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Big business lost out in Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus — but still supports it

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The $1.9tn Covid-19 relief package Joe Biden signed into law last week has been alternatively hailed and condemned as a singularly progressive piece of stimulus legislation.

As well as replenishing state and school budgets, it boosts child tax credits, assistance for renters and food aid, in an effort to help people in “pockets of misery”, according to US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen.

Relatively little goes to big businesses: the $14bn allocated to airlines is less than 1 per cent of the package, while the $29bn targeted at restaurants and bars caps the total that any individual company can receive at $10m. Despite all this, the legislation has been broadly welcomed by some of the biggest US companies and lobby groups.

The bottom-up design of Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act stands in stark contrast to last year’s Cares Act, which offered $500bn in support for big companies alongside direct payments to individuals and expanded unemployment benefits. 

That “trickle-down” model was also evident in 2008 when Congress bailed out banks, insurers and carmakers, and after the 9/11 attacks of 2001 when Congress targeted support at airlines. 

“Obviously corporations would benefit from direct money going to them as opposed to this trickle-up,” said RA Farrokhnia, professor at Columbia Business School. 

No House or Senate Republican supported the package, but chief executives on both sides of the political divide have lent the latest stimulus their support. 

More than 150 executives, including the heads of BlackRock, Blackstone and Goldman Sachs, wrote to Congress in February to back the package, and the head of the Business Roundtable described the lobby group as being “strongly supportive” of much of it.

When the Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld polled 80 chief executives last week, 71 per cent endorsed the stimulus — close to the level of support pollsters have found in the wider population. Surveys from the National Association of Manufacturers and others show CEO confidence is recovering at striking speed.

Beyond direct recipients of stimulus funds such as airlines, several companies have said they expect to benefit indirectly, either because they supply those recipients, because the stimulus will help their own suppliers, or simply because consumers will have more money to spend.

On recent conference calls, air conditioner manufacturers such as Honeywell and Carrier Global predicted that the funds the package provides for improving air quality in schools would create sales opportunities. 

Technology groups have similarly pointed to the $1bn the act provides for modernising government agencies’ cyber security defences. And Pernod Ricard, the drinks group, has been among the suppliers to restaurants voicing hopes that they will now have the money to restock. 

Industry groups have cited the $10bn in funding for the State Small Business Credit Initiative as a key reason for their support, as it offers relief for critical suppliers to larger companies.

By far the most commonly cited explanation for business support, however, is the prospect that the $1,400 direct payments now being sent to Americans earning $75,000 a year or less will soon be spent on companies’ products. 

“When stimulus cheques hit, you immediately get the impact,” Visa’s chief financial officer, Vasant Prabhu, told a conference last week, highlighting the spike in debit card spending that occurred when an earlier round of funds was distributed in January.

Companies from Dollar Tree, the discount retailer, to Marriott, the hotelier, and Curaleaf, the cannabis dispensary operator, have told investors in recent days that they expect a sales boost.

Their optimism has grown in part because some people did not spend the money they received in earlier rounds of Covid-19 stimulus and instead added it to their savings accounts. If virus trends continue to improve and the vaccine rollout goes smoothly, that might mean the consumer is on the verge of a pent-up spending spree.

“I never imagined that we’d be sitting here today with a consumer that is sitting on $1.8tn of excess savings,” Albertson’s chief executive Vivek Sankaran admitted to analysts.

For Farrokhnia, the Columbia professor, the unique combination of an economic crisis and a health crisis has made it hard for big business to oppose Covid-19 relief. Headlines last year about healthy public companies applying for loans which struggling smaller companies needed more also “created bad press”, he noted. 

In that context, any CEO coming out against the latest stimulus “would have seemed not only greedy but also would have been perceived as standing against all these other programmes that are meant to provide benefit for children and so on,” Farrokhnia observed.

For Sonnenfeld, chief executives’ support can be explained partly because they “appreciate that most legislation is an imperfect compromise — even great legislation”.


$29bn


Amount in plan targeted at helping restaurants and bars

Josh Bolten, CEO of the Business Roundtable, said the lobby group had issues with some elements of the package but “we didn’t have a chance to carve the bill the way we wanted to”. 

One early proposal which business opposed was carved out of the bill before it became an act, however: a doubling of the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Whether corporate America’s cautious support for this “trickle-up” relief package represents a shift in a boardroom consensus that has endured since Ronald Reagan’s presidency is still unclear. 

Almost two-thirds of the CEOs Yale polled said the American Relief Plan had gone too far, echoing complaints from the US Chamber of Commerce that the size of the package left less money for other priorities, including infrastructure spending. Business is now also gearing up to fight any increase in corporate taxes. 

