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Trump investigator cites litany of failures in Mueller probe

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For much of Donald Trump’s time in office, the Russia investigation led by Robert Mueller hung over the White House, imperilling his presidency. According to a new account by one of Mr Mueller’s top deputies, the feeling that a hammer might fall at any moment was mutual.

Mr Trump’s denunciations of Mr Mueller’s special counsel probe, his unsubtle talk of pardons and his labelling of one witness as a “rat” all broke norms of behaviour for US presidents.

But they successfully deterred both witnesses and the crack team of investigators responsible for uncovering the truth about Russia’s role in Mr Trump’s shock victory in 2016, according to Andrew Weissmann, who led one of the three teams in the special counsel’s office.

In that sense, Mr Trump’s public belligerence towards the Russia probe — which came after a period of initial restraint — proved an effective strategy, he noted.

“I am not somebody who ascribes to the theory that the president . . . is not smart,” said Mr Weissmann in an interview with the Financial Times. “I think he’s wily, and he certainly is wily with respect to legal matters . . . and he’s bold in terms of what he does.”

Mr Trump has continued to fight those battles, a year and a half after the close of the probe. With just weeks until the 2020 general election, Mr Trump in recent days has demanded indictments of his political opponents, including his rival for the presidency, Joe Biden, for what he has labelled the “treasonous plot” of the Russia investigation.

For Mr Weissmann, it is evidence of the fleeting impact of the special counsel’s office. After Mr Mueller came the investigation of the investigators, driven by William Barr, Mr Trump’s attorney-general, and the president’s alleged effort to pressure Ukraine into aiding his re-election effort, for which he was impeached but acquitted.

“I think [Trump’s] view is that the guardrails are not there,” said Mr Weissmann.

Andrew Weissmann: ‘I think [Trump’s] wily, and he certainly is wily with respect to legal matters . . . and he’s bold in terms of what he does’ © Zachary Krahmer

He is the first of Mr Mueller’s prosecutors to speak publicly about the investigation that transfixed Washington for almost two years. His book about the probe, published last week, has offered a vivid inside view of the special counsel’s office.

It has also provided an unvarnished, at times searing, assessment of what Mr Weissman describes as the investigation’s failings, including the punches pulled for fear that Mr Trump might fire them at last.

Mr Weissmann criticises Mr Mueller over a trio of issues: failing to subpoena Mr Trump for an interview; declining to make a conclusion as to whether or not Mr Trump obstructed justice, and not pursuing an investigation of Mr Trump’s financial links with Russia.

The portrait stands in contrast to the public speculation about Mr Mueller’s investigation while it was active: rather than leaving no stone unturned, the special counsel team declined even to ask for an interview with Ivanka Trump, Mr Weissman recounts, though she played an active role in her father’s business, campaign and administration.

Such a move, lawyers in the office feared, “would play badly to the already antagonistic rightwing press . . . and risk enraging Trump, provoking him to shut down the Special Counsel’s Office once and for all,” Mr Weissmann writes. 

The book, named Where Law Ends, a reference to the John Locke quote that finishes “Tyranny Begins”, drew a rare public rebuke from Mr Mueller, who said in a statement last week: “It is not surprising that members of the Special Counsel’s Office did not always agree, but it is disappointing to hear criticism of our team based on incomplete information.”

An aggressive prosecutor with a skill for flipping defendants, Mr Weissmann was dubbed “Mueller’s pit-bull” when he joined the special counsel’s office. He headed up “Team M”, which was responsible for investigating Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman whose links to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs made him an obvious area of focus.

In past assignments, Mr Weissmann had successfully flipped infamous mob figures in New York and infamous corporate crooks at Enron. But in the Russia probe, Mr Trump’s “dangling” of pardons successfully thwarted efforts to get the full truth out of Mr Manafort, even as he faced years in jail for bank and tax fraud, Mr Weissmann said.

