AstraZeneca requires its U.S. employees to be vaccinated. – The New York Times

Daily Business Briefing

Aug. 30, 2021, 1:12 p.m. ET

Aug. 30, 2021, 1:12 p.m. ET

A nurse administering the AstraZeneca vaccine to a patient in Sydney, Australia.
Credit…Loren Elliott/Reuters

AstraZeneca has mandated that its U.S.-based employees be vaccinated against the coronavirus if they are returning to the workplace or visiting customers, the company confirmed on Monday.

The drug maker, which has headquarters in Cambridge, England, said the mandate also applied to employees of its Alexion Pharmaceuticals subsidiary, which is based in Boston. Workers can request exemptions for medical, religious or other reasons but will be required to take weekly coronavirus tests.

“To safeguard the health and well-being of our employees and communities, we must follow the science,” an AstraZeneca spokesman said in a statement.

AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine has been authorized for use in 87 countries, according to the company’s website, and 913 million doses have been shipped. The vaccine has not been authorized for use in the United States.

Pfizer, an American competitor based in New York, is requiring all of its U.S. employees and contractors to be vaccinated or participate in weekly Covid-19 testing. Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, both of which have vaccines that are authorized for use in the United States, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Gas pumps at a station in Gulf Hills, Miss., on Friday as residents prepared for Hurricane Ida.
Credit…Hannah Ruhoff/The Sun Herald, via Associated Press

Energy markets swirled on Monday as investors responded to the immediate disruption of Hurricane Ida while also trying to gauge the economic toll of rising hospitalizations in the United States caused by the coronavirus.

Gasoline futures were 2 percent higher, after climbing more than 4 percent when trading started. West Texas Intermediate oil, the United States benchmark, also jumped at first, but then dropped into negative territory and was 0.8 percent lower Monday morning.

Before Hurricane Ida stormed ashore in Louisiana on Sunday, oil and gas companies shut down more than 90 percent of production in the Gulf of Mexico, making this storm the first of the year to significantly disrupt those industries.

Workers were evacuated from nearly half of the area’s staffed production platforms, federal officials said on Saturday. BP, Chevron, Phillips and Shell were among the companies that closed facilities.

The disruption could affect gasoline prices throughout the region ahead of Labor Day, traditionally one of the year’s high-demand peaks.

“It’s a little speculative to say yet what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be an event,” said Tom Kloza, the global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service. “This could lead to a mini-price spike.”

Analysts at ING said the timing of oil industry’s recovery from the storm could affect prices.

“The big question is, which will make a quicker return — offshore oil production or refining capacity?” the analysts said in a note. “If it is the former, we could start to see a buildup of crude oil inventories,” which could weigh on prices.

Oil prices have slowly recovered from their pandemic depths as economies around the globe reopen from lockdowns and energy demand climbs. But the rise in coronavirus cases caused by the highly contagious Delta variant has threatened an already shaky revival, and the shutdown of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico could further hamper recovery.

The daily average for hospitalized Covid-19 patients in the United States is now more than 100,000, reaching a level not seen since last winter, before most Americans were vaccinated. The European Union is expected on Monday to recommend that member states reimpose travel restrictions on Americans wishing to travel to Europe.

Power companies in southern Louisiana are bracing for significant outages. Cleco and Entergy, two major providers in the New Orleans metro area, said they anticipated widespread flooding and had called up thousands of additional workers and contractors. Entergy warned that customers in the hardest-hit areas “could experience power outages for weeks.”

Lina Khan, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission.
Credit…Pool photo by Graeme Jennings

The chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina M. Khan, said the agency would try to reduce prices at the pump by seeking more ways to crack down on mergers in the retail gasoline industry.

In a letter to the head of President Biden’s National Economic Council, Brian Deese, dated last week and obtained by The New York Times, Ms. Khan said she was concerned that “the commission’s approach to merger review in recent years has enabled significant consolidation, particularly when it comes to retail fuel outlets.” She added that approach might be “creating conditions ripe for price coordination and other collusive practices” by gasoline vendors nationwide.

The crackdown comes amid rising oil and gasoline prices as the economy reopens and demand for fuel jumps.

Ms. Khan is one of several antitrust crusaders whom Mr. Biden has appointed to top federal jobs as he seeks to install aggressive policies meant to promote competition in the economy. She was responding in her letter to an inquiry earlier this month from Mr. Deese, who asked the F.T.C. to “consider using all of its available tools to monitor the U.S. gasoline market and address any illegal conduct that might be contributing to price increases for consumers.”

Ms. Khan said the commission would increase its enforcement efforts in three ways:

  • She will ask F.T.C. staff to “identify additional legal theories to challenge retail fuel station mergers where dominant players are buying up family-run businesses,” a move taking aim at national chains.

  • She said the commission was already taking new steps to deter proposals of illegal mergers.

