Live news from February 10: US inflation surges to 7.5% in fastest annual rise in 40 years, Head of UK’s Metropolitan Police quits after scandals, Credit Suisse sinks to $2.2bn fourth-quarter loss

Affirm tumbles after botched earnings release shows wider losses

Shares in Affirm, one of the largest “buy now, pay later” providers, tumbled more than 20 per cent late on Thursday after the company prematurely tweeted out partial financial results that revealed widening losses.

The company had been scheduled to release results after the stock market closed. Its official Twitter account later blamed “human error” for the mistake.

Affirm then accelerated the release of its full results, which showed revenue jumped 77 per cent to $361mn year on year as the number of active customers on its platform more than doubled to 11.2mn. But quarterly losses increased to 57 cents a share from a loss of 37 cents a share as it spent more on hiring and marketing to fuel growth.

Analysts polled by FactSet had forecast quarterly revenue of $329mn with a loss of 32 cents a share.

Affirm makes short-term loans to consumers at the point of sale, which are repaid in instalments over a period of six weeks to three years. The company charges merchants fees based on transaction values. For merchants, the relationship provides them with a chance to increase the size and quantity of consumer purchases.

General administrative and marketing costs at Affirm both more than tripled in the quarter compared with a year earlier, to $141mn and $143mn, respectively.

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US stocks and bonds tumble as hot inflation prompts rethink of Fed’s tightening pace

Wall Street stocks and government bond prices fell on Thursday after data showed the rate of US inflation hit a 40-year high in January.

The latest hot consumer price index data prompted traders to bet on more aggressive action from the Federal Reserve, with six quarter-point interest rate increases priced into the market for 2022.

With higher rates, and therefore higher borrowing costs, on the horizon, US stocks stumbled.

The broad-based S&P 500 index closed down 1.8 per cent, pulled lower by the real estate and tech sectors, while the technology-heavy Nasdaq fell 2.1 per cent.

The market took a knock in the afternoon when James Bullard, president of the Saint Louis Fed and a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee, said he would like to see 1 percentage point’s worth of interest rate increases by July 1 — and that the FOMC should consider meeting on an unscheduled basis before March to start the tightening cycle.

“I was already more hawkish but I have pulled up dramatically what I think the committee should do,” Bullard told Bloomberg on Thursday.

US government debt came under renewed selling pressure. The 10-year Treasury note, which moves with inflation and economic expectations, rose to a high of 2.05 per cent, breaching 2 per cent for the first time since August 2019.

Though the move in 10-year yields was significant, the biggest changes were in shorter-dated notes suggesting that the market’s focus on Thursday was more on the Fed’s potential policy reaction to inflation rather than inflation itself.

Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington

Read more on the day’s market moves here

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Met police chief Cressida Dick to resign amid backlash over police culture

The head of London’s Metropolitan Police announced on Thursday she would step down after the UK capital’s mayor declared himself dissatisfied with her response to scandals.

Dame Cressida Dick’s resignation followed a damning report last week by a police watchdog into a culture of sexism, racism and homophobia at Charing Cross police station.

Her departure also comes after criticism of the Met’s initial reluctance to investigate Downing Street and other government parties held during coronavirus restrictions.

Last year, the Met was plunged into crisis when Wayne Couzens, a serving officer, abducted, raped and murdered 33-year old Sarah Everard while she was walking home in south London.

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Hot inflation data weighs on US stocks and bonds

Wall Street stocks and government bond prices fell on Thursday after data showed the rate of US inflation hit a 40-year high in January.

The latest hot inflation data prompted traders to bet on more aggressive action from the Federal Reserve, with six quarter-point interest rate increases priced into the market for 2022. The prospect of higher rates hurt US stocks, and tech stocks in particular.

The broad-based S&P 500 index had fallen 1.4 per cent by mid-afternoon in New York, while the technology-heavy Nasdaq was 1.5 per cent lower.

US government debt also came under renewed selling pressure. The yield on the two-year Treasury note, which moves inversely to its price and closely tracks interest rate expectations, rose as much as 0.20 percentage points to 1.58 per cent, its highest level since January 2020.

The 10-year Treasury note, which moves with inflation and economic expectations, rose to a high of 2.04 per cent, breaching 2 per cent for the first time since August 2019. Though the move in 10-year yields was significant, the biggest changes were in shorter-dated notes suggesting that the market’s focus on Thursday was more on the Fed’s potential policy reaction to inflation rather than inflation itself.

Across the Atlantic, the yield on Germany’s 10-year Bund, which last month traded in positive territory for the first time since 2019, added 0.07 percentage points to rise to 0.28 per cent. The yield on Italy’s 10-year bond, which is viewed as particularly sensitive to rising rates because of the government’s high debt, rose 0.14 percentage points to 1.89 per cent.

Read more on the day’s market moves here

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Mexico’s central bank lifts rates in bid to tame inflation

The Bank of Mexico raised its benchmark interest rate by 0.5 percentage points on Thursday as it tries to tame inflation, which is running at more than double the bank’s target.

The five-member board voted 4-1 to raise the overnight interbank rate to 6.0 per cent, as markets expected. The more dovish board member Gerardo Esquivel instead voted for a 0.25 percentage point rise, the bank said.

Thursday’s decision was the first under new Central Bank Governor Victoria Rodríguez Ceja, previously a little-known public sector economist and the bank’s first female leader. Her surprise appointment last November led to a slide in the Mexican peso against the dollar, though it has since recovered.

Inflation in January hit 7.1 per cent with core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, above 6.2 per cent. The bank targets 3 per cent inflation with a tolerance range of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

The central bank board said in its statement it looked at the magnitude and diversity of shocks to inflation along with the risk of medium- and long-term inflation expectations becoming contaminated.

“Inflationary pressures have been greater and have lasted longer than anticipated,” the board said. The board also lifted its forecasts for headline and core inflation for this year.

Around the world central banks are raising interest rates to try to tame stubbornly high inflation, with the US on Thursday reporting a surge in inflation to its highest in 40 years for January.

“The most important point to note was that, as we suspected, the new Governor Victoria Rodríguez did not want to rock the boat. She sided with the more hawkish camp on the Board,” said Nikhil Sanghani, Latin America Economist at Capital Economics.

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Price increases help Kellogg navigate supply chain constraints and inflation

Higher prices for products like Fruit Loops and Eggo Waffles helped give Kellogg some confidence it will be able to manage cost inflation, supply chain bottlenecks and the lingering impact of its recent labour strike.

Steve Cahillane, chief executive, conceded that business conditions would remain “challenging” in 2022, but Kellogg expected organic net sales growth of 3 per cent and adjusted earnings per share growth of 1-2 per cent.

That was better than Wall Street forecast and, in addition to topping analysts’ revenue and profit expectations for the fourth quarter, helped push Kellogg shares up more than 3 per cent in lunchtime trading on Thursday.

