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President Trump announced overnight that he and his wife, Melania, had tested positive for the coronavirus. After months of playing down the severity of the pandemic, and with little over a month before the election, the news has thrown everything into flux.
Mr. Trump tested positive after a top adviser fell ill. The aide, Hope Hicks, began showing symptoms on Wednesday. The biggest question now is who else may have been infected, since White House officials largely eschew wearing face masks in meetings with Mr. Trump. The president has met with scores of staff members, donors and others in recent days — including Judge Amy Coney Barrett, his nominee for the Supreme Court, who is preparing for confirmation hearings.
• Also unknown: test results for Joe Biden, who faced off with Mr. Trump at Tuesday’s presidential debate, and Vice President Mike Pence, who attended a coronavirus briefing with the president on Monday. Google searches for “25th Amendment,” the part of the U.S. Constitution about the presidential line of succession, spiked shortly after Mr. Trump’s announcement. And legal experts have weighed in on what would happen if the president is incapacitated, or worse, come Election Day (it’s complicated).
• Mr. and Mrs. Trump will isolate at the White House. A busy schedule of rallies over the next several days has been cleared.
Markets are down. Futures for the S&P 500, the Dow and the Nasdaq all fell, in choppy trading. Asian and European markets also lost ground. The dollar is up against a basket of other currencies, suggesting investors are moving money to traditional havens. The big tech stocks that have served as safe harbors, of sorts, are also down in premarket trading, suggesting a true “risk-off” shift among investors.
• Political betting markets moved on the news, giving Mr. Trump slightly worse odds for re-election: a 36 percent chance of winning, according to PredictIt. The sharpest move was in the odds for Mr. Pence: The vice-presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 7 has suddenly assumed much more importance. The remaining two debates between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden may be canceled or altered, with the next set for Oct. 15.
What are the policy implications? Mr. Trump’s dismissals of the severity of the virus and cavalier attitude toward the pandemic have given cover for state and local officials as they reopen their economies. Now that the president has caught the virus, it could give more support for the leaders keeping things locked down, which would put pressure on the economy in the short term. On the other hand, Mr. Trump’s diagnosis could give new urgency to negotiations over additional federal stimulus, which would be a boost to markets that have been calling for more aid after many of the initial programs expired.
There is much, much more to come on this story: follow The Times’s live briefing for the latest developments, read about other world leaders who caught the virus and see photos from Mr. Trump’s travels this week.
Today’s DealBook Briefing was written by Andrew Ross Sorkin and Lauren Hirsch in New York, Ephrat Livni in Washington, and Michael J. de la Merced and Jason Karaian in London.
Here’s what’s happening
Banks say they won’t profit much from pandemic aid loans. Though the biggest banks collected at least $13 billion in fees from loans tied to the Paycheck Protection Program, they say expenses all but wiped out any profit.
Nearly 20,000 Amazon workers have had Covid-19. The e-commerce giant said that of its 1.4 million frontline workers in the U.S., including those in its warehouses and at Whole Foods stores, roughly 1.5 percent had contracted the coronavirus since the start of March. The company has faced criticism about its safety protocols.
U.S. tech giants scored a win in the fight over foreign worker visas. A federal judge temporarily blocked President Trump’s order suspending employment visas, including H-1B permits, for overseas workers during the pandemic. Companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft had argued against the restrictions.
BlackRock criticized Volkswagen over “Dieselgate” concerns. The money-management titan said it had voted against members of the German carmaker’s boards, saying that the company hadn’t sufficiently overhauled its corporate governance after the emissions-cheating scandal.
Corporate boards still have a long way to go on diversity. Only 10 percent of boards for S&P 500 companies disclose directors’ ethnicities, and just 20 percent of those board members are nonwhite, according to a new study by the Conference Board. And the percentage of women directors of the 3,000 largest listed companies has risen very slowly, to 18.5 percent in the latest reading.
The job cuts are spreading
Companies announced tens of thousands of layoffs this week, in what seems like a new phase of the pandemic. Now, even profitable companies with lots of cash are assessing their longer-term prospects and making cuts — perhaps with the pandemic providing cover.
Layoffs without an obvious link to the pandemic include 400 employees at Goldman Sachs, which recently reported its second-highest quarterly revenue ever. Allstate Insurance, which reported surging profits in August, is laying off 3,800, part of a broader overhaul the company first announced last year. These moves may be following an unspoken recession playbook in which long-planned actions are taken during a downturn, attracting less attention because so many other companies are restructuring, too.
Other job cuts suggest that companies are bracing for a long-term downturn. Companies more directly affected by the virus, like the airlines and Disney, recently announced tens of thousands of additional furloughs and cuts due to “the continued uncertainty regarding the duration of the pandemic,” as Disney’s Josh D’Amaro put it this week, calling it “the only feasible option.” Second-order effects of these sorts of troubles are also appearing: KPMG is reportedly cutting 1,400 employees as companies save costs by pulling back on outside consultants.
More trouble lurks behind the big-company headlines. The federal loan program for small businesses expired with $130 billion untapped, and a similar program for midsize companies imposes too many conditions to make it feasible, critics contend. Analysts at Pantheon Macroeconomics said in a note yesterday that gloomy data from small-business surveys have made them “even more nervous about October” than before, suggesting that overall U.S. payroll employment this month may decline.
