March 19, 2019

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DealBook Briefing: What Could Go Wrong in 2019? Plenty

DealBook Briefing: What Could Go Wrong in 2019? Plenty
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Good Wednesday morning. Welcome to the first working day of the new year. Want this by email? Sign up here.

Last year was an unexpectedly bad year for the stock market. But Wall Street’s top stock pickers are expecting gains in 2019. Still, there is plenty that could go wrong and upend those forecasts, the NYT’s Peter Eavis and Guilbert Gates write.

Here’s a look:

Borrowing costs: The Fed increased its target rate four times in 2018, and fears that the central bank would raise interest rates too much and send a chill through the American economy weighed heavily on stocks in 2018. If investors don’t see signs that the economy is growing steadily, they could hang on the Fed’s every move, and monetary policy meeting, this year.

President Trump: Investors were mostly tolerant in early 2108 of Mr. Trump’s unpredictable declarations on Twitter. But as the trade war with China escalated, his proclamations began to make investors jumpy. And it wasn’t just the tweets about China: The president also roiled the markets with criticism of the Fed. Mr. Trump is now the top concern that keeps investors up at night.

Global growth: Large overseas economies — China, Japan and the European Union — appear to be taking a turn for the worse. Growth may accelerate if trade agreements are forged in 2019. But the problems could run deeper. China’s methods for pulling itself out of an economic rut are probably not as effective as they once were, and Europe could be hit hard if Britain crashes out of the European Union.

Tech stocks: Companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Netflix helped push the S&P 500 and Nasdaq to records. But when some those companies dipped, they dragged the indexes down with them. The market’s fate depends in large part on whether investors fall back in love with large technology companies.

What has to go right? The U.S. economy needs to grow strongly, the Fed needs to tread a delicate middle ground, the trade war needs to wind down, and the economies of Europe and China need to stabilize.

More on markets: Retail investors are trying to hold on despite the intense volatility. As the great unwind continues, markets are at increased risk of experiencing “doom loops.” Analysts have been trimming their earnings forecasts since September, and investors are worried the outlook for companies will deteriorate further.

New data showing weakening factory activity in China is amplifying concerns about the health of the global economy and driving down stocks across Asia.

• The Caixin/Markit manufacturing purchasing managers index for China sank last month to 49.7, falling below the 50 mark that represents contraction for the first time since May 2017. The slide, reported today, followed similarly gloomy results on Monday from the Chinese government. The sense of impending malaise spread elsewhere in Asia, with production activity in Malaysia and Taiwan shrinking to its slowest pace in years.

• The Hang Seng Index in Hong Kong responded by falling nearly 2.8 percent on the first trading day of 2019. The Shanghai composite index slipped 1.15 percent. In Australia, the S&P/ASX 200 was down 1.6 percent. S&P futures also took a hit.

• Stocks have been shaky as investors fret about trade tensions between China and the U.S., the Fed’s position on interest rates, and intensifying predictions of waning economic growth around the world.

• Employees at Baidu received a letter today from Robin Li, the chief executive of the Chinese technology company, warning that “winter is coming.” In the note, reported by the South China Morning Post, Mr. Li wrote that economic restructuring was “as cold and real as winter to every company.”

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Today’s DealBook Briefing was written by Andrew Ross Sorkin and Stephen Grocer in New York, and Tiffany Hsu and Gregory Schmidt in Paris.

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With talks between China and the United States set to begin this week in Beijing, Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, faces the assignment of a lifetime: redefining the trade relationship between the world’s two largest economies by March 2.

But first, writes Glenn Thrush in the NYT, “Mr. Lighthizer will need to keep a mercurial president from wavering in the face of queasy financial markets, which have suffered their steepest annual decline since 2008. Despite his declaration that trade wars are ‘easy to win’ and his recent boast that he is a ‘Tariff Man,’ Mr. Trump is increasingly eager to reach a deal that will help calm the markets, which he views as a political electrocardiogram of his presidency.”

After 40 years of dealing with China and watching its government dangle promises that do not materialize, Mr. Lighthizer remains deeply skeptical of Beijing and has warned Mr. Trump that the United States may need to exert more pressure through additional tariffs to win true concessions.

Silicon Valley was embattled in 2018. With lawmakers saying Big Tech has too much power and regulation looming, it might seem like a good time for companies like Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook to lie low. That is not the path they are taking, writes the NYT’s David Streitfeld. In fact, Big Tech’s dizzying expansion is barely getting started.

Tech companies are competing to own the cloud and become, in essence, the internet’s landlord. Google made a deal in 2017 to reimagine a chunk of waterfront Toronto from the ground up. Amazon is adding warehouses in rural areas to provide urban dwellers with everything they need to stay home. For those who venture out, driverless cars will be operated by Big Tech. And the companies are plunging further into artificial intelligence.

To accomplish all this, Big Tech needs hundreds of thousands of new employees. Google is bulking up in New York and Amazon is planning satellite offices in New York and Washington. Even in Silicon Valley, the boom is accelerating. Last spring Facebook leased one million square feet in Sunnyvale, Calif., for its fast-growing community operations team.

