Big stakes ahead of debt-limit talks
If Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is correct, there are just a few precious weeks remaining for Congress and the White House to reach a debt-limit accord and avoid “an economic and financial catastrophe.” That makes Tuesday’s meeting between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy all the more pivotal as a deadline looms for the U.S. to potentially run out of cash.
Don’t expect any major breakthroughs from the White House talks. Representative Patrick McHenry, Republican of North Carolina, said this weekend that he was feeling a level of “modest pessimism” that a deal would get done in time to avoid a messy default.
The differences between Congress and the Biden administration are vast. Republicans want to reduce the country’s $31.4 trillion debt through spending cuts, while the White House views tax increases on companies and wealthy Americans as the best way to reduce the burden.
The last big debt-ceiling crisis rollicked stocks. In 2011, the S&P 500 fell when S&P Global, the ratings agency, downgraded the nation’s credit rating a few days after the Obama administration and Republicans reached a deal. This year, investors seem to be betting that lawmakers will reach a last-minute agreement, or at least temporarily lift the debt ceiling (Mr. McHenry didn’t rule this out). Despite a banking crisis and recession fears, the S&P 500 is up 8 percent in 2023.
But Wall Street is getting antsy. In recent days, a number of firms, including Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, have brought forward their forecasts for the so-called “X-date” — when the U.S. will not be able to pay its bills — to the first half of June. Others say there’s wiggle room and it may not come until July. But the clock is ticking. “There is little time to negotiate a deal, with the House and Senate in session at the same time for only two weeks before early June,” wrote Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman, in an investor note.
The debt-ceiling turmoil could hurt Mr. Biden’s re-election bid. His overall approval rating has fallen to a new low, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, with a majority of Democrats saying they would prefer to see “someone other than Biden” on the 2024 presidential ballot. The president gets particularly low marks for his handling of the economy, which has seen strong job growth but also high inflation.
The poll also showed Americans casting near-equal amounts of blame on Congress and the president if the government crashes into default.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
Tucker Carlson is reportedly ready to hit back at Fox News. The star conservative anchor plans to enlist allies to attack his former employer, in hopes that it will release him from a contract that ends in 2025 in order to let him join a rival news outlet or start a new one, according to Axios. Associates of Mr. Carlson also accused Fox News of leaking damaging details about him, something the network denies.
Anheuser-Busch InBev’s C.E.O. blames “misinformation” for a boycott of Bud Light. Conservatives’ growing anger over the beer brand’s association with a transgender influencer was propelled by a social media echo chamber, Michel Doukeris, the brewer’s chief, told The Financial Times. The boycott has led to a steep drop in Bud Light sales and two executives taking leaves of absence.
New York City’s plan to bus migrants to the suburbs takes fire. An effort by Mayor Eric Adams to house about 300 men in shelters in Rockland and Orange counties, north of the city, was met with opposition from officials there. It’s a blow to New York’s efforts to address a housing crisis that Adams tied to a deadlock on federal immigration policies.
Twitter is criticized for letting images from a Texas mass shooting spread. Several users asked Elon Musk to take down graphic photos from the attack that left at least nine people dead. The incident underscored both the thinning out of Twitter’s content moderation team and the broader debate within tech companies about which content to leave up in the name of free speech and newsworthiness.
Battle lines in the Hollywood writers’ strike harden. Neither the Writers Guild of America nor movie and television studios appear ready to give way over key demands, including minimum staffing for shows and pledges that studios won’t use artificial intelligence to encroach on writers’ credits or compensation. Privately, some studios say they’re prepared for a strike of over 100 days.
Caution, and quips, at Berkshire Hathaway’s meeting
As tens of thousands of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders flocked to Omaha over the weekend for the conglomerate’s annual meeting, they heard a mix of wariness and optimism from Warren Buffett, the company’s longtime C.E.O.
During hours of questions from investors, the Oracle of Omaha and his partner, Charlie Munger, talked about everything from the economy to the recent banking crisis and much more.
Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger are feeling downbeat about a lot of things:
Echoing dour comments by Munger, Mr. Buffett warned of a continued economic downturn, thanks to higher interest rates and lower consumer spending.
Things could have been worse — “catastrophic,” even — if U.S. regulators hadn’t assured depositors of Silicon Valley Bank that their money was safe. But even Mr. Buffett was feeling wary about how much more fragile the banking system had become. “You don’t know what happened to the stickiness of deposits at all,” he said. “You can have a run in a few seconds.”
Mr. Buffett warned about the current level of government spending: “It’s madness to just keep printing money. It’s very hard to see how you recover once you let the genie out of the bottle, and people lose faith in the currency.”
