Unemployment Claims Fall as Covid Restrictions Ease: Dwell Updates

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Credit…Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The federal budget deficit is on course to reach $2.3 trillion for the 2021 fiscal year even if Congress does not pass another economic rescue bill, an amount slightly lower than the $3 trillion level it topped last year but still the second-highest deficit since World War II, the Congressional Budget Office said in new forecasts released Thursday.

Yet the updated projections show an improving fiscal picture for the government than what the budget office forecast last fall. The budget office now sees the U.S. economy recovering faster than it previously expected, buoyed by stimulus and the ability of American businesses to adapt to the pandemic.

The 2021 deficit projection has grown compared to the office’s September forecasts, largely as a result of a $900 billion economic aid bill Congress passed in December. But projected deficits for the ensuing several years have shrunk by even more as a result of faster-than-expected economic growth, which is projected to increase tax and other federal revenue.

Those projections are likely to fuel efforts by President Biden and congressional Democrats to speed passage of a $1.9 trillion aid package, which includes money to fight the coronavirus and help for struggling households and businesses. Republicans have objected to the size of the package, saying it is not necessary to spend that much at this point in the recovery and that it will further bloat the federal deficit. But Democrats, who are preparing to pass as much of the package as they can without Republican support, are likely to point to the C.B.O.’s forecasts as justification for approving more aid.

Still, the report highlights just how much money the United States is borrowing to finance all its spending. The budget office now expects the total amount of federal debt to reach 105 percent of the size of the nation’s economy by 2030, down slightly from its September forecast of 109 percent. The total debt grew to larger than the size of the nation’s economic output last year as a result of the pandemic recession and trillions of dollars in federal spending to combat it.

Officials at the budget office said that another set of reports to released on Thursday afternoon would show that several federal trust funds, including those for Social Security and for the nation’s highways, were now expected to remain solvent for years longer than the office projected in September.

The report also now forecasts that the deficit will dip briefly below $1 trillion in the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years, before rising again in the second half of the decade. From 2021 through 2031, the deficit is forecast to average $1.2 trillion per year.

A nurse updated patient information at a Santa Maria, Calif., hospital this week. The health care field is among those seeing an increase in hiring.Credit…Daniel Dreifuss for The New York Times

Wanted: Health care workers, delivery drivers and technology professionals.

Even as the job market struggles to find a footing, employers are putting out the welcome mat in certain fields, according to economists from two of the country’s biggest online job sites, ZipRecruiter and Indeed.

“There are clear differences between different industries,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

Besides the strength in industries that benefit from the stay-at-home trend, like warehousing and deliveries, hiring in tech and professional and business services has been showing signs of life recently.

“Businesses are looking to the future and are somewhat optimistic,” Ms. Pollak said.

AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at Indeed Hiring Lab, added that demand for pharmacists is up 23 percent from a year ago while openings for drivers have jumped 18 percent. “It all ties directly back to the pandemic,” Ms. Konkel said.

Nevertheless, there have been important regional differences in hiring. In cities where many people are working remotely, like Washington, Seattle, Boston and San Francisco, there have been fewer postings in some fields than in places where more workers are back in the office.

“People aren’t popping into their local coffee shop on their way to work or stopping into a store to pick something up when they work at home,” Ms. Konkel said, and that affects hiring.

Openings at restaurants are down from a year ago, she added, as are positions in arts and entertainment as well as hospitality and tourism.

At ZipRecruiter, the energy industry has shown an increase in job postings after steep losses when the pandemic struck. Manufacturing, too, has recorded more openings lately.

“Some of the losers are finally coming backing a bit,” Ms. Pollak said. “But so many industries can’t possibly resume while the pandemic is going on.”

A closed restaurant at Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. Workers in leisure and hospitality industries have been hit especially hard by job losses during the pandemic.Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

Even as layoffs remain extraordinarily high by historical standards, unemployment claims have shown a recent decline as coronavirus cases and restrictions on activity recede.

New claims for unemployment benefits declined last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, and were significantly below the level seen in most of December and early January.

Last week brought 813,000 new claims for state benefits, compared with 850,000 the previous week. Adjusted for seasonal variations, last week’s figure was 793,000, a decrease of 19,000. (Because of revisions to previous data, it was not the fourth straight weekly decline, as this briefing stated earlier.)

There were 335,000 new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally funded program for part-time workers, the self-employed and others ordinarily ineligible for jobless benefits. That total, which was not seasonally adjusted, was down from 369,000 the week before.

