April 21, 2021

Gary Gensler, Wall Street’s New Watchdog, Has a Full Plate

Mr. Gelzinis said Mr. Gensler would probably draw on his familiarity with the subject matter — he taught classes on blockchain technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — to approach regulation around digital currencies more strategically. That would be a departure from his predecessor Jay Clayton, who favored enforcement actions against initial coin offerings without providing much regulatory guidance, he added.

Paul Grewal, chief counsel of Coinbase, the cryptocurrency exchange that went public last week, said the industry was “hopeful” about Mr. Gensler, noting that he is fluent in its language. Mr. Grewal said the industry wanted Mr. Gensler to provide clarity on how securities regulators decide when a digital asset is considered a security and subject to S.E.C. review, as opposed to a currency that is largely free from S.E.C. oversight.

The question grew in importance after the S.E.C. sued the San Francisco company Ripple Labs in December over the sale of its popular digital tokens to the public. The S.E.C. said the company was selling unregistered securities, while Ripple and others said the tokens should be classified as a digital currency. The enforcement action was one of the last brought before Mr. Clayton stepped down as chairman in the waning days of the Trump administration.

More recently, a brokerage affiliated with Sustainable Holdings, a financial technology company, asked the S.E.C. to weigh in on whether nonfungible tokens, which are being used to create digital art, are securities that require registration. The company, in its letter, asked the S.E.C. “to engage in a meaningful discussion of how to regulate fintech companies and individuals that are creating NFTs that may be deemed digital asset securities.”

Mr. Gensler, while teaching at M.I.T., acknowledged that regulators had struggled with how to treat digital assets. In a 2018 interview, he said digital assets could at times appear to be both a commodity and a security. At his Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Gensler spoke strongly for heightened requirements for companies to disclose climate risks and diversity efforts.

“Diversity in boards and senior leadership benefits decision-making,” he said.

Mr. Gensler declined to be interviewed.

One thing the past three months have shown is that the stock and bond markets have a way of quickly writing the agenda for anyone who leads the S.E.C. That means SPACs will almost certainly be scrutinized. In particular, Mr. Gensler will have to determine whether these blank-check companies are a good market innovation for taking fledgling companies public or an investment vehicle that has the potential to harm retail investors, Mr. Hawke of Arnold Porter said.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/21/business/economy/gensler-wall-street-sec.html

China’s Solar Dominance Presents Biden With Human Rights Dilemma

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that the United States was falling behind China on clean energy production.

But bringing solar manufacturing back to the United States could be a challenge, analysts said, given the time needed to significantly bolster American production, and it could also raise the price of solar panels in the short term.

The United States still has a handful of facilities for manufacturing polysilicon, but they have faced grim prospects since 2013, when China put retaliatory tariffs on American polysilicon. Hemlock Semiconductor mothballed a new $1.2 billion facility in Tennessee in 2014, while REC Silicon shut its polysilicon facility in Washington in 2019.

China has promised to carry out large purchases of American polysilicon as part of a trade deal signed last year, but those transactions have not materialized.

In the near term, tensions over Xinjiang could be a boon for the few remaining U.S. suppliers. Ms. Sullivan said some small U.S. solar developers had reached out to REC Silicon in recent months to inquire about non-Chinese products.

But American companies need the promise of reliable, long-term orders to scale up, she said, adding that when she explains the limited supply of solar products that do not touch China, people become “visibly ill.”

“This is the big lesson,” Ms. Sullivan added. “You become dependent on China, and what does it mean? We have to swallow our values in order to do solar.”

Chris Buckley contributed reporting.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/20/business/economy/china-biden-solar-panels.html

China’s Solar Dominance Presents Biden With an Ugly Dilemma

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that the United States was falling behind China on clean energy production.

But bringing solar manufacturing back to the United States could be a challenge, analysts said, given the time needed to significantly bolster American production, and it could also raise the price of solar panels in the short term.

The United States still has a handful of facilities for manufacturing polysilicon, but they have faced grim prospects since 2013, when China put retaliatory tariffs on American polysilicon. Hemlock Semiconductor mothballed a new $1.2 billion facility in Tennessee in 2014, while REC Silicon shut its polysilicon facility in Washington in 2019.