Mr. Munger had a classic rejoinder to the fervor over A.I.: “I am personally skeptical of some of the hype that’s gone into artificial intelligence. I think old-fashioned intelligence works pretty well.”
But Mr. Buffett’s feeling upbeat about some companies. He had nothing but praise for Apple, saying it “just happens to be a better business than any we own.” (Tim Cook, Apple’s chief, was in attendance at the meeting.) And he talked up Occidental Petroleum, in which Berkshire now has a 20 percent stake — though he said he wouldn’t seek to buy the whole company.
Those mixed feelings reflect the picture at Berkshire itself, which reported a huge jump in first-quarter profits thanks to investment gains, but more muted results across its operating businesses. Gains at its Geico insurance division were partially offset by declines at its BNSF railroad, the Berkshire Hathaway Energy utility network and its retail operations, largely because of the economy.
Meanwhile, Mr. Buffett sold $13 billion worth of stock holdings during the quarter, apparently finding little of value in the market — other than Berkshire stock, of which he repurchased $4.4 billion worth.
And Mr. Buffett’s chosen successor shared more of the limelight. Greg Abel, who currently runs many of Berkshire’s noninsurance operations, drew more attention from investors eager to hear from the conglomerate’s future C.E.O.
Elizabeth Holmes speaks
For seven years, the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes kept away from the press she once assiduously courted, as she faced accusations that she had run one of the most prominent start-up frauds in history. Ms. Holmes was convicted of defrauding investors out of more than $100 million and sentenced to more than 11 years in prison.
But Ms. Holmes — who now goes by Liz and has forsaken her trademark black turtleneck and even the deep voice she once used — spoke to Amy Chozick for The Times. The lengthy profile, which openly questions whether a journalist should ever trust a proven liar, is generating much discussion. And, this being Ms. Holmes, many readers are responding with an emphatic “no.”
Ms. Holmes still suggests she wasn’t to blame for everything at Theranos. When asked about efforts by Theranos to intimidate journalists, she implied that it was a legal team led by the litigator David Boies that was at fault.
In response, a spokeswoman for Mr. Boies told The Times, “Whatever.”
Even her friends are skeptical. Having spoken to a list of acquaintances and family that Ms. Holmes suggested, Amy writes:
One of these friends said Ms. Holmes had genuine intentions at Theranos and didn’t deserve a lengthy prison sentence. Then, this person requested anonymity to caution me not to believe everything Ms. Holmes says.
“being a VC is so easy, so high-status, the money is so great, and the lifestyle is so fun. very dangerous trap that many super talented builders never escape from, until they eventually look back on it all and say ‘damn i’m so unfulfilled.’”
— Sam Altman, the C.E.O. of OpenAI, in a tweet. The entrepreneur and investor left his role as chair of the start-up accelerator Y Combinator in 2020 to focus on running the firm behind ChatGPT, the chatbot that has sparked a boom in A.I. start-up investing.
The week ahead
Last week, the market focused on jobs data and interest rates. This week, inflation takes center stage with two big reports. Here’s what to watch:
Monday: PayPal and KKR announce earnings.
Tuesday: Airbnb, whose stock has rallied 40 percent this year amid a resurgence in travel, releases earnings; analysts expect another big jump in operating profit. Fox Corporation and Apollo also report.
Wednesday: Consumer Price Index data is due, with economists forecasting that headline inflation rose 5.5 percent on an annualized basis. Disney reports, and Google is expected to showcase new devices, including a foldable phone, at its annual developers conference.
Thursday: The Bank of England is expected to raise interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point to try and tame inflation. In the U.S., Producer Price Index data is due.
Friday: The latest consumer sentiment data from the University of Michigan is scheduled for release.
THE SPEED READ
Bain Capital is reportedly raising a $4 billion fund to buy distressed investments. (Reuters)
In big-ticket mining M.&A.: Barrick Gold is looking for deals, while Rio Tinto says it’s worried about overpaying for one. (FT, Bloomberg)
Regional bank stocks rallied in premarket trading, led by PacWest. The company’s C.E.O., Paul Taylor, said “the business remains fundamentally sound.” (TheStreet)
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is still weighing a presidential bid, and supporters are getting restless. (NYT)
Germany will likely fall into recession after reporting worse-than-expected industrial output. (FT)
Vivek Ramaswamy, the anti-woke financier running for president, is promising to exert more executive authority than Donald Trump did. (NYT)
Best of the rest
How Chinese companies are finding workarounds to develop A.I. capabilities without the latest American chips. (WSJ)
Bluesky may be the hot new social network, but President Biden (and other heads of state) are being shut out, for now. (Fortune)
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