Several retail stockbrokers, including Robinhood, said they would allow trades of GameStop and other volatile companies after restricting customers’ ability to purchase securities earlier in the day.
“Starting tomorrow, we plan to allow limited buys of these securities,” Robinhood, a popular trading app, said. “We’ll continue to monitor the situation and may make adjustments as needed.”
Robinhood, which has attracted millions of millennials to trade on its platform by eliminating trading fees and making stock trading easy, had said Thursday morning that it would limit buying of the kinds of securities that have sparked an enormous rally in shares of GameStop, the video game retailer at the heart of the frenzy, and AMC Entertainment Holdings, the movie theater chain, and a number of other companies. The decision quickly drew fire.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, called Robinhood’s move “unacceptable.”
“We now need to know more about Robinhood’s decision to block retail investors from purchasing stock while hedge funds are freely able to trade the stock as they see fit,” she wrote on Twitter. “As a member of the Financial Services Committee, I’d support a hearing if necessary.”
Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who often is a foil of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and who helped lead the push against certification of the presidential election results, replied: “Fully agree.”
Customers flooded Google’s Play Store with angry, one-star reviews about the restrictions, tanking its average rating to 1 star out of 5.
“Manipulating the market in favour of Wall St. Completely undemocratic, the exact opposite of their motto,” wrote one reviewer. “Well, steal from the rich and give to the poor, unless you try to take from the rich directly, in which case the app won’t work anymore. Enjoy your hypocrisy,” wrote another user.
In its update on Thursday afternoon, Robinhood defended itself against accusations of favoring big traders, saying it had made the decision to limit trades because of “financial requirements, including SEC net capital obligations and clearinghouse deposits.”
“To be clear, this was a risk-management decision, and was not made on the direction of the market makers we route to,” the company said.
Just over a dozen men protested outside Robinhood’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on Thursday afternoon, displaying their anger at the broker’s decision earlier in the day to restrict purchases of GameStop stock.
“They call themselves Robinhood, but they’re helping the wealthy take money back from the middle class,” said Kurt Songer, 24, a Menlo Park resident who was holding a sign that said, “Free GME. People > Profit.”
Passing cars honked in support, and an ambulance sounded its siren as the man inside gave a thumbs-up.
“I feel betrayed,” said another protester, Alex Jansen, a software engineer. “I think that they lied about their mission.”
Mr. Jansen, 29, said he had spent the equivalent of a year’s salary on GameStop shares and had watched his money quadruple. He assumed he had lost most of that when the stock price dropped Thursday, but he does not plan to sell.
“The little people are rising up, and we know what’s going on,” he said.
The men were vocalizing the online outrage that exploded after Robinhood, which has attracted millions of millennials to its platform by making stock trading easy and eliminating fees, said it would limit the buying of the kinds of securities that catalyzed an enormous rally in the shares of several companies. GameStop, the video game retailer, was at the heart of the frenzy, which also included AMC Entertainment Holdings, the movie theater chain.
Robinhood said Thursday afternoon that it would allow some trading to resume on Friday, and that the halt had been “a risk-management decision” based on financial requirements.
Travis Shetler, a college student in Meadville, Pa., who said he had bought shares of GameStop and Nokia in recent days, said in a phone interview that he felt Robinhood had abandoned the democratic ideals that drew him to the platform.
“It seems like a breach of trust and like they’re simply pandering to the top few percent of traders,” Mr. Shetler, 21, said. “They’re sending a message that the minute the people at the top start losing money, then we’re going to do whatever it takes to get them their money back, even if that means unfairly manipulating the markets at the expense of the average Joe.”
The California Legislature voted Thursday to bring a measure of security to renters hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The bill allocates billions of dollars of federal pandemic relief to help tenants pay their back rent.
“The state’s housing crisis wasn’t created by Covid, and this bill alone certainly doesn’t solve it,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “While we’ve got to recommit to housing affordability more broadly, this bill protects against the worst economic impacts of the pandemic in a balanced and equitable way.”
The vote came as other states as well as the federal government have moved to provide relief to tenants. President Biden, in one of his administration’s first acts, added two months to a federal eviction moratorium that was due to expire at the end of January. Meantime, state legislatures and city councils are beginning to deploy $25 billion in rental assistance from a $900 billion federal stimulus package passed late last year.