Against a broader backdrop of surging inflation in the US and elsewhere, the company has raised prices for its products, helping moderate cost inflation associated with materials like corn, oil, and packaging. 

Executives said during an earnings call on Thursday they planned to deal with inflation in 2022, which they expect to run at double-digit rates, through productivity and revenue growth management initiatives.

The price increases, as well as strong momentum in international markets, helped offset the impact on sales of a three-month-long strike late last year involving about 1,400 Kellogg workers across four breakfast cereal plants in the US.

Cahillane said he expects the impact of the strike to affect sales in the first and second quarter of 2022 as the company rebuilds inventories.

Owing to the impact of the strike, Kellogg’s fourth quarter net sales fell 1.3 per cent from a year ago to $3.42bn, but that still beat analyst estimates for $3.39bn. Quarterly earnings of $1.26 a share more than doubled from a year earlier and surpassed Wall Street’s estimate of $0.79 a share.

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Uber expects to be cash flow positive by fourth quarter of 2022

Uber predicted it would be free cash flow positive by the fourth quarter of 2022, a milestone for the ridesharing company.

The company also expected to achieve adjusted ebtida profit of $5bn for the full year 2024, compared to the $0.8bn loss in 2021, chief financial officer Nelson Chai said on Thursday during the company’s first ever investor day.

Chai said Uber would attract gross bookings of between $165bn-$175bn, compared to $90bn last year.

Trading in Uber was halted briefly in anticipation of the company’s forecasts and other projections. The company’s share price fell by around 3 per cent on the announcements but soon levelled out.

Wedbush analyst Dan Ives called the investor day projections “strong metrics”, but said Wall Street had been expecting bigger gross bookings numbers for 2024. “The knee jerk reaction is a bit negative with this jittery market,” he said in an email.

The investor day came a day after Uber posted stronger-than-expected earnings in the fourth quarter of 2021, with its delivery unit achieving adjusted ebitda profitability for the first time.

Speaking to investors on Thursday, chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said Uber’s ownership of two big segments — rideshare and delivery — allowed for cross promotional opportunities that lowered costs and improved customer retention.

Chai said: “We were largely a mobility business going into the pandemic. We’re emerging with two very large businesses. We’re starting to see the early signal of that cross selling opportunity.”

Chief product officer Sundeep Jain said 23 per cent of Uber’s drivers worked across both rideshare and delivery, arguing that it made its platform a more attractive option than the company’s pureplay competitors, such as rideshare rival Lyft, and the delivery-only DoorDash.

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Macron outlines plans to build at least 6 new nuclear reactors in France

President Emmanuel Macron has outlined plans to build at least six new nuclear reactors in France in the coming decades, doubling down on the source of power to ensure a lower carbon future.

He laid out the nuclear investments in a speech today as part of broader plans to meet a pledge for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. France’s state-backed energy provider EDF will be tasked with building and operating the reactors, which it estimates could cost about €50bn, depending on financing conditions.

“We need to pick up the mantle of France’s big nuclear adventure again,” Macron said in a speech in Belfort in eastern France.

The goal would be to start building in 2028 and for the first new reactor to come online by 2035. Studies would be undertaken to consider a further eight reactors, he added.

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Inflation data pushes yield on US 10-year debt above 2% for first time since 2019

The US 10-year Treasury yield climbed today to 2 per cent for the first time since August 2019 as investors ditched government debt on the latest evidence of stubbornly high inflation.

The benchmark bond yield, which serves as a reference point for financial assets across the globe, has risen 0.49 percentage points so far this year as investors position for a series of interest rate rises and the end of large-scale bond purchases by the Federal Reserve, but crossing 2 per cent marks a significant milestone for investors.

The jump came after the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the consumer price index had risen 7.5 per cent in January from a year earlier, the fastest pace of US inflation in 40 years.

“It is a challenging time to be a central banker, especially as it now seems that policymakers have been too relaxed on inflation over the past six months,” said Alastair George, chief investment strategist at Edison Group. “Sharply rising government bond yields represent a pre-tightening of financial conditions well ahead of any official interest rate increases.”

Benjamin Jeffery, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets, said the 2 per cent threshold was also “technically significant given the market’s fondness for round numbers”.

Although the 10-year yield is back above the 2 per cent threshold, some analysts have been surprised by how little it has risen in the face of inflation rates not seen for decades.

Read more on bond market moves here

Additional reporting by Joe Rennison in New York

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Vodafone rejects Iliad’s €11bn offer for its Italian business

Vodafone said Iliad’s bid did not represent ‘the best interests of shareholders’ © AFP via Getty Images

Vodafone has rejected a bid for its Italian business from French billionaire Xavier Niel’s Iliad, despite having expressed support for consolidation in some of Europe’s more fragmented telecoms markets.

Iliad submitted an offer of more than €11bn for Vodafone’s Italian business on Saturday, according to people familiar with the matter, representing about seven times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation.

Vodafone rejected the bid today on the grounds that it did not represent “the best interests of shareholders”.

“Vodafone continues to pragmatically pursue several value accretive in-market consolidation opportunities to deliver sustainable market structures in its major European markets, including Italy,” the company said in a statement.

Nick Read, Vodafone chief executive, has said that to turn round the fortunes of the FTSE 100 company, which has lost about 30 per cent of its share price over the past five years, there will have to be in-market consolidation in countries where there are four or more telecoms providers.

He has come under increasing pressure to make good on those ambitions in recent weeks, after it emerged that Europe’s biggest activist investor, Cevian Capital, had taken a stake in the company and was pushing for a structural overhaul to the business, including shedding some of its poorer performing units.

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US jobless claims decline for third straight week as Omicron hit fades

New applicants for unemployment aid in the US fell for the third consecutive week, as the labour market continued to recover from the disruption caused by the Omicron variant.

There were 223,000 initial jobless claims on a seasonally adjusted basis in the week ending February 5, according to US labour department data released today.

That was slightly lower than the 239,000 claims reported the previous week, and beat the median forecast of 230,000 claims in a Reuters poll of analysts.

Continuing jobless claims, which measure the number of Americans actively receiving unemployment aid, remained at 1.621m.

Jobless claims had hit their lowest level in 52 years in December, but the Omicron-led surge in coronavirus cases had driven claims higher at the end of last year.

“Initial jobless claims continue to unwind their recent spike as the Omicron wave recedes,” said Lydia Boussour, economist at Oxford Economics. “They have reversed 75% of their Omicron pop in just three weeks, reflecting the rapidly improving health backdrop and confirming that the labour market is strong,” she said.

The January jobs report signalled the resilience of the labour market and economic recovery, although rising inflation poses a threat to US president Joe Biden’s economic agenda.

