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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Growth in Australia coronavirus cases slows, but experts urge caution

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia on Tuesday reported a sustained fall in the country’s rate of new coronavirus infections but officials and experts warned against complacency, stressing the need for further strict social distancing policies.

To ensure compliance, state authorities enacted sweeping powers to impose hefty fines and potential jail terms on anybody breaching rules that include a ban on public meetings of more than just two people.

Health Minister Greg Hunt reported there were about 4,400 coronavirus cases nationally, with the rate of growth in new infections slowing to an average of 9% over the past three days from 25-30% a week ago.

Of those, 50 people were in intensive care and 20 were on ventilators, Hunt said. The death toll in a country of almost 25 million stood at 19.

Based on the completion of more than 230,000 tests, the death rate for Australian cases was below 1%, significantly under the 10% being reported by some other countries and suggesting “early promising signs of the curve flattening,” Hunt said.

“That’s an achievement to which all Australians have contributed,” he said in a televised news conference.

Countries around the world are chasing the goal of “flattening the curve”, referring to a slowdown in the anticipated first wave of infections to stop hospitals being overrun with critical patients.

Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist at Canberra Hospital, said while Australia stopped short of the full lockdown imposed by other countries, it introduced social distancing measures relatively early.

“We acted much earlier than the likes of Italy and the United States,” Collignon told Reuters. “We had much less community transmission and we still shut our borders and implemented social distancing policies such as shutting down bars and pubs, and did much more testing.”

Collignon also noted there may be an element of luck in the current trend, and backed official moves to keep social interactions to a minimum.

Several states introduced penalties on Tuesday for people flouting social distancing requirements. The repercussions differ from state to state, but include fines of up to A$11,000 ($6,779), the potential of a six-month prison term and the requirement to wear an electronic tracking device.

CURVE FLATTENING

Philip Russo, president of the Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control, said talk of curve flattening was “premature.”

“We need to have weeks on end of decreasing numbers of new cases on a daily basis,” Russo said. “What we are seeing now is quite possibly normal daily variation.”

The government’s own caution was highlighted by a deal to boost the public health system with an extra 34,000 hospital beds sourced from private hospitals, along with thousands of doctors and nurses. Australia will also take delivery of more than 5,000 ventilators at the end of April, Hunt said.

Health officials said earlier on Tuesday they wanted to increase testing, especially in places of COVID-19 clusters such as Sydney’s Bondi area, which drew attention earlier this month after people ignored social distancing rules and flocked to the beach. NSW officials said that the virus may have been transmitted in the Bondi community via an infected backpacker who was not aware they were carrying the disease.

Like all affected countries, Australia’s financial and jobs markets have been roiled by the outbreak, prompting the government to unveil several stimulus packages.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday that 113,000 businesses had registered interest in a new A$130 billion ($80 billion) six-month wage subsidy designed to stop spiralling unemployment and business closures.

The “job keeper” allowance brought the country’s coronavirus-related stimulus so far to A$320 billion, or about 15% of Australia’s gross domestic product, as economists forecast the country’s first recession in almost three decades.

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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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US in good shape to meet virus ‘peak’ – Trump

Donald Trump has said the US will be in “very good shape” in terms of the number of ventilators by the time the coronavirus outbreak peaks.

The US president said there were now at least 10 companies making the ventilators – key equipment to treat critically ill patients.

He said more than a million Americans had been tested for the virus – more than in any other country.

The US has more than 16,000 confirmed virus cases and nearly 3,000 deaths.

New York City is the worst-hit place in America, with nearly 800 confirmed fatalities, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The US last week became the country with the most reported cases, ahead of Italy and China.

What did Trump say?

Speaking at Monday’s briefing at the White House, President Trump said: “We reached a historic milestone in our war against the coronavirus. Over one million Americans have now been tested, more than any other country by far. Not even close.”

Asked why the US remained behind countries like South Korea in terms of the testing rate per capita, Mr Trump said he should be congratulated on his administration’s progress.

But the president also warned that “challenging times are ahead for the next 30 days”.

“We’re sort of putting it all on the line, this 30 days, so important, because we have to get back.”

Mr Trump said social distancing could save more than a million American lives.

“We will have a great victory,” he said.

What’s the situation in the US?

Nationwide measures mean citizens must continue to avoid non-essential travel, going to work, and eating at restaurants or bars. Gatherings are limited to groups of under 10 people.

But stricter restrictions apply to millions in some of the worst-hit states.

On Saturday residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were advised not to travel elsewhere within the country for 14 days.

Non-essential gatherings in New York City are banned and most businesses are closed as the city faces more than 33,000 cases. Police can issue fines of $250-500 (£200-£400).

In California, a “shelter in place” order remains.

What about the shortage of equipment?

Earlier on Sunday, Mr Trump accused hospitals in some states of “hoarding” ventilators, face masks and other critical medical supplies.