The California deal, approved overwhelmingly, extends state eviction protections that were to expire this month. They will now stay in effect through June. The bill also allocates up to $2.6 billion in federal money to clear some tenants’ debts.
Under the legislation, the state will pay 80 percent of back rent owned by tenants who fell behind because of the pandemic and who make no more than 80 percent of their area’s median income — but only if the landlord agrees to forgive the remaining 20 percent.
Tenants whose landlords won’t accept the deal can apply for state assistance that would cover 25 percent of their unpaid rent and utility bills back to April 2020. Tenants are also able to apply for assistance on up to 25 percent of their rent between April and June of this year.
More change is coming to the television news business.
James Goldston, the president of ABC News, said on Thursday that he would leave the network at the end of March. His exit comes weeks after Phil Griffin, the longtime president of MSNBC, announced his own departure, and as CNN’s president, Jeffrey A. Zucker, is deciding whether to remain in his role.
No successor for Mr. Goldston has been announced. ABC News said it had begun a search for his replacement, which will be led by Peter Rice, the powerful Walt Disney Company executive whose portfolio includes ABC.
TV news underwent a revival — in ratings and influence — under the Trump administration, and Mr. Goldston, who became president of ABC News in 2014, oversaw a nightly newscast, hosted by David Muir, that regularly beat the competition. Last year, ABC’s “World News Tonight” routinely ranked among the highest rated telecasts in all of broadcast and cable television, beating many entertainment and reality shows.
NBC News, one of ABC’s chief rivals, is adjusting to its own executive shifts. Mr. Griffin is leaving MSNBC on Feb. 1, with Rashida Jones, who supervised news programming in various roles at MSNBC and NBC News, set to replace him. The chairman of NBC News, Andrew Lack, exited the network last year; Cesar Conde, who ran NBCUniversal’s Spanish-language network Telemundo, now oversees the network’s news divisions.
Mr. Zucker of CNN, whose contract extends through this year, is likely to announce a final decision about his role soon, people briefed on his thinking have said. He has been weighing whether to exit the 24-hour news channel after tension with his new boss, Jason Kilar, the chief executive of WarnerMedia.
But there are some signs that Mr. Zucker may stick around longer. CNN is in the midst of a record ratings streak and has dominated cable news since Election Day, pulling its biggest viewership in its history. And Mr. Kilar, after holding meetings with key CNN anchors and executives, has effusively praised Mr. Zucker in interviews.
American Airlines said it was working to rebook customers after a regional subsidiary grounded much of its fleet for inspections.
The wholly owned subsidiary, PSA Airlines, took most of its 130 planes out of service to complete what American described in a statement as a “necessary, standard inspection” of nuts and bolts on the nose gear of the affected aircraft. PSA flies two types of planes, both manufactured by Bombardier.
PSA had canceled more than 200 flights as of early Thursday night, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking website. The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed the grounding in a statement, saying that the airline “voluntarily disclosed the matter” to the agency.
“We are working with PSA and the F.A.A. to immediately address the issue,” American said in the statement. “We are working with our customers to arrange new accommodations on other flights, and we are working to return the impacted aircraft to service.”
American has nearly 900 planes in its fleet, not including those operated by subsidiaries like PSA, which is based in Dayton, Ohio. Many of those planes have been sidelined as the coronavirus pandemic stifles demand for flights. On Wednesday, just over 530,000 people were screened at federal airport security checkpoints, roughly 30 percent of the traffic on the same day last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
News of the PSA groundings came on a busy day for American, which reported its full-year financial results Thursday. The airline’s stock also soared early in the day as the carrier found itself in the middle of a war of wills involving amateur and professional traders.
GameStop’s roller coaster continued Thursday, with shares in the company rallying late in the day after the stock-trading app Robinhood said it would allow its customers to resume trading on the company.
The stock, which had ended the regular trading session down 44 percent, rose 34 percent in after hours trading. The drop earlier in the day had come as Robinhood and other trading platforms said they would limit the ability to buy certain securities.
