What to watch in Friday’s inflation report (and beyond)
The final big test of the year for investors is set to arrive on Friday with the release at 8:30 a.m. Eastern of the Personal Consumption Expenditures report, the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge.
It’s been a banner year for markets. Investors shrugged off high inflation and rising interest rates, sending the S&P 500 up more than 23 percent as of Thursday’s close.
Can it keep going? Here are some other big numbers from the past year, and what’s to come:
3.3 percent: According to Reuters, market participants expect Friday’s reading for the core measure of P.C.E., which strips out food and fuel, to have risen by 3.3 percent on an annualized basis. That would be a decent improvement on last month’s figure and give the Fed more flexibility to lower interest rates next year.
152: The rate-cuts discussion has gone global — even if the Fed is one of the only major central banks talking openly about the prospect. Michael Hartnett, an investment strategist at Bank of America, predicts a rate-cut bonanza — 152 in all. It will be the first year since 2020 in which “cuts outpace rate hikes,” he wrote in an investor note last week. BofA also sees the Fed cutting its prime lending rate by 1.5 percentage points next year.
75 percent: Rate cuts are typically good news for tech investors. Lower borrowing costs have tended to unleash spending by households and companies, a possible tailwind for Big Tech’s bottom line. Such enthusiasm is perhaps best seen in the performance of the so-called Magnificent Seven, a group of tech firms that drove an A.I.-fueled rally throughout much of the year.
The stocks — Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia and Tesla — had climbed by 75 percent this year, as of last week, and now account for roughly 30 percent of the index’s weighted value. The other 493 companies? As a group, they are underperforming the S&P 500.
162 percent: Bitcoin looks like a runaway contender for the 2023 market champ. The digital currency is up 162 percent as of Friday morning, even as regulators on both sides of the Atlantic crack down on the crypto sector’s biggest names.
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
President Biden calls for “serious scrutiny” of the U.S. Steel deal. Lael Brainard, Biden’s national economic adviser, said on Thursday that Nippon Steel’s planned $14 billion acquisition should be reviewed to address potential national security and supply chain concerns.
The Biden administration will blacklist banks that fund Russia’s war machine. An executive order set to be issued on Friday will allow the U.S. to impose sanctions on financial institutions that help Russia secure equipment and materials to be used in its fight against Ukraine. The measures would seek to cut off rule-breaking firms from the American financial system, and comes as congressional Republicans stymie efforts to increase funding for Ukraine’s military.
Rudy Giuliani files for bankruptcy protection. The former New York mayor made the move a day after a federal judge ordered him to pay $148 million in damages to two Georgia election workers for falsely accusing them of tampering with ballots in the 2020 election. The filing gives Giuliani, who faces millions in potential damages in other lawsuits, a means to pause payouts while he considers an appeal.
Nike shares plummet on weak outlook. The sportswear giant’s stock was down more than 10 percent in premarket trading, a day after the company unveiled $2 billion in cost cuts and warned of slowing sales, especially in China and Europe. Nike’s troubles are another ominous sign that the consumers are beginning to pull back on spending.
China’s $80 billion wipeout
Chinese tech stocks plunged on Friday, wiping $80 billion off the market capitalization of some of the country’s biggest companies, after the authorities proposed a new crackdown on online gaming.
The draft rules unveiled on Friday suggest that Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, intends to maintain tight control of private enterprise despite recent efforts to project a more welcoming image to business.
Two giants led the rout. Hong Kong-listed shares in Tencent, the country’s biggest company by market capitalization and a major overseas investor (including a big stake in Fortnite’s maker, Epic Games) fell as much as 16 percent. The stock of NetEase plummeted by a record 28 percent.
The authorities blame gaming for a raft of social ills. China is the top online gaming market, with about 650 million users and annual revenues of $45 billion last year, according to Goldman Sachs. Officials say the industry encourages addiction, and they blame too much time online for causing a spike in nearsightedness among children. Friday’s proposals would force companies to limit the amount of money and time players can spend online, and block content that could compromise national security.
Xi has tried to calm worries about the Communist Party’s role in private business, after years of cracking down to ensure that companies support the state’s objectives above all else. Beijing signaled a truce earlier this year, with regulators declaring that the “legitimate rights” of companies would be respected. Last month, Xi told U.S. business leaders at a banquet in San Francisco that China was a huge market and a friend — and received a standing ovation.
But Friday’s draft rules are the latest example of rhetoric clashing with reality.
The heat builds on Harvard
Pressure appears to be rising on Claudine Gay, Harvard’s president, as the fallout over how America’s elite universities have handled antisemitism on campus shows no signs of abating.
