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Coronavirus latest: UK lowers Covid alert level from highest category

2/25/2021, 4:29:22 PM

Laura Noonan in Dublin

Stimulus measures to save the US economy from the worst of the pandemic’s economic pain could conceal the true level of defaults that America’s banks will face, the Federal Reserve’s supervisory boss warned on Thursday.

President Joe Biden is planning another $1.9tn of economic support – on top of the more than $3tn spent by his predecessor Donald Trump last year – to ease the pain for people whose incomes have been hit by Covid-related shutdowns and restrictions.

Appearing virtually at a banking conference in Atlanta, Federal Reserve vice chair Randal Quarles described how “programs put in place to help those borrowers are critical for our recovery but will further complicate risk modeling as borrower stress may be obscured by temporary stimulus”.

“It is difficult to tell whether a borrower who has continued to make loan payments during the Covid event is able to do so because of stimulus payments or because they have continued to earn income,” Quarles added, stressing that “borrowers benefitting from temporary forbearance may or may not be able to resume payments once the forbearance ends.”

Banks have so far painted a bright picture on the outlook for defaults, commenting on how quickly borrowers have moved off forbearance plans and cutting their estimates of longer term loan losses by billions as the economy recovers.

Still, executives have long acknowledged that the Covid crisis is like nothing they have ever seen before, and that traditional loan loss models may be of little help since they do not include shutdowns that imperil even traditionally resilient borrowers.

2/25/2021, 3:46:05 PM

Matthew Rocco

US pending home sales dropped last month by the most since their April plunge, as the housing market grapples with a dearth of listings amid strong demand.

An index tracking the number of signed contracts to buy existing homes fell to 122.8 in January, a 2.8 per cent decline from the previous month, the National Association of Realtors said.

That was still good enough to set a record high for the month of January. Pending sales remained sharply higher compared with pre-pandemic levels, rising 13 per cent versus January 2020.

Record-low mortgage rates have helped spur demand for homes, and many Americans have sought out more space in the suburbs during the pandemic. However, the pace of home sales has recently cooled thanks to a limited supply of available homes.

“Pending home sales fell in January because there are simply not enough homes to match the demand on the market,” said Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist. “That said, there has been an increase in permits and requests to build new homes.”

Yun predicted that supply pressures could ease in the spring, which should produce a seasonal increase in inventory. Home construction is also ramping up, as builders become more confident in the economic outlook.

Sales of previously owned homes, which account for most real estate transactions, were up 0.6 per cent last month but were constrained by a shortage of listings, the NAR said last week.

2/25/2021, 3:21:44 PM

Sarah Neville in London

The UK has lowered its Covid-19 alert status from the highest level for the first time since January, reflecting a sustained reduction in infections, hospitalisations and deaths.

The department of health said that “following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and in the light of the most recent data, the four UK Chief Medical Officers and NHS England National Medical Director agree that the UK alert level should move from level 5 to level 4 in all four nations.”

Level five denotes a “material risk” of the NHS being overwhelmed, while level four means the Covid-19 epidemic “is in general circulation” and “transmission is high or rising exponentially”.

The government statement said the health services across the four nations remained under significant pressure with a high number of patients in hospital.

However, “thanks to the efforts of the public we are now seeing numbers consistently declining, and the threat of the NHS and other health services being overwhelmed within 21 days has receded”.

The health leaders cautioned that Britons “should be under no illusions – transmission rates, hospital pressures and deaths are still very high.”

In time, the vaccines would have a major impact, they said. “For the time being it is really important that we all – vaccinated or not – remain vigilant and continue to follow the guidelines,” they said.

They also noted “how difficult the situation has been and remains to be for healthcare workers.”

2/25/2021, 3:17:11 PM

James Politi in Washington and Jonathan Wheatley in London

US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen has taken the first steps to reverse Washington’s opposition to more financial support for low-income countries through the IMF to help ease the economic impact of the pandemic.

In a letter to her G20 counterparts on Thursday, Yellen signalled her provisional support for a new allocation of special drawing rights (SDR) — the IMF’s reserve currency which is used to supplement member countries’ official reserves.

Donald Trump’s administration resisted the proposal throughout the coronavirus crisis last year, in the face of widespread support from other leading economies.

Joe Biden’s administration has pledged to boost America’s engagement with multilateral institutions after four years of Trump’s unilateralism, but on the economic front this has not yet translated into big changes in policy.

Yellen’s endorsement, which came ahead of Friday’s meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bank governors hosted by Italy, paves the way for as much as $500bn in additional liquidity to be pumped into the world economy.

However, she emphasised that her support was conditional on countries finding “shared parameters for greater transparency and accountability” with regard to how the reserve currency was deployed.

She also urged G20 countries to send their own SDR allocations to low-income countries so the benefits would disproportionately accrue to the poorest nations.

“An allocation of new Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) at the IMF could enhance liquidity for low-income countries to facilitate their much-needed health and economic recovery efforts,” Yellen said. “We look forward to discussing potential modalities for deploying SDRs [with other G20 nations].”

Read more here

2/25/2021, 2:58:40 PM

James Shotter in Warsaw and Michael Peel in Brussels

Czech prime minister Andrej Babis said on Thursday that France had agreed to provide 100,000 doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to his country, which is struggling to cope with soaring virus cases.

The Czech Republic is currently undergoing the worst surge of infections in the EU, with 1,120 new infections per 100,000 people in the last two weeks — 50 per cent worse in per capita terms than any other member of the bloc, according to the European Centre for Disease Control.

Babis warned on Wednesday that the central European nation was facing “hellish days” ahead due to the pandemic, and has been seeking to persuade other countries to help, either by taking in Czech patients or by providing vaccines. Israel has agreed to send 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.

“We have been trying for a long time to get some extra vaccine, in Israel we succeeded in getting it as a gift. France has now promised us 100,000 by March 15,” Babis told the Czech state news agency, CTK on Thursday.

A French official said the offer was being discussed, “but this must be done at a European level, not bilaterally”. The official added: “France helps its partners when possible, for medical equipment (as recently with Portugal, for example) or vaccines, to the extent permitted by the health priority given to its own population.”