But Farrokhnia said the politics of business-first stimulus packages have changed.

“There will be financial crises in which the best course of action would be to give direct money to large corporations,” he said. “But I suspect there would be more popular resistance. It certainly would give politicians cause for pause.” 



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Analysis

Third Covid wave pushes Poland’s health system to limits

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After Michal Drozdz, a Warsaw paramedic, pulls up outside a hospital, his ambulance often has to queue for hours before his patients are admitted.

“This has been happening all the time for three weeks. Every shift there’s a real threat you’ll have to spend it waiting in front of a hospital,” he said. “Sometimes it’s two hours, sometimes six . . . During that time you can’t help anyone, which is what this job should be about.”

It is not just Warsaw that is struggling. Across Poland, the health system has been brought close to its limits as the central European nation battles through its most difficult days of the coronavirus pandemic so far.

Infections have surged since early March and on April 1 hit their highest daily level since the pandemic began. In the past fortnight, Poland has recorded 989 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the third highest figure in the EU. Deaths have surged to record levels and the number of people in hospitals and on ventilators with Covid-19 have also touched all-time highs.

“The scale is incomparable [with the first wave],” said Drozdz. “Back then there were a few confirmed cases per district. Now it’s a few confirmed cases per block of flats.”

As elsewhere in Europe, the surge has been caused by the arrival of the more infectious B.1.1.7 strain of the virus first sequenced in the UK, which in recent weeks has accounted for 90 per cent of new cases in Poland.

A nurse attends to patients at an emergency ward in Bochnia, Poland. The country has the lowest number of practising physicians per capita in the EU © Omar Marques/Getty Images

But critics say the government also made errors that let the strain spread more quickly: first, by not enforcing rigorous enough checks on the thousands of Poles who returned from the UK for Christmas; and second, by loosening restrictions in mid-February once the British variant was already circulating.

The huge inflow of patients has left the health system reeling. Although about a quarter of Covid-19 beds and 20 per cent of ventilators are still free, they are not always in the same place as the people who need them.

Some 150 patients had to be moved from the southern Silesia region to other areas this month after local hospitals were overwhelmed. In the Mazovia region, officials were so worried about oxygen supplies before Easter that doctors were asked to limit the use.

The biggest problem, however, is a lack of staff, the result of years of high emigration and chronic health system underfunding. A Eurostat study in 2018 found that Poland had the lowest number of practising physicians per capita in the EU, with just 238 per 100,000 inhabitants.

“It’s not just Covid that’s the problem. It has just highlighted how insufficient our health system is,” said one young doctor recently sent to work with Covid patients in a Warsaw hospital.

In an effort to regain control of the situation, the government imposed new restrictions in mid-March, which it extended last week to April 18. It has also used powers allowing it to oblige medical professionals to switch from their normal jobs to treating coronavirus patients, and repeatedly expanded the number of Covid beds and ventilators in Poland’s hospitals.

Medical staff at the intensive care unit of Krakow University Hospital. The government has used powers obliging health professionals to switch from their normal jobs to treating coronavirus patients © Omar Marques/Getty Images

Adam Niedzielski, health minister, said on Friday there were signs that the surge in infections was beginning to ebb and that a peak in hospitalisations was imminent. He added that Poland would now also speed up its vaccination drive by broadening the groups of people allowed to give jabs.

“[Accelerating vaccinations] is the only possible answer, given the available resources, to fight the pandemic and get out of the third wave,” he said. “It is a very difficult time and therefore special solutions are needed.”

Yet doctors in hospitals in hard-hit areas are still scrambling to cope, with small teams juggling large numbers of seriously ill patients. The Warsaw doctor said a particular challenge for new staff was helping patients who needed intubation because their oxygen levels were dropping — a procedure normally carried out by specialists.

“You just have to wait for the call from the anaesthetist,” she said. “You don’t get emotional because that’s what we do on a daily basis — but you feel a bit insufficient as a doctor . . . You feel helpless.”

The shortages have left medical staff with huge workloads. “[My colleagues] are exhausted. You don’t have to ask, you can see it when they come off their shifts. I’ve just done my first few shifts and that was the hardest day and a half in my life,” said a second doctor recently deployed to a hospital for Covid patients in Warsaw. “Those who have been working here since February look as if they were seriously ill already.”

To boost their energy, some medics have resorted to giving themselves oxygen and intravenous drips, according to Polish media. Asked about the accounts by Radio RMF24, Niedzielski acknowledged that staff shortages were “noticeable” and described Poland’s medics as “heroes”. “This really is a war and the situation requires non-standard behaviour,” he said.