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Peabody profits surge as coal demand jumps amid higher gas prices

Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest private sector coal producer, posted its highest quarterly profit in nearly two decades as it rode a wave of surging demand despite global efforts to shift away from the dirtiest fossil fuel.

The company today reported net income of $513mn in the final three months of 2021, up from a loss of $129mn a year ago — its best profit in records going back to 2005, according to S&P Capital IQ.

“Our robust fourth-quarter results further demonstrate the capability of our diverse mine portfolio which continues to benefit from strong market fundamentals driven by the vital necessity for coal to produce reliable energy and steel to fuel the global economy,” said chief executive Jim Grech.

St Louis-based Peabody, whose properties include North Antelope Rochelle, the world’s largest coal mine, has benefited from a jump in demand over the past year as high gas prices have prompted a switch back to coal among many power producers.

The resurgence of coal flies in the face of global efforts to wean economies off the most emissions-intensive fossil fuel. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last year, world leaders agreed to “phase down” its usage.

Peabody reported revenues of $1.3bn for the quarter, an increase of more than 70 per cent from a year ago. Shares rose more than 7 per cent in pre-market trading.

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US inflation surges past 7%, the fastest pace in 40 years

The US consumer price index rose 7.5 per cent last month compared with January 2021, its fastest annual pace since 1982, as inflationary pressures continued to afflict the rapid economic recovery.

The data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the CPI surging above its previous 40-year high of 7 per cent on an annual basis recorded in December, surpassing economists’ expectations.

On a monthly basis, CPI rose 0.6 per cent last month, a steeper increase than forecast by economists.

The persistence of high inflation has already prompted the Federal Reserve to speed up its timetable for tightening monetary policy, with the first interest rate increase since the onset of the pandemic expected to be approved next month.

“While the Omicron variant may weigh on activity in the near term, the high levels of inflation and the tightness in labour markets make a compelling case to begin recalibrating the stance of monetary policy,” Loretta Mester, president of the Cleveland Fed and a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee, said yesterday, adding that she supported raising the central bank’s main interest rate in March.

The Fed has not committed to any particular pace for its tightening cycle, saying the tempo and scale of the rate increases would depend on the data, making the inflation figures particularly pivotal.

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Coca-Cola sales boosted by demand and higher prices

Coca-Cola’s sales grew faster than anticipated with higher prices and resurgent demand in restaurants and entertainment venues boosting fourth-quarter results.

The soda maker said organic sales in the December period jumped 9 per cent year on year, beating analysts’ expectations for the measure to remain flat. Net revenues hit $9.5bn, up 10 per cent and above Wall Street’s forecast of $9bn.

Coca-Cola has benefited from the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions and consumers’ return to restaurants, cinemas, arenas and other venues that traditionally account for about half of the company’s revenues.

The hospitality sector’s recovery hit a speed bump late in 2021, as the Omicron variant fuelled a spike in reported coronavirus infections. The winter wave of the pandemic exacerbated labour shortages for restaurants and their suppliers. Outside the US, renewed coronavirus-related lockdown measures pinched demand, particularly in China.

Coca-Cola said demand in China was resilient in the fourth quarter, while sales in Australia came under pressure because of the pandemic.

Like its peers, Coca-Cola has also battled mounting inflationary pressure stemming from higher supply chain costs. The company said it expected continued price inflation in commodities in 2022.

Coca-Cola is looking for organic sales to increase 7-8 per cent in 2022, compared with analysts’ estimate of 7.2 per cent growth. The company estimated adjusted earnings per share to rise 5-6 per cent from the $2.32 it earned last year. Wall Street had forecast $2.43.

Shares in Coca-Cola gained 1.3 per cent in pre-market trading.

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Twitter sales jump after bucking worst of Apple’s privacy changes

Twitter login page on a laptop computer
Twitter said sales rose 22 per cent year-on-year to $1.57bn in the fourth quarter of 2021, roughly in line with consensus estimates © AP

Twitter investors breathed a sigh of relief that it reported only a “modest” impact from the Apple privacy changes that thwarted Facebook owner Meta’s performance last week, as the short-form social media company reported a 22 per cent rise in sales.

Shares in Twitter rose as much as 9 per cent in pre-market trading today, the latest in a series of sharp one-day stock moves during the tech industry’s earnings season.

Twitter reported a 22 per cent year-on-year rise in sales to $1.57bn in the fourth quarter of 2021, roughly in line with consensus estimates, as the company has expanded into new revenue streams such as subscriptions.

The San Francisco-based company said it expected Apple’s iOS changes to have a “modest impact” into the first quarter of this year, saying it was confident it could “navigate future potential changes”.

“Although retooling our revenue products in light of Apple’s privacy-related iOS changes took additional time, energy and resources in 2020 and 2021, we believe that our product improvements have helped reduce the impact on Twitter,” the company said in its letter to investors.

However, Twitter’s push to build new products faster drove up costs and expenses 35 per cent to $1.4bn in the quarter, as the company increased hiring. This squeezed operating income, which fell 34 per cent year-on-year to $167mn, below consensus estimates of $175mn.

The company also announced a new $4bn share repurchase programme, which replaces a previously announced $2bn share buyback programme in 2020, of which $819mn remains.

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PepsiCo expects strong 2022 sales as inflation weighs

PepsiCo has forecast that sales will continue to rise in 2022, even as higher supply chain costs squeeze profits for the soda and snack maker.

Strong demand and higher prices helped PepsiCo generate a 12.4 per cent increase in net revenues to $25.2bn in the fourth quarter, topping analysts’ expectations by about $1bn, the company said today.

Organic sales were up 12 per cent, accelerating from a 9 per cent increase in the previous quarter, with Latin America and the company’s beverage and snack businesses in North America fuelling growth.

PepsiCo’s broad array of drinks, salty snacks and breakfast items has underpinned strong sales through the pandemic, as consumers went from stocking their pantries with chips and pancake mix to buying more soda at restaurants and arenas once authorities began rolling back Covid-19 restrictions.

But consumer groups are contending with inflation that has manifested in higher costs for shipping, commodities and labour, prompting PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and others to raise prices.

PepsiCo said operating profits in the fourth quarter were offset by increasing transportation and commodity costs, and it expects inflation to persist this year.

PepsiCo forecast adjusted earnings per share of $6.67 in 2022, below analysts’ estimate of $6.73. However, organic sales are on track to rise 6 per cent, higher than the consensus view of 5.8 per cent.

Fourth-quarter earnings hit $1.53 per share, a penny more than Wall Street anticipated.

PepsiCo said it will raise its dividend 7 per cent beginning in June. The company’s shares rose 1.5 per cent in pre-market trading today.

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Former UK prime minister John Major says government’s ‘foolish behaviour’ makes it look ‘shifty’

Former UK prime minister John Major speaking at the Institute for Government in London, England on February 10 2022
John Major, pictured at the Institute for Government today, accused the government of acting as though they were above the law © Getty Images

Former UK Conservative prime minister Sir John Major has accused Boris Johnson and his officials of breaking coronavirus lockdown rules, adding that the government’s handling of the partygate affair had made it “look distinctly shifty”.