  • She said the commission will investigate potential abuses in the franchise market, including whether national chains are able to force franchisees to sell gasoline at higher prices, “benefiting the chain at the expense of the franchisee’s convenience store operations.”

Facebook introduced a service this month called Workrooms, a virtual meeting room.
Credit…Facebook/Via Reuters

Facebook’s virtual reality service Horizon Workrooms, announced this month, will allow users to don a virtual reality headset, create an avatar and sit among colleagues in computer-generated corporate settings.

It’s not the only company betting on enterprise VR. You can host virtual fireside chats (using Roomkey), navigate through a gamified office space (on Gather), or put on an entire virtual expo event (on MootUp).

The research firm ARtillery Intelligence expects the sector to be worth about $4 billion in 2023. But not all experts are convinced that meetings in the “metaverse” will catch on quickly, according to the DealBook newsletter. Here are three reasons they gave:

  • Content is king, even in virtual reality. Florian Couret, the head of the immersive lab at the property broker BNP Paribas Real Estate, used VR headsets to hold some meetings with colleagues across five European countries last year. But the experiment petered out. “You can have the best tools in the world to meet in virtual reality, but if the content is not interesting, nobody cares,” he said.

  • Employee resistance will be a major obstacle, said Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Gamers might already be living in the metaverse, but workers are creatures of habit, he said. Virtual reality may be too “far afield from our regular forms of interaction” to make it into the workplace anytime soon, Mr. West said.

  • Better broadband infrastructure is needed. “Connectivity is actually still a big challenge,” Mr. West said. If companies want realistic virtual office spaces, they, and tech companies, are going to have to invest a lot more money in infrastructure, he added.

Despite the hurdles, some industries are already embracing the technology. Alexandros Sigaras, an assistant professor of research at Weill Cornell Medicine, said mixed-reality headsets were piloted in I.C.U.s during the pandemic to bring additional expertise into the room without risking exposure to the virus. He regularly hosts meetings in VR and believes there’s potential for the technology in all types of workplaces.

The Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes faces allegations that she defrauded investors, doctors and patients.
Credit…Kate Munsch/Reuters
  • Consumer confidence: The Conference Board is set to report its consumer confidence index for August. Consumer’s optimism could ebb after mostly unchanged results from the month before as the Delta variant continued to spread in August. Another measure of consumer attitudes, the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index, showed a sharp decline in August.

  • Elizabeth Holmes jury selection: Jury selection begins for the trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of the blood-testing start up Theranos, which will be held in San Jose, Calif. Ms. Holmes, who could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted, has pleaded not guilty to allegations that she defrauded investors, doctors and patients.

  • OPEC+ meeting: The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies are expected to meet after the cartel agreed in July to increase production by 400,000 barrels a day each month beginning in August. Analysts expect the coalition to ratify that schedule amid concerns that the Delta variant could threaten the global economic recovery.

  • Campbell earnings: The maker of Campbell’s Soup, Prego pasta sauce and Swanson broth is set to report its financial performance for the quarter ending Aug. 1. Will inflationary pressures and increasing supply chain bottlenecks affect the company’s bottom line?

  • Jobs report: The Labor Department is expected to release its monthly jobs report for August after reporting the biggest monthly gain in hiring in nearly a year for July. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect to see an increase of 750,000 positions, but they’ll be looking to see if the rapid pace of hiring remains or if the sustained outbreak of the Delta variant hampered industries trying to regain their footing.

Gary Gensler, the chair of the Securities Exchange Commission, has made stricter regulation of SPACs a priority.
Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

When 49 major national law firms that often compete with each other banded together on Friday to condemn lawsuits targeting special purpose acquisition companies, the financial world took notice, the DealBook newsletter reports.

The financial vehicles known as SPACs have recently come under attack in prominent shareholder suits that challenge their fundamental structure, starting with an action against the $4 billion blank-check firm run by the billionaire investor William Ackman, which forced him to rethink his approach.

While SPACs seek a merger target, they park their funds in short-term investments like Treasury bills. The lawsuits say that these financial vehicles aren’t operating companies but investment funds, so they should be subject to the stricter oversight of the Investment Act of 1940 (which would dampen the freewheeling SPAC market).

Two prominent securities law professors, John Morley of Yale and Robert Jackson, the former commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission who is now at N.Y.U. Law, were behind the suits. After suing Mr. Ackman, the professors sued two other SPACs.

Kirkland & Ellis, one of the top legal advisers to SPACs, helped to organize other firms to issue the statement, which said the lawsuits were “without factual or legal basis.” Some who signed on, like Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, have comparatively little involvement with SPACs. They are protesting on principle, organizers said.

“The market has already driven some reform,” said Christian Nagler of Kirkland & Ellis. “Otherwise it should be done by proposing rules and laws, not by lawsuits.”

The firms also wanted to push back against attention drawn to the suits by the reputations of Mr. Morley and Mr. Jackson. “We really needed something powerful to take away that P.R. narrative,” said Joel Rubinstein of White & Case.