New coronavirus cases have fallen by a third from the level two weeks ago, prompting states like California and New York to relax restrictions on indoor dining and other activities.

“We’re stuck at this very high level of claims, but activity is picking up,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with ZipRecruiter, an online employment marketplace. Indeed, job postings at ZipRecruiter stand at 11.3 million, close to the 11.4 million level before the pandemic hit.

The improving pandemic situation has eased the strain on restaurants and bars, Ms. Pollak added. More generally, however, the leisure and hospitality industry is still under pressure.

Plenty of other signs of weakness remain. On Friday, the Labor Department reported that employers added just 49,000 jobs in January, underscoring the challenges for the nearly 10 million unemployed.

President Biden cited the weak showing to press for approval of his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. It would send $1,400 to many Americans, provide aid to states and cities, and extend unemployment benefits that are due to expire for millions in mid-March.

Ms. Pollak said postings by employers at ZipRecruiter in recent days offered hope. “We’ve seen employers smash all of our expectations and show a great deal of exuberance,” she said.

Bloomberg L.P., the parent of Bloomberg News, makes the majority of its money from expensive subscriptions to its terminal business.Credit…Marcus Yam for The New York Times

Bloomberg News, the giant financial news company founded by the billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg, will lay off dozens of employees as it restructures its newsroom.

Bloomberg’s editor in chief, John Micklethwait, announced the changes in a memo sent to staff on Thursday, saying that the newsroom had “‘lost’ stories because we moved too slowly” and needed to have more accountability. The memo was reviewed by The New York Times.

“Teams waited for somebody to back-read a piece or ignored the requests from the News Desk to get a blast out quickly,” he said, referring to the newsroom’s term for copy-editing an article or a news flash. “Managers spent too much time setting up conference calls when they should just have been writing.”

Mr. Micklethwait wrote that the reorganization of the newsroom would include layoffs. The company will cut about 90 newsroom positions globally, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Most of those to lose their jobs will be editors, the person said, asking not to be identified because the information was not public.

“This was not a step that we took lightly,” Mr. Micklethwait wrote. “But we have always sought to make the newsroom better — to make us more nimble, to improve our content, and to help us ‘chronicle capitalism’ in an even more comprehensive way.”

He said that the new system would mean most editors would now report to managing editors, who would allocate them to individual stories, and would also get rid of “unnecessary back-reading or re-editing.”

Mr. Micklethwait said that despite the layoffs, the company was looking to hire in priority areas like data journalism, and was aiming to end the year with as many journalists as it had before the pandemic.

Bloomberg News has more than 3,100 editorial and research employees, making it one of the largest news organizations in the world. It has largely avoided the mass layoffs that have plagued the media industry in the past year. Bloomberg L.P., its parent company, has about 20,000 employees.

Bloomberg L.P. makes the majority of its money from expensive subscriptions to its terminal business, but Axios reported this week that Bloomberg Media expected to bring in a minimum of $100 million this year from consumer digital subscription revenue.

Microsoft’s call for internet regulations is the latest example of fracturing within the tech industry as it comes under greater scrutiny.Credit…Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Microsoft on Thursday called for the United States to adopt competition laws that would force tech platforms like Facebook and Google to share more revenue with news publishers, drawing a brighter line between itself and the tech giants who oppose the idea.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said tech companies must do more to support independent journalism. He said some executives were motivated to speak out because of the misinformation that spread widely around the U.S. election and the decline of news organizations over the last two decades.

As a guide to the kinds of laws the company had in mind, he pointed to Australia’s proposed legislation for news publishers to negotiate jointly for higher fees from digital platforms.

“Publishers are left with nowhere else to go, so at the end of the day, they are forced to accept scraps on the table without any compensation for the fact that they produce a substantial portion of the meal on the other side of the table,” Mr. Smith said in an interview.

Microsoft’s call for internet regulations is the latest example of fracturing within the tech industry at a time when it is undergoing increased scrutiny. Google and Facebook have fiercely fought the Australian proposal and have threatened to abandon all or part of their services in the country should the news publishing law go into effect. Salesforce.com, Apple, and IBM have pushed for regulations over the business models of Facebook and Google that mine user data for advertising.

Bills in the Senate and the House of Representatives have already been introduced to help news publishers jointly negotiate on fees for publishing their material on platforms like Google and Facebook. The coordination would most likely violate antitrust laws against collusion, but lawmakers have called for an exemption to address the emergency in local news, where 2,000 news organizations have shuttered since 2000.