China has promised to carry out large purchases of American polysilicon as part of a trade deal signed last year, but those transactions have not materialized.

In the near term, tensions over Xinjiang could be a boon for the few remaining U.S. suppliers. Ms. Sullivan said some small U.S. solar developers had reached out to REC Silicon in recent months to inquire about non-Chinese products.

But American companies need the promise of reliable, long-term orders to scale up, she said, adding that when she explains the limited supply of solar products that do not touch China, people become “visibly ill.”

“This is the big lesson,” Ms. Sullivan added. “You become dependent on China, and what does it mean? We have to swallow our values in order to do solar.”

Chris Buckley contributed reporting.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/20/business/economy/china-biden-solar-panels.html

Progressives Propose Tripling Housing Commitment in Infrastructure Plan

“Republicans are not going to partner with Democrats on the Green New Deal or on raising taxes to pay for it,” Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said at a news conference last month. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, has repeatedly warned that the infrastructure plan is “a Trojan horse” for liberal priorities, while Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, declared last week that “it’s a lot of Green New Deal” that would lead voters to turn away from Democrats.

“I think the expansive definition of infrastructure that we see in this sort of ‘Green New Deal wish list’ is called into question,” Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, said on Fox News last week. “I don’t think that the American people, when they think of infrastructure, are thinking of home health aides and other things that are included in this bill.”

A group of Democrats has raised the possibility of breaking off the parts of Mr. Biden’s plan with broad bipartisan appeal — addressing roads, bridges and broadband — and attempting to pass it with Republican votes before Democrats turn to the more ambitious elements the G.O.P. has rejected. Then, they argue, Democrats could use the fast-track budget reconciliation process to bypass the filibuster and unilaterally push the remainder of the package through both chambers.

“I think that if we come together in a bipartisan way to pass that $800 billion hard infrastructure bill that you were talking about, that I’ve been urging, then we show our people that we can solve their problems,” Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

But there is no guarantee that bipartisan support would materialize even for a more limited plan, and many liberals fear that if it did, the strategy would sap momentum for their more ambitious ideas.

While the progressives’ proposal is largely unchanged from its original iteration in 2019, the political landscape is vastly different, with Democrats in control of Washington. Mr. Sanders now leads the Senate Budget Committee, and a historic investment of federal funds to counter the economic and health effects of the coronavirus pandemic has some lawmakers and voters more open to substantial spending.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/us/politics/progressives-infrastructure-legislation.html

Progressive Lawmakers to Unveil Legislation on Energy and Public Housing

“Public housing has been neglected, left to get worse, and we’re not going to stand for it anymore,” Mr. Schumer said. The president’s plan, he added, was “a good start, but it ain’t enough.”

Mr. Sanders, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and allies envision the proposal costing between $119 billion and $172 billion over 10 years to meet the needs of their constituents, according to an estimate provided to The New York Times. It aims to create thousands of maintenance and construction jobs.

“Probably our best bet would be one bill — and it should be a large bill,” Mr. Sanders said in an interview. “I think it’s just easier and more efficient for us to work as hard as we can in a comprehensive broad infrastructure plan, which includes human infrastructure as well as physical infrastruture.”

Republicans, who have sought to weaponize the Green New Deal in recent years as egregious federal overreach that would harm the economy, have already seized on the climate and housing provisions in Mr. Biden’s plan as far beyond the traditional definition of infrastructure. Mr. Biden is also preparing a second proposal that would focus even more on projects outside what Republicans call “real” infrastructure and could bring the total cost to $4 trillion.

“Republicans are not going to partner with Democrats on the Green New Deal or on raising taxes to pay for it,” Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said at a news conference last month. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, has repeatedly warned that the infrastructure plan is “a Trojan horse” for liberal priorities, while Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, declared last week that “it’s a lot of Green New Deal” that would lead voters to turn away from Democrats.

“I think the expansive definition of infrastructure that we see in this sort of ‘Green New Deal wish list’ is called into question,” Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, said on “Fox News” last week. “I don’t think that the American people, when they think of infrastructure, are thinking of home health aides and other things that are included in this bill.”