In a speech to the Institute for Government today, Major warned that “no government can function properly if every word is treated with suspicion”, and warned that trust in politics had been “eroded by foolish behaviour”.

“At Number 10, the prime minister and officials broke lockdown laws. Brazen excuses were dreamt up,” he said, referencing the allegations of Whitehall gatherings throughout lockdown that are the subject of an investigation by the Metropolitan Police.

“Day after day, the public was asked to believe the unbelievable. Ministers were sent out to defend the indefensible — making themselves look gullible or foolish,” he added.

Major, who served as UK prime minister between 1990 and 1997, accused Johnson and his government of acting as though they were above the law.

“The prime minister and our present government not only challenge the law, but also seem to believe that they, and they alone, need not obey the rules, traditions, conventions — call them what you will — of public life,” he said.

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NHS England record waiting lists set to lengthen over next 2 years

The number of people in England waiting for NHS treatment has risen above 6mn, a new record, according to official data released two days after health leaders and the UK government admitted that queues for care would lengthen for another two years.

At the end of December 2021, 36 per cent of patients were waiting more than 18 weeks to start hospital treatment, compared with a target of 8 per cent. Of the 6.1mn patients waiting for treatment at the end of December, more than 310,000 were waiting more than a year, the NHS England figures show.

A plan to clear the backlog, released by the government and NHS England on Tuesday, suggested waiting lists would not start to reduce until March 2024 despite a national insurance rise from April designed to raise £30bn for the health service.

A record 20,065 people were waiting more than two years for treatment in December. NHS leaders promised on Tuesday that from July no one would wait as long.

Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said while the health service continued to face “seasonal pressures . . . we are now beginning to see the full picture of the Omicron winter on the NHS”. Despite “sky-high staff absences”, staff had made inroads on the backlog and delivered 120,000 more tests and checks in December compared with the same time last year, he added.

Fiona Myint, a consultant vascular surgeon and vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, said the latest figures “show just how stretching the government’s targets are”.

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What to watch in the Americas today

Inflation: US inflation is forecast to have accelerated at the start of 2022. The consumer price index is expected to rise 0.5 per cent in January from a month earlier, and 7.3 per cent from a year ago, according to a Refinitiv poll. That is up from a 7 per cent annual jump in December, the largest increase since 1982. The core CPI, which excludes food and energy prices, is projected to have increased 0.5 per cent from December and 5.9 per cent from the previous year. Rent is thought to be a major contributor to the core increase, offsetting lower airline fares and hotel rates.

Employment: US jobless claims are expected to show that new applications for employment benefits rose by 230,000 in the week ended February 5, compared with 238,000 a week earlier. The Omicron surge is expected to hinder a large decline in jobless claims.

Corporate results: Coca-Cola and Pepsi are reporting before the bell. Their results will provide a fresh glimpse into the state of global supply chains and inflation’s impact on the two soda groups. Analysts have forecast higher sales for both companies, despite a resurgence in Covid-19 cases around the world and renewed lockdown measures in China.

US earnings: Other US companies reporting today include cigarette and tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris International, luxury fashion company Tapestry, and food manufacturer Kellogg. Those are all out before Wall Street’s opening bell, while property website Zillow, genetic testing company 23andMe and travel website Expedia are among those reporting after the bell.

Mexico: Mexico’s central bank is expected to raise its benchmark interest rate from 5.5 per cent to 6 per cent at its monetary policy meeting this afternoon. The Bank of Mexico raised rates more than analysts expected in December as the country battled its highest inflation in two decades.

Markets: Futures contracts tracking Wall Street’s S&P 500 index and the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 slipped 0.2 per cent and 0.4 per cent respectively.

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European Commission warns of ‘protracted drag’ on economy from soaring energy prices

The surge in energy prices would exert a “more protracted drag” on the European economy than expected and drive higher inflation this year, the European Commission said in its latest growth outlook.

Growth this year would fall short of previous forecasts, the commission said today. It expected a 4 per cent expansion in the EU and eurozone for 2022, compared with its 4.3 per cent forecast in the autumn last year. Output growth would ease to 2.8 per cent in the EU in 2023 and 2.7 per cent in the eurozone, it said.

Inflation was expected to rise to 3.9 per cent this year in the EU and 3.5 per cent in the eurozone — much higher than previously expected, before subsiding to less than 2 per cent in 2023, the commission forecast.

The forecasts highlight the extent to which supply chain bottlenecks and the surge in energy prices, combined with the outbreak of the Omicron variant of coronavirus, are imposing a near-term drag on the EU’s economic rebound.

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UK consumer spending improves as Covid restrictions ease

Measures of UK consumer spending improved in early February following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, pointing to a rapid economic recovery from the impact of the Omicron variant.

Office for National Statistics today said that all short-term indicators that it tracks — which provide a more timely measure of the health of the economy than standard output figures — were up in recent weeks.

In the week to February 5, retail footfall in the UK increased 3 per cent when compared with the previous seven-day period, the fourth consecutive week-on-week increase.

Over the same time, credit and debit card purchases increased 6 percentage points.

High-frequency data suggest that “activity bounced back quite sharply after the holidays”, said Dean Turner, economist at UBS Global Wealth Management.

With stronger consumer demand, online job adverts also increased in that week, pointing to continued tightening in the labour market.

The ONS also reported a rising share of businesses saying that their turnover had increased and that more businesses were open.

The figures point to the economy recovering from the hit to consumption and production resulting from surging infections in December and early January.

Economists polled by Reuters forecast that the UK economy contracted 0.6 per cent between November and December. Official data is released tomorrow.

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European stocks waver as government bond yields rise ahead of US inflation data

European stocks wavered and government bond yields edged higher, ahead of data today that are forecast to show US inflation jumped to a fresh 40-year high last month.

Europe’s Stoxx 600 index rose in early dealings before trading flat, after closing 1.7 per cent higher in the previous session. London’s FTSE 100 rose 0.1 per cent. Futures contracts tracking Wall Street’s S&P 500 index and the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 slipped 0.2 per cent and 0.4 per cent respectively.

Meanwhile, government bond yields — which move inversely to their prices — ticked up. The sovereign debt market had yesterday rebounded from a sell-off earlier in the week fuelled by concerns that the US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank may raise rates more aggressively than expected to tackle rising prices.

The yield on Germany’s 10-year Bund, which last month traded in positive territory for the first time since 2019, rose 0.03 percentage points to 0.245 per cent. The yield on Italy’s 10-year bond — viewed as particularly sensitive to rising rates because of the government’s high debt — rose 0.05 percentage points to 1.82 per cent.