The prosecutors in the special counsel’s office adopted a type of gallows humour about these obstacles — the fear of another Saturday Night Massacre, the “gravitational pull” of Mr Trump’s pardon power. Mr Weissmann recounts one prosecutor exclaiming “Pardon Me! Pardon Me!” whenever he encountered the Manafort team in the hallways of the office. 

But he also describes an anxiety that undermined the office’s investigation. “For 22 months, we were constantly living under this [feeling of] ‘Are we going to be employed the next day?’,” he said.

The book’s toughest criticisms are levelled at Aaron Zebley, Mr Mueller’s chief of staff, who Mr Weissmann records repeatedly seeking to limit the investigation for fear of Mr Trump’s reaction. He labels Mr Zebley a “timorous” George McClellan, the civil war general who had a reputation for being insufficiently aggressive on the battlefield.

“My deputy, Aaron Zebley, was privy to the full scope of the investigation and all that was at issue,” Mr Mueller said in his statement last week. “He was an invaluable and trusted counsellor to me from start to finish.”

Mr Weissmann admits some unease in publicly criticising his colleagues. He had worked under Mr Mueller previously — he had been FBI general counsel when Mr Mueller was the director. Mr Zebley had been FBI chief of staff.

“I didn’t want to write an easy book that just said everything we did was right,” he said. Once he had decided to write a full account of his experiences, “it was my obligation to say what I thought”, he added.

Mr Mueller’s lengthy final report — described as a “turgid legal document” in Mr Weissmann’s book — detailed contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign but alleged no criminal conspiracy between the two camps to interfere in the election.

It also laid out alleged instances where Mr Trump sought to obstruct the investigation, but did not state whether they were criminal or not. Mr Mueller reasoned that because Mr Trump could not be indicted while in office, it was unfair to accuse him of a crime.

Mr Weissmann in his book describes this as a “transparent shell game” — where they did not have proof of a crime, they said so, but where they did, the report remains silent.

The special counsel’s investigation has long since wrapped up, and its work has been steadily undone by Mr Barr, the attorney-general who has shared the view of Mr Trump that the real scandal of the Russia probe was the investigation itself.

For Mr Weissmann, a registered Democrat and outspoken critic of Mr Trump, questions still remain. He calls the failure to delve into Mr Trump’s financial ties with Russia a “missed opportunity” and describes Mr Manafort as a central enigma.

Among the enduring mysteries is an August 2, 2016, meeting between Mr Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime business associate who was identified as an active Russian spy in a recent bipartisan Senate intelligence report.

Mr Kilimnik had flown to New York from Moscow to make an extraordinary request in the middle of the presidential campaign: that Mr Trump give a green light for Vladimir Putin to effectively take over the eastern half of Ukraine, Mr Weissmann recounts.

“If you want that . . . what are you offering,” Mr Weissmann asks. “We know the quid, but we don’t know the quo.”



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‘It has never been like this’: US house price spiral worries policymakers

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House prices are rising in many major economies. This FT series explores whether these increases are sustainable.

A decade ago, the average house in Ohio’s leafy state capital Columbus would sit on the market for almost 100 days before being sold. Today, a similar property sells in just 10 days.

“It has never been like this,” said Michael Jones, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker Realty with more than 20 years’ experience in central Ohio. “It’s unprecedented.”

US policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned about the rising price of housing for both homeowners and renters, as the broadest global house price boom for at least two decades drives up living costs.

“Today, it is harder to find an affordable home in America than at any point since the 2008 financial crisis,” Marcia Fudge, US housing and urban development secretary, said at a recent congressional hearing.

Nationally, house prices in May were 16.6 per cent higher than the year before, according to the latest S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index update — the biggest jump in more than 30 years of data and up from 14.8 per cent in April.

“A month ago, I described April’s performance as ‘truly extraordinary’, and [now] I find myself running out of superlatives,” said Craig Lazzara, global head of index investment strategy at S&P Dow Jones Indices.

The pace of price growth and sales has been particularly fast in smaller cities, suburban enclaves and towns.

