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Jeff Bezos lashed out at Joe Biden’s White House on Monday over policies he claimed risked stoking inflation, escalating a war of words over the cause of sharply rising prices that are dominating US politics in an election year.
The Amazon founder and world’s third-richest person took aim at the Biden administration’s failed Build Back Better bill, which would have increased taxes on the wealthy and large companies to pay for spending on childcare, education and programmes to curb climate change.
“Administration tried their best to add another $3.5tn to federal spending,” Bezos wrote on Twitter. “They failed, but if they had succeeded, inflation would be even higher than it is today, and inflation today is at a 40-year high.”
Bezos’s attack was an uncharacteristic outburst for one of the world’s best-known businesspeople, who has not previously used Twitter to wade into contentious political disputes.
It followed a back-and-forth with the White House that began on Friday, when Bezos criticised a tweet from Biden that suggested one reason inflation had taken off was that wealthy companies did not pay enough in tax. Bezos retorted that while high inflation and the level of taxes paid by companies were issues that deserved to be discussed, linking the two was a “non sequitur” that should be put before “the newly created Disinformation Board”.
The White House reacted scathingly to the Bezos tweets. “It doesn’t require a huge leap to figure out why one of the wealthiest individuals on Earth opposes an economic agenda for the middle class that cuts some of the biggest costs families face, fights inflation for the long haul and adds to the historic deficit reduction the President is achieving by asking the richest taxpayers and corporations to pay their fair share,” a spokesperson said.
Bezos also came under fire on Monday from Lawrence Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, who broke with most economists early last year to start warning about the rising risk of inflation. Summers called the tech entrepreneur “mostly wrong”, adding that it was “perfectly reasonable to believe . . . that we should raise taxes to reduce demand to contain inflation and that the increases should be as progressive as possible”.
Tensions between Bezos and the White House have been exacerbated by the president’s support for organised labour, including unionisation efforts at Amazon that have been building since Biden took office 18 months ago. “It’s also unsurprising that this tweet comes after the President met with labour organisers, including Amazon employees,” the White House spokesperson said.
Since stepping down as chief executive of Amazon last year, Bezos has become increasingly active on Twitter and used it to make occasional barbed asides related to his personal views, though not with the frequency or vehemence of rival tech billionaire Elon Musk.
Last month, Bezos suggested that Tesla’s heavy dependence on sales to China could give the Chinese government leverage to force Musk to bow to censorship after his planned purchase of Twitter.
As with Musk, Bezos has shown libertarian political instincts and once waged a bitter fight with Amazon’s home city of Seattle over a proposed tax increase. Amazon has also long resisted unionisation by its employees, putting it at odds with the Biden administration.
However, Bezos has also at times backed liberal causes, including donating heavily to defend same-sex marriage in Washington state and hiring Jay Carney, a former press secretary in the Obama White House, to head public policy and communications at Amazon.
The public spat between Bezos and the White House was symptomatic of broader frictions between business and the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers over inflation, with some officials blaming corporate America for price-gouging and taking advantage of rising prices at the expense of ordinary consumers.
However, most economists said inflationary pressures were due to a combination of factors including high demand driven by government stimulus and the rebound from the coronavirus pandemic downturn, as well as the oil price shock exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and supply chain bottlenecks that have been more persistent than expected.
Brenda McKinley has been selling homes in Ontario for more than two decades and even for a veteran, the past couple of years have been shocking.
Prices in her patch south of Toronto rose as much as 50 per cent during the pandemic. “Houses were selling almost before we could get the sign on the lawn,” she said. “It was not unusual to have 15 to 30 offers . . . there was a feeding frenzy.”
But in the past six weeks the market has flipped. McKinley estimates homes have shed 10 per cent of their value in the time it might take some buyers to complete their purchase.
The phenomenon is not unique to Ontario nor the residential market. As central banks jack up interest rates to rein in runaway inflation, property investors, homeowners and commercial landlords around the world are all asking the same question: could a crash be coming?