Across the Atlantic, the yield on the 10-year US Treasury added 0.02 percentage points to 1.94 per cent.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, rose 0.6 per cent to $92.07 a barrel, remaining around its highest level since 2014.

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ECB says 6 banks fell below minimum capital requirements last year

The European Central Bank said six banks were below their minimum capital requirements at the end of last year, down from nine a year ago, as it painted a relatively upbeat picture of the sector’s financial health.

Publishing the results of its annual assessment of capital requirements for the 115 eurozone lenders it supervises, the central bank said the six banks would benefit from a temporary relaxation of its rules, giving them until the end of this year to rebuild their equity buffers.

It said the six lenders had fallen below their minimum capital levels “because of structural issues that predated the pandemic”.

Overall, it said non-performing loans declined last year and banks maintained “solid” capital and liquidity positions.

But it said there was still uncertainty about the “future trajectory” of the pandemic and other risks include cyber attacks, climate change, downward pressure on profitability and disruption from rising interest rates.

The ECB said “risk management practices for counterparty credit risk are a specific source of concern”, after the collapse of the Archegos family office left several banks exposed to large losses last year.

In response, it said “several banks were subject to measures requiring them to revise their methodologies for quantifying risks and their broader risk control frameworks”.

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TotalEnergies fourth-quarter profits up fivefold on higher oil prices

TotalEnergies logo above a service station in Paris
Like several rivals, TotalEnergies has bounced back from losses in 2020 when coronavirus-led lockdowns cut oil demand © AFP via Getty Images

France’s TotalEnergies said it would launch a $2bn share buyback and increase interim dividends after higher oil and gas demand drove a fivefold increase in adjusted profits in the fourth quarter.

Like several rivals, TotalEnergies has bounced back from losses in 2020 when coronavirus-led lockdowns cut oil demand.

The group today said adjusted net income rose to $6.8bn in the three months to December, up from $1.3bn a year earlier, as earnings from its gas and renewable energy division jumped. Cash flow more than doubled to $9.4bn.

TotalEnergies said it would keep its quarterly dividend for the October to December period stable at €0.66 per share, but would increase interim dividends 5 per cent this year.

The group is expanding heavily into renewable energy investments but still starting new oil projects, saying it will focus on those that are “low cost and low emission”.

It raised its overall investment budget for 2022 from $14bn to $15bn, after net investments reached $13.3bn in 2021.

At a time when energy companies in the UK have faced calls for a windfall tax on surging profits, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, TotalEnergies made a gesture in its home market this week, announcing a discount at the pump for customers living in remote rural areas and lower bills for cash-strapped gas clients.

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Pandemic clouds events industry outlook, says Relx

FTSE 100 information group Relx has said it cannot predict when its exhibitions business will return to normal, outlining how the Covid-19 pandemic is still causing uncertainty.

The coronavirus crisis has wreaked havoc on the global events industry, which before the pandemic was valued at roughly $30bn, according to Citi. While some events moved online, others were cancelled altogether.

London-based Relx today said it hosted 269 in-person events in 2021, compared with a yearly schedule of more than 500 before the pandemic.

However revenue at the business rose 44 per cent from 2020 to £534mn, and it posted a £10mn profit after a £164mn loss the year before.

Chief financial officer Nick Luff called 2021 “somewhat of a recovery year for exhibitions”.

Relx has been helped by its portfolio of subscription-based businesses, with events only contributing to 16 per cent of group revenue in 2019, before the onset of the pandemic.

Relx said revenues grew 2 per cent to £7.24bn in the year ending December 2021, slightly below analyst consensus forecasts as compiled by S&P Capital IQ. Adjusted pre-tax profit rose 8 per cent to £2.08bn.

The company said it would buy back £500mn worth of shares in 2022 and proposed a 6 per cent increase in the full-year dividend to 49.8p.

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Covid vaccine pushes AstraZeneca to record sales

Two AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines and a syringe next to AstraZeneca logo
AstraZeneca’s fourth-quarter revenues rose 63 per cent to $12bn from a year earlier, on a constant currency basis © REUTERS

AstraZeneca has reported a record quarter for revenue including $1.8bn from its Covid-19 vaccine and sales from its $39bn acquisition of rare disease company Alexion.

Total revenue at the UK drugmaker soared 63 per cent year-on-year to $12bn in the fourth quarter, on a constant currency basis, higher than the consensus forecast for $11bn. Two cancer drugs — Tagrisso and Lynparza — and Soliris for a rare disease each generated more than $1bn in the three-month period.

Core earnings per share rose 74 per cent to $1.67, above the average analyst estimate for 73 cents.

The company raised its dividend for the first time in a decade, with a total 2021 dividend of $2.87.

Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca chief executive, said the company had “industry-leading research and development productivity”, with five new medicines becoming blockbusters last year.

“We also delivered on our promise of broad and equitable access to our Covid-19 vaccine with 2.5bn doses released for supply around the world,” he said.

AstraZeneca made its first sales of the Covid-19 vaccine on a for-profit basis in the quarter but did not break out the revenue generated from the new contracts.

The pharmaceutical company forecasts a high teens percentage increase in total revenue in 2022, at constant exchange rates, and a mid-to-high twenties percentage rise in core earnings per share.

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Credit Suisse sinks to $2.2bn fourth-quarter loss

Credit Suisse has capped one of the most tumultuous periods in its 166-year history by reporting a SFr2bn ($2.2bn) loss for the fourth quarter.

Switzerland’s second-largest lender warned today that 2022 would be a year of transition for the bank as it implemented a strategic plan that would lead to restructuring costs and a lower appetite for risk following several high-profile scandals.

The bank’s net revenues declined 12 per cent in the final quarter compared with a year earlier, as revenue at its investment bank dropped 31 per cent. Meanwhile, operating expenses jumped 20 per cent in the period.

Last month, Credit Suisse warned that its investment bank would report a loss for the quarter on the back of a slowdown in trading revenues and a SFr1.6bn goodwill impairment charge from its acquisition of US investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in 2000.

The group also set aside SFr436mn to cover litigation settlements in its investment bank, although it did not provide further details.

Thomas Gottstein, Credit Suisse chief executive, said: “During the last three quarters of the year, we ran the bank with a constrained risk appetite across all divisions as we took decisive actions to strengthen our overall risk and controls foundation and continued our remediation efforts, including on the supply chain finance funds matter, where our priority is to return cash to investors.”

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Unilever rules out major acquisitions as group seeks to win back investors

Pack of Hellmann’s mayonnaise jars
The maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise said it will buy back up to €3bn of shares over the next 2 years © Bloomberg

Unilever has ruled out pursuing major acquisitions “in the foreseeable future” after an abortive £50bn bid for GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer health business sparked a backlash from shareholders.

Instead, the maker of Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Domestos bleach said today it would buy back up to €3bn of shares over the next two years as it seeks to appease an investor base frustrated by the group’s languishing share price.