More on tech: Mark Zuckerberg admits in a New Year’s post that he is facing an uphill battle to fix Facebook. And 2019 is tech’s chance to make it right.

The Commerce Department is mulling export restrictions on artificial intelligence, citing the technology’s importance to national security. But Silicon Valley insiders say the potential rules could short-circuit U.S. competitiveness in an industry built largely by Americans, reports the NYT’s Cade Metz.

The news: In November, the U.S. government included computer vision, speech recognition and other artificial intelligence categories on a list of “emerging and foundational technologies” being considered for export restrictions. The rules could limit or block exports to countries such as China, whose tactics toward American technology have been criticized by the Trump administration as bullying or illegal.

Why it matters: Tech experts are nervous that restrictions could stifle American innovation in the field while increasing development of A.I. technology abroad, especially in Asia. The public comment period closes on Jan. 10.

Spencer Neumann is expected to join Netflix as its chief financial officer early in 2019, according to Reuters and the WSJ. He was put on paid leave by Activision Blizzard, where he held the same role, and will be fired, though the video game company did not give a reason.

The long-planned ascent of Chung Euisun to the top of Hyundai Motor Group continues with a New Year’s speech he delivered to employees today in place of Chung Mong-Koo, his father and the current chairman of the Korean automotive conglomerate. (FT)

Deals

Over the last few years, Blackstone, Carlyle, CVC and other private equity firms have started funds that can own companies for 15 years or longer. (WSJ)

• Martin Bandier, the chief executive of Sony/ATV, the world’s largest music publisher, says the music industry is ripe for consolidation. (FT)

• The Chinese gold miner Zijin Mining Group plans to sell new shares worth up to 8 billion yuan, or $1.16 billion, in Shanghai to help finance its purchase of Nevsun Resources of Canada. (Reuters)

Politics and Policy

• The U.S. will get its first taste of divided government under President Trump, as Democrats take a majority the House. The question is, who will control the agenda? (NYT)

• How Joe Biden has paved the way for a possible presidential run in 2020. (NYT)

• Democratic lawmakers plan to push ahead this year with an infrastructure package, an issue that both parties might support. (FT)

Tech

• A new cybersecurity law in Vietnam puts stringent controls on technology companies operating inside the country and censors what its citizens read online. (NPR)

• Fortnite was very good to Tyler Blevins in 2018. Mr. Blevins, a 27-year-old professional video gamer known as Ninja, said his 94,958 Fortnite kills had helped him earn close to $10 million last year. (CNN)

• Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-sharing start-up, has begun offering a suite of financial products, including crowdfunding and lending, as it continues to diversify outside of its core business. (Reuters)

• Erik Prince, who founded the security company Blackwater, is starting a fund that will raise up to $500 million to invest in metals used for electric-vehicle batteries. (FT)

Best of the Rest

• Four cases in December show why insider trading will remain a focus for federal prosecutors and regulators. (NYT)

• Allergan raised prices on more than two dozen pharmaceutical products by nearly 10 percent, as drugmakers increased prices on hundreds of medicines in the U.S. this week. (WSJ)

• Denmark’s government is looking to strengthen the Financial Supervisory Authority, its financial regulator, following concerns about its handling of the Danske Bank money laundering scandal. (FT)

• Hedge-fund managers like David Einhorn, whose Greenlight Capital closed out 2018 with its biggest-ever annual loss, are struggling to prove that they can beat the market and are worth their high fees. For many, this will be a make-or-break year. (WSJ)

• Major perks for customers like air miles and cash back were meant to lead to higher returns for retail banks. But consumers figured out how to game the system. Now banks are seeking ways to keep customers happy while cutting extras. (WSJ)

• Netflix removed an episode of a show featuring the comedian Hasan Minhaj that focused on Saudi Arabia’s role in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The internet streaming service, which took down the content after receiving a complaint from the kingdom, now faces concerns about freedom of expression online. (FT)

• Cash begone: The value of Chinese mobile payments more than doubled to $17 trillion in 2017, even as China’s central bank penalizes merchants who do not accept bills and coins. (FT)

• American companies raised prices in 2016 to bolster their profits, but in doing so also transferred three percentage points of national income to wealthy families from lower-income households, according to new research. (WaPo)

• Showtime’s fictional series “Black Monday,” premiering on Jan. 20, features a group of traders who ride the surging stock market in the 1980s and then suffer its 1987 crash. To present-day Wall Street, it feels familiar and possibly prophetic. (WaPo)

• Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma: Which billionaires won in 2018, and which lost? (Bloomberg)

• Chesapeake Energy shifted its focus to oil from natural gas just in time for oil prices to tumble 40 percent since October. One board member feels “snakebitten.” (WSJ)

• Bitcoin slumped about 70 percent in 2018, erasing $160 billion of digital wealth in a move that demonstrated the instability of the cryptocurrency market. (WSJ)

Thanks for reading! We’ll see you tomorrow.

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