In recent weeks, the billionaire Len Blavatnik, a big donor to Harvard, told the school that he would pause giving any more money. He is the latest business leader to do so — or threaten to — as Harvard’s wealthy donors become increasingly disgruntled with the school’s handling of the crisis.
Dr. Gay’s academic work is also under scrutiny over plagiarism allegations. The university this week said it found two new instances of what appeared to be “duplicative language without appropriate attribution” in her 1997 doctoral dissertation. The plagiarism allegations range from the inclusion of brief snippets of technical definitions in her work to lightly paraphrased summaries of other scholars’ writings without quotation marks, or direct citation.
Harvard faculty are standing by Dr. Gay, even as others are now openly calling for her to go.
Blavatnik’s foundation has given at least $270 million to Harvard, according to Bloomberg. This includes roughly $200 million to Harvard’s medical school, which has named an institute after him. In a statement, Blavatnik’s spokeswoman said that he would not resume donating “until antisemitism at Harvard is addressed with real action.”
The latest developments raise questions about the Harvard Corporation. The insular governing board hired Dr. Gay after a relatively speedy search last year. The board just days ago cleared Dr. Gay of “research misconduct.” Asked on Thursday whether the Harvard Corporation continued to stand by the president, a spokesman for the university referred to a Dec. 12 statement of unanimous support.
Remembering Raymond Dirks
Raymond Dirks gained a kind of immortality in 1983, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Dirks v. S.E.C. The ruling found that Dirks, the controversial Wall Street research analyst, had not engaged in insider trading when he tipped off clients after blowing the whistle on Equity Funding Corp., the biggest corporate scandal of its day.
Decades of white-collar prosecutions, from the Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky scandals of the 1980s to the 2012 conviction of Rajat Gupta, rest on the foundation of Dirks, as the case is known.
Dirks died in New York on Dec. 9 at age 89. A classic contrarian, with an acerbic personality to match, he spent much of his life tilting with Wall Street and regulatory establishments, writes The Times’s James Stewart.
Born in Ft. Wayne, Ind., Dirks joined Bankers Trust after college, but chafed inside a big institution. With his brother Lee, he founded a research firm where he specialized in insurance stocks. After learning from an inside source in 1973 that top executives at Equity Funding were counterfeiting insurance policies and creating fictitious customers to inflate revenue and the company’s stock price, Dirks went to both the S.E.C. and The Wall Street Journal. Neither took the bait.
But many of Dirks’s institutional clients took him seriously, dumping their positions in Equity Funding. The resulting market turmoil prompted a front-page Wall Street Journal story. Within weeks, the company was in receivership and the S.E.C. was investigating, and its top executives eventually went to jail. Taking a hard line on insider trading, the S.E.C. then sued Dirks.
His trial inspired a new definition of insider trading. Dirks himself didn’t trade Equity Funding stock or profit from the information, nor did his source. He had tried to alert regulators and journalists. His actions brought the fraud to a halt and saved Equity Funding policy buyers from untold further losses. While vindicating Dirks, a divided Supreme Court took what had been a relatively simple standard for insider trading and required that it be done with knowledge that the original source violated a duty of confidentiality and experienced personal gain.
That opinion has spawned decades of litigation. As recently as 2015, the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals was still wrestling with the meaning of “personal gain.”
“It’s probably the most problematic case in the canon of insider trading law,” said Jed S. Rakoff, a federal judge for the Southern District of New York who has been called upon to interpret the sometimes frustratingly ambiguous opinion.
History has been kinder to Dirks. “He was a hero,” said Professor John C. Coffee Jr., an expert on insider trading and securities law at Columbia Law School. He will be remembered as “the Woodward and Bernstein of corporate fraud.”
THE SPEED READ
Bristol Myers agreed to a $14 billion deal to buy Karuna Therapeutics to boost its psychiatric and neurological drugs business. (WSJ)
The law firm Paul Weiss has signed the largest U.S. commercial office lease this year, taking more than 18 floors of a Midtown Manhattan skyscraper. (FT)
Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ rocket start-up, and the private equity giant Cerberus are reportedly among the bidders for United Launch Alliance, a SpaceX rival. (WSJ)
Why WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum is backing Nikki Haley for president. (Puck)
Angola said it would leave OPEC as divisions over output quotas have created a huge rift between smaller members and Saudi Arabia, the cartel’s de facto leader. (NYT)
Best of the rest
The Los Angeles Dodgers have signed a $325 million deal for the free-agent pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto. (The Athletic)
Ozy Media has sued Buzzfeed and Semafor and its co-founder Ben Smith, accusing them of stealing trade secrets from the defunct media outlet. (Variety)
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