“We have engaged extensively with our shareholders in recent weeks and received a strong message that the evolution of our portfolio needs to be measured. We therefore do not intend to pursue major acquisitions in the foreseeable future,” said Alan Jope, chief executive.

The pledge came as Unilever unveiled its strongest full-year sales growth in nine years. It pushed up underlying sales growth, a key metric for the sector, by 4.5 per cent, ahead of analysts’ expectations.

Price rises accounted for 2.9 per cent of the growth as the company sought to pass on rising commodity prices and the higher transport costs to consumers.

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Higher insurance prices push Zurich profits up 35%

Profits at Zurich jumped more than a third last year as the Swiss insurer took advantage of booming prices for cover.

Commercial insurance prices have been increasing for several years as the industry reacts to rising claims costs. According to broker Marsh, commercial insurance prices rose 13 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2021.

That has boosted profits for insurance companies, which are also recovering from the impact of pandemic-related claims in 2020. Zurich said today that its operating profit rose 35 per cent to $5.7bn last year, driven by a 50 per cent increase at the property & casualty insurance business.

The combined ratio in P&C insurance — a measure of claims and costs as a proportion of premiums — hit a 15-year low of 94.3 per cent.

Mario Greco, chief executive, hailed “the strongest performance in a long time”, adding that he had “every confidence we will meet or exceed our 2022 targets”.

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ArcelorMittal records best year since 2008 as steelmaker benefits from economic rebound

ArcelorMittal has reported its highest annual profits in more than a decade as the world’s second-largest steelmaker benefited from the global economic resurgence following the coronavirus pandemic.

The Luxembourg-based group said profits rose more than fourfold to $19.4bn, in line with analyst forecasts, marking the group’s most profitable year since 2008. Sales for year to the end of December 2021 were $76.6bn, up from $53.3bn the year before.

Western steel producers have enjoyed their best year after a decade during which many closed plants and axed staff amid low demand. The global economic recovery following the pandemic has helped to drive demand for steel, while constraints on supply have also buoyed prices.

“The global economic rebound post initial Covid-19 restrictions being lifted supported buoyant demand in all markets, delivering very high levels of profitability,” said Aditya Mittal, chief executive.

“Industry fundamentals remain positive, supported by renegotiated automotive contracts,” he added.

The company forecast global steel consumption outside of China to increase up to 3 per cent over the next 12 months.

Annual earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation in the 12 months to the end of December were $19.4bn. Net debt for the year fell from $6.4bn to $4bn.

The company also announced a share buyback of $1bn for the first half of 2022.

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SocGen profits buoyed by stock markets to outstrip expectations

SocGen sign outside the bank’s former headquarters in Paris, in France
SocGen plans to reward shareholders with a cash dividend and a share buyback totalling €915mn © Bloomberg

France’s Société Générale has sealed a turnround year for its investment bank as booming equity markets helped increase profits far beyond expectations in the fourth quarter.

Net income almost quadrupled to €1.8bn in the three months to December compared with the same period a year ago, France’s third-biggest listed lender said today. Analysts had expected net profits of €978mn, a Refinitiv poll showed.

SocGen plans to reward shareholders with a cash dividend and a share buyback totalling €915mn.

The bank’s earnings continue a dramatic shift in fortunes for SocGen, which like its peers has benefited from a rebound in the economy and markets in 2021. During the previous year, its investment bank suffered losses as the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic hit trading in equity derivatives, one of the group’s strengths.

Under Frédéric Oudéa, one of Europe’s longest-serving bank chief executives, SocGen has embarked on a push to remodel its investment bank, saying it would dial back riskier products and focus more on merger advisory. The group’s finance and advisory business reported record revenues of €814mn during the quarter.

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What to watch in Europe today

UK: Prime minister Boris Johnson is to visit Nato’s headquarters in Brussels, amid tensions over the security of Ukraine. He will meet the secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, and participate in a joint press conference. Johnson will also visit Poland.

Economic news: The European Commission publishes eurozone economic forecasts. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors will publish a monthly residential market survey. The Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey will give a speech at TheCityUK annual dinner.

Société Générale: France’s third-biggest listed bank publishes full-year results. SocGen reported better than expected net income of €1.6bn in the third quarter. Earnings were helped by a standout performance in its equities unit, which hit trouble in 2020 after complex derivative products unravelled during the pandemic.

ArcelorMittal: The world’s largest producer of steel publishes its fourth-quarter results. The Luxembourg-based group made profits of $6.1bn in the third quarter, its highest quarterly profit since 2008.

Results: Ashmore Group, AstraZeneca, Beazley, Crédit Agricole, Deutsche Börse, Pernod Ricard, Philip Morris, Thyssenkrupp, Total, Unilever and Zurich Insurance release trading updates.

Markets: Futures for the Euro Stoxx 50 and the FTSE 100 were both up slightly.

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Evergrande chair breaks silence to rule out asset fire sale

Evergrande’s shares rose after its chair said the company cannot pursue firesales of assets and pledged to complete half of its remaining projects over the rest of the year, as the heavily indebted developer continued its battle to deliver units to homebuyers.

Hui Ka Yan, the chair of Evergrande, said in comments reported by state media that the developer would deliver 600,000 units in 2022, months after work at hundreds of the company’s projects was stalled by a crisis that has now engulfed the country’s entire property sector.

The company’s shares were 3 per cent higher in afternoon trading in Hong Kong, having fallen nearly 90 per cent over the past 12 months. The broader Hang Seng China Enterprises index of Chinese companies listed in Hong Kong was up about 0.3 per cent.

Evergrande, the world’s most indebted developer, first began missing bond payments in September and defaulted on its debts before the end of the year as it entered the biggest restructuring process in the country’s history.

The group’s more than $300bn in liabilities have become a test case for the vast borrowings underpinning China’s real estate sector, which has for decades anchored its economic growth but last year entered a severe slowdown following government measures to limit leverage.

The comments from Hui, which were made at a company meeting last week, followed intense scrutiny of his wealth, including luxury properties in Hong Kong where Evergrande is listed.

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Siemens profits beat expectations as semiconductor sector boosts factory demand

Siemens started its first fiscal year as a slimmed-down company by handsomely beating analysts’ expectations, with net profits jumping a fifth in the most recent quarter, and orders up 42 per cent on the same period last year.

In the three months to the end of December, the German industrial group posted profits of €1.8bn, almost €200mn more than consensus estimates, and half a billion more than in the previous quarter.

Revenue rose 9 per cent year-on-year to €16.5bn, as the company benefited from strong demand for its factory-building services from the semiconductor sector, as well as a rush to build more data centres and expand cloud-based software offerings.

