A sign reading ‘Kaliningrad’ stands atop the city’s south railway station.
Harry Engels | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
A new front in tensions between Russia and NATO has opened up after one of the Western military alliance’s members, Lithuania, banned the transit of some goods coming from Russia to its exclave Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
Russia has vowed to retaliate over what it described as the “hostile actions” of Lithuania, warning of “serious” consequences, while NATO members have reiterated their support for the country.
Here’s a brief guide to what’s going on, and why it matters as the Russia-Ukraine conflict rumbles on in the background.
Lithuania said last week that it would ban the transit of some EU-sanctioned goods coming from Russia across its territory to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
The government said the blockade would apply to all EU-sanctioned goods coming from the mainland via rail, effectively blocking the transit of metals, coal, construction materials and high-technology products to the Russian sea port.
Lithuania said that its decision was taken after consultation with the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, and that it’s enforcing sanctions on Russia that were imposed following the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Russia responded to Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, by calling the move an “unprecedented” and “hostile” act, with its foreign ministry issuing a statement Tuesday in which it said “if in the near future cargo transit between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the territory of the Russian Federation through Lithuania is not restored in full, then Russia reserves the right to take actions to protect its national interests.”
Kaliningrad is a small Russian exclave located on the Baltic Sea and sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. It is home to around 487,000 people and covers an area of around 86 square miles.
Once part of the German empire, it was seized by Soviet troops from Nazi Germany in 1945 and has remained in Russian hands ever since, becoming an important sea port for Russia allowing it straightforward access to the Baltic Sea. Indeed, the Kaliningrad Oblast (or province) acts as the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic Fleet.
The fleet holds regular military drills in the Black Sea, having completed 10 days of exercises on June 19 that involved 60 warships and 10,000 military personnel.
A disused border crossing point to Russia is seen on April 15, 2022 in Nida, Lithuania. Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, on the shore of the Baltic Sea, is sandwiched between NATO members Lithuania and Poland and is the Baltic coasts most strategic transport and trade port.
Paulius Peleckis | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Lithuania’s ban on the transit of some EU-sanctioned goods, announced last Friday and implemented on Saturday, prompted panic buying in Kaliningrad. The region’s governor, Anton Alikhanov, insisted Russia would increase the number of cargo ships transiting goods from St. Petersburg to the exclave over the remainder of the year.
It’s uncertain how Moscow will react to Lithuania’s move.
On Monday, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, called the move “illegal” and said “this decision is really unprecedented.”
“The situation is more than serious … We need a serious in-depth analysis in order to work out our response,” he added.
Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday saying “the transit of passengers and non-sanctioned goods to and from the Kaliningrad region through Lithuania continues uninterrupted.”
It added that Lithuania “has not imposed any unilateral, individual, or additional restrictions on the transit” and that it is consistently implementing EU sanctions.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, also backed Lithuania on Monday, saying he was worried about what form the retaliation might take while he defended Vilnius’ position. “Certainly I am always worried about the Russian retaliations” he said, but he insisted there was no “blockade.”
“Lithuania has not taken any unilateral national restrictions and only applies the European Union sanctions” he said, saying any reports in Russia that Lithuania was implementing its own sanctions was “pure propaganda.”
Timothy Ash, senior sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, commented Tuesday that “it’s fair to say that Kaliningrad is a strategic imperative for Russia” noting that defending and sustaining it certainly is.
“Russia will react for sure, the only question is what that will be … [and] what Russia could do militarily,” he noted.
Tensions between Russia and NATO are already heightened as a result of the war in Ukraine and the move by Lithuania has ratcheted those up further, potentially putting a NATO country (and the entire alliance) in line for a direct confrontation with Russia.
A key pillar of the NATO alliance is the concept of collective defense: If one is attacked, it is considered an attack on the entire group with the members committed to protecting each other.
While NATO has been helping Ukraine to fight Russia’s invasion, with its members sending a wide range of military equipment and weaponry as well as humanitarian aid, NATO has repeatedly said it will not send troops into the country as it does not want a direct confrontation with nuclear power Russia.
