Microsoft opens a review of its sexual harassment policies.
Shareholders called for action after evidence emerged that Bill Gates had sought romantic relationships with employees.
Bill Gates, one of Microsoft’s founders, solicited at least two employees while he was running Microsoft, according to reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.Credit…Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Microsoft has selected a law firm to review its sexual harassment and gender discrimination policies, the company’s board announced on Thursday, after shareholders raised alarms about how Microsoft and Bill Gates, one of its founders, had treated employees, especially women.
The board said it had chosen Arent Fox, based in Washington, D.C. Microsoft said the firm had never done employment-related work for it in the past.
Shareholders passed a resolution during the company’s 2021 annual meeting to review the policies Microsoft has in place for its employees to protect them against abuse and unwanted sexual advances.
The resolution passed with support from almost 78 percent of Microsoft’s shareholders. It was the only of five proposals on ethical issues put forth by shareholders to succeed. Others, like a call for a report on race- and gender-based pay gaps at the company and a pledge to prohibit sales of facial recognition to government entities, failed.
“Microsoft is under intense public scrutiny due to numerous claims of sexual harassment and an alleged failure to address them adequately and transparently,” the text of the resolution said. “Reports of Bill Gates’s inappropriate relationships and sexual advances toward Microsoft employees have only exacerbated concerns, putting in question the culture set by top leadership and the board’s role holding those culpable accountable.”
Mr. Gates solicited at least two employees while he was running Microsoft, according to reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. In one incident, in 2007, Mr. Gates sat through a presentation by a Microsoft employee, then immediately emailed her to ask for a date. Microsoft leaders later warned Mr. Gates not to do things like that. In 2019, Microsoft’s board received a letter from an engineer claiming to have had a sexual relationship with Mr. Gates in 2000. A spokeswoman for Mr. Gates confirmed that the two had had an affair that “ended amicably.”
Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief executive, said in a statement on Thursday that workplace culture was Microsoft’s “No. 1 priority.”
“We’re committed not just to reviewing the report but learning from the assessment so we can continue to improve the experiences of our employees,” he said.
Karen Weise contributed reporting.
Stocks tumbled on Thursday in a late sell-off led by shares of technology companies, ending two days of relative calm on Wall Street.
The S&P 500 fell 1.4 percent, while the Nasdaq composite slid 2.5 percent, losses that wiped out gains made by both benchmarks over the past two days.
Thursday’s trading echoed a wave of selling that hit markets last week, with large technology weighing on the broad market. Tesla, one of the biggest companies in the S&P 500, was one of the worst performers in the index, falling 6.8 percent. Microsoft fell 4.2 percent, Amazon dropped 2.4 percent, and Apple and Google slid about 2 percent.
The Nasdaq is down more than 5 percent this year, and the S&P 500 is down more than 2 percent, a decline that has come as investors adjust their expectations for interest rates in the year ahead as the Federal Reserve looks to get inflation under control and cuts its support for the economy.
The central bank is already slowing its bond-buying program, and it has signaled that it could soon raise interest rates and begin to shrink its asset holdings in a bid to further cool off the economy.
“We have a set of tools — they are very effective — and we will use them to bring inflation back down,” Lael Brainard, a Fed governor whom President Biden has nominated to become the central bank’s vice chair, said on Thursday at a Senate hearing. Economists expect the Fed to begin raising interest rates as soon as March.
Rising interest rates discourage risk-taking by investors, which tends to hit tech stocks more than others. What’s more, shares of many technology companies trade at high valuations because of fast growth and expectations that they will produce significant profits in the future. But higher interest rates put future growth in doubt and make those future earnings worth less to current investors.
Navient, once one of the country’s largest student loan servicing companies, reached a $1.85 billion deal with 39 states to settle claims that it had made predatory loans that saddled borrowers with crushing debts they were highly unlikely to repay.
The deal, announced Thursday, requires Navient to cancel $1.7 billion in delinquent private student loan debts for nearly 66,000 borrowers and pay $95 million in restitution. The private loans were crucial to Navient’s ability to make a large volume of lucrative federal loans, prosecutors said.
