JPMorgan, addressing racism allegations, reforms customer complaint system, access

NEW YORK (Reuters) – JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) told employees on Tuesday it is changing its customer complaint system and how staff choose which customers are eligible for certain banking products after the New York Times reported allegations of racial discrimination against black customers at the bank last year.

The reports prompted the bank to “look at how we do business so that we could gain a deeper understanding of what more we can do to root out racism and discrimination,” co-Chief Executives Gordon Smith and Daniel Pinto wrote in a memo sent to the bank’s staff seen by Reuters and verified by a bank spokesman.

In December, the New York Times reported instances of racial discrimination at the bank’s branches in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, citing audio recordings made by a bank employee and a customer as evidence.

“We are looking across the whole firm and at everything we do. We’ve identified a number of areas that, with enhanced, scaled or new programming or processes, would serve to improve our culture in important ways,” Smith and Pinto wrote.

The bank will simplify the process through which employees file customer complaints and flag serious concerns to senior management.

It is also re-evaluating the qualification requirements for new products and benefits and will strengthen tools bank managers use to monitor employees who have discretion over which customers get access to certain products and benefits.

The bank also committed to recruiting more diverse staff and said it will expand assessment programs for managers that evaluate how successfully they recruit for and hire diverse employees in management.

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A Loyal Chinese Critic Vanishes, in a Blow to the Nation’s Future

The sudden silence of Ren Zhiqiang, a vocal member of the Communist Party, signals a retreat from the principles that led China out of poverty.

By Li Yuan

Weeks before Ren Zhiqiang disappeared, leading to fears among his friends and fans that he had been picked up by the Chinese authorities, the 69-year-old former property mogul locked himself up.

It happened at an exhibition he held in December to show off his wood sculptures, a late-life passion after retirement and rising censorship left him little else to do. He barred himself inside a small work studio, so that attendees could view him only through a small window or from the open roof.

It was performance art, Mr. Ren explained to his friends, to show his isolation after the government barred him from social media and giving speeches. When friends asked how the government might react, he smirked the way he usually did when challenging authority.

Now, Mr. Ren may have gone further than the current leadership will allow.

His friends say he vanished this month after writing an essay critical of the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The essay, which was shared widely within private internet message groups, never named Xi Jinping, China’s top leader. But it said the actions of a power-hungry “clown” and the Communist Party’s strict limits on free speech had exacerbated the epidemic. It declared that the party should “wake up from ignorance” and oust the leaders holding it back, just as it did with the leaders known as the “Gang of Four” in 1976, ending the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

The disappearance of Mr. Ren, a longtime critic of the Chinese government, adds to fears that China is sliding backward and abandoning the reforms that saved it from extreme poverty and international isolation. Mr. Ren was no radical — he was a decades-long loyal Communist Party member, the former leader of a state-run company and a friend to some of China’s most powerful politicians. He emerged in what now seems a distant time, from the 1980s to the period before Mr. Xi became top leader, when the party brooked no challenge to its rule but allowed some individuals to question some of its choices.

Mr. Ren’s fate remains unclear. But if he was punished for his writing, it suggests China’s leadership won’t tolerate criticism no matter how justified it might be.

Like Mr. Xi, Mr. Ren was born into party royalty. His father was a deputy commerce minister. His mother went to school with the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung, who held him in a photo when he was a baby, according to his social media posts and media interviews.

He was also well connected. He has been friends with Vice President Wang Qishan of China since he was in junior high. Mr. Ren wrote in his 2013 autobiography that Mr. Wang would sometimes call him late in the evening and chat for hours.

Mr. Ren hired Liu He, China’s main negotiator in the trade war with the United States, as a part-time researcher when Mr. Liu was a graduate student. Yu Zhengsheng, a former member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, its highest ruling body, worked with Mr. Ren when he was the construction minister and wrote the introduction of Mr. Ren’s first book in 2002.

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Fracking Once Lifted Pennsylvania. Now It Could Be a Drag.