Russia will have to calibrate its response to Lithuania carefully, knowing that any direct attack will be seen as an attack on all NATO members by the organization.
Vehicles of the German armed forces Bundeswehr from the Griffin barracks arrive at the NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Battalion in Lithuania in Rukla, Lithuania on February 17, 2022.
Petras Malukas | AFP | Getty Images
For their part, Lithuania’s NATO allies have said they will stand by the country following the Kremlin’s threats.
“Lithuania is a member of the NATO alliance and we stand by the commitments that we have made to the NATO alliance and that includes of course, a commitment to Article Five that is the bedrock of the NATO alliance,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a daily press briefing.
“Lithuania has been a stalwart partner, we stand by NATO, we stand by our NATO allies and we stand by Lithuania,” Price added.
Congress may make it easier to set money aside for emergency expenses
Thomas Barwick | Digitalvision | Getty Images
Many families struggle to come up with the cash when faced with an unexpected $400 expense.
That lack of emergency savings may force them to borrow money at high interest rates to pay for the surprise expense, putting their financial security at risk.
Now Congress has a window to address that issue by paving the way for new emergency savings plans in the lame duck session.
Three emergency savings proposals may be included in a legislative package known as Secure 2.0, which is set to amplify changes to the retirement system brought by the Secure Act in 2019.
“We’re on the cusp of a significant shift in how people save for emergencies in this country, thanks to public policy and private sector innovation,” said Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, during a recent web panel hosted by the Washington, D.C., think tank.
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The panel discussion coincided with an open letter from the Bipartisan Policy Center Action with 40 organizations to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
The letter called for the inclusion of three bills that would amplify emergency savings in the pending retirement package.
“We firmly believe emergency savings policy aligns with the goals of the U.S. retirement system and will help boost financial resiliency for American households,” they wrote.
Anti-eviction banners are displayed on a rent-controlled building in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 9, 2020.
Eric Baradat | AFP | Getty Images
The Covid-19 pandemic was a stress test for many Americans’ finances.
As many parts of the economy shut down, many individuals and families found their incomes were reduced or eliminated altogether.
The federal government stepped in and sent unprecedented amounts of aid through three rounds of stimulus checks, enhanced federal unemployment benefits, direct monthly child tax credit payments to parents and other policies.
Yet the pandemic still led some workers to withdraw funds from their 401(k) or other retirement savings accounts, putting their long-term financial futures at risk.
Those that had at least $1,000 in emergency savings at the height of the pandemic were half as likely to withdraw from their retirement savings accounts, according to the Aspen Institute.
“As people face that crisis, you need that liquid savings to protect your long-term investments and make sure you have a secure retirement and build wealth,” Tim Shaw, associate director of policy at the Aspen Financial Security Program, said during the Bipartisan Policy Center panel.
Covid relief measures helped push the share of families who could cover an unexpected $400 expense with cash or an equivalent method to 68% in 2021, a 4-percentage point increase from 2020. It also marks the highest level since the Federal Reserve began the survey in 2013.
Still, 1 in 3 households would need to borrow money to cover a $400 emergency, which is still “far too many,” Shaw noted.
Image Source | Getty Images
Advocates are hoping three proposals that could help encourage emergency savings will be included in Secure 2.0.
That includes two bills proposed by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Todd Young, R-Ind., as well as a third created by Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado.
One proposal from Booker and Young would enable employers to provide emergency savings accounts to workers in addition to their retirement savings accounts. Employees would be able to set aside up to $2,500 automatically that they could access at any time in case of an emergency.
The second proposal from Booker and Young would allow for separate standalone plans outside of retirement accounts, which would be “really important” for employees who don’t currently have retirement plans through their employer, Akabas noted.
A third, the Lankford-Bennet plan, would allow workers to take out up to $1,000 from their retirement accounts penalty-free in case of an emergency. Those withdrawals would only be allowed once per year; additional contributions would be required before making another withdrawal.