“Navient repeatedly and deliberately put profits ahead of its borrowers — it engaged in deceptive and abusive practices, targeted students who it knew would struggle to pay loans back and placed an unfair burden on people trying to improve their lives through education,” said Josh Shapiro, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, one of several states that had sued Navient.
Most of those who took out the loans that will be forgiven under the settlement attended for-profit schools — like the defunct ITT Technical Institute — that often have low graduation rates and poor job-placement records. The private loans were — in Navient’s own words, according to legal filings — a “baited hook” to reel in more federally backed loans.
At some schools, Navient anticipated that more than 90 percent of the loans would default. But what it lost on the private loans was far outweighed by what it gained on the federal loans — guaranteed by the government — that students at those schools took out.
Under Education Department rules, no more than 90 percent of a school’s tuition payments can come from federal funding. The private loans were intended, according to court filings, to fill that gap and attract students who would then take out the lucrative federal loans that the schools — and Navient — relied on.
Navient, which did not admit any fault in the settlement, said in a statement that it did not act illegally. “The company’s decision to resolve these matters, which were based on unfounded claims, allows us to avoid the additional burden, expense, time and distraction to prevail in court,” said Mark Heleen, Navient’s chief legal officer.
The deal, which covers only borrowers from participating states and Washington, D.C., ends a major portion of a set of linked legal actions that began five years ago, when federal and state prosecutors sued the company, which was at the heart of the student debt collection system.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued in federal court over what it called mistakes and tactics by Navient that inflated borrowers’ bills by billions of dollars. Several state attorneys general also filed state lawsuits claiming that Sallie Mae — Navient’s predecessor company, from which it split off in 2014 — made private, subprime loans to borrowers it knew had weaker credit and were likely to default.
Those claims are the focus of the settlement that was announced on Thursday, but it also resolved the states’ charges that Navient inflated borrowers’ bills by steering federal loan borrowers into costly long-term forbearance instead of more affordable income-based repayment plans. The deal calls for payments of around $260 per person to be distributed to 350,000 borrowers who were placed in certain forbearance programs. The consumer bureau’s lawsuit, which also centers on those claims, is continuing.
Under the agreement, which was submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania for approval, Navient will also pay the participating states $145 million.
If the settlement is approved, Navient will notify the borrowers whose debts will be forgiven. Details of the deal were posted by the participating states on a new website, NavientAGsettlement.com.
The loans that will be canceled, according to the proposed settlement, are past-due loans made in 2002 and after to borrowers at certain for-profit schools or through Navient initiatives, including its “Opportunity” and “Recourse” programs. The eligible schools include major for-profit chains like ITT and Corinthian Colleges — both of which have collapsed — as well as Bridgepoint Education, DeVry University and Education Management Corporation.
But some who attended those schools will still be left out: Navient agreed to eliminate the remaining balance on those loans only for people in locations that participated in the deal. Eleven states, including Texas, did not take part.
Students living in participating locations who attended public universities but received “nontraditional” loans — defined in the settlement as those made to borrowers who had a credit score below 640 at the time the loan was made — will also be eligible to have their delinquent loans wiped out.
Notably, students who were current on their loans as of June 30, 2021 — meaning they’re still paying their bills — will not have their loans canceled. Representatives for Mr. Shapiro, the Pennsylvania attorney general, did not immediately respond to a question about why those loans were left out of the settlement.
While the eliminated loans will be a great relief to the borrowers who took them out, most of the debts Navient is agreeing to wipe out are long-overdue loans for which it was already unlikely to be repaid. Navient valued the $1.7 billion it agreed to forgive at just $50 million — the total it expected it would ever be able to recoup, the company said on Thursday in a regulatory filing.
The federal consumer bureau declined to comment on Thursday. Navient appeared willing to resolve the bureau’s investigation in the final months of the Obama administration, but the talks broke down after President Donald J. Trump’s victory in 2016. The agency, long a target of criticism from Republicans, sued Navient two days before Mr. Trump’s inauguration, and the litigation outlasted his administration.