In acknowledgment of both Republican resistance to Mr. Biden’s plan and the lure of bipartisan legislation, some lawmakers have raised the possibility of first passing a smaller bill that addresses roads, bridges and broadband with Republican votes before Democrats use the fast-track budget reconciliation process to bypass the filibuster and unilaterally push the remainder of the legislative proposals through both chambers.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/us/politics/progressives-infrastructure-legislation.html

The Fed Faces Criticism as It Wades Into Climate and Equity Issues

And Michael Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said he was concerned that the Fed’s focus on fostering equity — by driving down Black unemployment, for instance — could make it too hesitant to lift interest rates, allowing inflation to bubble up.

But Fed officials say the central bank is being pragmatic, not political. Ms. Daly regularly points out that understanding climate change risks to the financial system is important for bank regulators and supervisors. Mr. Powell said during a webcast Wednesday that the Fed sees such issues “through the lens of our existing mandates” — racial, gender and other disparities in economic outcomes “hold the economy back,” for example.

“Also I think we now realize that unemployment can go low for quite a long time without inflation being a problem — which will tend to help those groups,” he said.

Still, the Fed knows it’s in fraught territory. Mr. Powell avoids endorsing specific legislative packages. When Fed officials talk about inequality, they often discuss opportunity — a framing with more bipartisan backing.

There is a risk if the Fed is seen as a “quote unquote Democratic institution,” said Peter Conti-Brown, a Fed historian at the University of Pennsylvania. It might lose support across political cycles, as with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is largely seen as a liberal project.

“The Fed always needs political support to do its job well and to have the autonomy it wants,” said Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University who studies the Fed’s politics. Pushback that led to reform has generally come from Democrats — who have forced it to focus more on employment and reined in its ability to help Wall Street — rather than Republicans, she noted.

And even now, some Democrats say the central bank could go further. Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, has pushed the Fed to do more to get cheaper credit to states and localities, for instance.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/business/economy/federal-reserve-politics.html

China’s First-Quarter Growth Is Expected to Boom on Paper

Families continue to save at a higher rate than they did before the pandemic, something that worries economists like Louis Kuijs, who is head of Asian economics at Oxford Economics. Mr. Kuijs is looking at household savings as an indication of whether Chinese consumers are ready to start splurging after months of being stuck at home.

Data on Friday showed that households saved more money in the first quarter of the year than in recent quarters. “Looking ahead, a convincing vaccination drive and continued improvement of labor market conditions are needed to unleash consumer spending and bring down that saving rate,” Mr. Kuijs said.

Many families took on more debt last year to buy property and cover expenses during the pandemic. China still largely lacks the kind of social safety net that many wealthy countries provide, and some families have to dip into savings for health care and other big costs.

Unlike much of the developed world, China doesn’t subsidize its consumers. Instead of handing out checks to jump-start the economy last year, China ordered state-owned banks to lend to businesses and offered tax rebates.

Travel restrictions over the Lunar New Year holiday dampened consumer appetite and slowed the momentum of Chinese shoppers. But retail data on Friday showed that March sales were better than expected, raising hopes that consumers like Li Jinqiu, 25, might begin to feel more confident in the coming months.

For now, Mr. Li, who is recently married and has a baby at home, is still choosing to save instead of spend. He had planned to work for the family business, but it has been hit by the pandemic and he doesn’t think there is much opportunity for him if he stays.

“The whole family has some sense of crisis,” Mr. Li said. “Because of the pandemic and because of family business, I have a sense of crisis.”

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/15/business/economy/china-economy.html

Covid-19 Pushes India’s Middle Class Toward Poverty

Anil G. Kumar, a civil engineer, was one of them. Around this time last year, he and his family were about to buy a two-bedroom apartment. But when last year’s lockdown hit, Mr. Kumar’s employer, a construction chemicals manufacturer, slashed his salary by half.

“Everything turned turtle within a few hours,” he said. Three months later, his job had been eliminated.

Now Mr. Kumar spends his days in his home in a working-class neighborhood in the western part of Delhi, searching for jobs on LinkedIn and taking care of his son.

The family’s middle-class life is now under threat. They survive on the $470-a-month salary Mr. Kumar’s wife draws from a private university. Instead of holding a big celebration for their son’s 10th birthday at a restaurant, which would have cost nearly $70, they ordered a cake and a new outfit for about one-fifth the cost. Mr. Kumar also canceled his Amazon Prime subscription, which he hadn’t used in a while.

