Markets Return to Records, Fueled by Tech

Wall Street climbed to a record on Wednesday, lifted by shares of technology companies and adding to a rally that fueled by expectations for large-scale economic stimulus from the incoming Biden administration.

The S&P 500 rose 1.4 percent, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 0.8 percent, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite rose 2 percent. All three ended the day in record territory.

Netflix was the best performer in the S&P 500, climbing nearly 17 percent after the streaming service said on Tuesday that it had more than 200 million customers and no longer needed to borrow money for its day-to-day operations. Its stronger financial footing also raised the prospect that the company could potentially start repurchasing shares this year, helping to supercharge the stock.

“Share buybacks were not something we expected to see in 2021, but we view them favorably,” analysts from J.P. Morgan wrote in a note on the results.

Shares of other high-profile technology companies also enjoyed strong gains on Wednesday. Microsoft, Apple, Tesla and Facebook will report quarterly financial results next week. These large companies exert a pronounced influence over market indexes such as the S&P 500, which is weighted according to market capitalization.

Google’s parent, Alphabet, rose roughly 5.5 percent. Amazon rose more than 4.5 percent. Microsoft rose 4 percent.

Consumer discretionary stocks were the best performing segment of the market, led by strong gains from homebuilders Pulte, Lennar and D.R. Horton. All were up more than 5 percent after a reading from the National Association of Homebuilders showing that homebuilder sentiment remains buoyant.

President Biden is expected to sign a number of executive orders on Wednesday, including ones to extend moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures and to continue a pause on federal student loan interest and principal payments.

On Tuesday, Janet Yellen, Mr. Biden’s nominee for Treasury secretary, reiterated the new administration’s plans for a large fiscal stimulus package during her confirmation hearing in the Senate. The plans received some criticism from Republican lawmakers over concerns about increasing the federal budget deficit, a possible sign of legislative battles to come.

Ramp service employees unload cargo from a United Airlines plane O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in December.
Credit…Sebastian Hidalgo for The New York Times

United Airlines lost $1.9 billion in the fourth quarter, bringing its total losses for 2020 to just over $7 billion, its worst year since merging with Continental Airlines a decade ago. Despite that terrible loss, the airline said it expects 2021 to be a “transition year” as it prepares for a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is that Covid-19 has changed United Airlines forever,” the company’s chief executive, Scott Kirby, said in a statement. “The passion, teamwork and perseverance that the United team showed in 2020 is exactly what will help us build a new United Airlines that’s better, stronger and more profitable than ever.”

The airline reported about $3.4 billion in operating revenue in the final three months of last year, down more than two-thirds from the same period in 2019. It ended the year with access to nearly $20 billion in cash or cash-equivalent funds, not including federal stimulus loans.

Delta Air Lines last week reported a $12.4 billion loss in 2020, capping what its chief executive called the “toughest year in Delta’s history.”

In anticipation of a recovery, United has resumed major maintenance and engine overhauls so that planes sidelined by weak demand will be ready as more people start flying again, it said.

But that recovery is unlikely to arrive for quite some time. United said it expects to bring in about a third as much operating revenue in the first quarter of this year as it did during the same three months in 2019. Most analysts believe the airline industry will not fully recover from the pandemic for several years.

The Trump International Golf Club in Dubai opened soon after Mr. Trump took office in 2017.
Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

President Donald Trump exempted the United Arab Emirates from tariffs on its aluminum exports on Wednesday morning, using one of the final acts of his presidency to give a break to a country where he has business ties.

In March 2018, Mr. Trump announced a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports from a variety of countries, including the U.A.E., saying their metal exports had put American aluminum producers out of business and therefore threated national security.

In the announcement on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said the United States and the U.A.E., a major exporter of aluminum, had an important security relationship, and had carried out talks to find another means to address the threat to American national security.

The Trump administration replaced the tariffs on aluminum from the U.A.E. with a quota, which would allow imports “to remain close to historical levels without meaningful increases.” The arrangement would limit export surges by the United Arab Emirates and discourage aluminum overcapacity, the announcement said.