• The September jobs report is out today, at 8:30 a.m. Eastern, and forecasters expect that the economy will have added 875,000 jobs last month, down from 1.4 million in August and nearly 5 million in June. Payrolls are still about 10 million jobs lower than their February level.
In the papers
Some of the academic research that caught our eye this week, summarized in one sentence:
• Conflict at work can be good for company culture — under the right conditions. (W. Bentley MacLeod, Victoria Valle Lara and Christian Zehnder)
• Investment in innovation tends to generate social returns greater than private returns, so public policy should encourage it despite the risk of failure, waste and other uncertainties (Benjamin Jones and Larry Summers)
• Car dealers who reveal the true cost of a car upfront build trust with buyers… who then end up spending more on extras. (Yashar Atefi et al)
Pfizer’s chief wants out of the ‘crucible’ of the election
Albert Bourla sent a memo to the drugmaker’s employees, later posted publicly, that lamented the “amplified political rhetoric” about a coronavirus vaccine during Tuesday’s presidential debate. Mr. Trump, as he has said previously, claimed at the debate that a vaccine was “weeks away.”
A vaccine will move “at the speed of science,” Mr. Bourla wrote. “Once more, I was disappointed that the prevention for a deadly disease was discussed in political terms rather than scientific facts. People, who are understandably confused, don’t know whom or what to believe.”
That means Pfizer won’t be rushed. The company said in March that it hoped to have enough trial data to submit for regulatory approval this month, with initial batches of a vaccine available for delivery by the end of the year. Mr. Bourla said that while the company is making good progress toward that goal, it won’t be pressured into expediting it:
Now, we are approaching our goal and despite not having any political considerations with our pre-announced date, we find ourselves in the crucible of the U.S. Presidential election. In this hyperpartisan year, there are some who would like us to move more quickly and others who argue for delay. Neither of those options are acceptable to me.
Nikola adopts a bit more modesty
For much of its history, like many start-ups, the electric truck maker has emphasized innovation as one of its calling cards. But a news release this week redefined Nikola as “an innovator and an integrator,” noting that it relies on others for significant parts of its designs, after reports raised questions about the originality of its technology and its operations.
By the numbers: Nikola has used some variant of “innovation” in 24 news releases and securities filings since it first announced plans in March to go public via a merger with a blank-check company, according to the data provider Sentieo. Some examples:
• Trevor Milton, the company’s founder and now-former executive chairman, was often described as a “visionary leader with passion for innovation and disruption.” (He has a history of pitching grand visions and then failing to deliver.)
• “Nikola is one of the most innovative companies in the world,” Mr. Milton said when announcing a partnership with General Motors last month.
• “Nikola intends to continue to attract top talent to further enhance Nikola’s talent pool and drive technological innovations,” is a phrase that has appeared in several documents.
The other I-word. By contrast, “integrator” appears in just one release: this week’s statement.
Nikola says its new description is more accurate. Its business model, the company now says, “combines our own intellectual property and proprietary technology with that of our strategic business partners and suppliers to design and manufacture innovative energy and transportation solutions.”
• In Nikola’s case, that means relying on a G.M. battery for its Badger pickup truck and a joint G.M.-Honda hydrogen fuel cell for its semi trucks — despite Nikola owning patents in both technologies. The G.M. pickup deal was originally meant to close on Tuesday, but talks are continuing.
• The company’s explanation: “If our partners have a less expensive, more efficient solution that works with and in our designs, we very intentionally want to go with that.”
Nikola has work to do, regardless of how it describes itself. The company postponed a December event where it was scheduled to show off its electric pickup truck. And it is still in talks to partner with an energy company — news reports had identified BP as one candidate — to build roadside hydrogen-refueling stations. Its share price jumped this week after it reaffirmed production targets, but remains some 70 percent lower than the highs it reached in June.
The speed read
• Goldman Sachs agreed to buy G.M.’s credit card business for $2.5 billion, adding to its consumer-lending portfolio. (FT)
• Nelson Peltz’s Trian has taken big stakes in Invesco and Janus Henderson, reportedly with an eye toward pushing the two asset managers to merge. (WSJ)
• Two British billionaires and the investment firm TDR Capital agreed to buy Walmart’s British subsidiary, Asda, for $8.8 billion. (Reuters)
• Playboy will return to the public markets by merging with Mountain Crest Acquisition Corp. in a deal that values the publisher at $413 million, including debt. (Reuters)
• Hims, which sells prescription men’s care products directly to consumers, agreed to merge with an Oaktree-run SPAC at a $1.6 billion valuation. (Axios)
• A SPAC run by Charlie Ergen, the telecom billionaire, is seeking to raise $1 billion. (Reuters)
Politics and policy
• The Senate Commerce Committee voted to authorize subpoenas for the C.E.O.s of Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify about how they handle user content on their platforms. (NYT)
• How can President Trump repay the roughly $1 billion in debt he is thought to owe? (Vanity Fair)
• How Susquehanna International, a secretive options-trading firm, amassed a stake in TikTok worth billions. (WSJ)
• Google plans to pay news publishers $1 billion over three years to license their content for a new product. (TechCrunch)
Best of the rest
• Michael Lewis’s latest: “Inside a California Covid Revolt” (Bloomberg Opinion)
• “Saturday Night Live” is returning with a studio audience tomorrow. Last week, the show’s longtime producer, Lorne Michaels, worried that “We don’t know that we’re going to be able to pull it off.” (NYT)
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