The Finance 202: Elizabeth Warren charges CEOs with fixating on profits despite do-gooder pledge

Christel Deskins

She charged members of the group — made up of the country’s top CEOs — with violating the pledge they made in August 2019 to embrace a new mission, focused less on maximizing profits for investors and more on promoting the well-being of their communities. “Rebuilding our economy so that workers, […]

She charged members of the group — made up of the country’s top CEOs — with violating the pledge they made in August 2019 to embrace a new mission, focused less on maximizing profits for investors and more on promoting the well-being of their communities.

“Rebuilding our economy so that workers, customers, and communities are able to share in prosperity requires real change in the way decisions are made in corporate headquarters and on Wall Street, not just the vague, empty-worded press releases that you have issued,” Warren wrote to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, respectively the BRT chairman and its immediate past chairman.

BRT spokeswoman Jessica Boulanger responded that as the country “navigates concurrent health, economic and racial-disparity crises,” the group’s members are “prioritizing the health and safety” of employees and customers while “continuing to evolve their businesses to be as equitable and inclusive as possible.”

At the heart of their dispute is a question of whether corporate leaders can move fast enough on their own to adopt changes demanded by an increasingly assertive political left — and the workers and consumers it represents. Warren dismisses the BRT’s recasting of its mission statement as an empty gesture. She argues changes must be legislated, pointing to her proposed Accountable Capitalism Act, which she says would push executives toward investing in longer-term value and sharing gains with workers.

The fresh volley from Warren, who is advising Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on economic policy, comes as companies make some high-profile breaks from past practices.

  • Just Wednesday, the BRT announced it will support legislative efforts to combat climate change, including solutions that put a price on carbon. “The trade group didn’t endorse any particular legislation, but the announcement is the latest signal that much of corporate America might prefer a seat at the table the next time Washington takes up a climate bill to trying to kill it outright,” Politico’s Influence newsletter reported.
  • Companies have launched new efforts to boost voter turnout, Jena McGregor reports. Uber, Live Nation Entertainment and others are aiming to provide polling places for people to cast ballots safely; Best Buy, Patagonia, Gap and Target are offering employees paid time off to vote; others are promoting registration drives; and Starbucks has built a website for its workers with voter information.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, derided by Democrats in recent years as a de facto arm of the Republican Party, riled some in its own ranks by endorsing 23 moderate House Democrats for reelection. “The group’s donors and members are up in arms, with some threatening to pull funding and others openly venting their frustration,” Politico’s Alex Isenstadt wrote of the blowback to the move. “Some are raising the prospect that Chamber board members will quit in the weeks to come,” a threat that so far hasn’t materialized.

There’s more to the moves than a sudden civic mindedness in C-suites. 

“It is happening, driven by trends that show no sign of reversing,” Fortune President Alan Murray recently wrote. “The outpouring of CEO sentiment after the George Floyd killing wasn’t just because ‘woke’ CEOs suddenly decided to speak up. It happened because talented employees demanded it, and talent is today’s top driver of corporate value. The post-pandemic focus on employee safety wasn’t just because of a wave of CEO empathy. It was forced by employees, government officials, health experts and many others — ‘stakeholders,’ all.”

The BRT argues it is putting its commitments on display as policymakers debate the next phase of the federal pandemic response and criminal justice reforms.  

Member CEOs “are calling on policymakers to provide direct payments to individuals in need and more financial support for hard-hit small and medium-sized business, and they urge Congress to enact policing reforms to strengthen communities and address racial injustice in policing,” Boulanger said in a statement. “Within the year since CEOs pledged to run their companies for the long-term benefit of all stakeholders, they have amassed a strong record and we will make that case directly to Senator Warren.”

Warren wants CEOs to make more concrete pledges and commit to providing public updates on their progress.