On top of the exhaustion, medics also have to deal with the psychological pressure that comes with confronting death so frequently. Treating couples where one partner was far sicker than the other, or parents who would not survive, was particularly tough, the second doctor said.

“Sometimes it is easier not . . . to build up links with patients because then when they die I feel like I have lost someone close myself, someone whom I fed and gave stuff to drink, whose hand I held,” she said.

“But on the other hand . . . I cannot imagine cutting off all these emotions completely. You have to find the golden mean. But it’s not easy.”



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Analysis

Iranian TV action thriller delivers warning to Zarif

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It is hardly surprising that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and nuclear negotiator, is not a fan of Gando, a popular television drama that depicts an incompetent minister who scuppers nuclear talks with world powers by hiring dual nationals who turn out to be spies for MI6.

The series — made by an institute believed to be affiliated to the elite and hardline Revolutionary Guards — “is a lie from the beginning to the end” that “damages foreign policy more than me” by fuelling public mistrust, Zarif said.

By focusing on the nuclear talks, the Guards’ motive goes beyond creating compelling drama, reformist analysts say. Iran is in discussion with western powers about reviving the nuclear deal, a key reformist achievement, and hardliners want to deter the popular foreign minister from declaring his interest in the presidency in what is a crucial election year.

“I’ll be grateful to Gando-makers to let us continue our current job,” Zarif said this month, and commented that he would not run for the presidency.

The possibility of nuclear talks with the US and other powers has complicated an already fraught Iranian political scene ahead of the June election. Many reformists are pinning their hopes on Iran’s top diplomat to reinvigorate the nuclear deal and boost support at the ballot box. Hardliners might prefer to negotiate the deal themselves after the election. The polls are also seen as particularly crucial in case supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 81, dies during the next president’s term.

Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from ‘Gando’
Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. The series title refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies © Bahar Asgari/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The purpose of Gando, which refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies, “is to tell Zarif that should he dare to announce his candidacy, he will be destroyed immediately,” said one reformist analyst. “When the intelligence service of the Guards truly believes in the Gando plot lines, it means even if Zarif decides to defy such warnings, he will not be allowed to run.”

Centrist president Hassan Rouhani is due to step down this year after two terms and it is not yet clear who the presidential candidates will be. Politicians register as late as May and then have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, the hardline constitutional watchdog, which can disqualify nominees. Potential hardline candidates include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the parliament speaker and a former guards commander; Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary chief; and Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament. On the reformist side, speculation has centred on Es’haq Jahangiri, first vice-president, Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic, and Zarif.

A US-educated career diplomat widely respected in the west for his pragmatism, Zarif was instrumental in the historic deal in 2015, under which Iran curbed its nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But Donald Trump abandoned the accord in 2018, imposed sanctions, including on Zarif, and said he would pursue a new accord to contain Iran’s regional and military policies. The US move emboldened hardliners, confirming to them the untrustworthiness of the US.

Zarif’s background in the US both as a university student and as Iran’s head of mission at the UN — during which he met US politicians including then senator Joe Biden — has long made him a source of suspicion for hardliners.

This wariness of both Zarif and the west is evident to viewers of Gando, as is the heroism of the Revolutionary Guards. Mohammad, the action hero protagonist, warns that western negotiators may sabotage refineries as part of nuclear talks. Mohammad works out of elaborate facilities akin to those in a James Bond film. The fictional foreign minister is advised by a media adviser, the main culprit, “to enter into direct talks with the US and accept the conditions of the leader of the global village”.

Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’
Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. State TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run © Hassan Hendi/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The dramatic scenes reflect, in part, the worldview of some of Zarif’s critics. “Reformists, Mr Zarif and his lobby group in Washington [Iranian dual nationals] should be wiped out from Iran’s politics,” said an aide to a senior hardline politician who is a potential presidential candidate. “We have to get rid of this cancerous tumour once for good.”

Gholamali Jafarzadeh, a former conservative member of parliament, said Zarif “is not a good statesman and should not run for president” while “reformists should know that their choices have no chance to be allowed to run”. 

This month, state TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run. Local media said broadcasts would resume when the presidential race was over. Iran’s centrist president Hassan Rouhani, whose signature achievement is the nuclear deal — alluded to the show on Wednesday and said “people’s money” should not be spent on “fabrication of the truth” and “distortion of facts”.

After three years of sanctions, many voters are disillusioned by the infighting and the prospect of real change, whatever the outcome of the election. “Whether Zarif or a figure more senior than him runs or not, I’m not going to vote,” said Hamid, a 40-year-old engineer. “Let the Guards win the election as they are the ones who are running the country anyway. Why shall I make a fool of myself?” 