It’s the latest turn in a week of wild trading in shares of GameStop and other companies that have been bid up in a frenzy of activity by small investors. These include AMC Entertainment, which rose 22 percent in after-hours trading, also after having suffered a steep loss earlier, and BlackBerry, which was up about 8 percent after dropping 41 percent.
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“Starting tomorrow, we plan to allow limited buys of these securities. We’ll continue to monitor the situation and may make adjustments as needed,” Robinhood said in blog post on Thursday afternoon, as it explained why it had put limits on trading — like allowing its users only to sell shares — earlier in the day.
“To be clear, this was a risk-management decision, and was not made on the direction of the market makers we route to,” the company said, referring to the large trading firms who pay Robinhood for the app’s business.
Other brokerage firms have also limited trading of some of the same stocks.
The run on GameStop this month — the stock had surged 1,700 percent through Wednesday, giving the company an astonishing market valuation of $24 billion — means it has become detached from the factors that traditionally help establish a company’s value to investors, like growth potential or profits.
But the traders who piled in were part of a frenzy that originated on a Reddit message board, WallStreetBets, a community known for irreverent market discussions, and on messaging platforms like Discord.
Egged on by the message boards, these traders had rushed to buy options contracts that would profit from a rise in the share price. That trading can create a feedback loop that drives the underlying share prices higher, as brokerage firms that sell the options have to buy shares as a hedge.
That spike has hit hedge funds that had been betting against the stock. Those funds have closed out the so-called short positions at sometimes big losses. It has also raised scrutiny of the trading platforms, with the Securities and Exchange Commission saying Wednesday it was “actively monitoring” the volatile trading.
Facebook is working on newsletter tools for journalists and writers, according to three people familiar with the company’s plans, a move toward offering more services to independent writers as the social network jumps into the fast-growing newsletter space.
The product, which is still in its earliest stages, could be similar to those of other newsletter companies, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so publicly. That could include features to help writers build their followers on Facebook and curate their email lists, the people said, as well as paid subscription tools to help journalists make money from their newsletters.
The effort would be part of the Facebook Journalism Project, which is managed in New York, the people said. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, is supportive of the initiative, said the people, and has encouraged a team of dozens of engineers to pursue it.
Newsletters are booming, as publishers and start-ups seek new ways to attract and support independent writers. Substack, a start-up founded in 2017, has attracted a growing audience with software that allows writers to publish and distribute both free and paid emailed newsletters to their followers. In return, the company receives a nominal cut of the writer’s subscription sales. Earlier this week, Twitter announced it had purchased Revue, another newsletter software service.
“We want to do more to support the independent journalists and experts who are building businesses and audiences online,” said Campbell Brown, vice president for global news partnerships at Facebook. “We’re exploring ways to help them benefit from the news products we’ve built, like Facebook News and subscriptions, while also building new tools to complement what journalists already find useful.”
The newsletter project is part of Facebook’s plan to provide more legitimate news sources. The company has spent the past few years building up the News Tab, a specific destination inside of the Facebook app that displays stories from publishers like The Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. It has also pledged to donate more than $100 million to publishers, an effort to rejuvenate the ailing local news industry.
Facebook executives believe that while they have improved relations with major publishers, the company had not yet developed a way to court individual writers to publishing their work on Facebook. Mr. Zuckerberg noticed the growing trend of independent journalists monetizing their work through newsletter services, and urged the team to make the project a priority.
It is unclear when the product will see the light of day, though executives hope to release it by this summer.
Kevin Roose contributed reporting.
More than a decade ago, the billionaire family that controlled the sports car maker Porsche clashed with a group of prominent American hedge funds in a struggle for power and riches that in some ways foreshadowed the wild trading in GameStop. Volkswagen shares briefly soared to heights far beyond what the company was worth. It all ended badly for the hedge funds.
In 2008, Porsche Holding, the family company that owned the automaker, made an audacious bid for control of Volkswagen. The Porsche family and Volkswagen had been closely intertwined ever since Ferdinand Porsche, the family patriarch, designed the Beetle for Adolf Hitler. But the family never had formal ownership of Volkswagen, and Ferdinand Porsche’s descendants wanted to reclaim what they saw as the family legacy.
