The markets await a new test
Inflation fears are like a zombie menace stalking the markets this summer. Concerns that the Fed’s battle with rising prices may not be finished have roiled stocks and bonds this month, and investors will be glued to the release of Fed meeting minutes for July at 2 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday for clues on what’s next for rates.
The central bank raised its prime lending rate by 0.25 percentage points last month. Policymakers left the door open to further increases as inflation remains well above their 2 percent target. Since the last rate-setting meeting in July, economic data has showed that inflation is cooling, but that’s hardly calmed the markets.
Tuesday’s strong retail sales data, and hawkish comments from some central bankers, have put the markets on edge. “Investors will be looking for clues on the Fed’s tone in its minutes report, particularly whether or not it has a dovish or hawkish tilt,” Mary Ann Bartels, chief investment strategist at Sanctuary Wealth, a wealth management firm, told DealBook. “The Federal Reserve may have to continue raising interest rates because the economy has been much stronger than expected.”
Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis Fed and a voting member of the rates committee, is one such hawk. He said on Tuesday that he was seeing “positive signs” that inflation was easing, but warned: “I’m not ready to say that we’re done.”
That uncertainty, along with concerns about China’s sputtering economy, has sapped investor enthusiasm. After a bull-market rally in the first-half of the year, the S&P 500 has fallen more than 3 percent this month; the tech-heavy Nasdaq has tumbled 5 percent in that period.
Bonds have been even rockier. The inflation-adjusted real yield on 10-year Treasury notes hit a 14-year high this week as investors dumped the long-rated bonds en masse. (Bond yields rise when the price falls.) Rising yields tend to push up borrowing costs for companies and home buyers, creating a drag on economic growth. U.S. home builder confidence fell this month for the first time this year.
Recession predictions haven’t gone away. Bank of America’s latest survey of global fund managers, released on Tuesday, carried the headline that it was “the least bearish” since February 2022, which was just before the Fed’s push to ramp up interest rates. But the same report showed that only four in 10 fund managers surveyed saw a recession as “unlikely.”
HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING
Target slashes its full-year outlook. The struggling retailer has been hit hard by shoppers pulling back on purchases amid high inflation, forcing the company to cut sales and profit targets. Target also missed analyst expectations for revenue in the previous quarter, it reported this morning.
Intel kills its $5.4 billion deal with Tower Semiconductor over China worries. The chip maker’s planned tie-up with the Israeli company had received U.S. and E.U. regulatory approval, but China, where Intel has a big presence, failed to sign off. The dead deal is the latest sign that tensions between Washington and Beijing are having an impact on tech firms’ investment strategies.
A money-losing Vietnamese electric carmaker is worth more than Ford and GM. Shares in VinFast, an EV start-up spun out of the conglomerate Vingroup, soared after it went public on Nasdaq via a SPAC on Tuesday. The listing suggests that investors still have big interest in EV start-ups despite the troubles of rivals like Rivian and Lordstown.
The bidding war for U.S. Steel heats up
Hopes of a bidding war have added nearly $2 billion in market value this week to U.S. Steel, the much-diminished manufacturing behemoth that was bankrolled by John Pierpont Morgan and Charles Schwab at the turn of the last century.
One bidder is Cleveland-Cliffs, a U.S. Steel rival that has been aggressively paying down its debt load and that bid $7.3 billion. Another is Esmark, a private, family-owned industrial group that made a $10 billion offer two days ago. Its $35-a-share bid lit up DealBook’s phone, as the news release was heavy on biographical information about its C.E.O. and majority owner, James Bouchard, but gave scant details about the actual offer.
Mr. Bouchard did not respond to DealBook’s request for comment. A spokeswoman for U.S. Steel told DealBook Monday night: “This is the first that we have heard from Esmark. We welcome them to join the multiple parties already in our previously announced strategic alternatives process.”
Where are the S.E.C. filings? Esmark’s news release appears to be a tender offer, meaning the company would take the bid directly to shareholders. Such offers must be communicated to the market via a regulatory filing. As of last night, a search for such documents turned up nothing.