“Our results impressively demonstrate that we are a leader in accelerating digitalisation and sustainability,” said chief executive Roland Busch, who had pledged to deliver higher profits after the former conglomerate split into three businesses and sold off several underperforming units.

Siemens announced further divestments yesterday evening, including the sale of its small mail and parcel business to Germany’s Körber for €1.15bn and the relinquishing of its 50 per cent stake in an automotive joint venture with France’s Valeo, for €277mn.

But its blockbuster results came a day after spin-off Siemens Energy, in which Siemens still has a 35 per cent stake, registered a quarterly net loss of €240mn, because of the turmoil engulfing its Spanish wind turbines business, Siemens Gamesa.

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Prudential chief Mike Wells to step down as group shifts to Asia

Prudential chief executive Mike Wells is to step down, after breaking the UK’s biggest listed insurance company into three parts during his seven-year tenure.

The company said today that Wells would retire from his role at the end of March. His successor, who has not yet been chosen, will be based in Asia, cementing the insurer’s shift to the region. Mark FitzPatrick, the finance director, will be interim chief executive until a permanent appointment is made.

Wells has overseen a radical shake-up at the 174-year-old life insurance group. In 2019 he demerged the UK operation, M&G. And last year, under pressure from activist investors, he spun off Jackson, the US business. What remains is an insurance company focused on growth markets in Asia and Africa.

Shriti Vadera, chair of Prudential, said that Wells had “led the group through one of the most significant periods of change in its 174-year history. He has overseen two strategic demergers and a successful equity raise on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, whilst steering the group through the unprecedented events of the pandemic”.

She added: “Given Prudential’s focus on the growth markets of Asia and Africa, the board has decided with this managed transition of the leadership structure, that the roles of the group CEO and the group CFO will be based in Asia, where Prudential’s largest businesses, the group regulator and the rest of the senior management team are located.”

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India’s central bank keeps key policy rate at historic low

The Reserve Bank of India has kept its repo and reverse repo rates unchanged, surprising analysts who thought it would begin taking steps towards tightening monetary policy.

The RBI opted to keep the repo rate at 4 per cent, a historic low, and the reverse repo rate at 3.35 per cent.

Analysts before the meeting had expected the central bank to increase the reverse repo rate. But governor Shaktikanta Das opted to leave both rates unchanged with an “accommodative” stance as the RBI prioritised supporting India’s economic recovery despite concerns about inflation.

The RBI has not changed interest rates since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and under Das has made supporting the country’s recovery its priority. Das said he expected the India economy to grow 7.8 per cent in the year starting April.

Rising prices are a growing concern, although Das projected retail inflation for the coming year at 4.5 per cent, within the central bank’s target range.

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Figure skating medal ceremony delayed amid reports of Russian drugs test

Beijing Winter Olympics organisers have indefinitely delayed a medal ceremony for the team figure-skating event, a Games official said on Thursday, as speculation builds that the stay could involve a drugs test in the Russian team.

International Olympic Committee spokesperson Mark Adams said the medals had yet to be awarded due to “an active legal case” and declined to comment further, including on who or what organisation was reviewing the issue.

Reports from Inside the Games, an international Olympics trade news site, and Russian news outlet RBC suggested that the case centres on a drugs test by star women’s skater Kamila Valieva. The Financial Times has not been able to independently confirm the reports.

The Russian Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Any doping scandal involving the Russian athletes would be controversial given that the country has been officially banned from international sports participation since 2017 for running a state-backed doping programme at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Russia’s athletes have been allowed to continue to compete in Olympic Games as the “Russian Olympic Committee”.

The IOC’s handling of the case also risks returning the spotlight to its relationship with autocratic states and their leaders — at a games that has already been diplomatically boycotted by the US and others over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Results from the team figure skating event, which concluded Monday, had the ROC winning gold, followed by the US with silver and Japan with bronze. 

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Western Digital and Kioxia say chip output hit by contamination

Western Digital said on Wednesday materials at two plants operated by its joint-venture partner Kioxia in Japan have been contaminated, reducing its chip output and compounding the woes of the global semiconductor supply chain.

Kioxia is one of the world’s largest makers of flash memory and solid-state storage, and a crucial supplier to US-based Western Digital. The shortage will be “at least 6.5 exabytes” in flash storage availability, said Western Digital. One exabyte equals 1bn gigabytes.

The contamination comes as a rapid rebound in vehicle sales combined with a lockdown-driven boom in games consoles and laptops has left the world’s semiconductor manufacturers overwhelmed by the rapid rise in demand.

Kioxia said its newer type of 3D flash was the product line hit by the contamination of the material used in its manufacturing process. The issue occurred in late January.

This is not the first time semiconductor production is suffering from unusual snags in Japan. Last year, Renesas Electronics, one of the world’s largest makers of chips for the automotive industry, suffered factory fire.

Kioxia did not say when the issue will be rectified but said it is “implementing the necessary measures to restore the facilities to normal operational status as quickly as possible”.

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Infrastructure group AMP Capital to ‘consider’ takeover bids

Australian global infrastructure investor AMP Capital, which owns infrastructure assets across the UK, Europe and North America, has confirmed it is the subject of several potential takeover offers, as its parent company AMP posted another year of losses.

AMP, which has gone through four years of turmoil following revelations in 2018 it had been routinely charging customers for financial advice without providing any service, plans to spin off its asset management arm and list it on the Australian stock exchange later this year.

AMP Capital has around A$178bn (US$128bn) in assets under management, including A$25.9bn in infrastructure assets, making it one of the largest infrastructure investment managers in the world.

AMP has already agreed to sell the equity and fixed income arm of AMP Capital to Macquarie Group, and has sold its life insurance business to Resolution Life. Once AMP Capital is spun off, the remaining company will specialise in wealth management and banking.

On Thursday AMP confirmed market speculation that more than one potential buyer had made approaches to acquire AMP Capital, which it said it would rename Collimate Capital. Unconfirmed reports in The Australian newspaper suggested prospective buyers included overseas bidders.

“AMP has noted market speculation regarding potential interest in the AMP Capital business AMP confirms it has received inbound enquiries regarding the AMP Capital business, which is not unusual at this point in a demerger preparation process,” the company said in a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange.

“AMP will consider any approaches in line with its obligation to act in the best interests of shareholders.”

AMP posted a full year loss of A$252mn.

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Philippines welcomes vaccinated tourists as south-east Asia reopens

The Philippines on Thursday began admitting foreign visitors who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 and test negative for the virus within 48 hours of departing, making it the latest south-east Asian country to reopen following the pandemic.

Tourists from about 150 countries and territories that are allowed to visit the Philippines visa-free — which include the UK, US, Japan and Australia — will be allowed to enter for the first time in nearly two years.

Ahead of the reopening, officials said it was aimed at restoring jobs and reviving businesses that relied on tourism. The Philippines hosted 8.3m foreign visitors in 2019, the last year before it reported its first Covid-19 cases, led by people arriving from South Korea, China and the U.S.