Columbus’s housing market has exploded since the start of the pandemic, as historically low interest rates, remote working, increased demand for larger homes and a relatively limited supply of houses for sale sparked a feeding frenzy among prospective homebuyers and a windfall for sellers.

Line chart of S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller national home price index (year-on-year % change) showing US housing market booms again

Homes in Columbus sold more quickly than in any other large metropolitan US area, according to Zillow, the property website. Almost three-quarters of Columbus properties were under contract in less than a week in April. Other fast-moving areas included Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah.

The fierce competition means many properties are selling at a significant premium to their listing price, favouring those on higher incomes or younger first-time buyers whose parents are willing to stump up the cash required to win a bidding war.

FT Series: Global house prices — raising the roof

House prices are rising in many major economies — but is it sustainable?

Part 1: How the pandemic has triggered the broadest global house price boom in more than two decades

Part 2: Buyers flock to smaller US cities, renewing policymakers’ concerns about affordability and risk

COMING SOON:

Part 3: Netherlands grapples with the social consequences of rapidly rising house prices

Part 4: Why Berlin’s renters want to expropriate their homes from Germany’s publicly listed landlords

Part 5: Should house prices count in inflation data, and what can central banks do about the economic effects?

Columbus’s average sale price has jumped 15.8 per cent in the past year, according to Columbus Realtors, the local industry body of which Jones is president.

“People say to me, ‘Don’t you love this market?’” he said at a recent open house for an almost 6,000 square foot family home with a listing price of just under $1m in a residential neighbourhood east of downtown Columbus.

“I say, ‘Not especially, because I represent buyers and sellers alike’,” he added. “Somebody is a loser here.”

Other places have experienced even more frenetic sales. Median home prices in Austin, Texas, have risen 40 per cent year on year, according to online real estate brokerage Redfin. Buyers have also flocked to Phoenix, Arizona, where prices are almost 30 per cent higher in the same period. In Detroit, Michigan, they have risen 56 per cent.

Suburban enclaves and smaller towns have also benefited. Redfin reported last month that median home prices in “car-dependent” US areas had surged at twice the pace of those in “transit-accessible” cities since the start of the pandemic — with the former gaining 33 per cent while the latter increased 16 per cent.

Across the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the US, Columbus, along with St Louis, Missouri, and Tampa, Florida, logged some of the biggest net increases in people arriving in the area, according to an analysis of US Postal Service records of mailing address changes by commercial real estate and investment firm CBRE.

Most moves came from the “surrounding area”, defined as a few hours’ drive from the householder’s previous address, the analysis suggested.

The house price spiral is feeding into the rental market too. According to Apartment List, a listings website, national median rent has risen 11.4 per cent so far this year, more than three times the average increase in the same period in the previous three years.

“The high cost of housing keeps millions of families up every night,” Fudge warned. “They wonder if they can afford to keep a roof over their head — and still manage to keep their lights on, to pay for their prescriptions, to put food on their tables.”

Remote working boom fuels demand for suburban and rural areas

Industry experts say the pace of price growth is set to slow as supply begins to catch up with demand.

The number of existing-home sales rose 1.4 per cent month on month in June, according to the National Association of Realtors. Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the industry body, said supply had “modestly improved in recent months due to more housing starts and existing homeowners listing their homes, all of which has resulted in an uptick in sales”.

Real estate experts and economists surveyed by Zillow expect price growth to peak this year and then ebb.

“At a broad level, home prices are in no danger of a decline due to tight inventory conditions, but I do expect prices to appreciate at a slower pace by the end of the year,” Yun said.

Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin, said “homes that would have gotten 20 offers are now getting only two or three”.

But she added that while “we are already seeing demand start to stagnate”, prices were not coming down significantly — suggesting that policymakers’ concerns about affordability are likely to persist.

Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell recently said that today’s trend looked distinctly different to the one a decade ago that pre-empted what was at the time the worst recession since the Great Depression — but he called the problem of housing affordability “a big one”.