At the time, Porsche, the carmaker, was small but highly profitable while Volkswagen, the biggest automaker in Europe, was out of favor with investors. Porsche Holding used derivatives to get control of a majority of Volkswagen shares, which were relatively cheap, without owning them outright.
For a while, the plan seemed to be working. But then the collapse of Lehman Bros. in September 2008 threw financial markets into turmoil. Volkswagen shares plunged, generating billions of euros in losses for Porsche Holding, according to later court testimony.
Hedge funds, including Elliott Management, smelled an opportunity. They began betting that Volkswagen shares would fall further, hoping to profit from Porsche Holding’s distress.
The battle reached a climax in late October 2008. Porsche Holding issued a statement that hedge funds later contended created the false impression that almost all of Volkswagen’s voting shares were locked up and implied that few shares were left for the hedge funds to cover their bets, exposing them to huge losses.
In fact, according to later court testimony, Porsche Holding was almost out of money.
In the panic buying that followed, Volkswagen shares rose so much that it was briefly the most valuable company in the world. It was a “short squeeze” much like the one investors on Reddit created for GameStop shares.
The October statement rescued Porsche’s takeover bid, allowing the family company to acquire majority voting rights in Volkswagen. Porsche is now a unit of the larger company.
The hedge funds lost billions of euros and sued Porsche Holding, saying the statement was an illegal attempt to manipulate the shares. Porsche Holding denied wrongdoing and maintained it was never in financial trouble.
German prosecutors agreed with the hedge funds and pursued criminal charges against two top Porsche executives, but they were acquitted. Lawsuits related to the 2008 episode are still crawling through German courts.
American Airlines’ share price jumped on Thursday as small investors who have roiled other stocks in recent days turned their attention to the struggling airline.
The company’s stock was up as much as 30 percent at one point before giving up most of those gains and ending the day up more than 9 percent. The airline also reported financial results for 2020 on Thursday, saying it lost nearly $8.9 billion last year.
On the social media site Reddit, traders on the Wall Street Bets page, a community known for irreverent market discussions, have caused shares in other troubled companies, such as GameStop and AMC, to surge in recent days as they sought to take on some of Wall Street’s most sophisticated investors. In one post on Wednesday night, a Reddit user suggested American should be next because many professional investors had bet against its stock.
On a call with analysts and reporters on Thursday, American’s chief executive, Doug Parker, said the airline would not comment on the stock activity.
“Before I begin my prepared remarks, I want to pre-emptively state that we will not be commenting nor answering questions on the recent activity in our stock price,” Mr. Parker said. “As a rule, we don’t speculate on the day-to-day movements in our stock price and we’re going to stick to that rule today.”
The Reddit traders have focused on companies that are the focus of short sales, a maneuver investors use to bet that a company’s share price will fall.
American is the most shorted U.S. airline, with short sales accounting for about 23 percent of its total shares, according to S3 Partners, a data firm that tracks such trading. (JetBlue is second, with just 4.9 percent of shares shorted.) Professional investors consider American to be especially troubled because it entered the coronavirus pandemic with far more debt than Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
If they are right, short sellers can reap handsome profits. But if the stock prices soar, they can run up huge losses. By driving up the price of stocks that have been heavily shorted, small investors coordinating on Reddit, Discord and other online platforms have squeezed professional investors and forced some to give up their short trades to cut their losses.
By midday, Robinhood, the trading service popular with amateur investors, said it had restricted trading of certain company stocks, including American, GameStop, AMC and Best Buy, angering some of its users. On Twitter, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, called the move “unacceptable.”
The S&P 500 rose 1 percent a day after the index had its biggest daily decline since October.
The gains came after data showed that the U.S. economic recovery continued, albeit at a slower pace, in the fourth quarter. Though gross domestic product ended 2020 down 2.5 percent from a year earlier, the rebound has been significantly stronger than most forecasters expected last spring.
Still, investors are facing a host of concerns, which has increased volatility. There is uncertainty about whether the market can sustain its relentless rise of recent months, and whether asset bubbles are starting to form. They are also worried about whether the Biden administration will be able to quickly pass an ambitious stimulus spending program or be forced to pare it back to get a bill through a Senate without a solid Democratic majority. And investors are watching the pace of the coronavirus vaccine rollout, wary of delays that could push back the economic recovery around the world.