2/25/2021, 2:55:16 PM

Andrew Jack

Aid agencies are ready to disburse more than $90m in funding for emergency oxygen supplies in low income countries struggling to treat patients with Covid-19, ahead of a broader campaign to raise $1.6bn in the coming months.

Wellcome and Unitaid have pledged an immediate $20m, as part of a plan to accelerate support for medical oxygen, and will oversee any money raised towards a new target of $1.6bn allocated for oxygen as part of the therapeutics unit of Act-A, a World Health Organization programme which is developing tools to tackle the pandemic.

The World Bank, which with the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria oversees the separate health systems division of Act-A, is also preparing to allocate $90m to meet requests from health ministries and support large-scale oxygen plant construction.

One estimate suggests that more than 500,000 Covid-19 patients in lower and middle-income countries need nearly 8m cubic metres of oxygen for treatment every day, and the World Health Organization has estimated global demand is equivalent to nearly 70m large oxygen cylinders per day.

Air Liquide and other industrial oxygen suppliers have offered to step up low cost supplies, but caution that they also need logistics and regulatory support, clearer indications of needs and infrastructure and trained staff to support deliveries and maintenance.

2/25/2021, 2:36:53 PM

Claire Bushey

The board at United Airlines authorised a plan to sell up to 37m shares as the airline hunts for capital during a pandemic that has devastated the industry.

The move clears the way for an “at-the-market” offering, where the airline sells stock directly into the market rather than in blocks to large investors. Shares in United trimmed 1 per cent off their price, recently trading at $54.47. They rose 9 per cent on Wednesday. Selling 37m shares at that price would net about $2bn.

Although the Chicago-based company said that “there is no assurance that [United] will proceed with any such offering”, it would be not the first major US carrier to do so. American Airlines sold stock through an at-the-market offering in October, and then again in January when its stock price rose during the Gamestop free-for-all.

United posted a $7.1bn net loss last year as the pandemic caused revenue to plummet for airlines worldwide. Would-be travellers have stayed at home in unprecedented numbers to conform with rules to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Chief executive Scott Kirby said in January that the airline’s $19.7bn in liquidity—a measure that includes $8bn in untapped loans, mostly from the US government—would be enough to manage through the crisis, though he did not say when he expected it to end. United burned $33m a day in the fourth quarter of 2020.

2/25/2021, 2:22:11 PM

Mamta Badkar in New York

US orders for long-lasting manufactured goods advanced for the ninth straight month and were above pre-pandemic levels, boosted by demand for aircraft parts.

Durable goods orders rose 3.4 per cent in January, the Commerce Department said on Thursday. That was the biggest increase in six months and compared with expectations for a 1.1 per cent increase, according to a Reuters survey of economists.

The data were boosted by a 390 per cent surge in orders for non-defence aircraft and parts, reflecting a “sharp drop in cancellations for Boeing aircraft”, said Ian Shepherdson, economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. Meanwhile, orders for machinery, computer-related parts and communications equipment declined.

The report showed new orders for non-defence capital goods excluding aircraft, considered a proxy for business investment, rose 0.5 per cent, missing estimates for a 0.7 per cent increase. However, shipments in this category rose more than expected.

“Factory activity will expand solidly in the near term, driven by hearty consumer demand for goods and inventory restocking,” said Oren Klachin, economist at Oxford Economics.

“Industrial momentum will gradually cool heading into the summer, as vaccine diffusion unleashes pent-up demand for services. However, underlying strength will keep factory activity growing healthily even after the pandemic ends,” he added.

2/25/2021, 1:46:48 PM

Matthew Rocco

New US unemployment filings fell last week to their lowest level in 12 weeks, in a sign of easing pressure on the jobs market as coronavirus infections slow.

Initial jobless claims dropped to a seasonally adjusted 730,000 from 841,000 during the previous week, the labour department reported on Thursday. Economists had forecast that weekly claims would total 838,000.

The federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, which provides benefits to the self-employed and others who would not qualify for regular benefits, had about 451,000 new claimants on an unadjusted basis, down from 513,000.

The labour market’s recovery sputtered in recent months following a resurgence of coronavirus across most parts of the US. Now, with new infections declining and vaccinations boosting optimism, other economic indicators such as retail sales and activity in the manufacturing and services sectors started the year strongly. However, weekly claims were slow to recede.

There were 4.4m Americans actively collecting state jobless aid in the week that ended on February 13, compared with 4.5m a week earlier and 5.2m at the start of the year. The insured unemployment rate, considered an alternative measure of joblessness, fell to 3.1 per cent from 3.2 per cent. Economists have attributed some of the decline in continuing claims to unemployed workers exhausting regular benefits.

2/25/2021, 1:33:40 PM

Mamta Badkar in New York

Norwegian Cruise Line reported a $4bn loss last year as sailings were suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, although the cruise operator said pent-up demand had given an early boost to bookings for next year.

Revenues at the Miami-based company fell to just $9.6m in the fourth quarter, down from $1.5bn in the same period a year ago, and it swung to a net loss of $738.9m or $2.51 a share, compared with a net income of $121.3m or 56 cents a share.

For the full-year, Norwegian said its revenues plunged 80 per cent to $1.3bn and it reported a $4bn net loss.

Voyages have already been suspended for nearly a year because of the dangers posed by the coronavirus pandemic and sailings will not return until June at the earliest.

Last year was the most challenging in the company’s more than 50-year history, chief executive Frank Del Rio said. “Looking ahead, we are encouraged by the accelerating rollout of vaccines, the progress towards herd immunity and the strong demand for future cruise vacations.”

While booking volumes for the second half of this year were below historical levels, trends for 2022 were “very positive driven by strong pent-up demand”. The company added it was experiencing “robust future demand across all brands with the overall cumulative booked position for the first half of 2022 significantly ahead of 2019’s record levels”.

Norwegian said it would report a net loss in the current quarter and expected to report a loss until it is able to resume sailings.

2/25/2021, 1:30:25 PM

Alistair Gray

Shoppers flocked to Best Buy for electronics and Wayfair for homewares over the holiday season, yet concerns about how much longer a pandemic-induced boom in online sales could last for the US retailers weighed on their shares.