“Every day you can’t sit on the laptop,” he said. “At times, you feel depressed.”

India’s middle class is central to more than the economy. It fits into India’s broader ambitions to rival China, which has grown faster and more consistently, as a regional superpower.

To get there, the Indian government may need to address the people the coronavirus has left behind. Household incomes and overall consumption have weakened, even though the sales of some goods have increased recently because of pent-up demand. Many of the hardest hit come from India’s merchant class, the shopkeepers, stall operators or other small entrepreneurs who often live off the books of a major company.

“India is not even discussing poverty or inequality or lack of employment or fall in incomes and consumption,” said Mahesh Vyas, the chief executive of the Center for Monitoring of the Indian Economy. “This needs to change first and foremost,” he said.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/business/economy/india-covid19-middle-class.html

What Will Happen to All the Empty Office Buildings and Hotels?

Long a Holiday Inn, the West 57th Street property was reinvented as a boutique getaway in 2017 by a new owner, BD Hotels, whose portfolio includes downtown hot spots like the Mercer, the Bowery and the Jane. But then Covid hit, and BD defaulted, despite turning much of the Watson Hotel into a homeless shelter, for which the city reimbursed it.

For the 1964 building’s newest chapter, Yellowstone will turn one of the hotel’s two towers into market-rate apartments, according to sources familiar with the deal, while leaving the other tower as a hotel. Isaac Hera, the firm’s chief executive, said in an email that plans were not set yet, but added that “having the flexibility of implementing different uses and different business plans is a very attractive proposition.”

City and state officials have pushed for the conversion of hotels into affordable housing, but developers note that building codes could make that difficult.

For starters, apartments must be at least 150 square feet, while hotel rooms are allowed to be smaller. And apartments require kitchens, though in some affordable-housing complexes, tenants can share kitchen facilities, said Mark Ginsberg, a principal at Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, which has designed affordable projects.

Adding kitchens and enlarging rooms to meet codes could also ultimately reduce the number of beds, a counterproductive move, Mr. Ginsberg said. It could also balloon costs, turning a standard hotel makeover with $3 million in cosmetic changes into a $30 million overhaul.

The process seems so daunting that an investor interested in converting a struggling 60-room hotel on the Lower East Side is getting cold feet, said Mr. Ginsberg, who is assessing the site for the investor.

Since last spring, Mr. Ginsberg has looked at about a half dozen other hotel sites for similar clients. “With the destruction of the tourism industry, this is the time to act,” he said.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/realestate/empty-office-buildings-hotels.html

Unemployment Is High. Why Are Businesses Struggling to Hire?

By contrast, “right now what seems to be happening is that job creation is outpacing the search effort that workers are putting forth,” said Professor Marinescu, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania. “Compared to how people reacted last spring, it’s not that long ago, but the situation has changed a bit.”

That is to say, a similar decline in workers’ desire to pursue jobs matters more when there are plenty of jobs to go around, which is increasingly the case as the economy reopens.

In other research on the expanded jobless benefits, Peter Ganong of the University of Chicago Harris School and five co-authors found a smaller decrease in the inclination to search for jobs than earlier research would have predicted. In other words, those $600 weekly supplements didn’t decrease employment very much.

But those were circumstances that may no longer apply.

“The goal of government should be to get everyone back to work as soon as possible while continuing to provide economic support to workers who have not gone back to work yet,” Mr. Ganong said. “Those two things were not in tension in 2020, and they are in tension in 2021. All of those things that made 2020 special are receding, so we now face a more traditional set of trade-offs.”

Arindrajit Dube, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has also studied the impact of last year’s expanded benefits, is skeptical that the lure of jobless benefits is the primary explanation. He notes that even with the reported shortages, businesses appear to be successfully hiring at a breakneck pace.

Companies added 916,000 employees to payrolls in March alone, a number matched only by the initial rebound from pandemic shutdowns last summer and in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Moreover, the expanded benefits are scheduled to expire in September.

“Maybe an unemployed person spends several additional days unemployed because of the $300,” Professor Dube said. “But if it’s a problem, it takes care of itself. It’s nothing compared to the broader trajectory of the reopening, which swamps anything on the unemployment insurance front.”

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/upshot/unemployment-pandemic-worker-shortages.html