Navient decided last year to get out of the federal student loan business. It ended its contract with the Education Department, which allowed the company to transfer its 5.6 million borrower accounts to a new vendor, Maximus, which does business as Aidvantage.
But the company retained a portfolio of private student loans worth billions of dollars, and it later resumed that line of business. Navient has issued $17 billion in new private loans since it split from Sallie Mae.
“This is an enormous win for people with student debt,” said Mike Pierce, the executive director of the Student Borrower Protection Center. “We’ve spent lot of time thinking and talking about how to fix the federal student loan system, and we often ignore how many extremely economically vulnerable people are stuck with these private student loans that are destined to fail.”
Lael Brainard, a Federal Reserve governor nominated by President Biden to be the central bank’s new vice chair, told senators in a confirmation hearing that she expected the job market to see continued gains and for inflation to start easing as the Fed withdraws its support.CreditCredit…Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters
Lael Brainard, a Federal Reserve governor whom President Biden has nominated to be the central bank’s new vice chair, said the Fed would communicate its plans for removing economic support clearly — and suggested that the job market would continue to grow even as the Fed pulled back its help and as inflation began to ease.
Ms. Brainard faced vetting before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday. She fielded questions about her qualifications and her views on the Fed’s role in preparing the financial system for climate change and the outlook for the United States economy.
In a hearing marked by limited contention — one that suggested Ms. Brainard could enjoy some bipartisan support — the nominee expressed a willingness to combat high and rising prices by removing Fed help for the economy. The central bank is already slowing its bond-buying program, and it has signaled that it could soon raise interest rates and begin to shrink its asset holdings in a bid to further cool off the economy.
“I believe we’ll be able to see inflation coming back down to target while the employment picture continues to clear,” Ms. Brainard said, after noting that the Fed would communicate its plans for withdrawing support clearly. “There are some short-term constraints there that I think are limiting people from coming back into the labor market. As those are lifted, I think we’ll have continued gains.”
The jobless rate has been plummeting, but millions of workers are still missing from the job market compared with before the pandemic, and many employers complain that they cannot find employees, suggesting that health concerns and other challenges are keeping many people on the sidelines for now. At the same time, price inflation is rapid, with a report on Wednesday showing that a key price index rose in December at the fastest pace since 1982.
Ms. Brainard acknowledged that pandemic imbalances that have roiled global shipping and shut down factories are part of what is driving high inflation today — and that the Fed’s policies can do little to fix those supply problems. But she highlighted that Fed policies that affect borrowing costs can have a significant impact in cooling off demand.
“We have a set of tools — they are very effective — and we will use them to bring inflation back down,” Ms. Brainard said.
Fed officials have increasingly signaled that they expect to raise interest rates in 2022 to keep high inflation from becoming permanent. Markets increasingly expect four rate increases in 2022, which would put the Fed’s short-term policy interest rate just above 1 percent.
Delta Air Lines said on Thursday that it lost $408 million in the final three months of last year, as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which emerged late in that period, interfered with holiday operations and pushed back the airline’s recovery.
About 8,000 Delta employees — more than one in 10 — had called out sick in recent weeks, Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian, said on CNBC on Thursday. That, combined with bad storms, forced the airline and its peers to cancel tens of thousands of flights over the busy holiday travel period, with carriers only just beginning to recover in recent days.
“While the rapidly spreading Omicron variant has significantly impacted staffing levels and disrupted travel across the industry, Delta’s operation has stabilized over the last week and returned to preholiday performance,” Mr. Bastian said in a statement. “We are confident in a strong spring and summer travel season with significant pent-up demand for consumer and business travel.”
The Omicron variant has delayed the airline recovery by about 60 days, Mr. Bastian said. Delta alone scrubbed more than 2,000 flights over the two weeks starting on Christmas Day, the fourth-most flight cancellations among U.S. airlines.