Natural-gas companies operating in the state were looking shaky before the coronavirus hit. Local economies are now at risk.

By Peter Eavis

CARMICHAELS, Pa. — The last time the global economy was in free fall, an economic savior showed up in southwestern Pennsylvania. Energy companies, which had discovered a way to get at the state’s vast natural-gas reserves, invested billions of dollars in the region, cushioning the blow of the Great Recession.

“There were just so many jobs,” Debbie Gideon, a retired community banker, recalls. “It was crazy.”

But 12 years later, as the region braces for the coronavirus recession, natural-gas companies are much more likely to weigh on the local economy than to rescue it.

Even before the latest shock, gas operators were reeling from self-inflicted wounds. They had taken on too much debt and drilled so many wells that they had flooded the market with gas, sending its price into a tailspin.

To conserve cash, the firms have been frantically slashing investments, cuts that will pummel local suppliers and contractors. “Every time one of these slowdowns occurs, they beat down every vendor they can,” said Steve Stuck, president of Jacobs Petroleum in Waynesburg, which supplies diesel to the natural-gas operators.

Pennsylvania, home to the United States’ first major oil wells and a large coal producer for decades, has a long history with the fossil fuel industry. That was a reason the state, unlike New York, allowed gas companies to use hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — to extract gas from the Marcellus Shale formation, estimated to be the largest gas field in the United States.

To many businesspeople and residents, the bet has paid off, not least by creating many well-paying jobs in struggling parts of the state. And though the industry, which Pennsylvania has allowed to operate through the coronavirus emergency, goes through ups and downs, they expect it to remain an important part of their economy for years to come.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bust, because we have 40 to 60 years of gas,” says Mike Belding, a former Marine helicopter pilot and now a commissioner for Greene County. “That’s past our lifetimes.”

But there are strong signs that this natural-gas shakeout could grind on longer than others. And if it does turn into a rout that leads to large layoffs and business closures, Pennsylvania may have to reassess its great shale experiment.

“There is not a lot of knowledge of how fragile these companies are,” said Veronica Coptis, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, which has often been critical of the coal and shale industries. “And when the companies start to struggle financially, the people who get hurt the most are the employees.”

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U.S. airlines must suggest possible compensation for cash grants: Treasury

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – Airlines must suggest possible compensation in return for government cash assistance and agree to conditions that include not cutting pay or laying off employees through Sept. 30, the U.S. Treasury Department said in guidelines issued on Monday as it prepares to quickly hand out $25 billion.

Congress approved legislation last week authorizing the $25 billion for passenger airlines, as well as $4 billion for cargo carriers and $3 billion in cash for airport contractors like caterers and airplane cleaners.

Under the law, Treasury is supposed to make initial payments of the grants designed to cover payroll costs by next week.

The companies “must identify financial instruments” that would “provide appropriate compensation,” the guidelines said, adding that these could include warrants, options, preferred stock, debt securities or notes.

The department told applicants to apply by April 3 at 5 p.m. to receive funds as soon as possible. Applications received after April 27 may not be considered.

Other conditions for the cash assistance include limits on executive compensation through March 2022 and no stock buybacks or dividend payments through September 2021.

Airlines may also apply for a separate $29 billion in government loans. Separate Treasury guidelines released Monday for loans said carriers must provide financial instruments “for the benefit of taxpayers, in equity appreciation or a reasonable interest rate premium.” Companies critical to U.S. national security can seek loans from a separate $17 billion fund.

Those seeking loans must describe losses they have “incurred or will incur as a result of coronavirus” and detail the cause of the loss such as reduced demand, unavailability of credit or unbudgeted medical expenses.

The Treasury Department said in reviewing applications for the cash assistance it will consider the “adequacy of the proposed financial instruments for providing compensation to the Federal Government.”

It also said it “may refuse to provide payroll support payments to applicants that have taken, or are currently evaluating, any action to commence a bankruptcy.”

Major U.S. airlines on Saturday asked the Treasury department to move quickly to release funds. They have cut tens of thousands of flights as travel demand collapses amid the coronavirus pandemic and warned that without cash they would need to quickly begin massive furloughs.