Mr. Smith said he and Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, recently called Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, and praised the proposed competition legislation for internet platforms as a meaningful attempt to shore up journalism. They added that even if Google left the country, Microsoft would not. Microsoft’s Bing search engine also hosts news in Australia.

“The tech sector is not a monolith,” Mr. Smith said.

Credit…Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Kenneth C. Griffin, the billionaire hedge fund manager, may be among the executives who testify at next week’s Congressional hearing about the recent madcap trading in shares of GameStop that bruised many big investors, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

Mr. Griffin’s firm, Citadel, was a central player in the GameStop drama both because of its investments and the role of its sister company, Citadel Securities, as a market maker in stocks. It was asked to make an executive available for the Feb. 18 hearing scheduled by the House Financial Services Committee, this person said, but the company is still waiting to hear whether the committee will call Mr. Griffin or another executive.

Steve Huffman, Reddit’s chief executive said on Thursday that the social-media network also planned to participate. Many of the small investors in GameStop gathered on Reddit’s WallStreetBets message board to egg each other on as they bid up the stock last month.

Citadel had told the committee that Joseph Mecane, a senior executive at Citadel Securities
who oversees the trading services it provides to companies like Robinhood, could appear instead, said the person. Citadel Securities is separate from the hedge fund and also founded by Mr. Griffin.

A representative for the House committee did not respond to requests for comment. Rep. Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who heads the committee, has said that she wants Vlad Tenev, the chief executive of Robinhood, to testify at the hearing.

She has also said she was considering asking the hedge fund Melvin Capital to testify.
Citadel’s hedge fund business and a group of partners invested $2 billion in Melvin after Melvin sustained enormous losses from a wager that shares of GameStop — which climbed from less than $100 to nearly $500 in just a few days — would fall.

Partly as a result of its bet against GameStop, Melvin ended January down more than 53 percent, The New York Times reported earlier this month, while Citadel, which had also bet against GameStop during its rise, ended the month down 3 percent.

Mr. Griffin was also exposed to the GameStop rally through Citadel Securities. Robinhood, the free online trading firm that fueled much of the trading in GameStop by amateur investors, makes money by sending buy and sell orders to Citadel Securities, which pays Robinhood for the order flow.

A conceptual design of a new $20 note that was produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing depicting Harriet Tubman.

The effort to make Harriet Tubman the face of the $20 note got a bipartisan push this week as two senators urged Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen to prioritize the planned redesign that stalled during the Trump administration.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, and Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, sent a letter to Ms. Yellen this week making the case that America’s currency should reflect the diversity of the country. They lamented that the plan put in place by the Obama administration in 2016, to unveil a $20 note design in 2020 with Ms. Tubman’s image on the front, was not carried out by former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“We hope sincerely that is no longer the case, and encourage the prioritization of Ms. Tubman before working on other redesigns,” they wrote. “We stand ready to offer any support for your efforts to ensure this towering figure in our nation’s history receives the recognition she has deserved for so long.”

The Biden administration said last month that Ms. Yellen would be studying ways to speed up the process of adding Harriet Tubman’s portrait to the front of the $20 bill.

“It’s important that our money reflect the history and diversity of our country,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said.

A Treasury spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about whether the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which the department oversees, had resumed the redesign featuring Ms. Tubman.

Work on the redesign had started under the watch of former President Barack Obama’s Treasury secretary, Jacob Lew, but Mr. Mnuchin said that enhancing the security features of the new notes took priority over changes to the imagery. Mr. Trump had previously expressed his disapproval of the idea of replacing President Andrew Jackson, a fellow populist, with Ms Tubman, a former slave and abolitionist.

The Advanced Counterfeit Deterrence Steering Committee laid out plans in 2013 for the redesign of the $10 and $5 notes to occur before the $20.

Ms. Shaheen and several House Democrats have been vocal supporters of the initiative to replace Mr. Jackson with Ms. Tubman as the face of the $20. Few Republican lawmakers have expressed public support for the change.

Planters will join a growing collection of food brands at Hormel.Credit…Jon Elswick/Associated Press

That’s not peanuts.

On Thursday, Kraft Heinz said it had agreed to sell its nuts business, including the iconic Planters brand, to Hormel Foods for $3.35 billion in cash.