“Housing prices are moving up across the country at a high rate,” he told a congressional committee last month.

Although he acknowledged that it was “not being driven by the kind of reckless, irresponsible lending that led to the housing bubble that led to the last financial crisis”, he warned that it “makes it more difficult for entry-level buyers to get into the housing market, so that is a concern”.



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Square’s $29bn bet on Afterpay heralds future for ‘buy now, pay later’ trend

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Jack Dorsey’s biggest gamble to date has sent ripples around the fintech and banking world, with investors betting that Square’s $29bn all-stock deal to acquire Afterpay signals the “buy now, pay later” trend has staying power.

BNPL relies on an emerging thesis that millennials and Gen Z consumers distrust traditional credit, but still want to borrow money to buy goods. Afterpay allows shoppers to split the cost of goods into four instalments with no interest — but a late fee if payments are missed.

“We think we’re in the early days of the opportunity facing us,” said Square’s chief financial officer Amrita Ahuja, speaking to the Financial Times. “From a buy now, pay later perspective, we see, with online payments alone, a large and growing opportunity representing $10tn in payments volume by 2024.”

The deal sees Square join an increasingly crowded space, alongside big players such as Sweden’s Klarna, Silicon Valley-based Affirm and PayPal, with Apple also exploring the market. The sector also faces a brewing regulatory battle, as legislators question an industry that lends money in an instant, often without a traditional credit check to ensure a consumer will be able to pay off their debt.

“This decade is going to be the upheaval of the banking industry,” Klarna’s chief executive Sebastian Siemiatkowski, said on CNBC on Monday. “I’m a little bit surprised to see consolidation happening this early, at this level, but at the same point in time I think this is directionally what we’re going to see.”

Column chart of By downloads (% of total) showing Top US mobile payment solution apps

BNPL has exploded in popularity over the past year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic-driven boom in online shopping, but industry executives said it had shown strong growth well before the pandemic, alongside a broader trend for more flexible financing among traditional lenders.

Leading into 2020, banks including JPMorgan Chase, American Express and Citigroup each launched flexible payment options tied to existing credit cards as an answer to point-of-sale financing.

The past 18 months have seen a meaningful uptick in the number of retailers willing to adopt the extra financing option. “There’s a little bit of FOMO setting in,” said Brendan Coughlin from Citizens Financial Group.

Afterpay was among the pioneers in BNPL. It was founded by Sydney neighbours Nick Molnar and Anthony Eisen in 2014, and today facilitates global annual sales of $15.6bn.

The company went public on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2016 at a valuation of A$165m (US$122m). In May 2020, Chinese tech giant Tencent paid about A$300m for a 5 per cent stake in the Australian group, which was by then worth about A$8bn.

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The Afterpay tie-up will enable Square to offer BNPL services to its millions of merchants, who processed payments worth $38.8bn in its most recent quarter, while also tapping into Afterpay’s clients, which include Amazon and Target.

The company will also integrate Afterpay into its Cash App, which has about 70m users and is slowly being built out as a one-stop financial services shop for payments, cryptocurrency, saving and investing.

“All of a sudden, you’ve got probably the most compelling super app outside of China,” said DA Davidson’s Chris Brendler, who is an investor in both companies.

Square’s gross payment volume

Investors appear convinced. Despite the deal coming at a 30 per cent premium to Afterpay’s most recent stock price, the news sent Square’s share price up 10 per cent by Monday’s close.

“This is certainly a bull market deal,” said Andrew Atherton, managing director at Union Square Advisors. “People are rewarding Jack Dorsey for being bold and for making a big bet.”

Square’s entry into BNPL comes as the sector is becoming increasingly competitive.

Klarna increased its valuation from $11bn in September 2020 to $46bn in June of this year, making it the most valuable standalone company in the industry.