The chief executives of American Airlines (AAL.O), Delta Air Lines (DAL.N), United Airlines (UAL.O), Southwest Airlines Co (LUV.N) and others wrote in a letter that “given the urgent and immediate need, it is essential that these funds be disbursed as soon as possible.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday taxpayers will be “compensated” for providing emergency assistance to air carriers.

American Airlines said Monday it will be allocated about $12 billion of the combined cash assistance and government loans. It has said it expects that Treasury will not seek “onerous” conditions.

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World equity markets edge higher; oil plunges to 2002 lows

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Global equity benchmarks rose on Monday despite a drop in oil prices to their lowest levels since 2002, as central banks and the United States tried to contain damage from the rapidly spreading coronavirus that has upended the global economy.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday extended the government’s stay-at-home guidelines until the end of April, dropping a sharply criticized plan to get the economy up and running by mid-April after a top medical adviser said more than 100,000 Americans could die from the outbreak.

JPMorgan now predicts that global gross domestic product (GDP) – the total monetary value of all goods and services produced – could contract at a 10.5% annualized rate in the first half of the year. As a result, central banks have mounted an all-out effort to bolster activity with interest rate cuts and massive asset-buying campaigns, which have at least eased liquidity strains in markets.

China on Monday became the latest to add stimulus, with a cut of 20 basis points to a key reverse repo rate, the largest in nearly five years.

MSCI’s gauge of stocks across the globe gained 1.99% following broad gains in Europe and declines in Asia.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 690.7 points, or 3.19%, to 22,327.48, the S&P 500 gained 85.18 points, or 3.35%, to 2,626.65 and the Nasdaq Composite added 271.77 points, or 3.62%, to 7,774.15.

“The big picture from the get-go is that markets will calm down once they know the depth and duration of this pandemic,” said Clark Kendall, chief executive officer of Kendall Capital in Rockville, Maryland.

In oil markets, Brent futures were down 8%, or $2, at $22.50 a barrel – their lowest in 18 years. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures fell as far as $19.92, near a 2002 low hit this month. Oil futures have fallen by more than 68% from their early January highs.

“I have been in this business almost 30 years and this is the fastest correction I have seen,” Swiss private bank Lombard Odier’s chief investment officer, Stephane Monier, said of this year’s plunge in global markets.

Investors continued to seek the perceived safety of bonds, with bond yields falling in Europe and in the United States. Benchmark 10-year notes last rose 9/32 in price to yield 0.7154%, from 0.744% late on Friday.

The drop in yields has combined with efforts by the Federal Reserve to pump more U.S. dollars into markets, dragging the dollar off recent highs.

Rodrigo Catril, a senior FX strategist at National Australia Bank (NAB), said the main question for markets was whether all the stimulus would be enough to help the global economy withstand the shock from the coronavirus pandemic.

“To answer this question, one needs to know the magnitude of the containment measures and for how long they will be implemented,” he added.

“This is the big unknown, and it suggests markets are likely to remain volatile until this uncertainty is resolved.”

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FCA executives, salaried employees to take pay cuts during coronavirus pandemic

DETROIT (Reuters) – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s (FCHA.MI) (FCAU.N) top executives and salaried workers around the globe will take pay cuts in an act of “shared sacrifice” brought on by the coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered the automaker’s plants in Europe and North America, according to a company memo seen by Reuters.

Chief Executive Officer Mike Manley will take a 50 percent pay cut for three months starting April 1, while Chairman John Elkann and FCA’s board of directors will forego the remainder of their 2020 compensation. FCA said most global salaried employees will be asked to take a temporary 20 pct pay cut.

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Aston Martin furloughing some staff after coronavirus plant closures

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Aston Martin said on Monday it is furloughing some employees as it handles the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak which has closed its car factories.

The pandemic has shut both the luxury brand’s plants, just as it starts production of its first sport utility vehicle, the DBX, crucial to a turnaround after disappointing sales last year contributed to a plunge in its share price.