She charged signatories to the CEO pledge with undermining their commitments by chopping worker pay and benefits while ending pay reductions imposed on senior executives at the start of the pandemic. And she said corporate leaders are defying the BRT pledge with other investments, including spending on stock buybacks and lobbying for liability protections against pandemic-related lawsuits

“You should fully commit to the principles you claim to hold, operationalize them, and publicly report on your progress with measured demonstration of progress in the coming year,” Warren wrote.

Latest on the federal pandemic response

The ball is in Nancy Pelosi’s court.

President Trump has handed her new leverage in relief talks. Just days ago, many House Democrats feared they were losing the high ground as Pelosi stood firm on her demand for a bigger package. But Trump “scrambled that calculus when he cast aside the Republican negotiation position and told his party to embrace a much larger spending bill, including stimulus checks, to give Americans more money. In short, he moved closer to Pelosi’s position after a month-long showdown,” Rachael Bade and Erica Werner report.

“Now the California Democrat faces a crucial decision: Does she try to negotiate an agreement with a White House that suddenly seems ready to deal or continue to hold her ground and make Trump, facing his own election woes, swallow the sweeping $2.2 trillion bill she has long demanded. Early signs suggest Pelosi is still not ready to budge.”

  • Key quote: “Great, call me when he’s at $2.2 trillion,” Pelosi told Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during a private call Wednesday, referring to Trump.

Holding her ground against Trump may be the easy part: “It also means facing down an insurrection from the very members she has long tried hardest to protect, the swing-seat Democrats whose victories in GOP-leaning districts returned Democrats to the House majority last year.”

  • “We should have that same level of urgency that we had when we were dealing with this in March and April,” said Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), who flipped a GOP district in New Jersey last election. “And I don’t really get that sense that that type of just timeliness and that urgency is underlying what everybody here is feeling right now.”

Airline CEOs plead with White House to avert looming U.S. job cuts.

Oct. 1 looms as talks remain uncertain: White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows met with major airline chief executives as the industry braces for thousands of job cuts in two weeks, and urged lawmakers to embrace a $1.5 trillion coronavirus aid package proposed by a bipartisan congressional group and endorsed by Trump,” Reuterss Jeff Mason and David Shepardson report.

“Congressional aides say it is unlikely that Congress would agree to a stand-alone bill to assist airlines when so many other sectors are struggling and seeking assistance. ‘The needs have only grown. Some of the needs for the small businesses, needs for restaurants, needs for transportation and the rest,’ Pelosi said. Other transportation sectors are also seeking billions of dollars in new bailout funds, including public transit, bus companies and the Amtrak passenger rail service.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Warren propose forgiving $50,000 in student debt: “The resolution calls on Trump to take executive action to forgive up to $50,000 in debt for borrowers,” CNBCs Jessica Dickler reports.

“The economic aftermath from the pandemic, which caused unemployment to spike and wages to fall, has made it nearly impossible for many borrowers to repay their college loans, the senators said.”

Nine million Americans will get letters about missing stimulus checks: “The government has sent out about 160 million stimulus checks since legislation authorized those payments in the spring. Still, millions of Americans have yet to receive any money for one key reason: They typically don’t file federal tax returns, usually because their income is too low, and consequently do not have information on file with the IRS,” CNBCs Lorie Konish reports.

“Those Americans have until Oct. 15 to use the tax agency’s non-filer tool to register to receive their payments this year. Those who cannot access the online tool can file a simplified paper return instead.” 

Market movers

Futures are flat after a rough day.

The Dow snapped its 4-day winning streak on Thursday: “Stock futures were mixed in early trading on Friday after another sell-off on Wall Street led by major technology names. Futures on the Dow Jones Industrial Average pointed to a nearly breakeven opening. S&P 500 futures were also little changed, while Nasdaq 100 futures traded higher,” CNBC’s Yun Li reports.