Best Buy produced $16.9bn worth in revenues in the three months to the end of January, an increase of almost 13 per cent on a comparable basis, as electronic equipment and gadgets proved popular Christmas gifts.

The largest US electronics retailer has coped with pressure on bricks-and-mortar stores in the pandemic thanks to the rise of home working and schooling, which has spurred digital demand. Net earnings in the quarter rose from $745m to $816m.

Best Buy’s outlook for the year ahead made Wall Street jittery, however. Matt Bilunas, chief financial officer, said forecasting remained difficult, but the company was initially expecting comparable sales to dip as much as 2 per cent this year from 2020’s strong figures.

Wayfair, the homewares group, has had an even bigger boost from changes in shopper behaviour. Housebound consumers have spruced up their properties with furniture and decor, and the company specialises in online sales.

Wayfair, which has had successive years of losses, eked out a profit in the quarter. Net income was $23.8m in the three months to the end of December compared with a loss of $330m one year ago.

Revenues leapt 45 per cent to $3.67bn, although these were shy of analyst estimates for $3.76bn.

Shares in both companies fell in pre-market trading. Wayfair, which has almost tripled since the start of 2020, was down 7 per cent. Best Buy, which has risen 30 per cent since the start of last year, fell 5 per cent.

Click and collect services from Best Buy and other retailers have been popular in the US during the pandemic © AP

2/25/2021, 12:54:10 PM

The Financial Times has been your guide to the pandemic since the first outbreak was detected over a year ago. Here are some of the developments we were reporting on a year ago today:

  • Confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus continued to rise, with the number of people infected worldwide pushing past 80,000

  • Health authorities in China reported 71 more deaths in the mainland from coronavirus, taking the total number of fatalities to 2,663

  • Hong Kong extended a school suspension until at least April 20 as the outbreak showed no obvious signs of slowing down

  • The British government placed travellers returning from locked-down northern Italian towns in the same category as those coming to the country from Wuhan, where the virus originated, instructing them to shut themselves off from the public even if they lack symptoms

  • Switzerland, Austria and Croatia confirmed their first cases of Covid-19

  • Giuseppe Conte, Italian prime minister, said he believed the country would be able to contain the outbreak of coronavirus in “the coming days” but warned of “an immediate economic impact” from the emergency

  • The yield on benchmark US government debt fell to its lowest on record and stocks tumbled more than 3 per cent as American health officials warned of the potential for “severe” disruptions to daily life from the spread of the coronavirus

For all the latest on the pandemic, visit the FT’s coronavirus home page.

2/25/2021, 12:32:47 PM

Hannah Kuchler

Moderna has signed deals worth $18.4bn for its Covid-19 vaccine this year, as the pandemic has transformed the fortunes of the loss-making start-up.

The Boston-based company’s revenue forecast is far higher than the $11.2bn that analysts had predicted for 2021, and is above the $15bn that Pfizer said it expected when it reported earnings earlier this month.

Moderna said this number could rise as it is in discussions with governments about more vaccine orders for 2021 and 2022. Moderna said the cost of these sales was expected to be 20 per cent of revenue.

Stephane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive, said 2021 would be an “inflection year” for the company.

“We previously believed that mRNA would lead to approved medicines, and we were limited in our ambitions by the need for regular capital raises and keeping several years of cash to manage financing risk,” he said. “We now know that mRNA vaccines can be highly efficacious and authorised for use, and we are a cash-flow generating commercial company.”

In the fourth quarter, Moderna reported revenue of $571m, thanks to sales of its Covid-19 vaccine after it became available in the US in December and US government grants. The company made a net loss of $272m, wider than the $123m for the same period the year before.

Unlike rival BioNTech, Moderna is not sharing the proceeds with a Big Pharma partner. Moderna is building a global commercial network, opening new units in Australia, Japan and South Korea this year, so it will not rely on a larger pharmaceutical company for its sales.

Moderna predicts 2021 will be an ‘inflection year’ for the Boston-based company © REUTERS

2/25/2021, 11:48:05 AM

Hannah Kuchler

BioNTech and Pfizer are launching a trial to study using a third dose of their Covid-19 vaccine to boost the immune response in an attempt to tackle new variants of the virus.

The companies will start by giving extra doses to the participants from the phase 1 trial.

Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive, said it had not seen any evidence that the current vaccine did not protect against circulating variants.

But he said the booster study was “critical” to understanding the safety of a third dose and immunity against the new strains.

The announcement comes after the US regulator urged vaccine makers to prepare for new variants earlier this week. The companies are also talking to regulators about tailoring a vaccine specifically to the 501.V2 variant, which was first detected in South Africa.

Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s chief executive, said the strategy “will enable us to address the challenges of tomorrow”. He added that “we want to be prepared for different scenarios”.

2/25/2021, 11:28:06 AM

Philip Georgiadis

The railway is facing a reduction in commuter numbers even after the pandemic subsides, potentially putting infrastructure upgrades at risk, the chairman of Network Rail has warned.

“I suspect the volume will be permanently lower,” said Peter Hendy, who leads the board of the body that owns and manages Britain’s railway infrastructure.

Speaking at the National Rail Recovery Conference, he said the industry would have to be “dextrous” in how it responded to changing passenger demand.

“Will commuting go back to 100 per cent? Well I doubt it, because I think the economy will be smaller, and I think people have learnt that you can work from home.”

Hendy said he suspected commuting would return to about 80 per cent of normal levels in the next three years, and that some infrastructure schemes could have to be deferred or cancelled if passenger behaviour changed permanently.

A government white paper on railway reform is expected in the early part of this year. Ministers pumped billions of pounds into keeping trains running during the crisis.

2/25/2021, 11:15:01 AM

Jonathan Eley

Supermarket group Asda said it will hire more than 4,000 workers to handle an expected expansion in ecommerce driven by the coronavirus pandemic, but plans to make 5,000 other staff redundant.

The UK chain, which has just been acquired by petrol station group EG and private equity firm TDR, said it expects to be able to fulfil 1m online orders a week by the end of the year – a level that was expected to take nine years to achieve.