Of course, the law firms defending SPACs are protecting millions of dollars in legal fees, as well as principles. As for the motivations of Mr. Morley and Mr. Jackson in bringing these cases? The professors declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

The S.E.C. has reviewed more than 1,000 SPAC I.P.O.s over two decades and never made a demand that the vehicles be registered under the Investment Company Act of 1940, the law firms’ letter noted.

That said, SPACs were “a sleepy backwater for 18 years and a boomtown for the last 18 months,” said William Birdthistle, an Investment Act specialist at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. Just because the S.E.C. did things one way before doesn’t mean it will continue to do so, especially under the tough-talking leadership of Gary Gensler.

The S.E.C. could opt to file briefs in the lawsuits, though that would only fuel more rumors about what is driving the litigation. The S.E.C. did not respond to a request for comment.

Credit…Thomas Fuchs

New mobile money apps are promoting themselves as part of the solution to a stubborn problem: a lack of financial savvy, particularly among young Americans.

The apps offer slick educational videos and tools while enabling children and teenagers to save and spend and even invest in stocks, Ann Carrns writes for The New York Times. And they’ve caught the attention of researchers and financial advisers who say the tools may help engage and enlighten young users, even as they worry that the apps, without close parental involvement, may encourage bad financial behavior.

Numerous reports have noted that financial literacy in the United States has resisted improvement for some time, even though more states have begun requiring schools to teach it.

Financial technology, or “fintech,” start-ups see the apps as a way to sign up customers early by offering personal finance instruction along with spending and saving tools.

Here are some notable apps:

  • Copper bills itself as “the only bank that teaches teens about money,” and offers brief, peppy videos and a financial literacy quiz that teenagers or their parents can take.

  • Step, an app for teenagers, offers a secured credit card, which can be used to make a deposit that serves as collateral; users can spend up to the amount of the deposit, and build credit when using it.

  • Greenlight began as a tool to help parents manage children’s chores and pay them an allowance. It has added features including cash back on its debit card, and an option that lets children invest through a brokerage account opened in a parent’s name.

Amazon and Affirm are testing a monthly payment option that will be open to more customers in the coming months, Affirm said on Friday.
Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Amazon customers will soon have another payment option at checkout.

Affirm, a so-called buy now, pay later payment provider that allows customers to pay for their purchases in installments, said on Friday that it had reached a deal with the online retail giant.

Affirm said Amazon customers would be able to use its service on purchases of $50 or more — including items like furniture, home goods, electronics and fashion — and pay in monthly installments. Once approved, customers will be able to see the total purchase price upfront — and they won’t be charged any late or hidden fees, the company said.

The service is being tested with select customers now, Affirm said, and will become more broadly available to shoppers in the coming months. Certain purchases, including those from Whole Foods Market, Amazon Fresh and certain digital purchases like movies and books, will not be eligible, according to Affirm.

“Amazon is always looking to add flexible payment options,” an Amazon spokeswoman said, “and Affirm does just that by offering transparent pay-over-time solutions that customers can choose based on their needs.”

Buy now, pay later services have become an increasingly popular option among consumers. And the partnership follows another giant deal last month: Square, the payments firm run by the Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, agreed to acquire Afterpay for $29 billion. That deal will open the installment option to millions of small business that process their credit card transactions through Square’s app.

Affirm — whose shares rocketed more than 30 percent in after-hours trading — has already become partners with 12,000 merchants, including Walmart and Peloton. Peloton accounted for 30 percent of the company’s total revenues in the first fiscal quarter of 2021, according to an August research report from FT Partners, an investment banking firm focused on financial technology. That was up from 14 percent in the same quarter a year earlier.

Amazon’s partnership with Affirm is its first with a buy now, pay later provider in the United States; it works with Zip in Australia, where these options are already more established. Amazon had already provided monthly payment plan options on its own for select customers buying certain products. It also offered installment programs for customers with the Amazon.com Store Card, the Amazon Rewards Visa Card, and eligible Citi credit card members.

  • U.S. stocks edged higher in midday trading on Monday after reaching a record last week. The S&P 500 was up 0.6 percent, while the Nasdaq composite was up 0.9 percent.

  • Oil prices were volatile as investors responded to Hurricane Ida, which led to a shutdown of more than 90 percent of production in the Gulf of Mexico, making this storm the first of the year to significantly disrupt those industries. Futures for West Texas Intermediate crude, the United States benchmark, were up 0.4 percent to $69 a barrel.

  • European stock indexes fluctuated, with the Stoxx Europe 600 flat on Monday.

  • Shares of Affirm were more than 44 percent higher in midday trading after the buy now, pay later payment provider announced on Friday it had reached a deal with Amazon, allowing customers to pay for their purchases in installments. Amazon was up 2.4 percent.

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AstraZeneca requires its U.S. employees to be vaccinated. – The New York Times

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