United Airlines, which canceled more than 2,500 flights over that period, said this week that about 3,000 employees, more than 4 percent of its staff, had recently tested positive for the virus. At one point over the holidays, nearly a third of United employees called out sick at Newark Liberty International Airport, a major hub for United. Almost all employees at both airlines are vaccinated.
Despite the airline’s difficult year, Delta said it would spend about $100 million to distribute bonuses of $1,250 to each of its 75,000 employees.
“It’s going to be our recognition and our gesture of thanks to you for the hard work and the sacrifice and the service you’ve made on behalf of our company and on behalf of our customers,” Mr. Bastian said in a video message to employees announcing the bonuses, which will be distributed on Feb 14.
Shortly before Christmas, Delta warned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the virus could disrupt holiday travel and asked the agency to shorten its recommended isolation time for people who test positive for the virus, a move also supported by some public health experts. The agency made that change days later, setting off a feud between Delta and one of the nation’s most prominent airline labor unions, which said shortened isolation periods put workers and travelers at risk.
Although carriers finally recovered from the holiday disarray this week, Omicron is expected to weigh on travel in the coming months, Delta’s president, Glen Hauenstein, said in the statement.
“The recent rise in Covid cases associated with the Omicron variant is expected to impact the pace of demand recovery early in the quarter, with recovery momentum resuming from Presidents’ Day weekend forward,” he said.
The airline expects losses in January and February and a return to profitability in March, with revenue over those three months expected to be about 72 to 76 percent of the level in a similar period in 2019. The airline’s revenue in the final quarter last year was about 74 percent of that in the last quarter of 2019.
Despite an expected loss in the first quarter of this year, the airline said it expected to report a profit over the rest of 2022.
Delta also said it eked out a small $208 million profit for 2021, a feat that would have been impossible without $4.5 billion in federal relief to pay workers. The airline lost nearly $12.4 billion in 2020 and had a profit of about $4.8 billion the year before.
Delta is the first major airline to report its fourth-quarter financial results. American Airlines and United are expected to announce next week, followed by Southwest Airlines the week after.
The private equity firm TPG is set to begin trading on the Nasdaq on Thursday morning, after pricing its initial public offering at a $9 billion valuation. Going public is the latest milestone for the 30-year-old firm — but now it must convince investors that it can compete with its publicly traded rivals.
TPG’s listing is the first big stock market debut of the year, with bankers closely watching its performance to monitor the health of the business of initial public offerings. (The software company Justworks on Wednesday postponed its offering, citing market conditions.) TPG sold shares at $29.50, the midpoint of its expected price range.
Going public will help prepare the firm for the future, its leaders told the DealBook newsletter. Having a publicly traded stock will give the firm a new way of compensating employees and a currency for buying new businesses. TPG is also using proceeds from the offering to buy out minority stakes held by outside investors. (Its leaders are not selling any of their holdings.)
It is going public at an auspicious time for publicly traded private equity. Rivals like Blackstone and KKR have outpaced the S&P 500 over the past year, though TPG executives say they began planning the firm’s offering before the surge in those stocks.
But TPG must prove it can grow. Critics say that TPG is smaller than its peers — it manages $109 billion, a fraction of the $731 billion that Blackstone oversees — and more dependent on traditional leveraged buyouts, a lumpy business, for revenue. The firm’s executives counter that TPG was among the first firms to push into growth equity, including early investments in Uber and Airbnb, and that it was ahead of the curve on investments with environmental, social and governance, or E.S.G., credentials.
“We have always been builders and innovators,” Jim Coulter, the firm’s co-founder and executive chairman, said in an interview. “We are very proud of what we have built.”
Executives acknowledge that TPG has scope to diversify. Jon Winkelried, the firm’s chief executive, said in an interview that “we don’t need to do anything,” but he added that there were “certain parts of the market that we’re currently not in” that made sense to enter.
That may include credit investment funds, a big business for the other publicly traded private equity firms that TPG will now be compared with more directly.