Chantel Sheaks, executive director of retirement policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said she has “fingers crossed” that all three proposals will make it into Secure 2.0 and that the legislation will pass.
“From an employer’s viewpoint, we need choice,” Sheaks said.
What may work for one employer may not work for another, she noted. The three proposals would allow for more options, including possibly encouraging employers who do not current have retirement plans to think about adopting them, Sheaks said.
Moreover, because hardship withdrawals can reduce workers’ retirement security, these emergency savings options can help prevent those stumbling blocks to building wealth.
“People have emergency needs today, and we can’t forget about those emergency needs,” Sheaks said. “We need to find a way to balance today’s needs with tomorrow’s needs.”
Omicron boosters aren’t very effective against mild illness
A healthcare worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic in the Peabody Institute Library in Peabody, Massachusetts, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.
Vanessa Leroy | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The new omicron Covid boosters probably aren’t very effective at preventing Covid infections and mild illness, but they will likely help keep the elderly and other vulnerable groups out of the hospital this winter, experts say.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a real-world study published this week, found the boosters are less than 50% effective against mild illness across almost all adult age groups when compared to people who are unvaccinated.
For seniors, the booster was 19% effective at preventing mild illness when administered as their fourth dose, compared to the unvaccinated. It was 23% effective against mild illness when given as their fifth dose.
Though the vaccine’s effectiveness against mild illness was low, people who received the boosters were better off than those who did not. The booster increased people’s protection against mild illness by 28% to 56% compared to those who only received the old shots, depending on age and when they received their last dose.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized the boosters in late August with the goal of restoring the high levels of protection the vaccines demonstrated in late 2020 and early 2021. At that time, the shots were more than 90% effective against infection. But the first real-world data from the CDC indicates that the boosters aren’t meeting those high expectations.
“The boosters give you some additional protection but it’s not that strong, and you shouldn’t rely on it as your sole protective device against infection,” said John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Moore said people at higher risk from Covid have every reason to get a booster since it modestly increases protection. But he said common sense measures such as masking and avoiding large crowds remain important tools for vulnerable groups since the boosters aren’t highly effective against infection.
The CDC study looked at more than 360,000 adults with healthy immune systems who tested for Covid at retail pharmacies from September to November when omicron BA.5 was dominant. The participants received either the booster, got two or more doses of the old shots or they were unvaccinated. It then compared those who tested positive for Covid with those who did not.
The study did not evaluate how well the boosters performed against severe disease, so it’s still unclear whether they will provide better protection against hospitalization than the old shots. The CDC in a statement said it will provide data on more severe outcomes when it becomes available.
Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University, said the fact that the shots are providing some protection against infection in an era of highly immune evasive omicron subvariants is a good sign that they will provide strong protection against hospitalization. The vaccines have always performed better against severe disease than mild illness, he said.
“It’s better than nothing. Certainly, it doesn’t sort of show that the protection is incredibly high against infection,” Pekosz said. “I would expect that you would then see even greater protection from hospitalization or death.”
Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, said trying to prevent mild illness is not a viable public health strategy because the antibodies that block infection simply wane over time.
“Protection against mild disease just isn’t that good in the omicron subvariant era. The goal is protecting against severe disease,” said Offit, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who helped develop the rotavirus vaccine.
Dr. Celine Gounder, a senior public health fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said she’s not alarmed by the data. Reducing risk by even a modest amount at the individual level can have a significant positive effect on public health at the population level.
“If you can reduce risk among the elderly by even 30%, even 20%, that is significant when 90% of the COVID deaths are occurring in that group,” Gounder said. “For me, what’s really gonna matter is are you keeping that 65 year old out of the hospital.”
The boosters, called bivalent vaccines, target both omicron BA.5 and the original Covid strain that first emerged in Wuhan, China in 2019. The original shots, called monovalent vaccines, only include the first Covid strain.
It’s still unclear how the boosters will perform against more immune evasive omicron subvariants, such as BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which are now dominant in the U.S. Pfizer and Moderna last week said early clinical trial data shows the boosters induce an immune response against these subvariants.