“There is a marked slowdown everywhere,” said Chris Brett, head of capital markets for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at property agency CBRE. “The change in cost of debt is having a big impact on all markets, across everything. I don’t think anything is immune . . . the speed has taken us all by surprise.”
Listed property stocks, closely monitored by investors looking for clues about what might eventually happen to less liquid real assets, have tanked this year. The Dow Jones US Real Estate Index is down almost 25 per cent in the year to date. UK property stocks are down about 20 per cent over the same period, falling further and faster than their benchmark index.
The number of commercial buyers actively hunting for assets across the US, Asia and Europe has fallen sharply from a pandemic peak of 3,395 in the fourth quarter of last year to just 1,602 in the second quarter of 2022, according to MSCI data.
Pending deals in Europe have also dwindled, with €12bn in contract at the end of March against €17bn a year earlier, according to MSCI.
Deals already in train are being renegotiated. “Everyone selling everything is being [price] chipped by prospective buyers, or else [buyers] are walking away,” said Ronald Dickerman, president of Madison International Realty, a private equity firm investing in property. “Anyone underwriting [a building] is having to reappraise . . . I cannot over-emphasise the amount of repricing going on in real estate at the moment.”
The reason is simple. An investor willing to pay $100mn for a block of apartments two or three months ago could have taken a $60mn mortgage with borrowing costs of about 3 per cent. Today they might have to pay more than 5 per cent, wiping out any upside.
The move up in rates means investors must either accept lower overall returns or push the seller to lower the price.
“It’s not yet coming through in the agent data but there is a correction coming through, anecdotally,” said Justin Curlow, global head of research and strategy at Axa IM, one of the world’s largest asset managers.
The question for property investors and owners is how widespread and deep any correction might be.
During the pandemic, institutional investors played defence, betting on sectors supported by stable, long-term demand. The price of warehouses, blocks of rental apartments and offices equipped for life sciences businesses duly soared amid fierce competition.
“All the big investors are singing from the same hymn sheet: they all want residential, urban logistics and high-quality offices; defensive assets,” said Tom Leahy, MSCI’s head of real assets research in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. “That’s the problem with real estate, you get a herd mentality.”
With cash sloshing into tight corners of the property market, there is a danger that assets were mispriced, leaving little margin to erode as rates rise.
For owners of “defensive” properties bought at the top of the market who now need to refinance, rate rises create the prospect of owners “paying more on the loan than they expect to earn on the property”, said Lea Overby, head of commercial mortgage-backed securities research at Barclays.
Before the Federal Reserve started raising rates this year, Overby estimated, “Zero per cent of the market” was affected by so-called negative leverage. “We don’t know how much it is now, but anecdotally its fairly widespread.”
Manus Clancy, a senior managing director at New York-based CMBS data provider Trepp, said that while values were unlikely to crater in the more defensive sectors, “there will be plenty of guys who say ‘wow we overpaid for this’.”
“They thought they could increase rents 10 per cent a year for 10 years and expenses would be flat but the consumer is being whacked with inflation and they can’t pass on costs,” he added.
If investments regarded as sure-fire just a few months ago look precarious; riskier bets now look toxic.
A rise in ecommerce and the shift to hybrid work during the pandemic left owners of offices and shops exposed. Rising rates now threaten to topple them.
A paper published this month, “Work from home and the office real estate apocalypse”, argued that the total value of New York’s offices would ultimately fall by almost a third — a cataclysm for owners including pension funds and the government bodies reliant on their tax revenues.
“Our view is that the entire office stock is worth 30 per cent less than it was in 2019. That’s a $500bn hit,” said Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, a professor or real estate and finance at Columbia University and one of the report’s authors.
The decline has not yet registered “because there’s a very large segment of the office market — 80-85 per cent — which is not publicly listed, is very untransparent and where there’s been very little trade”, he added.
But when older offices change hands, as funds come to the end of their lives or owners struggle to refinance, he expects the discounts to be severe. If values drop far enough, he foresees enough mortgage defaults to pose a systemic risk.