Jack Dorsey has announced the creation of a nonprofit group, the Bitcoin Legal Defense Fund, to help developers of the original cryptocurrency facing “legal headaches.”
In an email sent to the developers’ mailing list on Wednesday, Mr. Dorsey, a Bitcoin evangelist, wrote that “litigation and continued threats are having their intended effect; individual defendants have chosen to capitulate in the absence of legal support.”
A founder of the payments company Block, formerly known as Square, Mr. Dorsey is deeply invested in Bitcoin’s development, the DealBook newsletter reports. He stepped down as chief executive of Twitter in November to advance Block’s cryptocurrency ambitions, and he has said Bitcoin is the most important thing he can work on in this lifetime. Block holds more than $350 million worth of Bitcoin in its corporate treasury.
Mr. Dorsey’s fund will provide free legal advice and rely primarily on part-time and volunteer lawyers. Board members, including Mr. Dorsey, will review cases and decide who gets the group’s help.
First up on the docket: Tulip Trading, a Seychelles-based firm run by Craig Wright, a litigious Australian computer scientist who claims to be Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym of Bitcoin’s creator. He has sued core Bitcoin developers after losing a fortune in a hack, claiming breach of fiduciary duty, adding that a small team of people control the Bitcoin network and have a duty to protect users and help recover tokens lost to theft.
A loss for developers in this case could have a chilling effect on cryptocurrency, which is probably why Mr. Dorsey said the new fund would “take over coordination of the existing defense.” If developers are held liable for losses caused by hackers, the risks of contributing to the Bitcoin network could outweigh the rewards.
The fund is not seeking contributions for now, and Mr. Dorsey did not disclose how much money it had.
Investors are increasingly worried that inflation may derail the economic recovery. Inflation data released on Wednesday provided new cause for concern: The government reported that consumer prices rose at their fastest pace in 40 years.
That is hitting people’s wallets, but has done little to slow corporate America’s profit boom. “We’re going to have the best growth we’ve ever had this year, I think since maybe sometime after the Great Depression,” Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, told CNBC this week, speaking of the economy in general.
Earnings season is about to begin, with four of the nation’s largest financial firms — BlackRock, Citigroup, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo — all publishing their latest quarterly results on Friday before the market opens, the DealBook newsletter reports. Investors will listen for what executives have to say about the effect of inflation, supply chain disruptions and other pandemic issues.
Here’s some of what you can expect in the next few weeks:
Omicron is not yet hitting bottom lines.
Earnings reports covering the fourth quarter won’t capture the full effect of the recent surge in coronavirus cases. Analysts say the current quarter is when the coronavirus variant will do the most damage to corporate finances.
Fourth-quarter earnings for the S&P 500 are expected to show growth of 22 percent versus the same period in 2020, but growth in the first quarter of this year is expected to be around 6 percent, according to FactSet. Delta Air Lines reported higher-than-expected revenue for the fourth quarter, but said it expected to record a loss in the first quarter.
Higher prices have been good for some companies’ profit margins.
Executives spent last quarter warning about higher wages and shipping costs. In the end, many companies were able to raise their prices by as much as, or more than, the increase in costs, and holiday sales came in stronger than anticipated. Soeven with the highest inflation in decades, reported profit margins are expected to be high — and rising.
“The Wall Street consensus is that profit margins will break above prior peaks this year,” Ohsung Kwon, a U.S. equity strategist at Bank of America, told DealBook. “What that implies is that analysts expect supply chain problems and labor shortages will moderate soon. We don’t think those issues will go away so quickly.”
As margins expand, expect more talk about raising corporate taxes.
Corporate profits have become a political issue in the debate about the causes of inflation. If this earnings season features a series of reports showing expanding margins at a time when consumer prices are surging, the voices calling for companies to pay more tax could grow louder.
As natural gas prices in Europe continue to hit record highs, utility companies in Germany are scrambling to secure millions of euros in extra liquidity to ensure they can meet future contracts.