“The assumption was by the time we got to midyear we were fully back to normal and that’s being questioned,” said Karen Ward, a strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management.
“The whole timeline of vaccine rollout and that point of normality is going back a few months,” she added. “The markets are pretty comfortable waiting as long as they know that the economic cost that’s incurred in the interim is absorbed by governments.”
Unease also stemmed from the shocking run-up in shares of companies with big brand names but uncertain prospects, like GameStop, the video game retailer; AMC, the movie theater chain; and BlackBerry, once the maker of hand-held devices that no financial professional would leave the office without. The surge in those shares pointed to frothy conditions in financial markets, suggesting a bunch of amateurs investors could take the reins and force steep losses on established hedge funds.
The Stoxx Europe 600 rose 0.1 percent.
The FTSE 100 in Britain fell 0.6 percent, the DAX in Germany rose 0.3 percent, and the CAC 40 in France rose 0.9 percent.
In Japan, the Nikkei 225 index tumbled 1.5 percent.
China-related stocks also suffered. The Shanghai Composite Index fell 1.9 percent, while Hong Kong shares were down 2.6 percent.
Consumer spending, the most important engine of the U.S. economy, slowed considerably in the fourth quarter of last year. But the Commerce Department report on gross domestic product shows that while the economic damage from the latest wave of the virus was severe, it was relatively contained.
Spending on services rose less than 1 percent in the final quarter of the year, down from 8 percent in the third quarter, as the surge in coronavirus cases led states and cities to impose restrictions on businesses and caused consumers to pass up restaurant meals, in-store shopping and other interactions.
But sectors less exposed to the direct effects of the pandemic didn’t experience as severe a slowdown.
“It’s worth emphasizing how much other sectors of the economy really kicked in to offset the softening in consumption,” said Robert Rosener, senior U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley.
Housing has been a particular bright spot, fueled in part by rock-bottom interest rates. Residential fixed investment, which includes home construction and renovations, rose 7.5 percent in the fourth quarter.
Spending on goods has been strong during the pandemic, as consumers cooked at home and replaced gym memberships with Peloton bikes. Goods spending fell slightly in the fourth quarter, but remained well above pre-pandemic levels.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign in the data released Thursday was the 3.3 percent growth in business investment. It suggests that companies had to scramble to meet demand that was stronger than they anticipated — or that they are getting ready for a strong rebound in sales later this year.
Constance L. Hunter, chief economist at the accounting firm KPMG, said investments made during the pandemic could pay long-term dividends, both for individual companies and for the broader economy, in the form of increased productivity.
“One thing we can say about Covid is it jolted us into a need to adopt technology, and in particular digital technology,” she said.
New claims for unemployment fell last week, the government reported on Thursday, but the elevated levels are fueling worries about prolonged damage inflicted on the labor market by the pandemic and the slow rollout of vaccines.
A total of 873,966 workers filed first-time claims for state unemployment benefits for the week that ended Jan. 23, the Labor Department said, while an additional 426,856 new claims were filed under a federal pandemic jobless program that covers freelancers, part-time workers and others normally ineligible for state jobless benefits. Neither figure is seasonally adjusted. On a seasonally adjusted basis, new state claims totaled 847,000.
The figures for newly filed claims are below the staggering levels of last spring, when the coronavirus started its march across the map, but they continue to dwarf previous records.
The impact of the virus on the service sector, particularly leisure and hospitality, is extracting the heaviest toll. “We need the service sector to come back for the economy more broadly to come back,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.
Although the Conference Board reported on Tuesday that consumer confidence edged up in January, views of the labor market’s current health dropped. The percentage of respondents saying jobs are “plentiful” declined, and the share saying that “jobs are hard to get” rose.
“Everything goes back to the health crisis,” Ms. Farooqi said, “Once you get most of the population vaccinated, that’s a completely different picture.”
The number of people applying for extended state benefits — which only kick in after jobless workers have exhausted their regular allotment of unemployment insurance — also rose above 1.5 million for the week that ended Jan. 9, up about 100,000 from the week before.