Elsewhere in the region, Thailand in November began admitting foreign tourists under a strict testing regimen, which it paused in December after the discovery of the virus’s Omicron variant, before resuming it on 1 February. Officials in Vietnam say they are preparing to reopen tourism by March or April.

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Olympics round-up: Nathan Chen seeks figure skating gold while skiing venue prompts controversy

Day six of the Winter Olympic Games will see big-name showdowns in figure skating, snowboarding and freestyle skiing.

Chloe Kim of the US will seek to defend her title in women’s snowboard halfpipe. Kim, 21, is one of the top US medal prospects in Beijing. She became the youngest woman to top the podium in the snowboard halfpipe in 2018 at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

China will hope to seize a gold medal in the mixed team aerial freestyle skiing, which makes its Olympic debut this year.

Nathan Chen of the US leads in the men’s single figure skating after displacing two-time champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. The final event takes place on Thursday.

The industrial surroundings at the Shougang Big Air venue in west Beijing has provoked a mixed reaction from fans and athletes
The industrial surroundings at the Big Air Shougang venue in west Beijing have provoked a mixed reaction from fans and athletes © AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Shougang skiing venue, a renovated former steel plant on the outskirts of Beijing that hosts the big air events, has stirred controversy in recent days, with an aerial shot of the ski jump circulating on social media showing it surrounded by a grey, industrial landscape.

The Beijing organising committee chose the venue to represent sustainability and some have praised the decision. Gold medalist and face of the games Eileen Gu called the site “fantastic”.

On Wednesday, German duo Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt won their third consecutive gold in the men’s luge doubles, making them the first team in any Winter Olympic event to do so.

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What to watch in Asia today

BJP supporters attend an election rally in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which begins elections today © AP

India: Hundreds of millions of voters in five states will cast their ballots over several weeks in elections starting today. India’s economic distress threatens Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party in Uttar Pradesh, the first state to go to the polls.

Philippines: The country reopens to double vaccinated tourists from 150 countries. Quarantine requirements for arrivals have been scrapped amid a fall in Covid-19 cases.

Markets: Global stock and government bond prices rose on Wednesday, with the sovereign debt market rebounding from a sell-off earlier in the week that had been driven by concerns about tighter monetary policy. Stocks in most Asian markets gained on Wednesday, as did those in the US. Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 rose 1.5 per cent, with stocks across every sector rising, while the Nasdaq Composite climbed 2.1 per cent. The brighter mood looked to continue on Thursday morning, with Australian, Japanese and South Korea equities all advancing in morning trading, while futures in Hong Kong pointed upwards.

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Disney gains on strong streaming subscriptions and theme-park visits

Walt Disney eased concerns that the streaming video boom was running out of steam as it reported a strong rise in new subscribers to Disney Plus in its latest quarter and forecast that releases such as Obi-Wan Kenobi would bring in more viewers later this year.

Disney also reported a strong rebound from pandemic lows at its theme parks and resorts, where quarterly revenue totalled $7.2bn — higher than pre-pandemic levels and up from $3.5bn a year earlier.

Disney shares rose 8 per cent in after-hours trading after Bob Chapek, chief executive, said the company was on track to meet its target of 230mn to 260mn subscribers to the Disney Plus streaming service by 2024.

Disney earned $1.06 a share in the first quarter, far higher than Wall Street’s estimates of 63 cents, and up from 32 cents a year ago.

Investors have grown concerned that the streaming market has started to plateau, especially in the US, after rapid growth during the pandemic. Netflix disappointed investors after warning last month that subscriber growth would slow substantially in early 2022.

But Disney Plus reported strong subscriber growth, adding 11.8mn new sign-ups in the quarter, as viewers paid to watch The Book of Boba Fett, The Beatles: Get Back and the animated film Encanto.

Read more about Disney’s results

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US warns Russia still ramping up military activity near Ukraine

US officials have warned that Russia has continued to ramp up its military activity around the Ukrainian border, despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis including a high-profile visit to Moscow this week by French president Emmanuel Macron.

The White House and the Pentagon on Wednesday said Russia was increasing its military presence near Ukraine, even though Macron earlier this week said Russian president Vladimir Putin had assured him there would be no “deterioration or escalation” in the stand-off.

“We have continued to see even over the last 24 hours additional capabilities flow from elsewhere in Russia to that border with Ukraine and Belarus,” John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, said.

“The numbers continue to grow. We maintain that he’s north of 100,000 [troops] for sure. And he continues to add to that capability. We also see indications that additional battalion tactical groups are on their way. And so every day he adds to his options,” Kirby added.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said: “What we’re looking at here [is] whether or not Russia is taking de escalatory steps. They are not. They are taking escalatory, not de-escalatory, steps. We certainly hope that changes.”

Read more on this story here

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Uber brushes off Omicron impact on food delivery strength

A stronger than expected performance in Uber’s food delivery unit helped to offset a dent in its rideshare business caused by the Omicron coronavirus variant, sending the shares up sharply in after-hours trading.

There were 1.77bn trips taken during the October-December period, the company said in an earnings release on Wednesday, an average of 19mn per day.

That was lower than the 1.91bn analysts had expected, according to FactSet data, and revenue for the rideshare business came in at $2.28bn, slightly below expectations for $2.43bn.

The company’s total revenue of $5.8bn, up 83 per cent year-on-year and ahead of consensus forecasts, was salvaged by the company’s delivery unit. The division reached “profitability” for the first time using Uber’s preferred metric, which strips out several costs including interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation.

For the quarter, delivery — which includes groceries and convenience items as well as restaurant food — posted adjusted ebitda earnings of $25mn, compared to a $145mn loss in the same period last year.

Uber’s share price jumped more than 8 per cent in Wednesday’s after-hours trading.

Read more on Uber’s results here

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Warren criticises US officials lobbying against EU rules to curb Big Tech

Elizabeth Warren has publicly criticised her Democratic colleagues in the commerce department that have lobbied to water down European legislation aimed at curbing the market power of large technology companies.

The Democratic senator for Massachusetts on Wednesday responded to a Financial Times report, saying:

Warren has been one of the leading voices in Washington calling for stricter competition rules to be imposed on Big Tech.

US president Joe Biden backed that agenda in a recent executive order, which mandated wide-ranging reviews of US competition rules.

But even as those reviews are happening and Democratic members of Congress are pushing for tougher legislation, administration officials are trying to protect the industry from some of the effects of the EU’s Digital Markets Act. That act aims to prevent groups including Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft from ranking their own services above those of their rivals.

The FT revealed this week that Arun Venkataraman, a senior aide to commerce secretary Gina Raimondo, had written to Andreas Schwab, a member of the European parliament who is leading the negotiations on the Digital Markets Act, looking for changes to the bill that would help American technology companies.

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