The increase will be achieved through in-store picking, which the company said would create greater capacity and improve slot availability. As a result two dark stores – facilities that are not open to the public and where online orders are picked manually – will be closed, potentially affecting 800 workers.

The UK’s third-largest supermarket is consulting on a “realignment” of store management roles that could mean 1,100 staff lose their jobs, and a similar exercise in back-office roles that could put another 3,000 jobs at risk.

The supermarket chain was recently acquired from US retailer Walmart by petrol station group EG and private equity firm TDR © REUTERS

2/25/2021, 11:02:11 AM

Sarah Provan

Finland is to order bars and restaurants to close for three weeks next month while older schoolchildren will switch to remote learning as new variants have accelerated the spread of Covid-19.

The plans, set out by prime minister Sanna Marin, are the latest sign of a growing split in Europe as some countries toughen rules while others, such as England, have set out their strategy to loosen lockdown measures.

“The tools previously available to us are no longer enough to control the situation,” Marin said on Thursday, according to the national public broadcaster Yle.

The situation in Finland, which has worsened since Christmas, prompted her to announce that hospitality venues will close from March 8-28.

Indoor pursuits will also be suspended for adults and children aged over 12, Yle reported, while secondary schoolchildren and those over the age of 16 in vocational education will have lessons online. Restrictions will also be placed on gatherings of more than six people.

Finland has recorded more than 55,000 cases and 737 coronavirus-related deaths.

About 690 cases have been caused by strains of Covid-19, the institute for health and welfare said. Almost all of those are of the variant B.1.1.7 that was first detected in the UK.

2/25/2021, 10:54:32 AM

Alistair Gray

The World Health Organization has issued an alert over the impact of “long Covid”, warning that about one in 10 infected individuals remained unwell after 12 weeks and many were suffering for “much longer”.

While health officials had yet to establish what proportion of coronavirus patients had symptoms that failed to dissipate, the numbers were high enough to have “severe social, economic, health and occupational health consequences”, Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe, said at a news briefing on Thursday.

Yet some sufferers have been met with “disbelief or lack of understanding”, he said. “The burden is real and it is significant.”

Debilitating symptoms varied widely, said Martin McKee of the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, and included muscle pain, fatigue and shortness of breath.

“Many people are unable to return to work or have a social life,” he said, adding that long Covid has a detrimental impact on mental health not least because the course of condition was unpredictable.

Reasons for lasting illness included that coronavirus persisted in parts of the body, such as the brain, that are sheltered from the immune system. In some cases, the original infection has damaged organs including the heart, lungs and pancreas.

The likelihood of lasting symptoms did not appear to be associated with the severity of the original infection, McKee said. Some patients who have had very mild initial symptoms are still suffering months later. Scientists have established, though, that women are at greater risk than men.

Long Covid was a “clear priority” for the WHO, Kluge said. “It should be for every health authority.”

2/25/2021, 9:37:01 AM

Anna Gross and John Burn-Murdoch

A precipitous fall in global coronavirus cases since the turn of the year has bolstered hopes that countries will be able to contain the pandemic despite concern over the emergence of new variants.

Global infection rates have dropped from more than 5m cases a week at the start of 2021 to 2.5m in mid-February. The sharpest declines have come in some of the countries that were worst affected in late 2020, including the US, UK, South Africa, Israel and Portugal. Case rates in each of these countries have dropped by more than 50 per cent over the past month. 

Vaccinations have played a role in the falling number of cases in the US and the UK — which have given jabs to 20 and 28 per cent of their populations, respectively — but it does not alone explain the trend.

Read more here

Chart showing that the UK’s lockdown has been the strictest and most long-lasting worldwide. Other countries have imposed much fewer restrictions and or relaxed earlier

2/25/2021, 8:53:38 AM

Gill Plimmer

Serco has restored its dividend for the first time in seven years as it benefits from work running the UK government’s Covid-19 test-and-trace programme.

The group, one of the biggest suppliers of outsourced services to governments worldwide, said it would pay a 1.4p a share dividend after its full-year underlying trading profit rose by over a third to £163m, on revenues that were up a fifth to £3.9bn.

Rupert Soames, chief executive, said the board had “thought carefully” about the decision to restore the dividend “in the light of current circumstances” but that, as the Covid-related work accounted for just 1 per cent of underlying profits, the board felt it was justified.

Serco is one of five companies running Covid-19 testing sites and also provides call handlers on the NHS’s contact tracing programme, both of which came under strain as coronavirus cases climbed. 

The company has already paid a £100-a-person bonus to its 50,000 frontline staff and paid back £3m of furlough money in an attempt to defuse controversy.

Serco said it has paid back all its employment and liquidity support from governments, except for £12m owed in the US, for which there is no early repayment mechanism.

Read more on Serco here.

Serco workers direct drivers at testing facility set up at the Chessington World of Adventures Resort near London, England © AFP via Getty Images

2/25/2021, 8:31:05 AM

Peggy Hollinger

BAE Systems promised on Thursday to deliver £4bn in free cash flow over the next three years and pledged an up to 8 per cent increase in underlying operating profits this year, as it reported a 1 per cent rise in 2020 earnings.

The UK’s defence champion fulfilled its promise to restore its dividend, having suspended payments like many companies at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. It announced a payout of 23.7p a share, plus a 13.8p payment to make up for the suspended dividend in respect of 2019’s performance. This represents an increase from 23.2p on 2019.

Charles Woodburn, chief executive, said the group looked “forward to another year of top line growth, with . . . margin expansion and good cash flow” after the challenge of the global pandemic in 2020.

Sales were expected to grow by 3 to 5 per cent in 2021, driven by advances in the air and electronics systems divisions. BAE set a target of 6 to 8 per cent growth for underlying operating profits, helped by the $1.9bn acquisition last year of the military global positioning business of US engineer Collins Aerospace, as well as expected improvements in the applied intelligence business.

2/25/2021, 7:51:09 AM

Sarah Provan

Primark owner Associated British Foods estimates it will lose £1.1bn in sales over the first half of this year after coronavirus-induced restrictions forced the UK retailer to close its stores for weeks at a time.