In September, Mr. Trump helped seal a landmark agreement between Israel and the U.A.E., in which the two agreed to “full normalization of relations” in exchange for Israel suspending annexation of occupied West Bank territory.

Before coming into office, Mr. Trump also pursued various real estate projects in the U.A.E., including hotels and golf courses. The Trump International Golf Club in the city of Dubai opened for business in early 2017, soon after Mr. Trump became president.

The Keystone XL pipeline has long been opposed by environmentalists but supported by the oil industry and construction unions.
Credit…Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald, via Associated Press

TC Energy, a Canadian pipeline company, said on Wednesday morning that it was suspending work on the Keystone XL pipeline in anticipation that Joseph R. Biden Jr. would revoke a vital permit that enabled its construction on his first day in office.

Later Wednesday, after the inauguration, Mr. Biden rescinded the permit as one of his first acts.

The pipeline, intended to bring heavy Canadian crude from oil sands to American refineries, has long been opposed by environmentalists but supported by the oil industry and construction unions. Its construction has been delayed frequently because of government reviews and legal challenges.

“TC Energy will review the decision, assess its implications, and consider its options,” the company said in a statement.

A passenger receives a temperature check at LaGuardia Airport in New York. Eastern Iowa Airport will screen all outgoing passengers for the coronavirus.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

The airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, will conduct mandatory coronavirus screenings for all outbound passengers starting on Monday, one of the first airports in the country to take advantage of a decision to allow such evaluations by the Federal Aviation Administration last month.

Under the new “Travel Well” program, the Eastern Iowa Airport will ask a handful of short screening questions and take the temperature of each departing passenger. Travelers who show no signs of having the coronavirus and have no exposure to it will be sent on to the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint.

“The Travel Well program will provide an efficient approach to screening passengers and employees,” Marty Lenss, the airport’s director, said in a statement.

Travelers who might be infected with or exposed to the virus will receive a private second screening. The ultimate decision on whether individuals may board their flight will rest with individual airlines. Eastern Iowa Airport offers nonstop service to 14 destinations on flights operated by American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and others.

It is not clear how useful the screenings will be. The value of screening passengers has diminished as the virus has become widespread throughout the country. A passenger who shows no symptoms on the day of travel could still infect others on their journey or at their destination.

The airport had first talked about its screening plan, which it developed with Mercy Medical Center and MercyCare Business Health Solutions, in July. But the plan’s implementation was put on hold pending approval by the F.A.A., which regulates airport spending. Earlier last year, the agency had said that airports could spend money to screen employees, but not passengers. In December, the agency approved passenger screening, too.

Sales of grooming appliances jumped 20 percent in the second quarter, Procter & Gamble said.
Credit…Etienne Laurent/EPA, via Shutterstock

As the pandemic drags on, Americans are continuing to try to cut their own hair, trim their own beards and wax their own eyebrows. The efforts, often met with varying degrees of success, have helped bolster the bottom line of Procter & Gamble.

The consumer goods giant said on Wednesday that its quarterly revenue jumped 8 percent, fueled by higher demand for its cleaning products, such as Comet and Mr. Clean, and shaving and styling tools, including Gillette and Venus. The company said sales of its grooming appliances jumped 20 percent in the second quarter of its fiscal year, which ended Dec. 31, as people continued to skip the salon and clip and pluck at home.

Procter & Gamble reported revenue of $19.75 billion for the quarter. The company earned $3.85 billion, up from $3.72 billion in the same quarter the previous year.

“We delivered another strong quarter of results across all key measures — top line, bottom line and cash,” said David Taylor, the company’s chairman, president and chief executive.

The company, which also owns brands like Tide and Gain, reported a 12 percent increase in its fabric and home care segment, which includes cleaning products. Its health care segment, which includes Oral B and Vicks products, reported sales growth of 9 percent, offset by a decline in the sales of respiratory products with fewer people catching colds and the flu this season.