At Hormel, Planters will be added to a growing collection of food brands, including the peanut butter brand Skippy, which Hormel acquired in 2013, and Justin’s nut butter, which it acquired in 2016.

The pandemic has been a sales boon for Kraft Heinz, which had some of its factories working three shifts during periods in the past year to meet high demand for products like its Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. On Thursday, Kraft Heinz reported that net sales in the fourth quarter rose 6.2 percent to $6.9 billion.

For the full year, Kraft Heinz said net sales rose 4.8 percent to $26.18 billion. The company said it expected to see flat-to-positive growth in net sales in 2021.

Kraft Heinz, the result of a 2015 merger that created one of the largest food companies in the world, was struggling ahead of the pandemic. Its stock had slumped, underperforming other food companies, as sales and profits sank, in part because consumers had begun to favor less-processed, healthier foods in recent years.

But during the pandemic, consumers, who were now cooking and consuming more meals at home, sought comfort foods and gravitated toward many old-school brands within Kraft Heinz and other food companies.

Pepsico, a rival of Kraft Heinz, also reported a jump in fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday. The snack giant’s revenue rose 8.8 percent from the same period a year earlier, to $22.46 billion, powered by consumers munching on Cheetos and Doritos during the pandemic.

For Kraft Heinz, the food boom has provided a good opportunity to shed businesses. Last September, it sold its natural cheese business to France’s Groupe Lactalis for $3.2 billion.

The nuts business, which contributed roughly $1.1 billion in net sales to Kraft Heinz for the past year, had been neglected inside the company and had lost market share to competitors, including private-label brands.

Adding insult to injury, for a Super Bowl ad last year, the company killed off and held a funeral for its monocled mascot, Mr. Peanut, who was created in 1916 when a schoolboy, Antonio Gentile, submitted a sketch to win a contest for the brand. At a funeral, attended by other brand avatars like the Kool-Aid Man, a baby peanut emerged from the ground, first squeaking like a dolphin, before proclaiming, “Just kidding. I’m back.”

A prototype Learjet 23 executive jet on a test flight, in 1964.Credit…Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Learjet luxury aircraft made famous by Frank Sinatra and immortalized in songs by Pink Floyd and Carly Simon is going away.

Bombardier, the Canadian company that makes the plane, said Thursday that it would stop building the plane at the end of the year — more than half-a-century after it was introduced — as it shifts attention to its more profitable and larger Challenger and Global aircraft. The move comes after Bombardier exited the business of making planes for airlines last year and completed the sale of its rail unit last month, all part of an effort to return to profitability with a more singular focus on private aircraft.

“With our strategic repositioning now complete, we are very excited to embark on our journey as a pure-play business jet company,” Éric Martel, Bombardier’s chief executive, said in a statement.

The company also announced plans to cut 1,600 jobs, or about 10 percent of its work force. Bombardier said Thursday that it lost $568 million last year and hoped to cut costs by more than $400 million by 2023.

The Learjet decision comes just months after the company announced the first delivery of the plane’s latest model, the Learjet 75 Liberty.

The jet was originally designed with a focus on performance by William Lear, an engineer. It entered service in 1963 and went on to play a key role in ushering in an era of luxury private flight. Mr. Sinatra reportedly bought his in 1965, using it for trips to and from Las Vegas and making it a symbol of ultimate luxury for the rich and powerful.

More than 3,000 Learjets have been sold since its inception. But the jet has struggled in recent years because buyers of private jets considered it cramped and not as luxurious as other planes. Bombardier, which acquired the Learjet business in 1990, delivered just 11 to customers last year.

Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, sued the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency in 2017.Credit…Steven Senne/Associated Press

One of the nation’s largest student loan servicers and the attorney general of Massachusetts have agreed to settle a lawsuit over errors that the state said had harmed thousands of public service workers trying to use a federal loan-forgiveness program.

The loan servicer — the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which operates under the name FedLoan — will audit the account of any Massachusetts resident who requests a review. The company will correct any errors it finds and compensate borrowers who were financially harmed.

“This agreement secures first-of-its-kind relief for teachers and other public servants,” Maura Healey, the state’s attorney general, said in a statement. “Public servants burdened with student loan debt are entitled to the relief that they were promised under these federal programs.”

Ms. Healey’s office sued the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency in 2017, accusing it of making mistakes in counting borrowers’ payments, overcharging some borrowers and incorrectly handling applications for income-based repayment plans.