“If your loan to value ratio is above 70 per cent and your value falls 30 per cent, your mortgage is underwater,” he said. “A lot of offices have more than 30 per cent mortgages.”
According to Curlow, as much as 15 per cent is already being knocked off the value of US offices in final bids. “In the US office market you have a higher level of vacancy,” he said, adding that America “is ground zero for rates — it all started with the Fed”.
UK office owners are also having to navigate changing working patterns and rising rates.
Landlords with modern, energy-efficient blocks have so far fared relatively well. But rents on older buildings have been hit. Property consultancy Lambert Smith Hampton suggested this week that more than 25mn sq ft of UK office space could be surplus to requirements after a survey found 72 per cent of respondents were looking to cut back on office space at the earliest opportunity.
Hopes have also been dashed that retail, the sector most out of favour with investors coming into the pandemic, might enjoy a recovery.
Big UK investors including Landsec have bet on shopping centres in the past six months, hoping to catch rebounding trade as people return to physical stores. But inflation has knocked the recovery off course.
“There was this hope that a lot of shopping centre owners had that there was a level in rents,” said Mike Prew, analyst at Jefferies. “But the rug has been pulled out from under them by the cost of living crisis.”
As rates rise from ultra-low levels, so does the risk of a reversal in residential markets where they have been rising, from Canada and the US to Germany and New Zealand. Oxford Economics now expects prices to fall next year in those markets where they rose quickest in 2021.
Numerous investors, analysts, agents and property owners told the Financial Times the risk of a downturn in property valuations had sharply increased in recent weeks.
But few expect a crash as severe as that of 2008, in part because lending practices and risk appetite have moderated since then.
“In general it feels like commercial real estate is set for a downturn. But we had some strong growth in Covid so there is some room for it to go sideways before impacting anything [in the wider economy],” said Overby. “Pre-2008, leverage was at 80 per cent and a lot of appraisals were fake. We are not there by a long shot.”
According to the head of one big real estate fund, “there’s definitely stress in smaller pockets of the market but that’s not systemic. I don’t see a lot of people saying . . . ‘I’ve committed to a €2bn-€3bn acquisition using a bridge format’, as there were in 2007.”
He added that while more than 20 companies looked precarious in the run-up to the financial crisis, this time there were perhaps now five.
Dickerman, the private equity investor, believes the economy is poised for a long period of pain reminiscent of the 1970s that will tip real estate into a secular decline. But there will still be winning and losing bets because “there has never been a time investing in real estate when asset classes are so differentiated”.
A consortium of Chinese state banks has lent $2.3bn to Pakistan to help the country stave off a foreign payments crisis, finance minister Miftah Ismail said on Friday.
Confirmation of the support from China, a close economic and military ally of Pakistan, came on the same day Islamabad announced a one-off 10 per cent ‘super tax’ on important industries that is intended to lead to a stalled $6bn IMF loan package being resumed.
“I am pleased to announce that Chinese consortium loan of Rmb15bn ($2.3bn) has been credited in to SBP [State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan’s central bank] account today, increasing our foreign exchange reserves,” Ismail said in a tweet on Friday evening.
A senior government official said the arrival of the loan was “one of the signals that we’re about to return to the IMF programme”.
China had quietly urged Islamabad to repair ties with the IMF “as an essential step to improve Pakistan’s economic health and avoid a default”, the official said.
The Chinese loan will raise Pakistan’s liquid foreign reserves of $8.2bn to $10.5bn and could help shore up the rupee, which has slumped against western currencies.
Pakistan began to receive IMF payments in 2019 under a 39-month loan programme, but the fund has so far given only about half of the $6bn agreed.
In recent months, sliding confidence in Pakistan’s economy has prompted concerns it could follow Sri Lanka in defaulting on international debt.
Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, who was elected by parliament in April following the ousting of rival Imran Khan, unveiled on Friday the new super tax to be levied on manufacturers of cement, beverages, steel, tobacco and chemicals.
“The government has decided to impose a 10 per cent ‘poverty alleviation tax’ on large-scale industries of the country,” Sharif tweeted.