The UK group expects Primark, which does not sell online, to generate about £2.2bn of sales in the first half of its financial year, compared with £3.7bn in the same period a year earlier. It forecasts its adjusted operating profit will be “marginally above break-even”. That would compare with an adjusted operating profit of £441m for the same period in the previous financial year.

Most of the group’s stores were closed during lockdown restrictions during November and from the end of December.

“Our retail performance in the first half was materially impacted by the restrictions on the movement of people and of trading activity put in place by the UK and European governments,” the group said in a trading update for the 24 weeks to February 27 on Thursday.

ABF expects to reopen 233 of its stores, which will boost its retail space trading to 83 per cent by April 26. It will reopen 153 stores in England on April 12, as announced by the government this week.

Shutters down on Primark’s store on Oxford Street, LondonShutters down on Primark’s store on Oxford Street, London © Charlie Bibby/Financial Times

2/25/2021, 7:48:32 AM

Peter Campbell

Losses at Aston Martin quadrupled last year as the pandemic and a policy of de-stocking dealerships led to a sharp fall in sales for the luxury carmaker.

The group posted a pre-tax loss of £466m for the year compared with £120m in 2019, as revenues fell more than a third to £612m.

The group came under new management in the year after Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll led a bailout. He crafted a new strategy based on Formula 1 and competing with Ferrari.

Aston also deliberately held back its own sales during the year to clear excess unsold cars that had piled up in its dealerships.

“Even without the pandemic we would not have been profitable,” chief executive Tobias Moers, who joined in August, told the Financial Times.

The company wrote off £98m from previous engine and technology developments that were scrapped by new management, and in October it expanded a deal with Mercedes to take parts and some technology.

This year, Aston expects to make a profit. It expects most of the earnings in the second half from delivery of high-price special cars and a new variant of the DBX, its first SUV.

Sales of the DBX began last year, when the company delivered 1,500, mostly in the final quarter.

Of the 6,000 cars it expects to sell this year, about half may be the sports utility vehicle, Moers said.

2/25/2021, 7:46:54 AM

Judith Evans

The world’s largest brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev reported a smaller hit to 2020 sales than expected on Thursday and said it expected “meaningfully” better numbers this year as the pandemic begins to recede.

The brewer of Budweiser, Stella Artois and Corona said like-for-like revenues, stripping out the impact of acquisitions and disposals, dropped 3.7 per cent to $47bn, while the volume of drinks it sold fell 5.7 per cent as the Covid-19 pandemic cut into drinking and socialising globally.

Underlying profit dropped by almost a third to $5bn from $7.2bn a year earlier.

The group pushed up the volumes of beer it sold by 1.6 per cent in the final quarter of the year, in what the company said was a sign of recovery. While it expected better sales and profits in 2021, it said pressure on margins would continue thanks to rising commodity prices and the higher cost of packaging for drinks consumed at home.

Read the full story here.

Carlos Brito, ABI’s chief executive, poses with a Stella ArtoisCarlos Brito, ABI’s chief executive, poses with a Stella Artois © REUTERS

2/25/2021, 7:27:00 AM

Neil Hume

Anglo American, the owner of diamond company De Beers, enjoyed a strong end to 2020 helped by rising prices for its key commodities and the easing of lockdown restrictions.

The FTSE 100 company, which also produces copper, platinum and iron ore, on Thursday announced its best second-half performance since 2011 as its mines returned to almost full operating capacity.

The turnround allowed Anglo to report underlying earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation — the measure of profitability tracked by investors — of $9.8bn for the year to December, down 2 per cent on a year earlier, on revenues of $31bn. Analysts had expected the company to report earnings of $9.4bn. 

Anglo stuck with its policy of paying out 40 per cent of earnings to shareholders, declaring a final dividend of 72 cents a share.

Mining companies have become one of the biggest sources of income for UK investors over the past year, a trend that it set to continue if raw material prices hold at current levels.

Read the full story here.

2/25/2021, 7:03:07 AM

Gary Jones in Hong Kong

Cambodia’s health ministry reported 65 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, with 58 linked to a recent community cluster in the capital Phnom Penh.

The 58 are being treated at a quarantine centre, the Ministry of Health said in a statement. They include nine Vietnamese nationals, five Cambodians and one each from Japan, Singapore and South Korea, with the balance being Chinese. They bring the total number of infections in the cluster to 194 in five days.

The ministry said the other seven cases were imported, with six being Chinese nationals in Sihanoukville province in the south of the country who tested positive while applying for health certificates to travel home. The seventh is a Cambodian UN peacekeeper who had returned to the country.

Cambodia has recorded a total of 697 Covid-19 cases.

2/25/2021, 5:58:48 AM

Ben Hall in London, Michael Peel in Brussels and Guy Chazan in Berlin

Germany, France and other European countries struggling to accelerate their Covid-19 vaccination programmes are under growing pressure to expand their efforts as other EU governments set more demanding targets and prove more effective at deploying available supplies. 

Denmark and Sweden are aiming to fully inoculate every adult that wants the vaccine by the end of June — a month before the UK and well ahead of Germany and France, which are sticking to the EU target of vaccinating 70 per cent of adults by September. 

Delays in using available vaccine doses in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands stand in contrast with rapid deployment in Denmark, Estonia and Lithuania, indicating that supply bottlenecks are not the only reason for the EU’s relatively slow rollout. 

With the EU expecting vaccine supplies to triple to 300m doses in the second quarter, attention is switching from its flawed procurement process to whether member states are prepared to massively expand their vaccination capacity in the space of a few weeks. EU leaders will discuss their vaccination efforts at a summit by videoconference on Thursday.

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2/25/2021, 5:33:21 AM

John Reed in Bangkok

The Philippines is set to receive its first batch of Chinese-made Sinovac Covid-19 vaccines on Sunday and could begin administering them as soon as next week, a government official said on Thursday.

In remarks quoted by local media, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said that vaccinations could start on Monday if the jabs arrived as scheduled.