Procter & Gamble raised its guidance for the 2021 fiscal year, forecasting sales growth of 5 to 6 percent, from a previous outlook of 3 to 4 percent. But investors were unimpressed, and shares dropped 1 percent after the earnings report was released.

Anthony Levandowski in California in 2019. He was one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent engineers but was sentenced in August to 18 months in prison.
Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

Among the dozens of politicians and business figures pardoned by President Trump in the twilight of his time in the White House is a former senior engineer at Google who pleaded guilty to stealing trade secrets related to self-driving car technology.

The engineer, Anthony Levandowski, a prominent member of Google’s moonshot effort to build autonomous vehicles, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in August after he was convicted of stealing information from Google before founding his own autonomous-vehicle company. A White House statement issued early Wednesday said that Mr. Levandowski’s pardon was supported by a number of Mr. Trump’s most prominent Silicon Valley supporters, including the investor Peter Thiel.

“My family and I are grateful for the opportunity to move forward, and thankful to the President and others who supported and advocated on my behalf,” Mr. Levandowski said in a statement.

The full pardon is a capstone in what has been one of Silicon Valley’s most precipitous rise-and-fall stories in recent memory.

Mr. Levandowski had been one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent engineers, earning millions working on technology Google felt would remake transportation. After departing Google, he started his self-driving car company, called Otto, which he then sold to Uber for more than $600 million.

But in 2017, Google’s self-driving car company, called Waymo, sued Uber for theft of trade secrets, singling out Mr. Levandowski for having taken years of autonomous-vehicle research to strengthen Uber’s self-driving efforts. Uber later fired Mr. Levandowski and settled with Waymo.

Mr. Levandowski’s troubles did not end with the settlement. With evidence that he had downloaded thousands of files related to Google’s self-driving technology before leaving, the Justice Department filed criminal charges in 2019. Mr. Levandowski eventually pleaded guilty to one count of trade secret theft in an agreement with federal prosecutors to drop the remaining charges.

After years of legal disputes, Mr. Levandowski faced financial uncertainty. Last year, he filed for bankruptcy protection after a court ordered him to pay $179 million to Google for violating his contract.

He had been scheduled to begin serving his prison sentence after coronavirus outbreaks were under control.

Mr. Levandowski was among a batch of last-minute pardons and clemencies issued by Mr. Trump before leaving office. The list included Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former top political adviser who was under indictment on charges that he misused money he helped raise for a group backing the construction of a border wall; and Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., the rapper known as Lil Wayne, who was facing prison because of a weapons charge.

The White House statement announcing the pardon for the engineer said, “Mr. Levandowski has paid a significant price for his actions and plans to devote his talents to advance the public good.”

Jack Ma appearing at a livestreamed event on Wednesday.

Jack Ma has filmed action scenes with big-time martial artists, sung duets with pop stars and appeared at corporate rallies dressed as a glam rocker and as a masked Michael Jackson impersonator. A wallflower he is not.

So speculation ran rampant after the prominent entrepreneur and co-founder of the Alibaba Group vanished from public view late last year. He had criticized Chinese regulators for what he called their overly cautious attitude toward the country’s financial system, and the authorities cracked down on his business empire shortly afterward. After that he began to skip previously scheduled appearances, prompting questions in China and in the global news media about his fate.

Mr. Ma now appears to be attempting to put the speculation to rest.

On Wednesday, he made his first public appearance since late October. He spoke at a livestreamed event honoring educators in China’s village schools. He did not address his troubles but said he would spend more time in philanthropic endeavors.

“In this time, my colleagues and I have been learning and thinking,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks published in the local news media. “We will throw ourselves more resolutely into educational philanthropy.”

Mr. Ma, a former English teacher, said that it was the responsibility of business executives of his generation to work toward common prosperity by revitalizing rural areas and developing village education. His speech was consistent with his recent efforts to step away from Alibaba’s day-to-day operations and focus more on philanthropy, though he retains considerable sway over his business empire.