Employers in Britain can claim for 80% of wage costs for staff whom they place on temporary leave, up to 2,500 pounds a month per employee, as part of a government scheme designed to help businesses whose operations have been hit by the fallout.

“(We are) utilizing all government aid available,” the company said in a statement.

Aston confirmed its capital-raising plans on Monday that will see a consortium led by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll take a stake in the company.

It said it was also taking action to control operating costs and capital expenditure and is accessing additional funding facilities. Its directors said they remain confident that the firm has enough working capital for at least the next 12 months.

The firm’s production sites are currently not scheduled to reopen until April 20 and the central England-based firm said deliveries of its DBX were “still planned for summer 2020 dependent on production and supply chain returning as currently anticipated.”

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Broomfield poised to halt oil, gas operation until coronavirus crisis passes

Broomfield elected officials have directed the staff to write an emergency declaration to postpone work by Extraction Oil and Gas while residents are under a statewide stay-at-home order aimed at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus.

Acting as the county board of health, the officials appeared ready late Wednesday night to approve the proposal, but decided to give the staff more time to draft it. They’ll meet March 31 for a final vote.

Under the order, Extraction would have to suspend what’s called the flow back phase on an 18-well pad in the city until coronavirus-related emergency measures are lifted. In flow back, liquids used in hydraulic fracturing are brought to the surface.

Health officials speaking during the public meeting conducted by phone referred to studies showing that harmful emissions, including cancer-causing benzene, are much higher during flow back.

What appeared to seal the deal for halting the work was concern from Jason Vahling, the Broomfield manager of public health and environment, that stress caused by the oil and gas operations could lead to complications for at-risk people if they contract the virus.

Supporters of halting the oil and gas operation noted that some of the nearby subdivisions are for people 55 and older. Older people and those with underlying health problems are considered especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“We asked Extraction to suspend its operations during this global pandemic and they declined for financial reasons,”  Guyleen Castriotta, Broomfield mayor pro tem, said before the hearing.

Castriotta and her fellow Broomfield city council and county commission members will convene again as the county health board to vote on the emergency order.

State Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 19-181, said the legislation signed into law last year empowers local governments to regulate oil and gas. However, Foote said the law, which has revamped oil and gas rules, requires regulations to be necessary and reasonable, a standard that hasn’t been tested yet.

Extraction employees as well as state and Broomfield officials and experts said the company plans to use advanced technology designed to greatly reduce harmful emissions. The company, which wants to start the flow back in mid-April, said it won’t store any of the wastewater on the well pad. The liquids will be shipped by pipeline to a central gathering facility.

“I do not see any need for Extraction to halt operations or take other measures at this point,” said Jeff Robbins, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Robbins said COGCC field inspectors are still at work and the state will monitor Extraction’s work. The oil and gas industry is among the sectors considered essential under state and federal guidelines for the coronavirus outbreak.

Experts working for the city said they have inspected the well pad and the company’s equipment and plans. One person called Extraction’s improvements to the traditional flow back methods represent “a paradigm shift.”

Extraction, which has an agreement with the city for its oil and gas operations, likely would sue over an order halting its work, city attorney Shaun Sullivan said.

“And if the court found the order was not supported with sufficient legal or factual basis, it could find breach of contract and award damages,” Sullivan said.

Broomfield is pursuing action against Extraction for allegedly violating a city noise ordinance, which the company said its agreement exempts it from following. Council members and residents said past conflicts with the company over noise, odors and other complaints raised doubts about how Extraction would handle the flow  back.

Asked why Extraction wouldn’t consider pausing operations while people are being asked to stay in their homes, company spokesman Brian Cain said statements by experts indicated “our operations are without a doubt among the safest and most protective in Colorado.”

“There is no reason to stop producing energy resources we need at this critical time because of concerns that data have proven to be completely unfounded,” Cain said in an email.