“We do have a problem with hoarding… including ventilators. Hospitals need to release them – in some cases they have too many, they have to release medical supplies and equipment,” he said.

Hospitals “can’t hold [ventilators] if they think there might be a problem weeks down the road”, he said, alleging that some were “stocked up”.

The availability of ventilators is a major concern among health professionals as demand has surged. A number of states have warned that they will soon not have enough to treat patients suffering from Covid-19.

The virus can cause severe respiratory issues as it attacks the lungs, and ventilators help to keep patients breathing.

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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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Denmark eyes gradual reopening after Easter if coronavirus numbers stabilize

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) – Denmark may gradually lift a lockdown after Easter if the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths remain stable, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said on Monday.

The Nordic country, which has reported 77 coronavirus-related deaths, last week extended until after Easter a two-week lockdown to limit physical contact between its citizens that began on March 11.

“Over the past week the number of hospital admissions has risen slightly slower than the week before and without the explosion in the numbers that we have seen in other countries,” Frederiksen told a news conference.

Last week, the number of hospitalizations for coronavirus in Denmark roughly doubled from 254 to 533, whereas admissions in the week before that more than tripled from the previous week, according to data from the Danish Health Authority.

The number of daily deaths slowed to five on Sunday from eight and 11 on Saturday and Friday respectively. Denmark has reported a total of 2,577 coronavirus infections.

“If we over the next two weeks across Easter keep standing together by staying apart, and if the numbers remain stable for the next two weeks, then the government will begin a gradual, quiet and controlled opening of our society again, at the other side of Easter,” Frederiksen said.

Denmark has imposed less strict limits on daily life than in Italy or France where people are only free to leave their homes to buy groceries, go to work if essential or seek medical care.

But the Danish approach has been considerably tougher than that of neighboring fellow European Union country Sweden, which remains largely open for business.

Danish authorities have restricted public assembly to 10 or fewer people, ordered the closure of schools, universities, day cares, restaurants, cafes, libraries, gyms and hair salons, and shut all borders to most foreigners.

A reopening would probably include people attending schools and work in shifts to avoid rush-hour traffic and too many people gathering in public at the same time, Frederiksen said.

“We do see signs that we have succeeded in delaying the transmission of corona in Denmark. The transmission is spreading slower than feared,” she said.

Frederiksen said she hoped to be able to present a plan for the first phase of a reopening by the end of this week after consultation with the other parties in government.

More than 738,400 people have been infected by the coronavirus worldwide and 35,006 have died, according to a Reuters tally. The countries that have suffered the most deadly outbreaks are both in Europe – Italy and Spain.

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Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis chafe at coronavirus restrictions

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli police have used a drone, helicopter and stun grenades in recent days to prevent people gathering in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem in defiance of Health Ministry measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday, police, some in riot gear and surgical masks, encountered occasional resistance and verbal abuse while enforcing the measures in a part of the city whose residents have long chafed against the state.

“Nazis!” shouted a group of boys, as police pulled men off the narrow streets of Mea Shearim.

As well as broadcasting the message “Stay Home” from the helicopter and drone, police have issued offenders with fines.

Israeli officials describe the ultra-Orthodox as especially prone to contagion because their districts tend to be poor and congested, and in normal times they are accustomed to holding thrice-daily prayers with often large congregations.

Some of their rabbis have also cast doubt on the degree of coronavirus risk.

Many ultra-Orthodox reject the authority of the Israeli state, whose Jewish majority is mostly secular.

Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority are another sensitive community, where officials say testing for the virus has been lagging.

“There are three ‘Corona Countries’ – the ultra-Orthodox sector, the Arab sector and the rest of the State of Israel,” Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters on Sunday.

The Mea Shearim patrols represented an escalation in security enforcement. On Saturday, a funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners in Bnai Brak, an ultra-Orthodox town.

Reprimanded by Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan for allowing what he deemed a “threat to life” at the funeral, police issued a statement vowing to “draw lessons to prevent similar situations recurring”.

Public gatherings are currently limited to up to 10 people, people must keep two meters apart and the public has been urged to stay at home unless they need to buy food, get medical attention, or go to work deemed crucial by the state.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ultra-Orthodox head of ZAKA, a volunteer emergency-medicine group, told Israel’s Army Radio that most ultra-Orthodox Jews did follow Health Ministry directives and only a small group defied them, possibly for political reasons.

“Everything they are doing has no value when they constitute a ‘ticking bomb’ because of whom people will get infected,” he said of those not following the government’s guidelines.

Israel has reported 4,347 coronavirus cases and 15 fatalities.

With the Health Ministry warning that the dead could eventually number in the thousands, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due on Monday to convene officials to discuss a proposed lockdown of some of the country.

Bennett has proposed setting up a coronavirus surveillance system that would allow authorities to focus lockdowns on areas most prone to contagion.

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