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Analysis

Rising inflation complicates Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis

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After seven months in lockdown, Michele Marques received some unwelcome news when she returned to work: while she was away the prices of almost all the products she uses as a hairdresser had soared.

“A box of gloves rose 200 per cent. Colouring products increased at least 100 per cent,” said the 37-year-old from São Paulo, underlining how costs were rising while her revenue had collapsed. “I had to raise the price of my services, too.”

It is a dynamic that is playing out across Brazil, adding an extra layer of complexity to the country’s coronavirus crisis, which has already claimed the lives of almost 350,000 individuals and pushed hospital services to the brink.

With much of Latin America’s largest economy being shuttered, inflation is surging to its highest level in years, fuelling a silent scourge of hunger among poorer citizens that has run in parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The high price of staple foods — rice and beans, for example — has led to the disappearance of these items from the table of millions of Brazilians,” said Ana Maria Segall, a researcher at the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security. In the 12 months to the end of March, the price of rice increased 64 per cent and black beans 51 per cent.

“In Brazil currently food inflation has penalised the very poorest, preventing them from having adequate access to food and in many situations leading to hunger,” she said, adding that rising unemployment and the curtailment of social programmes were also contributing factors.

Volunteers hand out food in São Paulo © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Less than half of Brazil’s population of 212m now has access to adequate food all the time, with 19m people, or 9 per cent of its inhabitants, facing hunger, according to a recent report by Segall’s group.

“I’m doing some odd jobs, but it’s not enough to keep us going,” said Jonathan, a 28-year-old who lost his job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in São Paulo when the pandemic began. He said he now struggles to provide enough food for his three young children and pregnant wife.

On a 12-month basis, inflation in June is expected to surpass 8 per cent, far above earlier estimates. In the 12 months to March, food prices jumped 18.5 per cent, while the price of agricultural commodities in local currency surged 55 per cent and the cost of fuel increased almost 92 per cent.

Line chart of Percentage increase over past 12 months showing The price of rice in Brazil is soaring

The developments pose a fresh challenge to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is already under fire for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across Brazil’s biggest cities, graffiti has sprung up labelling the populist leader “Bolsocaro” — a portmanteau of his name and the Portuguese word for expensive.

The rising prices are also likely to provide useful ammunition to leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who returned to the political fray last month and may challenge Bolsonaro in elections next year.

“Bolsonaro is to blame for the increase in food prices, he is to blame for everything. They have to remove this guy,” said Maria Izabel de Jesus, a retiree from São Paulo.

Armando Castelar, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Economics, said the government had underestimated inflation both in terms of the numbers and also “how much a concern it should be”.

He attributed the rising prices to the devaluation of the Brazilian currency, triggered in part by the stimulus packages passed by the US government — which helped to bolster the dollar and led to higher Treasury yields — and the brighter economic outlook outside Latin America.

“You have a situation where commodity prices are going up because the global economy is going to grow a lot this year. With the growth in the US, interest rates are going up and the dollar is strengthening. This puts a lot of pressure on the exchange rate in Brazil and emerging markets in general,” he said.

As the spectre of inflation loomed last month, the Brazilian central bank raised its key interest rate by 75 basis points, higher than the half-percentage point many economists had expected. A further rate rise is expected next month.

“The central bank acted correctly, but it cannot stop there. It is important not to be too lenient in dealing with this,” said Castelar.

Silvia Matos, a co-ordinator at the Brazilian Economy Institute, also pointed to Brazil’s weakening currency as a contributing factor to inflation. But she said the slide in the real was triggered by investor concerns over Brazil’s deteriorating public finances.

Following the creation of two separate stimulus packages to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, government debt has risen to about 90 per cent of gross domestic product, a high level for an emerging market economy.

The rollout of the second of these packages began this month, with 45m Brazilians set to receive $50 a month for four months.

Critics said, however, these stipends were not nearly enough to keep people both fed and at home in lockdown.

“It is essential that the emergency aid is of a greater value, so that people do not leave the house but no one also stays at home starving,” said Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker with the leftwing PSOL party.

“We need to reduce the circulation of the disease. Brazil is already experiencing 4,000 deaths per day. We will reach 500,000 total deaths by the middle of the year.”

Matos says that inflation had hit poorer citizens much harder than middle-class and rich Brazilians because a larger portion of their income was dedicated to food, the price of which has increased substantially.

“The only thing that could help right now is to get out of this pandemic,” she said.

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