Steag, Germany’s fifth-largest utility, said on Wednesday that it had organized financing in the “low triple-digit-million euro” range through an investing partner.
“We needed to gain more liquidity to secure future contracts,” said Daniel M?hlenfeld, a spokesman. He stressed that the financing was not a credit from a bank, but had been organized through another business partner. Steag operates several coal- and gas-burning power plants in western Germany, and generates power from renewable sources including wind, biomass and geothermal.
Last week, another leading German utility, Uniper, announced that high energy prices had forced it to seek extra credit worth 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion). Most of the money, EUR8 billion, came from Uniper’s parent company, Fortum, based in Finland. The rest is from Germany’s state-owned development bank, KfW, and was secured as a backup to mitigate future price swings, the company said.
Other German energy companies, including RWE and EnBW, said that they had taken similar steps to ensure they had sufficient credit to weather the volatility in the European energy market, but declined to give details. They all face the same challenge of needing to hedge their sales of gas and electricity to cover price differences across different markets.
In a statement explaining the decision to provide Uniper with extra financing, Fortum said that European gas prices reached “unprecedented levels” in December. In Germany, the price for energy to heat and power homes in November rose more than 101 percent from a year earlier, the country’s official statistics office, Destatis, said.
In Britain, the sudden price rise has led to the collapse of several smaller energy suppliers.
Global demand for energy jumped last year, after the world economy reawakened from widespread shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. When many economies started up again last spring, the need for natural gas shot up. Natural gas is crucial for generating electricity, running factories and heating homes across the continent.
European countries normally stock up on gas in the summer, when prices are relatively cheap, but the pandemic and a cold winter last year drew down levels of stored gas, leading to the wild swings in prices.
Prices for natural gas have risen about sixfold, to record levels. The surge means the wholesale price of electricity has reached stratospheric levels, making headlines across Europe as consumers, battered by the pandemic, are now hit by big increases in their home energy bills. Many European countries have tried to buffer the shock to consumers with price caps, subsidies and direct payments.
These high costs are also undermining the economics of companies that make fertilizer, steel, glass and other materials that require a lot of electricity.
Goldman Sachs has delayed its return-to-office plan to Feb. 1 for staff who are working remotely because of the surge in coronavirus cases, a company spokeswoman confirmed on Thursday. That is the same date that the bank will start to require boosters for employees entering its offices.
Elizabeth Holmes, the Silicon Valley start-up founder convicted of fraud this month, will be sentenced on Sept. 26, according to a court filing on Wednesday. Ms. Holmes, who was found guilty on three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for each count. She is expected to appeal the verdict, and the court ordered any “post-trial motions” to be filed by March 4.
As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus surges across the country, tests are in short supply. But for a select group of employees at corporate America’s largest firms, tests are free and often readily available.
These companies have been buying tests in bulk, some as part of their return-to-office protocols and others as a perk to offer workers peace of mind — even for those not yet coming into the office, Emma Goldberg, Lauren Hirsch and David McCabe report for The New York Times.
Unlike other company perks, like free snacks, virus tests are a vital public health tool. Some large corporations are sending out free weekly shipments to employees, while other small businesses, like restaurants, are struggling to safely stay open.
The federal government has been slow to authorize rapid antigen tests, because it has held them to a high standard for medical devices. Other places, like Britain, were quicker to approve rapid tests as a public health tool, leading to faster production.
The result is a testing shortage, and a decentralized system in which schools, hospitals and companies are competing to get tests. “It doesn’t surprise me that many organizations who were recognizing they need these tests to stay in business were buying them,” said Joseph Allen, an associate professor at Harvard. “A smart testing strategy would have flooded the market with these, so they don’t have to be hoarded.”
With testing kits scarce, some health experts are questioning the distribution of tests. “There’s a few better targets than at-home white-collar workers,” said Dr. Benjamin Mazer, a pathologist in Connecticut specializing in laboratory medicine.
Today in the On Tech newsletter, Shira Ovide writes that one can live in the United States and not have an Amazon Prime account. She explains how she does it.