Shares in Affirm, the US online lender led by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, rose 15 per cent on Monday following news of the Afterpay deal. Affirm, which went public in January and is now valued at $17bn, recently expanded its partnership with Shopify to offer BNPL services to the ecommerce platform’s US merchants.

PayPal first moved into BNPL back in 2008 when its then-parent eBay bought Bill Me Later. A year ago, PayPal launched Pay in 4, a six-week instalment offering that is free for both consumers and merchants, alongside its longer-term PayPal Credit service.

Earlier this year, Apple was recruiting staff for its payments division with experience in BNPL, as it looks to expand Apple Pay and its Wallet app. Bloomberg reported last month that the iPhone maker was working with Goldman Sachs to develop an Apple Pay Later service.

Industry executives warn, however, that the more crowded market could erode the businesses’ margins, while flustered consumers may also be put off by the rapidly growing number of checkout options.

“The current state of affairs, where you have seven buttons when you go to checkout, I don’t think is a sustainable state of affairs,” said one consumer finance executive at a top US bank. “I think we are in an interim period.”

A bigger threat still is the sector’s immature and inconsistent regulatory environment.

“It’s what everyone is calling the Wild West,” said Alyson Clarke, an analyst at Forrester. “There is no onus on them to make sure that you are of financial health to be able to repay that loan.”

Some companies do a “soft” credit check that briefly examines a person’s position but “not as much as they should be doing if they are lending you money”, Clarke said. “Afterpay doesn’t do any of that.”

A survey of Australian consumers, compiled by the country’s financial regulator in 2020, suggested 21 per cent of BNPL users missed a payment in the previous 12 months. Almost half of them were aged 18 to 29. Morgan Stanley analysts have estimated Afterpay makes about $70m a year on late fees.

The UK’s financial regulator has said BNPL players should be forced to adhere to its credit rules as a “matter of urgency”. In the US, a government consumer protection agency issued guidance urging caution around “tempting” BNPL deals.

In a hint at further possible tensions, Capital One in December became the first major credit card company to block its customers from using its cards to pay off BNPL purchases, calling the practice “risky for customers and the banks that serve them”, according to Reuters.

Afterpay board member Dana Stalder said the company welcomed regulation. “Buy now, pay later is just a friendlier consumer product,” he said. “Consumers understand that, they’re not dumb. This is why they are voting with their feet.”

Additional reporting by Richard Milne



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UK pushes floating wind farms in drive to meet climate targets

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In waters 15km south-east of Aberdeen, renewable energy companies are preparing to celebrate yet another landmark in the drive to end Britain’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Five wind turbines, each taller than the Gherkin building in the City of London, fixed to 3,000-tonne buoyant platforms have been towed to the UK North Sea from Rotterdam where they will form part of the Kincardine array, the world’s biggest “floating” offshore wind farm.

Wind farm developers have dabbled since the 2000s with floating technology to overcome the limitations of conventional offshore turbines. These are mounted on structures fixed to the seabed and are difficult to install beyond depths of 60m, which makes them unsuitable for waters further from shore where wind speeds are higher.

Floating projects, which are anchored to the seabed by mooring lines, are rapidly moving from the fringes to the mainstream as countries turn to the technology to help meet challenging climate targets.

Britain was the first country to install a floating offshore wind farm off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland in 2017. But existing floating projects are modest in size. The Kincardine array has an electricity generation capacity of 50MW compared to 3.6GW for the world’s largest conventional offshore wind farm.

Map showing the location of Kincardine offshore floating wind farm, offshore from Aberdeen on Scotland's east coast

Now the bigger wind developers are stepping up a gear with plans to build more schemes on a larger scale.

Denmark’s Orsted, Germany’s RWE, Norway’s Equinor along with the UK’s ScottishPower and Royal Dutch Shell are some of companies on a long list of bidders vying to build floating schemes in an auction of seabed rights for about 10GW of offshore wind projects in Scottish waters. The bidding round closed in mid-July with the winners expected to be announced in early 2022.