“The longer people are unemployed, the harder it is to get back into the work force,” said Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics. “The longer this continues, the more there is a heightened risk of medium-term scarring.”
The $900 billion pandemic relief bill signed into law last month has provided a bridge of support, but provisions specifically extending relief to jobless workers are scheduled to expire in mid-March.
President Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion emergency relief package that includes a $400 weekly unemployment insurance supplement, although Republicans and a handful of Democratic lawmakers have balked at the cost of the overall proposal.
Job recruiters are accustomed to seeing a pattern in late January: When the holiday crush and seasonal gigs end, job-hunting surges. But not this year.
The demand is there, but many of the job seekers aren’t, said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with the hiring site ZipRecruiter.
“In our marketplace over the past three weeks, employer activity has been completely exuberant, it has surpassed our forecasts,” Ms. Pollak said. But the ranks of “job seekers are way, way, way lower than usual.”
Some have argued that generous jobless benefits are discouraging people from working. But Ms. Pollak disagrees, saying the main reason for the low number of applications is the continuing fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Many people who should be looking for jobs aren’t even eligible for benefits, like millions of women who left the labor market for child care,” she said. And some are staying home because of other family responsibilities, or out of concern about getting sick if they re-enter the work force, particularly with the arrival of a more infectious coronavirus strain, she said.
Ernie Tedeschi, an economist and head of fiscal analysis at Evercore ISI, described the labor market as “treading water right now.”
The pandemic and the cold winter months in parts of the country continue to hobble the economy’s recovery, he said, and vaccine distribution has been too slow to have much effect.
At ZipRecruiter, the strongest demand for jobs can be found in delivery services, e-commerce, big-box and grocery stores and warehouse clubs as well as tax preparation, mortgage origination and home building.
Industries like hospitality, leisure, travel and others that involve face-to-face contact have incurred the biggest job losses, but in one way that lopsidedness is reassuring, Mr. Tedeschi said. Those are businesses that one would expect to be down because of the pandemic. It would be more worrying if the weakness had spread throughout the labor market, a sign of longer-term scarring in the economy, he said.
American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways reported steep annual losses on Thursday, joining industry peers in closing the books on a merciless year for aviation.
American lost nearly $8.9 billion in 2020, which its chief executive, Doug Parker, described as “the most challenging year in our company’s history.” JetBlue shed almost $1.4 billion and Southwest nearly $3.1 billion, its first annual loss since 1972.
“The Covid-19 pandemic challenged our industry in ways we have never seen before,” Robin Hayes, JetBlue’s chief executive, said in a statement.
The airline industry’s hopes now rest on the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine, but none of the airlines expect a rebound to materialize soon. In fact, Southwest expects to incur higher daily losses in January and February than it did in the final three months of 2020 because of a seasonal decline in travel and the rising cost of fuel.
Southwest said it also expected revenues to be down between 65 and 70 percent in January and February compared to a year earlier. American said it expected revenues to be down 60 to 65 percent in the first three months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2019. JetBlue forecast a similar decline.
Operating revenues for 2020 were down about 63 percent for Southwest and 65 percent for both American and JetBlue compared to 2019. Southwest said it ended the year with about $13.3 billion in easily accessible cash and short-term investments, while American had nearly $14.3 billion and JetBlue about $3.1 billion.
Southwest also said that it expects to start flying Boeing’s 737 Max on March 11, just over two years after the plane was grounded worldwide following two fatal crashes. The Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on the jet in November and has since been followed by regulators in Brazil, Canada and Europe.
The trio of financial results on Thursday came a day after Boeing reported a $11.9 billion loss in 2020, its worst year ever. Earlier this month, United Airlines reported a $7 billion annual loss and Delta Air Lines a loss of over $12 billion. At the time, Delta’s chief executive called 2020 the “toughest year” in the carrier’s history, and United’s chief executive said the pandemic had “changed United Airlines forever.”
Many companies announced across-the-board halts in donations via political action committees after the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. These pauses were mostly meant to be temporary, so intense internal debates are now taking place across corporate America about what to do as the self-imposed deadlines approach.