A Monday launch would be welcomed in the country — one of the hardest-hit in south-east Asia by the pandemic, but also one of the last in the region to begin vaccinating its people. 

A mural honours healthcare workers in Metro ManilaA mural honours healthcare workers in Metro Manila © AP

Roque said earlier this week that the Philippine president would receive the coronavirus vaccine made by Chinese state-owned firm Sinopharm, which has not yet been approved for use in the Philippines.

The Philippines, with a population of more than 110m, has reported more than 565,000 cases and more than 12,000 deaths from Covid-19 to date, the second highest respective numbers in the region after Indonesia. 

The Duterte administration has come under criticism locally for delays in securing vaccines, and this week said it would be willing to allow more of its nurses to work in the UK and Germany if those countries agreed to donate coronavirus vaccines to the Philippines.

2/25/2021, 5:07:30 AM

Tabby Kinder in Hong Kong and Stephen Morris in London

Standard Chartered announced a $254m share buyback scheme and said it would resume paying a dividend, despite slipping to a loss in the fourth quarter as the coronavirus pandemic hit its performance.

The Asia-focused, UK-based bank reported a $449m loss in the last three months of 2020. Standard Chartered’s annual profits dropped 57 per cent, falling short of analysts’ estimates, to $1.6bn. Credit impairment charges more than doubled during the year to $2.3bn.

“We remain strong and profitable, although returns in 2020 were clearly impacted by higher provisions, reduced economic activity and low interest rates, in each case the result of Covid-19,” said Bill Winters, chief executive.

The lender said it would issue a dividend of $0.09 per share, becoming the latest large British bank to resume payouts since the Bank of England partially lifted a ban on dividends in December. HSBC earlier this week said it would return $0.15 per share to investors.

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2/25/2021, 4:58:49 AM

Stefania Palma in Singapore

Singapore has received the first shipment of jabs produced by Sinovac, ahead of local authorities’ approval of the Chinese vaccine. 

The jabs reached the city state — which on Monday started a nationwide vaccine drive — on Tuesday, according to a statement by the health ministry issued late on Wednesday. Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority has yet to authorise Sinovac’s jab. 

The Chinese company “has started submitting initial data, and HSA is currently awaiting Sinovac’s submission of all the necessary information“ to complete “a thorough scientific assessment of the manufacturing process, safety and efficacy of the vaccine”, the health ministry said. 

Singapore on Wednesday received an additional shipment of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines, which have been approved for use together with Moderna jabs.

2/25/2021, 4:23:02 AM

FT correspondents

In the first of a monthly series, a global panel of chief executives and leaders offer insights into their pandemic successes, failures — and future plans.

The post-pandemic workplace is going to be a very different place, and managers and leaders in all organisations will have to navigate extraordinary, new and difficult situations.

In such an uncertain climate, hearing others’ experiences can be valuable, so the FT is convening a panel of diverse global leaders from a range of organisations. Over the coming months, members of the group will share insights from their own leadership experiences during the pandemic — and their plans for the great workplace reset to come.

For this first instalment, we asked them: What is the most significant error you made in the past year, and what is the most significant insight you can share?

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2/25/2021, 3:46:06 AM

Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London

The UK’s education secretary has sought to reassure parents there would be no repeat of last summer’s school exams fiasco in England as he ruled out the use of algorithms to determine GCSE and A-level grades.

Gavin Williamson will lay out plans on Thursday for teacher-assessed grades that use a range of methods, including mock exams, coursework and in-class essays.

Speaking at Downing Street on Wednesday evening ahead of the announcement, Williamson said he was “putting trust in teachers . . . there is going to be no algorithms whatsoever but there will be a very clear and robust appeals mechanism”.

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2/25/2021, 3:16:22 AM

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

A plan to give spending vouchers to residents in Hong Kong will help the city’s economy recover from the pandemic, according to analysts. 

Paul Chan, the city’s financial secretary, said in his budget on Wednesday that HK$5,000 ($644) in electronic spending coupons will be handed out to 7.2m residents.

“By encouraging local consumption, this measure is expected to facilitate the development of a digital economy and bring about an estimated over 1 per cent GDP growth,” said Agnes Chan, EY managing partner, Hong Kong and Macau, pointing to similar schemes in Macau and Taiwan.

Anne Ling, equity analyst at Jefferies, said the estimated HK$36bn in coupons represented 9 per cent of retail and catering spending in 2020 .

“We assume that all will be spent in the retail and catering sectors. However, it might also broaden the scope of business types, such as servicing, hotels, etcetera,” Ling said. 

Ling added that with unemployment at a near 17-year high of 7 per cent, spending is likely to be focused on necessities.

The electronic handouts are expected to provide a boost to Hong Kong’s economy © Getty Images

Paul Ho, partner at Ernst & Young Tax Services, said the increase in stamp duty on stock transfers to 0.13 per cent from 0.1 per cent, which sent shares in the city’s exchange down sharply, will not have a long-term impact.

“Such increase should not have a long-term impact to the competitiveness of the HK stock market because the rate could be adjusted according to the market conditions and overall economic environment,” he said.

Economists at Citi classed the budget as “cautious yet expansionary” and raised their forecasts for economic growth to 4 per cent for 2021 and 2 per cent growth for the first quarter following the relaxation of social-distancing measures. 

The city’s economy contracted by 6.1 per cent year-on-year in 2020.

2/25/2021, 2:38:44 AM

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

Opinion: the FT’s South Asia bureau chief says the government’s early struggles are reminiscent of the days of the socialist ‘Licence Raj’.

I first arrived in India in the mid-1990s at the tail-end of its socialist-style “Licence Raj”. New Delhi was relaxing control over the country’s economic life, but basic amenities — long the monopoly of the state providers — were still in short supply.

Getting a phone line installed into my New Delhi apartment — in an upscale neighbourhood in the heart of the capital — took about four months and an all-cash “facilitation” fee. If my cooking gas cylinder was empty, replacing it could take days. Airline capacity was far below demand, but my travel agent “knew people” at the monopolistic state carrier, and could sometimes get a seat “released” if my work required travel on short notice.

I’ve been reminded of these years while watching the first phase of India’s sluggish Covid-19 vaccine rollout, which began in mid-January.