The UK is separately examining an auction exclusively for floating wind in the Celtic Sea, the area of the Atlantic Ocean west of the Bristol Channel and the approaches to the English Channel and south of the Republic of Ireland.

Developers expect the costs of floating projects to fall rapidly as more projects are deployed. In 2018 floating wind costs were estimated at more than €200 per megawatt hour, nearly double the cost of nuclear power in the UK.

The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, a UK technology and research centre, is hopeful developers will be able to build “subsidy free” floating projects at prices below forecast wholesale electricity costs in auctions as early as 2029. Conventional offshore wind developers reached this inflection point in a UK government auction in 2019.

A Norwegian flag flies from a boat near the assembly site of offshore floating wind turbines in the Hywind pilot park, operated by Equinor
Norway’s Equinor is among the companies competing to build floating turbines in Scottish waters © Carina Johansen/Bloomberg

UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the UN’s COP26 climate summit later this year, has set a 1GW floating target out of a total 40GW offshore wind goal by 2030. He has underlined the importance of accessing the “windiest parts of our seas” as part of the UK’s goal to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. 

Other countries including France, Norway, Spain, the US and Japan are pursuing the technology, which experts said would particularly appeal to countries with limited access to shallow waters, or where the geology of the seabed makes it impossible to install conventional “fixed-bottom” turbines.

WindEurope, an industry body, predicts one-third of all offshore wind turbines installed in Europe by 2050 could be floating.

Countries pursuing floating wind are interested in it “not just as an opportunity to deliver net-zero targets. It has a real potential to be a driver of economic growth as well,” said Ralph Torr, a programme manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.

Much like how the UK supply chain has lost out to foreign companies in the construction of conventional wind offshore farms — despite Britain having more than anywhere else in the world — there are concerns the mistakes will be repeated for floating technology. Manufacturing work for the Kincardine project was carried out in Spain and Portugal and the turbines and foundations assembled in Rotterdam.

An offshore wind turbine off the coast of Fukushima, Japan
A wind turbine off the coast of the town of Naraha in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture. Japan is one of the countries pursuing floating technology © Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Competition with other markets was already high as they all tried to gain a “first-mover advantage”, said Torr, who warned the UK government’s 1GW floating wind target by 2030 was not “going to unlock huge investment in the supply chain or infrastructure because it’s [just] a handful of projects”.

The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and developers are urging the government to commit to a second target in 2040 for floating wind, which they believe would provide confidence to industry to invest in the necessary facilities in Britain.

“Because floating [wind] becomes economic in the 2030s, it’d be much better to understand what the longer term pipeline is,” said Tom Glover, UK country chair at RWE. He added that in the Scottish seabed rights auction, developers had to “provide a commitment and an ambition for Scottish content”, which should benefit the local supply chain.

Wind developers are conscious that UK suppliers need time to gear up. Christoph Harwood, director of policy and strategy at Simply Blue Energy, which is developing a 96MW floating scheme off the coast of Pembroke in Wales, said projects that were larger than the earliest floating schemes but were not yet at a full commercial scale would be important in that process.

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“If the UK supply chain is to benefit from floating wind, don’t rush into 1GW projects, take some stepping stones towards them,” he said.

Tim Cornelius, chief executive of the Global Energy Group, which carries out offshore wind assembly work at the Port of Nigg on the Cromarty Firth in north-east Scotland, said the size of floating wind turbines offered opportunities to UK suppliers. 

The floating turbines are much bigger than their conventional offshore counterparts so need to be built closer to their point of installation, which precludes using the lowest cost manufacturers in China and the Middle East.

The floating turbines require “an astonishing amount” of deepwater quayside space at ports, Cornelius explained. His company is looking at creating an artificial island for quaysides in the Cromarty Firth in Scotland, which he says would require a “material investment but is entirely justifiable as long as developers are prepared to commit”.

But he warned that “as it currently stands, the [UK] supply chain isn’t in a position to be able to support the aspirations of the [floating offshore wind] industry”.

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