Many Broomfield residents who called into the meeting said the risks of going ahead with oil and gas operations aren’t worth it with the health care system under stress as the number of coronavirus cases continue to increase. Several hundred residents signed a petition supporting the suspension of the work.

Judy Kelly (lives in Broomfield’s Anthem Ranch, a subdivision for people 55 and older. She’s worried about the potential effects on her husband, who has lung disease, and on other area residents who can’t leave their homes because of the statewide stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Jared Polis Wednesday.

“We had talked about leaving during the flowback. We had always read that emissions are worse during flowback,” Kelly said Tuesday, before the hearing.”Now we feel we don’t have as many choices to protect ourselves.”

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Goldman Sachs sees S&P 500 dividends declining 25% in 2020

LONDON (Reuters) – Goldman Sachs said on Monday it expects S&P 500 dividends to fall by 25% in 2020 as certain large dividend-paying industries are particularly vulnerable to the economic shock of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The record high level of net leverage for the median S&P 500 stock coupled with the ongoing credit market stress means many firms are unlikely to borrow to fund their dividend,” Goldman said in a note.

The U.S. investment bank said it expects a wave of dividends to be suspended, cut, and scrapped over the rest of the year.

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Coronavirus: EasyJet founder in threat to oust board

The billionaire founder of easyJet is threatening to seek the removal of most of its board members unless it cancels a £4.5bn aircraft order that he warned could threaten its future amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Sky News has seen a letter sent on Sunday by Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou to John Barton, the low-cost carrier’s chairman, which said he would call an extraordinary shareholder meeting every seven weeks to remove one of its non-executive directors.

Along with other family members, Sir Stelios owns just under 34% of easyJet’s shares.

The entrepreneur is enraged at what he argues is easyJet’s lack of transparency about the order for 107 Airbus planes, which he labelled as “simply shareholder value-destroying”.

He informed Mr Barton that unless his concerns are met by midday on Wednesday, he would begin a rolling programme of calling EGMs every seven weeks to try to remove one of easyJet’s non-executive directors – beginning with Andreas Bierwith.

Prominent business figures who sit on the airline’s board include Moya Greene, the former Royal Mail Group chief executive, and Charles Gurassa, the Channel Four chairman.

Sir Stelios said the Airbus order had saddled easyJet with an existential threat at a time when the world’s aviation industry had effectively been grounded by the COVID-19 outbreak.

EasyJet has grounded its entire fleet and warned that it can no longer give investors guidanx

“Even with a resumption of air traffic, any income from passengers is likely to be too low to keep up with outgoings and would most likely render easyJet insolvent if it continues to pay Airbus for more aircraft,” he wrote.

“This crisis may result in the insolvency of easyJet PLC and if it transpires that a single penny from the company has been paid to Airbus between the grounding of the fleet and the date of the insolvency or any equity-raising which would prevent insolvency, I will personally sue all the easyJet directors for gross negligence and for defrauding easyJet’s creditors with the favouring of one creditor (Airbus with dubious rights to these monies) over all others.”

Sir Stelios’s declaration of war on the easyJet board comes just days after he received a £60m dividend payment from the airline.

In his letter to Mr Barton, he said he had offered to subscribe to new equity in easyJet as part of a wider share issue.

A number of institutional shareholders in easyJet are understood to have been informed of Sir Stelios’s plans over the weekend.

Sir Stelios gave the board until Wednesday to respond to his demands, which include the appointment of an independent law firm to serve notice on Airbus.

He also opposed public statements by easyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren that the company was seeking a government loan on commercial terms to help it weather the coronavirus crisis.

Last week, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said any state support for airlines would need to be in taxpayers’ interest and would be available “only as a last resort”.

That comment implied that airlines such as easyJet would need to tap their own shareholders for funding before approaching the government.

Sky News revealed this month that Virgin Atlantic was seeking financial aid from the taxpayer.

It is not the first time that the easyJet founder has been in dispute with the company over the size of its fleet, having settled several disputes with uneasy truces.

Sir Stelios launched the airline in 1995, before floating it in 2000.

EasyJet could not be reached for comment.

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