So far, India’s chronically overstretched and underfunded public health machinery has given just 12.3m jabs, or around 0.8 doses for every 100 residents.

At the current pace of around 400,000 jabs a day, India would need four years to cover the first batch of 300m Indians — health workers, frontline workers and the elderly — targeted for vaccination by August.

A frontline worker receives a jab in New DelhiA frontline worker receives a jab in New Delhi © REUTERS

Read more here

2/25/2021, 1:46:13 AM

Gary Jones in Hong Kong

Global recovery from the pandemic will represent a historic chance to ensure human rights for all people, UN secretary-general António Guterres said on Wednesday.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly exactly one year after he issued a “Call to Action for Human Rights” and just weeks before the pandemic was declared, Guterres said: “Much like Covid-19 vaccines, human rights will not lead to a healthier world if they are only available to the privileged few.”

The pandemic has “exposed inequalities and discrimination, with women, minorities, older persons, and persons with disabilities, among those disproportionately affected”, the UN said in a statement, adding that “rights and protection systems have been tested, weakened and even shattered”. 

“In building forward together, we have a unique and historic opportunity to forge a world where every person is afforded dignity, where every society can withstand crises, where everyone’s future is built upon a foundation of inalienable rights,” Guterres said.

2/25/2021, 1:29:04 AM

Gary Jones

San Francisco entered Phase 1B of California’s Covid-19 vaccination prioritisation plan on Wednesday, expanding eligibility to workers in the education and childcare, emergency services and food and agriculture sectors.

Vaccine doses remain in short supply in the city, however, with second doses prioritised in the coming weeks and first doses limited.

Phase 1B covers more than 168,000 people living or working in San Francisco, adding to the 210,000 healthcare workers and people 65 and older who are already eligible.

“From the grocery store clerks, child care providers and teachers, to emergency workers and restaurant cooks and waiters, these frontline workers have showed up for all of us, and I’m glad we’re able to move forward with expanding vaccine eligibility to include them,” said San Francisco mayor London Breed.

2/25/2021, 1:10:40 AM

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

Australian airline Qantas pushed back a resumption of international flights to October as it reported a hit to revenues from domestic travel restrictions.

Alan Joyce, Qantas Group chief executive, said that the expected completion of Australia’s vaccine rollout by the end of October would give more certainty on the reopening of international borders. 

Qantas had previously opened bookings for flights beginning from July.

“The Covid vaccine rollout in Australia will take time, but the fact it’s under way gives us more certainty,” Joyce said, pointing to the programme that began on Sunday.

The airline has been hit by a drop in demand for travel, the closure of the Australian border to foreign visitors, strict quarantine restrictions and limits on travel between states.

Qantas had previously opened bookings for flights from July © Bloomberg

Qantas reported a 75 per cent drop in revenue to A$2.3bn ($1.8bn) in the six months to the end of December. The airline swung to an underlying loss before tax of A$1.03bn from a profit before tax of A$771m in the same period a year earlier.

It said 70 per cent of domestic flights stopped during months of lockdown in the state of Victoria, accounting for three-quarters of its revenue.

The carrier said it expected capacity on its domestic flights to increase to 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in its fourth quarter.

Qantas shares were up 3.4 per cent following the announcement.

2/25/2021, 1:09:37 AM

Peter Wells in New York

New coronavirus cases and deaths in the US hovered around their highest levels in several days on Wednesday, while hospitalisations eased to their lowest since early November.

States reported an additional 73,258 new infections, up from 69,105 on Tuesday, according to Covid Tracking Project data. It was the biggest one-day increase in cases since Friday last week.

Texas reported 7,517 new and historical cases, followed by Florida (6,923) and New York (6,189). The three states, which rank second, third and fourth by population in the US, were the only three to each reveal more than 6,000 additional infections on Wednesday.

“Data from Texas is still a bit wobbly due to storm-related reporting disruptions,” Covid Tracking Project said. On Tuesday, the state reported more than 10,000 new infections for the first time in 10 days, with daily cases holding below 4,000 cases for several days as Texas dealt with severe weather and power outages.

Workers repair a storm-damaged power line in Austin, Texas © Bloomberg

Authorities attributed a further 2,447 fatalities to coronavirus, up from 2,241 on Tuesday. It was also the biggest one-day increase since Friday last week.

Texas (339) and California (314), the two most populous states, had the biggest one-day tallies.

Virginia reported 149 fatalities, with Covid Tracking Project pointing out that “processing of death certificates related to surges in post-holiday cases is resulting in high reported deaths for the fifth straight day”, which in turn has given a boost to recent national daily fatalities. 

The number of people currently in US hospitals with coronavirus dropped to 54,118 from 55,058 on Tuesday. That is the lowest level since November 5.

2/25/2021, 12:10:05 AM

Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

Equities in Asia-Pacific climbed on Thursday following gains in the US as the Federal Reserve chairman provided more reassurance to investors. 

In Japan, the Topix was up 1.1 per cent, the Kospi in South Korea added 1.7 per cent and the S&P/ASX 200 rose 1 per cent.

Those moves come after the S&P 500 ended 1.1 per cent higher in the US on Wednesday and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite added 1 per cent. 

In his second day of testimony to Congress, Jay Powell, Fed chairman, reiterated that the central bank would stick with its accommodative policies, easing concerns over inflation.

S&P 500 futures pointed to a 0.3 per cent gain when trading resumes in the US on Thursday.

2/25/2021, 12:02:11 AM

Anna Gross in London

Around 14 per cent of the population in England has antibodies to coronavirus from past infection and vaccinations, according to a closely watched study conducted by researchers at Imperial College London.

The React-2 study, which gave antibody tests to 170,000 people between January 26 and February 8, also found that antibody levels were high across all age groups after two shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, at around 91 per cent. 

Antibody levels were significantly lower for older age groups who received only one dose.

Individuals across all age groups who had previously been infected by Covid-19 and had a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine exhibited very high levels of antibodies, at roughly 90 per cent.

