NEW YORK/HONG KONG/LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Corona Capital is a daily column updated throughout the day by Breakingviews columnists around the world with short, sharp pandemic-related insights.
- Amazon’s bonuses
- Car company discounts
- College sports deals
AMAZONIAN STIMULUS. Jeff Bezos’ firm is reaping the benefits of consumers who prefer to have things delivered to their doorsteps. But it is a risk for employees during Covid-19. So Amazon is doling out bonuses totaling over $500 million, the company said on Monday.
The bonus pool would equate to about $627 per full-time staffer based on Amazon’s 2019 headcount of 798,000, though the payouts vary and Amazon has since been on a hiring spree. Either way, it amounts to something less than what Uncle Sam paid out as a stimulus program, roughly $1,200 depending on income levels. More than 80% of American families are estimated to have received at least that amount, according to USAFacts. With Amazon’s stock up some 40% year-to-date adding about $400 billion more to its market value, it may consider ponying up again. (By Jennifer Saba)
BALANCING ACT. America’s automakers led early in the U.S. race to reopen. Ford Motor, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles kept up the pace this month, returning to pre-coronavirus production levels. Now comes the tricky part: persuading Americans to buy vehicles. That, as in past crises, means liberal use of discounts. These set a record for the month of June of $4,411 per vehicle, consultancy J.D. Power estimates.
Yet balancing the trade-off between sales and discounts is more important than ever. Manufacturers already needed to maximize sales of high-margin trucks and SUVs to finance the shift to electric and autonomous cars. Now they also need to pay down debt – around $16 billion apiece for Ford and GM – borrowed in case of prolonged shutdowns.
Every dollar given away detracts from those goals. With new Covid-19 cases surging in populous states like California, Florida and Texas, they may need to offer more. That must be giving auto execs the shakes. (By Antony Currie)
FALSE START. UCLA might want a flag for unnecessary roughness. Under Armour said on Saturday that it’s trying to terminate the record-setting $280 million deal it signed with the Los Angeles university in 2016 that requires athletes to wear the clothing company’s gear. So not only did the Bruins get destroyed by their rivals at USC last November – and end fiscal year 2019 with an almost $19 million athletic department deficit. Now they may need to find another brand partner.
That’s bad news for the entire $10 billion college sports industry. Covid-19 is putting the lucrative college football season in jeopardy. Players returning to campuses are testing positive for Covid-19 across the country, and pigskin-crazy states like Texas and Florida are reporting record numbers of cases. If Under Armour’s weakness signals less competition between brands, eye-watering deals like that 2016 stunner will become a pre-coronavirus relic. The game’s not over – but athletic departments are facing third and long. (By Anna Szymanski)
UNDER-FED. The U.S. Federal Reserve bought only a little more than $400 billion of corporate bonds by mid-June under the secondary-market support program set up to counter the negative effects of Covid-19. It’s a sign of how little the central bank has actually had to do in some areas to calm financial markets after it announced across-the-board support potentially worth trillions of dollars starting in March.
Energy giant Exxon Mobil and tobacco purveyor Philip Morris International are among the names in the Fed’s early portfolio. Climate and health campaigners, respectively, may not like some of these picks. They see a chance to shape where financial support should go, for example encouraging a lower-carbon future. The Fed facility is, however, broad and based on credit ratings, not industry specifics. That’s less politically provocative and allowed rapid implementation. Hindsight, however, may conclude it’s a missed opportunity. (By Richard Beales)
MASTERING THE ART OF RESTRUCTURING. The owner of the world-renowned art fair Art Basel, MCH, is cleaning up its governance in an attempt to raise up to 100 million Swiss francs, according to Swiss paper the Market NZZ. The Basel-based company is currently 49% owned by local Cantons in Switzerland and only allows other shareholders to control up to 5% of its voting rights each. Under the new plan, those restrictions will be abolished and a new single investor will own about one-third of the company’s shares and obtain three board seats.
The sudden change highlights the dire situation of the company, as most of its events this year have been cancelled due to the pandemic. James Murdoch may be among those looking to invest, according to the Swiss paper, and has agreed to buy shares for as little as 10 francs, some 42% below MCH’s current market price. Given the uncertain outlook for art exhibitions, a big discount looks warranted. (By Karen Kwok)
ON THE MEND. Vietnam’s economy eked out 0.36% growth in the second quarter compared to the same period a year earlier, a rare bright spot in Asia, where most countries are forecast to shrink this year. Hanoi has successfully contained Covid-19, and while tourism is unlikely to recover anytime soon – weighing on a tenth of GDP – there are green shoots: industrial output for June was up an encouraging 7%. Factories are open and foreign companies are active once more, especially as they look to diversify supply chains away from China. U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm, for example, unveiled plans last week to open its first research and development facility in the country. Vietnam is bouncing back. (By Robyn Mak)
BOOSTER SHOT. Temasek is hoping for extra bang from its vaccine investment buck. The Singapore sovereign wealth fund, along with other investors, ploughed $250 million into BioNTech, a German firm working on barriers to Covid-19. Unlike other developers, BioNTech is working on four vaccines simultaneously, an approach it reckons gives it an edge. Its drugs target a specific protein found in the deadly virus and activate antibodies when vaccinated people are infected.
Temasek’s timing looks smart. BioNTech is preparing to release data from a human trial in Germany and America that started in April. If the results prove promising, other investors may want to pile in. The $14 billion Nasdaq-listed group’s shares are already up 54% since the beginning of the year. $24 billion rival Moderna, which has released phase one data using similar technology, has seen its share price treble over the same period. (By Aimee Donnellan)
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