Experts told DealBook this was odd. “It’s unusual to claim to have launched an offer without the corresponding filings with the S.E.C.,” said Stephen Amdur, who co-leads the mergers and acquisitions practice at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop.
Further confounding deal watchers, Mr. Bouchard told CNBC his bid was not hostile, but a tender offer effectively is just that.
And what about Esmark’s finances? Mr. Bouchard told CNBC and Reuters that the company has $12 billion in the bank, equivalent to nearly double U.S. Steel’s market cap. He also told Reuters he was being advised by an unnamed “international bank.”
When asked by CNBC about the strategy behind Esmark’s offer, Mr. Bouchard instead took a swipe at Cleveland-Cliff. “When you mate a dinosaur with a dinosaur, you get a dinosaur,” Mr. Bouchard said. “We have to create a gazelle.”
Trump’s Twitter files
Donald Trump is a well-known technophobe, but the former president’s use of Twitter has become a key part of the special counsel’s case accusing him of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election — and Elon Musk’s company has been slammed for pushing back against the federal prosecutors’ demands.
Newly unsealed court filings lift the lid on a high-stakes legal fight. Jack Smith, the special counsel, obtained a search warrant to access direct messages that were sent from Mr. Trump’s Twitter account. It was unclear what the missives said, and the account was shut down days after the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The judge overseeing the case lashed out at Twitter. Beryl Howell, a federal district judge, fined the company $350,000 in February after it missed a court-ordered deadline to comply with Mr. Smith’s search warrant. Ms. Howell accused the company of taking “extraordinary” steps to give Mr. Trump advance notice about the warrant, even though prosecutors had warned that doing so could damage the investigation.
Was Mr. Musk trying to deepen ties with Mr. Trump? The billionaire tech entrepreneur, a self-described free speech absolutist, restored Mr. Trump’s account in December, and Ms. Howell wondered if the company’s delays were an attempt to woo the former president. In a February hearing, she asked if it was because Mr. Musk “wants to cozy up with the former president?”
Twitter’s lawyers argued that the prosecutors were after data that could be covered by executive privilege. Lawyers for the company have said Twitter’s only interest was to assert “its constitutional rights.” Both the prosecutors and Ms. Howell rejected the executive privilege idea, saying it was unlikely Mr. Trump would be doing government business via the platform.
The A.I. boom comes with a warning
The huge interest in artificial intelligence has fueled a splurge of investment and lots of chatter about how to regulate a transformative technology. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the world’s biggest stock market investor, is the latest to ride the wave after posting a profit of $143 billion in the first half of the year as A.I. lifts the broader tech sector.
The head of the $1.4 trillion fund issued a warning. “If you don’t think there are opportunities with A.I., then in my mind you are a complete moron,” Nicolai Tangen told The Financial Times. But he has urged the fund’s 9,000 portfolio companies to appoint board directors with A.I. expertise, be transparent about how the tech is being created and deployed, and better manage the risks. “Boards are absolutely not on top of this,” he said.
Regulation will be crucial. The White House and seven leading A.I. companies agreed to introduce voluntary safeguards last month, but questions linger about the effectiveness of such measures. As part of the agreement, the companies committed to testing their tech for vulnerabilities, and last weekend, thousands of hackers at the Defcon event in Las Vegas tried to manipulate A.I. models from Google, Meta, OpenAI and other companies to do just that.
Participants earned points for getting bots to do bad things like perpetuate stereotypes and generate misinformation. The White House-backed effort was designed to identify flaws before actual criminals and misinformation peddlers did — a practice known as red-teaming.
Expect more than voluntary commitments. The administration has said it will introduce legislation, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, have proposed creating an A.I. czar. (Sam Altman, OpenAI’s C.E.O., has asked for a regulator to oversee the industry.) But there is little agreement on what new rules should look like.
The E.U. is also poised to adopt new restrictions, and China has proposed rules that would require makers of chatbots to adhere to the country’s censorship regime.
The administration also needs to address the risk of falling behind China. White House officials have said that China’s A.I. capabilities could pose a national security threat, and President Biden banned U.S. venture capital and private equity firms from investing in China’s sensitive high-tech industries, including some A.I. applications.
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