“We do see very good antibody positivity results in those that have already had covid after one dose, at least as good as people who’ve had two doses of the Pfizer vaccine,” said Graham Cooke, professor of Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London.

Around 10 per cent of the English population that had not been vaccinated were found to have antibodies in the study, and 38 per cent of the vaccinated cohort did, although many of the tests were taken shortly after vaccination and therefore before antibodies had fully developed.

The researchers also found very high uptake of the vaccine among those who had been offered it, at 94 per cent in those aged over 80, 69 per cent in healthcare workers and 60 per cent in care home workers.

Lower confidence in the vaccine was found among those from minority ethnic backgrounds and the young, with many women raising particular concerns around its effect on fertility.

2/24/2021, 11:10:24 PM

Mamta Badkar in New York

Booking Holdings’ revenues fell by nearly two-thirds in the fourth quarter as the coronavirus pandemic continued to wreak havoc on the travel industry, though the company reported improvements in booking trends in recent weeks.

Total revenues at the company behind travel web sites including Booking.com and Kayak, fell 63 per cent from a year ago to $1.2bn in the fourth quarter. That compared with estimates for $1.18bn, according to a Refinitiv survey of Wall Street analysts.

Gross bookings — the dollar value of all travel services net of cancellations — fell 65 per cent to $7.3bn.

“The travel environment continued to be challenging through the fourth quarter of 2020 and into January 2021 as Covid-19 case counts remained very high and travel restrictions were reimposed in many parts of the world,” said chief executive Glenn Fogel.

In “recent weeks” the company, which derives the bulk of its revenues from overseas, has started to “see some improvements in booking trends that we will continue to monitor”, Fogel said.

The Connecticut-based company reported a loss of $165m or $4.02 a share, compared with net income of $1.2bn or $27.75 a share in the year ago quarter. Adjusting for one-time items, Booking Holdings reported a loss of 57 cents a share, that was better than expectations for a loss of $4.28.

2/24/2021, 11:10:01 PM

Richard Waters in San Francisco

Nvidia forecast a much bigger growth surge in the coming months than Wall Street had been expecting, as the US chip maker reported quarterly numbers that showed it had continued to ride strong demand for gaming and data centre chips during the pandemic.

The forecast, which lifted the company’s shares 3 per cent in after-market trading came despite supply shortages that have caused convulsions in some parts of the semiconductor supply chain. Stronger demand had “limited the availability of capacity and components” throughout the supply chain, with gaming particularly affected, Nvidia said

Despite that, strong sales of a new generation of gaming cards lifted revenue from this part of the business by 67 per cent in the latest period, to just under $2.5bn. With data centre sales more than doubling — thanks partly to last year’s acquisition of Mellanox — Nvidia reported overall revenue of $5bn in the three months to the end of January. That was 61 per cent higher than the year before, and some 4 per cent ahead of most analysts’ forecasts.

Wall Street had been expecting sales to slow after the recent strong run. Instead, Nvidia forecast an acceleration in growth in the current quarter, with revenue rising 71 per cent to $5.3bn, or around 18 per cent above analysts’ expectations.

Jensen Huang, chief executive, said the latest quarter had capped “a breakout year for Nvidia’s computing platforms”. Besides their use in high-end gaming PCs and machine learning systems — both markets that have been lifted by the pandemic — Nvidia’s chips are also widely used in cryptocurrency “mining”, a market that has surged on the back of the soaring bitcoin price.

Despite a fall of nearly 2 percentage points in its gross profit margin, caused partly by Mellanox, Nvidia’s net income jumped 53 per cent, to $1.46bn. At $3.10, pro forma earnings per share were up 64 per cent, and 29 cents ahead of expectations. Based on formal accounting principles, earnings per share rose 51 per cent, to $2.31.

2/24/2021, 11:09:39 PM

Peter Wells in New York

Toronto has extended its cancellation of in-person major outdoor events to July 1, affecting plans for the city’s festivals, fireworks and national day parades.

Canada’s most populous city said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon that its decision, made in consultation with top medical, emergency and police officials, “supports the directive that physical distancing is critical to stopping the spread of Covid-19”. Previously, major outdoor events were cancelled up to March 31.

The decision will affect events including Canadian music week, the international dragon boat race festival, Pride Toronto’s Dyke March and Canada Day celebrations at certain locations, among others. Many events will shift to virtual options.

Organisers for the Toronto Marathon had previously explained their decision to cancel this year’s event was because “it does not appear likely that there will be widespread vaccinations by early May”. The race, traditionally held on the first Sunday in May, is postponed until 2022, although there will be a virtual running event this year.

The Toronto Blue Jays had already made plans to begin their baseball season in Florida because of pandemic restrictions in Canada.

Officials in Ontario, where Toronto is the capital, earlier today said a website for booking coronavirus vaccine appointments was set to launch in mid-March. People aged 80 years and over are the first eligible group, with plans for those aged 60 and over becoming eligible for doses in July. The general population will be eligible for vaccines in August.

Additional reporting by Matthew Rocco in New York

2/24/2021, 11:09:17 PM

Gary Jones

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz has called on the EU to urgently co-ordinate a special “green passport” to certify citizens as vaccinated or having tested negative for coronavirus. “We want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, to have our old life back and a maximum of freedom,” the chancellor tweeted on Wednesday evening.

Carnival has extended the suspension of its US cruises to the end of May. The company, which previously cancelled bookings through April, said it had not determined when cruise ships will set sail again. The scheduling update means that cruises departing US ports will not resume until at least June.

About 17 per cent of French adults have been infected with Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago, with the proportion reaching 30 per cent in the Ile-de-France region around Paris, the Institut Pasteur said on Wednesday.

Switzerland is considering bringing forward the date to allow restaurants, cafes and bars to reopen to late March as coronavirus case numbers in the country continue to fall.

Germany has administered only 15 per cent of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus shots it has received, its health ministry said on Wednesday, amid widespread public scepticism about the vaccine’s effectiveness.

Poland’s health minister said on Wednesday that the country would tighten border controls with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which have both been hit by a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. From Saturday, anyone entering Poland via its southern border would have to present a negative coronavirus test that was not more than 48 hours old, or go into quarantine.

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