its usual winter edition.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
Social media companies can ban politicians in Florida. A federal appeals court nixed a state law punishing large platforms that remove politicians, finding it unconstitutional, but it approved of requiring the platforms to disclose content moderation standards. Tech industry groups that challenged the law, whose members include Google, Meta and Twitter, recently filed an emergency appeal at the Supreme Court to block a similar law in Texas.
A prominent Russian diplomat resigns in protest. Boris Bondarev, a midlevel diplomat at Russia’s UN mission in Geneva, became the most prominent Russian official to resign over the Ukraine invasion. He said President Vladimir Putin could have spent the last two decades “developing the country” but instead turned it “into some kind of total horror.”
As monkeypox spreads, EU countries take additional steps. The EU’s disease-control body urged countries to prepare contact tracing, vaccines, treatments and diagnostics to curb the outbreak, even though the numbers and overall risk to public health remained low. Britain yesterday reported another 36 cases.
Google Maps workers say they can’t afford the trip back to the office. Contract employees who are required to return to the company’s Washington office recently circulated a petition to keep working from home, since some cannot afford their commutes. This is yet another challenge to Google’s plan to refill offices and highlights resistance that other companies may face.
JPMorgan signals profits amid downturn
As JPMorgan Chase faces questions about the rising costs of doing business and CEO Jamie Dimon’s $84 million payday, the bank invited analysts and other investors to a daylong event at its Manhattan headquarters to lay out its plans for the next year. DealBook turned to our colleague Lananh Nguyen, who covers Wall Street and attended the event, to make sense of the uncertain economic outlook and what’s next for the nation’s biggest bank. Here are her thoughts:
JPMorgan expects to make a lot of money this year. That will be driven by rising interest rates and increasing demand for loans. The bank predicted its income from interest payments would rise to more than $56 billion this year, from $44.5 billion in 2021, excluding trading. Volatile financial markets will also provide a boost, with revenue from trading expected to rise between 15 and 20 percent this quarter from a year earlier, said Daniel Pinto, the company’s president.
Consumer finances are still in good shape, buoyed by monetary and fiscal stimulus programs. The bank announced it would introduce a “buy now, pay later” service for debit card customers. Installment payments have been popularized by providers such as Afterpay and Klarna.
But there are some risks ahead. Dimon warned that “storm clouds” were gathering over the global economy, including inflation, the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate policy and the war in Ukraine. The bank expects its investment-banking fees to sink about 45 percent this quarter from a year earlier, said Daniel Pinto, the company’s president.
Compensation packages for top bankers, traders and managers are rising, too. Wall Street’s competition for talent remains fierce and will fuel higher costs, said JPMorgan’s finance chief, Jeremy Barnum. Expenses will probably jump to $77 billion this year, from $71 billion in 2021, as the bank spends more on technology and compensation. Despite talk of higher pay, bank executives were mum on what JPMorgan might do about the compensation packages of Dimon and other top executives at the bank, which were recently rejected by shareholders in a nonbinding vote. Dimon, whose time as the head of the bank has already made him a billionaire, was awarded a bonus last year that could be worth $50 million if he stays on until 2026. After the shareholder vote, the company’s board said in a statement that it “appreciates the feedback from shareholders and takes it very seriously.”
“It’s like reaching into a big box of Legos, pulling out a few and saying that proves there are no blue Legos in the box.”
— Samuel Geisler, a lawyer who is representing families in a lawsuit against Abbott about contaminated baby formula, on how the relatively low rate of testing makes it difficult to confirm links between illnesses and contamination at a particular plant.
The Russia-Ukraine War and the Global Economy
A far-reaching conflict. Russia’s invasion on Ukraine has had a ripple effect across the globe, adding to the stock market’s woes. The conflict has caused dizzying spikes in gas prices and product shortages, and is pushing Europe to reconsider its reliance on Russian energy sources.
A new era of ‘populist antitrust’
Broadcom’s expected $60 billion bid to buy VMware, which would be one of the largest deals of 2022, could raise a number of questions. The biggest one: Will the Biden administration, which has vowed to fight corporate concentration, allow a deal to go forward?
The US’s top deal cops, the Federal Trade Commission head Lina Khan and the Justice Department’s Jonathan Kanter, have been pushing for the government to have more authority to block corporate deals. But criticism is mounting that antitrust efforts have gone too far. Earlier this week, Larry Summers, a Harvard University professor and former top Obama adviser, tweeted that a new era of “populist antitrust policy” could lead to a US economy that is “more inflationary and less resilient.”
In the past, a deal like Broadcom’s potential acquisition of VMware would not have been an issue. The two companies are not direct competitors. Instead, the acquisition in deal terms is closer to what is often called a vertical integration — when one company buys another in a related industry. Horizontal deals, where the two companies are direct rivals, have traditionally been the ones that the government has policed, fearing that fewer competitors in one market would lead to higher prices.
Government officials are signaling that vertical and other deals are problematic as well. “By myopically treating transactions as vertical or horizontal, we may miss important details that a broader perspective can provide,” FTC Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter said last year. In addition, the majority Senate leader Chuck Schumer is reportedly pushing for a vote by early summer on legislation that he and others argue will address the way Big Tech has exploited gaps in antitrust regulations to eliminate competition.
Summers argues the Biden administration is dangerously headed back to failed policies of the past. He tweeted that the administration’s policy statements “better reflect legal doctrines of the 1960s than economic understandings of the last two decades.” Summers said attacking deals just because they are big ignores the benefits that can come from larger, more efficient companies. What’s more, Summers said using antitrust regulation to limit layoffs ends up embedding higher costs into the system. “There are real risks,” Summers tweeted. “Policies that attack bigness can easily be inflationary if they prevent the exploitation of scale or limit superstar firms.”
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