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Latest news

  • Rating agency Moody’s said US companies were hoarding record amounts of cash in response to the pandemic

  • The new lockdown in England caused activity in the UK services sector in November to fall to its lowest level since the spring, pointing to a double-dip economic downturn at the end of the year

  • The number of US daily air travellers topped 1m on Sunday ahead of this week’s Thanksgiving holiday, despite official advice urging people not to fly

Concerns raised over vaccine contract secrecy

Investors enjoyed a good start to the week with news of another potential coronavirus vaccine with positive trial results, fuelling hopes that, as one strategist put it, “the end of the pandemic is on the horizon and that life, the global economy, and markets can return to normal”. 

Oxford university and AstraZeneca said their candidate had an average efficacy of 70 per cent, with the possibility of reaching 90 per cent if a half dose was followed up by a full dose. At $3 to $4 a jab, it looks likely to be much cheaper than other vaccines and can be stored at normal fridge temperatures, making distribution much easier — especially for developing countries.

Bar chart of Covid-19 shots under contract (doses) showing AstraZeneca's vaccine has hopes for low-income countries

The dollar fell to its lowest level in three months as a result of the news and investors sold off US government bonds as demand waned for safe-haven assets.

AstraZeneca shares fell, however — partly due to headlines implying it was less beneficial than the vaccines offered by Pfizer and Moderna, with their 90 per cent or more efficacy — but also acting as a reminder that vaccines are generally not as profitable as other drugs. Astra has already promised not to make a profit on the product during the pandemic.

A French minister, meanwhile, revealed the EU would have six contracts with different vaccine producers in place by the end of the month. But as trial results begin to materialise, discontent is growing about the secrecy of such deals in view of the fact that producers have received huge injections of public funds. 

The dispute highlights why trust and transparency, not just in the pharma industry but in wider society, is so critical in defeating the virus, a point emphasised in his column today by management editor Andrew Hill.

“In the case of the current crisis, while a virus is the cause, trust — in science, in business, in governments and, critically, in each other — is fundamental to the solution,” he writes.

Markets

The rift between the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury over extending the central bank’s emergency pandemic measures is concerning investors. “This is a policy error, there’s no question around that,” said one analyst. “These are facilities that provided an emergency backstop [and] as far as we know the emergency is not over. It is prematurely thinning out the Fed’s toolkit. Megan Greene of Harvard Business School writes for the Financial Times today about how central banks “are still fighting the last war”.

Federal Reserve's alphabetti spaghetti of emergency measures updated as of November 18.

A stress indicator from the US Treasury department shows global financial conditions back at pre-pandemic levels. The index tracks corporate credit spreads, valuations of equities and safe-haven assets and funding volatility.

Chart of OFR Financial Stress index showing that market conditions have loosened to levels last seen in late February

Hopes of a vaccine-led economic recovery are helping riskier groups tap capital markets as investors hunt for returns in the face of low interest rates. “Portfolio managers have accumulated so much cash, and they are looking for places to put it to work,” said one fund manager.

Business

The pandemic shake-up of labour markets is throwing up some serious inequalities, writes economics reporter Valentina Romei. New jobs in tech, automation and digital are going largely to men, while female-dominated sectors such as services have been badly hit. In the US, African-Americans have been disproportionately hit by cuts in public sector jobs, writes our new labour and equalities correspondent Taylor Nicole Rogers.

Qantas said it would demand proof of vaccination from international passengers before flying once air travel returns. In the interim, British Airways, Delta, Airbus and easyJet ramped up their calls for pre-flight passenger testing as an alternative to quarantine. Delta separately poured cold water on the idea of a New York-London “air corridor”.

Shares in cinema chain Cineworld jumped after the world’s second-biggest operator secured a new $450m funding lifeline. The company and its rivals have been hit badly by the postponement of Hollywood blockbuster releases and the enforced closure of venues by local authorities during the pandemic.

Global economy

Our “Lessons from Japan” series began with a Big Read examining the country’s experience of the past three decades and how it can teach the rest of the world to adapt to low interest rates and inflation — a likely outcome for many big economies after the pandemic.

Chart shows official interest rates (%) for Japan and the US showing Japan has grown accustomed to persistently low rates

Eurozone business activity has hit a six-month low as the bloc’s services sector is hammered by pandemic restrictions. Rare bright spots include German manufacturing enjoying a rebound in exports.

Line chart of purchasing managers' index, below 50= a majority of businesses reporting a contraction showing Eurozone services activity plummeting

The extent of the pandemic shock to the UK economy will be revealed in this week’s spending review when big tax rises are expected to be announced. Here are five things to watch.

Readers respond

How is your workplace dealing with the pandemic? How are you dealing with it as a professional or a manager? And what do you think business and markets — and our daily lives — will look like after we eventually emerge? Also — tell us what you think about this newsletter and how we can make it more useful to you. Email us at covid@ft.com. We may publish your contribution in an upcoming newsletter. Thanks.

Athanase comments on Vaccine contracts shrouded in secrecy despite massive public funding

Now is the time to start disclosing the agreements reached with vaccine producers. Everything needs to be done to convince the public that this is not a gigantic act of gouging. Everything needs to be done to explain that safety and liability conditions have not been waived. In fact, they need to be explained to the public, over and over again. Fear often comes from ignorance, and nothing feeds conspiracy theories like fear and ignorance. At a time like this, people must be convinced that taking a vaccine makes sense, and is not an act where their health is put at risk so big corporations can make money. 

The essentials

European governments are planning a “cautious” easing of lockdowns for the Christmas period. UK prime minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that England’s “stay at home” national lockdown will end on December 2, but his new toughened “tier system” of regional restrictions has been strongly criticised by the hospitality sector.

Chart of seven-day rolling average of new Covid-19 cases and deaths in UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany, showing that cases have slowed down in Europe after the second reimposition of lockdowns

Consumer editor Claer Barrett will host a live Q&A with industry experts on UK help for entrepreneurs and the self-employed — many of whom have been excluded from coronavirus support schemes — at midday UK time on Tuesday.

Final thought

One of the most notable cultural shifts during the pandemic has been the disappearance of the tie, writes US editor-at-large Gillian Tett. One reason might be its symbolic link to rigid company hierarchies. “The key point about the corporate world is that most executives know it pays to look flexible, open-minded and relaxed right now,” she argues.

© Shonagh Rae

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