His remarks were widely covered in the Chinese state-run news media, suggesting at the very least that Beijing’s censorship machine approved of his remarks. His appearance relieved some investors, who drove Alibaba’s Hong Kong-traded shares up about 9 percent in afternoon trading.

Mr. Ma, who ran Alibaba from its founding in 1999 to its rising as one of the world’s biggest and most valuable technology companies, has long been cautious around the Chinese government. Like many entrepreneurs in the country, he has forged ties with Beijing officialdom to head off any regulatory troubles.

But the rise of Alibaba’s sister company, Ant Group, put him increasingly at odds with China’s state-dominated financial system. Ant Group, which was once an Alibaba subsidiary and offers services like electronic payments and lending, now plays a huge role in the financial lives of many Chinese people. It had planned an initial public offering for late last year in Shanghai and Hong Kong, in what was widely expected to be the largest fund-raising of its kind.

But in October, at a public event, Mr. Ma accused Chinese state-run banks of behaving like “pawnshops” and the country’s financial regulators of limiting innovation by obsessing over risk.

About a week later, the government halted Ant Group’s I.P.O. and later ordered it to shake up its business practices. Then it began an antitrust investigation into Alibaba.

Amid the official blowback, Mr. Ma began to bow out of previously scheduled appearances, including as a judge on an African entrepreneur-themed talent show that he had created. That ignited speculation, especially after other entrepreneurs who challenged Chinese officialdom were dealt heavy punishments.

On his first day as president, Joseph R. Biden Jr. will move unilaterally to aid Americans struggling to afford housing and student loan payments amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but will not cancel large amounts of student debt as progressive activists had hoped.

The long-previewed steps are part of Mr. Biden’s pledge to take immediate executive action to help struggling Americans as the pandemic continues to disrupt everyday life.

He will extend a federal moratorium on evictions and ask agencies, including the Departments of Agriculture, Veterans Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development, to prolong a moratorium on foreclosures on federally guaranteed mortgages. Mr. Biden’s extensions would run through March.

Another planned executive order, for Americans with heavy educational debt, would continue a pause on federal student loan interest and principal payments through September.

The actions may not be enough to satisfy some Democrats and progressive groups, who urged more aggressive moves. They include Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who will become majority leader on Wednesday and had pushed Mr. Biden to act on Day 1 to cancel up to $50,000 per person in student debt. Instead, Mr. Biden’s aides renewed his campaign call for Congress to act to cancel up to $10,000 in individual student debt.

Mr. Biden is also set to issue a flurry of orders that seek to narrow racial and gender inequalities in the economy, through actions inside and outside the federal bureaucracy.

He will direct federal agencies to conduct reviews looking to root out systemic discrimination in their policies and to reverse historic discrimination in safety-net and other federal spending, aides said. He will establish a working group examining federal data collection on diversity grounds.

And Mr. Biden will reverse several Trump administration orders that sought to undermine diversity efforts in the United States, including canceling President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which released a report on Monday that historians said distorted America’s history of slavery. Mr. Biden will also revoke an order that limited diversity training and other inclusion efforts for federal agencies and contractors.

The recall order covers vehicles including the Ford Ranger, Edge and Fusion made from 2007 to 2012.
Credit…Jeff Kowalsky/EPA, via Shutterstock

Federal regulators on Tuesday ordered Ford Motor to recall about three million cars to replace defective airbags made by the Japanese supplier Takata.

Ford had sought to have the vehicles excluded from recalls, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found the airbags were similar to those subject to earlier recalls.

Takata airbags have been found to explode under certain conditions, shooting out inflater shrapnel that can injure or even kill drivers and passengers. The defect has been linked to more than a dozen deaths in the United States. Ford had argued its testing found the type of airbag inflaters used in its vehicles did not show a tendency to degrade over time.

The recall order covers vehicles including the Ford Ranger, Edge and Fusion made from 2007 to 2012.

Mazda had also sought to exclude some of its models from recalls. NHTSA ordered Mazda to recall an additional 5,800 vehicles.

More than 70 million vehicles equipped with Takata airbag inflaters have been recalled in more than 40 countries.