The problems especially harmed people seeking to use the government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, according to the complaint. The loan servicing company has an exclusive contract with the federal government to handle the accounts of those seeking to use the program, which has been widely criticized for its shoddy implementation and rampant errors.

More than 200,000 Massachusetts residents will be able to request an account review, Ms. Healey said. The settlement was approved on Tuesday by a state Superior Court judge.

Keith New, a spokesman for the company, said the deal “reaffirms P.H.E.A.A.’s commitment to all student borrowers and to the high quality of customer service provided by P.H.E.A.A. in managing their student loan debt.”

Most state borrowers whose requests to have their loans forgiven were denied will have their accounts automatically flagged for a review, which the company must complete within 120 days, according to the settlement. That’s a significantly faster than the year — or longer — the company has in the past told some borrowers it would take to investigate their error claims.

The company is facing a lawsuit in federal court from New York’s attorney general, who in 2019 accused it of extensive misdeeds. A federal judge last year rejected the company’s request to dismiss the case.

WarnerMedia will expand its streaming platform HBO Max beyond the United States this summer. The company, which unveiled its streaming service in May and ended the year with 17.17 million activated users, said on Thursday that HBO Max would become available in 39 territories across Latin America and the Caribbean in June.

“By combining HBO with the very best of WarnerMedia’s series and film catalog, as well as locally produced content from master storytellers in Latin America, HBO Max will offer fans in the region an unforgettable and enriching entertainment experience,” Johannes Larcher, the head of HBO Max International, said in a statement.

Similar to how it operates in the United States, WarnerMedia will give current HBO GO customers instant access to HBO Max and will phase out the HBO GO service.

WarnerMedia gave a boost to HBO Max — and shocked some in Hollywood — when it announced in November that all Warner Bros. movies in 2021 would debut simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming service. The initiative took effect in 2020; “Wonder Woman 1984” debuted on Christmas Day and helped drive HBO and HBO Max’s total subscriber base to 41 million, a level it reached “a full two years faster than our initial forecast,” according to John Stankey, the chief executive of AT&T, WarnerMedia’s parent company.

The company also announced that an HBO-branded streaming service will debut in Europe later this year.

Coronavirus vaccine being administered in London last month. Britain’s early start in vaccinations is one reason cited for the recent rise in the pound.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The British pound has been on a quiet ascent. This week, it surpassed $1.38, a level it hasn’t seen against the U.S. dollar in nearly three years, and it is up nearly 2 percent against the euro this year. Britain has been under a strict lockdown, but its trade deal with the European Union and quick vaccine rollout has helped the nation’s financial assets, including stocks, perform well.

In the past week, it was pushed higher after the Bank of England painted an optimistic picture for the economic recovery this year as soon as the lockdown is lifted. It is forecasting the British economy will return to its pre-pandemic size by early 2022.

The central bank also said it had no imminent intention of introducing negative interest rates, which caused the pound and bond yields to jump higher.

That said, the pound’s rise may face obstacles. The Brexit trade deal has thrown up a number of hurdles as exporters contend with new customs requirements and retailers reconsider supply chains. The tension between London and Brussels seems to have worsened over the future of financial services and trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.

“Despite the market’s relief that the U.K. and the E.U. managed to strike a trade deal in December, it is becoming obvious that Brexit is casting long shadows,” Jane Foley, a currency strategist at Rabobank, wrote in a note.

“Looking ahead we continue to see both political and economic hurdles for GBP and anticipate a fairly rocky ride in the coming months,” she said, using the abbreviation for the pound.

  • Stock indexes on Wall Street edged lower in afternoon trading, with the S&P 500 falling about 0.30 percent.

  • Shares in Pinterest rose about 5 percent. The Financial Times reported late on Wednesday that Microsoft made an approach to buy the social media company in recent months, but the talks are not active.

  • Stocks in Europe were mixed. The Stoxx Europe 600 gained about 0.4 percent. Shares in BE Semiconductor Industries rose 5.4 percent gained 3.5 percent after reports the European Union is exploring building a semiconductor factory. The industry has recently been beset by supply shortages disrupting car production worldwide.

  • ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel company, said Thursday that Aditya Mittal, the company’s president and chief financial officer, would succeed his father, Lakshmi Mittal, as chief executive. Lakshmi Mittal, who founded the company, will become executive chairman. Aditya Mittal said on a call with reporters that he wanted to focus on reducing carbon emissions from steel production.