Business leaders widely criticised the move and share prices on the Karachi Stock Exchange fell nearly 5 per cent after news of the tax emerged. Analysts said the decision would further fuel inflation, a central concern for households across Pakistan.
Zaffar Moti, a former KSE director, said: “This is a major setback for the economy. The government has decided to further tax those who are already paying their taxes.”
The “worrying” disparity in clean energy investments between the advanced economies and the developing nations was put into the spotlight this week, ahead of the G7 leaders meeting.
G7 economies account for about a quarter of the global energy-related carbon emissions that are behind global warming. The leaders’ meeting comes as all economies grapple to end their reliance on Russia for fossil fuel supplies as prices spike in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
The latest International Energy Agency world energy outlook report released last week said that while global clean energy investment had increased since the Paris climate accord was adopted in 2015, the “weakness” of clean energy investments across the developing world was “one of the most worrying trends”.
“Much more needs to be done to bridge the gap between emerging and developing economies’ one-fifth share of global clean energy investment, and their two-thirds share of the global population,” the IEA said.
The IEA cited scarce public funds, highly indebted state-owned utilities and a worsening global economic outlook as factors that made it more difficult for developing economies to invest in clean energy projects.
The agency advocated for financial and technical support, including concessional capital, private sector capital, and inflows from international carbon markets, as “crucial” for closing the gap.
The IEA also warned global investment levels in the power sector over the past three years had fallen short of the level needed to meet countries’ climate pledges, and would lead to a failure to meet the net zero global emissions target by 2050 that is required to curb climate change.
The IEA estimated global investment into power in 2022 totalled about $975bn, versus an annual requirement of $1.2tn to achieve countries’ stated policies, and $2tn to reach net zero.
It said a rapid acceleration of investment was needed in renewable technologies, alongside reduced dependency on fossil fuels, for the world to reach a 1.5C stabilisation of the rise in average global temperatures. Temperatures have already risen about 1.1C since pre-industrial times.
Power investments in emerging market economies needed to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 25 per cent to reach net zero levels, the IEA said — or twice the pace of advanced economies.
Leaders of G7 countries are expected to discuss global energy demands when they meet in Germany on Sunday. Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz gave assurances that climate change remained on the agenda, but the war in Ukraine has raised fears that Europe may backslide on commitments to end fossil fuel funding as coal plants and gas plants are brought into commission to compensate for the Russian supplies.
G7 countries must generate 42 per cent of their electricity by wind and solar by 2030 to keep global warming to 1.5C by 2050, the IEA has calculated.
Pressure is building on Japan, which will assume the G7 presidency next, to take a lead role in commitments to cut coal use. Tokyo agreed at the recent G7’s energy and environment ministers meeting to stop financing fossil fuel projects internationally by the end of 2022 and promised to clean up its power system by 2035. This included supporting “an accelerated global unabated coal phaseout”.
It is the only G7 country to have set a target falling short of the IEA’s recommendation of 42 per cent of energy from renewables, however, by setting itself a goal of 38 per cent.
“In the lead-up to the G7, many will ask if it is possible for Japan to achieve a 100 per cent clean energy system by 2035,” Ember said in a report last week. “While this target will be a challenge, it is achievable. The obvious place to start is scaling up rooftop solar and wind energy, which could help Japan create a far more secure and sustainable energy system by 2035.”
The EU has set an average target of 63 per cent by 2030 for the generation of electricity from renewable sources.
Among the leading bloc countries, Germany is aiming for 80 per cent by 2030, while Italy has a 70 per cent goal, and France just 38 per cent, because of its ample nuclear energy supplies that are regarded as “clean”.
The UK has said it will generate 95 per cent of its electricity from low carbon sources by 2030, and the US has committed to 100 per cent clean power by 2035 but is lagging behind the G7 in current renewable generation.
A US official told reporters in Washington this week that the subject of energy security would be “very much at the heart of discussions” at the G7 gathering.
Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the FT’s coverage here.
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