Companies are separating into three main camps:
Impose targeted bans. After reviewing their policies, some companies said they would suspend giving only to the 147 Republican members of Congress who objected to certifying the election results. That’s what Walmart and Google have done.
Stop all political donations. The brokerage firm Charles Schwab decided to close its PAC, concluding that “a clear and apolitical position is in the best interest of our clients, employees, stockholders and the communities in which we operate.”
Pause then restart. Many companies that paused all giving have yet to announce what happens next, and one possibility is that they simply go back to what they were doing before. “If they’re doing it hoping this issue goes away, I think that’s not very smart,” said Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council.
Companies that have yet to say what they’ll do after an initial pause in all giving include Microsoft, which set a Feb. 15 deadline to decide; American Airlines, which is taking a three-month break; BP, which is pausing for six months; and Hilton, which said it was halting all giving “indefinitely.”
Corporate advisers, lobbyists and executives say that employees are often the ones exerting the greatest pressure on directors as they consider their options. Democratic officials are criticizing businesses for “both sides-ism” and privately threatening to limit access to policymakers for companies that paused all donations. But Democratic control of Congress is narrow, and Republicans can still press their case for relevance.
Several companies are discussing governance changes and greater transparency around the actions of their corporate PACs. But consider this: Microsoft paused its PAC for a few months in 2019 in response to employee pressure, eventually making changes like adding an employee advisory council and monthly reporting on donations. It is now rethinking its approach (again) after the election challenges and storming of the Capitol.
“You spend your evenings going to these dinners, and the reason you go is because the PAC writes a check,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said in recent remarks about the political donations, referring to the work of the company’s government affairs team. But out of that effort, he added, a relationship with lawmakers “evolves and emerges and solidifies.”
Peacock, Comcast’s ad-supported streaming service, grabbed over 33 million customers as of the end of last year, a 50 percent jump from September, the company reported in its fourth-quarter results Thursday.
The company overall saw a 2.4 percent drop in sales to $27.7 billion and a 29 percent plummet in adjusted profit to $2.6 billion as the pandemic continued to cut into its theatrical and theme parks businesses. Still, Comcast’s performance beat investor’s expectations. Brian Roberts, the chief executive, said he is “optimistic” the company will come back toward growth as vaccines are distributed throughout the world.
Comcast also announced it would raise its dividend payments to shareholders by 8 cents on an annualized basis to $1 per share and plans to repurchase shares later in the year. The stock rose 6.5 percent on Thursday.
Comcast has recast itself as more of an internet and technology provider than a television service, and its focus on Peacock is part of that effort. The company’s quarterly performance has become a regular reminder of that ongoing transformation. Comcast’s traditional pay-TV business lost 248,000 customers in the period, but it added 538,000 broadband subscribers for a total of 30.6 million, a high. Its cable video customers now number only 19.8 million.
The company’s NBCUniversal division, which continues to undergo a massive reorganization, last week announced a deal with WWE to make Peacock its exclusive streaming provider, in effect buying out the WWE Network’s digital TV service. Peacock recently got the rights to “The Office,” a popular show with streaming audiences, and NBCUniversal has bolstered Peacock’s sports lineup, adding the majority of its Premier League games to the platform. Comcast also plans to shut down its NBC Sports Cable network by the end of this year and shunt its programming over to Peacock and the USA Network.
Peacock generated more than $100 million in revenue last year, but it’s still a money-loser, eating into pretax profit by $700 million. The company expects those losses to continue this year. Longer term, Peacock is meant to replace the lost advertising dollars from a shrinking pay-TV universe. That means it will need to be far larger and be available on digital players as well as other broadband systems such as Cox and Charter. Adding more sports and exclusive content would help add leverage to those negotiations.
Comcast’s NBC broadcast group saw a 12 percent drop in sales to $2.7 billion on weaker advertising, in part because of the loss of sports programming, while its studios division fell 8.3 percent to $1.4 billion. Advertising across its broadcast and cable networks fell 7.8 percent to $2.5 billion. Theme parks dropped 63 percent to $579 million.
The company still expects the Tokyo Olympics to take place this summer, a cash cow for its advertising business.