“During Thursday’s regular trading session, the S&P 500 declined 0.8 percent for its biggest drop in a week. The Dow dipped 130 points, snapping a four-day winning streak. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite fell 1.3 percent and briefly dipped back into correction territory, down 10 percent from its record high. Some of the biggest technology stocks have suffered double-digit losses so far this month as investors rotated out of high-flying market leaders. Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple have all lost at least 10 percent this month.” (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

UBS says gold prices could go even higher: “Gold prices — which surged nearly 30 percent this year — could rise further and remain high as global uncertainties persist,” according to the Swiss banking giant, CNBC’s Yen Nee Lee reports.

Coronavirus fallout

From the U.S.:

  • At least 6,642,000 cases have been reported; at least 194,000 have died.
  • Ex-Trump virus task force aide endorses Biden: “Trump’s response to the pandemic showed a ‘flat-out disregard for human life’ because his ‘main concern was the economy and his reelection,’ according to a senior adviser on the White House coronavirus task force who left the White House in August,” Josh Dawsey reports of Olivia Troye’s decision.
  • Florida, Texas and Nevada take steps toward reopening — for the second time: “In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced that restaurants, retail stores and gyms in most parts of the state could resume operating at 75 percent occupancy, the limit that was in place in June before Abbott reversed course and imposed new restrictions. Bars, however, will remain closed,” Antonia Farzan reports.
  • Vaccine companies reveal their study designs, even as Trump sows confusion: “Leaders of Moderna and Pfizer cited the need for greater transparency than usual in covid-19 clinical trials as the reason behind their decision to release the full documents describing how their studies will measure safety and effectiveness,” Carolyn Y. Johnson reports.

From the corporate front:

  • U.S. Chamber to layoff a dozen employees: “Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark sent a memo to employees on Thursday, announcing cuts as well as restructuring information, including an announcement about expanded advocacy efforts,” The Hill’s Alex Gangitano reports.
  • Goldman Sachs sent some traders home after positive covid-19 test. “The quarantine was imposed on a select group directly exposed to the infected worker at the firm’s downtown New York office,” Bloomberg reports. “The bank is moving forward with plans to start bringing back staffers across most divisions, telling some of them to prepare for week-in, week-out rotational shifts starting in October.”

When superpowers collide

Senate Democrats unveil strategy to counter China.

Lawmakers proposed a $350 Billion plan over a decade to build up against Beijing: “The bill, led by [Schumer] and Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, seeks to shore up the nation’s manufacturing capabilities and infrastructure in an attempt to unwind it from China’s economy and increase American firms’ competitiveness,” the New York Times’s Catie Edmondson reports.

“The legislation focuses heavily on bolstering American research and development in science and technology, authorizing $300 billion over four years for such efforts and investing another roughly $16 billion in the U.S. semiconductor industry to help the United States retain an edge over Beijing. It would also require the president to submit a plan to Congress to use the Defense Production Act to increase domestic production capabilities for semiconductor devices and require domestic sourcing for those products.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pushes forward on TikTok deal despite opposition: “Mnuchin has been lobbying hard for a deal in which TikTok outsources data management to Oracle while allowing TikTok to keep ties with its Chinese parent company, ByteDance … The deal would require extensive outside oversight of TikTok in the United States, including a plan for the company to go public within the next year or so to increase transparency into its operations,” Ellen Nakashima, Rachel Lerman and Jeff Stein report.

“Mnuchin called senior Defense Department officials Wednesday and briefed them on the deal but told them it was going to get done regardless … Oracle chief executive Safra Catz has developed a close relationship with the White House, including serving on Trump’s transition team as he took office. Nonetheless, Trump met with Oracle on Wednesday and expressed concerns with the deal.”

  • ByteDance is planning TikTok IPO: To address ownership concerns, ByteDance plans to do an initial public offering of global TikTok on a U.S. stock exchange. … Oracle will also own a minority stake that will be less than 20 percent of the new global TikTok,” CNBCs Alex Sherman and Lauren Feiner report. “Walmart will also take a stake, though its size is still unknown.”
  • National security officials review Tencent’s data collection. “The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., which is chaired by the Treasury Department, has sent letters to companies, including Epic Games Inc., Riot Games and others, to inquire about their security protocols in handling Americans’ personal data,” Bloomberg reports. 

China worries what a desperate Trump might do: “With the U.S. election approaching and Trump’s prospects hanging in the balance, China is increasingly worried that its adversary in the White House will try to provoke a confrontation — perhaps through military action — to boost his chances of reelection,” Anna Fifield reports.

“Influential academics in Beijing fear he will turbocharge his attacks to generate support and distract from domestic problems, such as unemployment and the devastating coronavirus death toll that has highlighted Trump’s slow response to the pandemic. When Trump took office, many here thought that he was looking for a tweetable victory in his trade war with Beijing … Now, advisers to the ruling Communist Party concede they may have been wrong to think there would be limits to what Trump would do against China.”

Pocket change

USPS documents pull back the curtain on its relationship with Amazon.

Tensions between the tech giant and agency rose before Louis DeJoy took control: “Documents unearthed by American Oversight suggest Amazon is a lucrative client for the mail service. Amazon drove about $3.9 billion in revenue, and $1.6 billion in profit, for the USPS in fiscal 2019, according to multiple emails and financial statements obtained via open records laws,’” Tony Romm, Jacob Bogage and Lena H. Sun report.

“The tensions came to head in April as Amazon and the USPS attempted to negotiate a new contract to determine the cost at which the country’s mail service will deliver packages on Amazon’s behalf. The relationship is a crucial one for the USPS, which warned throughout the spring that it stood to ‘cede’ control to its competitors if it raised rates on Amazon too high.”

Ex-JPMorgan trader sentenced to prison for currency rigging: Akshay Aiyer was sentenced on Thursday to eight months in prison, following his Nov. 2019 conviction for conspiring with traders at other banks to rig currency trades,” Jonathan Stempel of Reuters reports. “Aiyer was charged with colluding with other traders from Oct. 2010 to July 2013 to fix prices of and rig bids for Central and Eastern European, Middle Eastern and African currencies.” 

Campaign 2020

Trump is furious that Biden is outspending him on TV. 

The presidents reelection continues to be dogged by reports of cash woes: “Trump spent last weekend complaining privately about Joe Biden’s dominance in television advertising … only to tweet upon his return to Washington from a campaign swing that the ‘fake news’ was exaggerating the disparity,” Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey report.

“His advisers, meanwhile, have begun public and private efforts to fight back against the notion that the disparity between Trump’s and his Democratic challenger’s advertising spending showed any weakness for the president’s campaign, even as allies continue to frantically tell Trump advisers that they are being outspent on the air in key states. The campaign must report its cash on hand for the end of August by Sunday’s regulatory deadline. Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien reassured his staff on Tuesday, telling senior aides during a meeting that they would have enough money to win the election and to expect more spending in upcoming weeks.” 

Trump tracker

Trump’s businesses charged Secret Service more than $1.1 million.

The expenses include rooms for a Trump club that closed to the public during the pandemic: “In Bedminster this spring, the records show, Trump’s club charged the Secret Service more than $21,800 to rent a cottage and other rooms while the club was closed and otherwise off-limits to guests. The documents don’t give a reason for these rentals. Trump didn’t visit the club while it was closed, but his eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her family reportedly visited at least once,” David A. Fahrenthold and Josh Dawsey report.

“The family visited the club in April to celebrate Passover, a period that overlaps with several of the largest Secret Service charges. At the time, both the District of Columbia — where Ivanka Trump lives — and New Jersey had imposed stay-at-home orders, telling residents to avoid travel except under limited circumstances. … The Secret Service does not appear to have violated any New Jersey virus restrictions by renting the rooms or visiting Bedminster. Restrictions by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) explicitly exempted federal employees.” 

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