About 11% of those eligible for the new booster, or 35 million people, have received it so far, according to CDC data. About 30% of seniors have received the shot.
How the industry lost $7.4 trillion in one year
Pedestrians walk past the NASDAQ MarketSite in New York’s Times Square.
Eric Thayer | Reuters
It seems like an eternity ago, but it’s just been a year.
At this time in 2021, the Nasdaq Composite had just peaked, doubling since the early days of the pandemic. Rivian’s blockbuster IPO was the latest in a record year for new issues. Hiring was booming and tech employees were frolicking in the high value of their stock options.
Twelve months later, the landscape is markedly different.
Not one of the 15 most valuable U.S. tech companies has generated positive returns in 2021. Microsoft has shed roughly $700 billion in market cap. Meta’s market cap has contracted by over 70% from its highs, wiping out over $600 billion in value this year.
In total, investors have lost roughly $7.4 trillion, based on the 12-month drop in the Nasdaq.
Interest rate hikes have choked off access to easy capital, and soaring inflation has made all those companies promising future profit a lot less valuable today. Cloud stocks have cratered alongside crypto.
There’s plenty of pain to go around. Companies across the industry are cutting costs, freezing new hires, and laying off staff. Employees who joined those hyped pre-IPO companies and took much of their compensation in the form of stock options are now deep underwater and can only hope for a future rebound.
IPOs this year slowed to a trickle after banner years in 2020 and 2021, when companies pushed through the pandemic and took advantage of an emerging world of remote work and play and an economy flush with government-backed funds. Private market darlings that raised billions in public offerings, swelling the coffers of investment banks and venture firms, saw their valuations marked down. And then down some more.
Rivian has fallen more than 80% from its peak after reaching a stratospheric market cap of over $150 billion. The Renaissance IPO ETF, a basket of newly listed U.S. companies, is down 57% over the past year.
Tech executives by the handful have come forward to admit that they were wrong.
The Covid-19 bump didn’t, in fact, change forever how we work, play, shop and learn. Hiring and investing as if we’d forever be convening happy hours on video, working out in our living room and avoiding airplanes, malls and indoor dining was — as it turns out — a bad bet.
Add it up and, for the first time in nearly two decades, the Nasdaq is on the cusp of losing to the S&P 500 in consecutive years. The last time it happened the tech-heavy Nasdaq was at the tail end of an extended stretch of underperformance that began with the bursting of the dot-com bubble. Between 2000 and 2006, the Nasdaq only beat the S&P 500 once.
Is technology headed for the same reality check today? It would be foolish to count out Silicon Valley or the many attempted replicas that have popped up across the globe in recent years. But are there reasons to question the magnitude of the industry’s misfire?
Perhaps that depends on how much you trust Mark Zuckerberg.
It was supposed to be the year of Meta. Prior to changing its name in late 2021, Facebook had consistently delivered investors sterling returns, beating estimates and growing profitably with historic speed.
The company had already successfully pivoted once, establishing a dominant presence on mobile platforms and refocusing the user experience away from the desktop. Even against the backdrop of a reopening world and damaging whistleblower allegations about user privacy, the stock gained over 20% last year.
But Zuckerberg doesn’t see the future the way his investors do. His commitment to spend billions of dollars a year on the metaverse has perplexed Wall Street, which just wants the company to get its footing back with online ads.
With its stock down by two-thirds and the company on the verge of a third straight quarter of declining revenue, Meta said earlier this month it’s laying off 13% of its workforce, or 11,000 employees, its first large-scale reduction ever.
“I got this wrong, and I take responsibility for that,” Zuckerberg said.
Mammoth spending on staff is nothing new for Silicon Valley, and Zuckerberg was in good company on that front.
Software engineers had long been able to count on outsized compensation packages from major players, led by Google. In the war for talent and the free flow of capital, tech pay reached new heights.
Recruiters at Amazon could throw more than $700,000 at a qualified engineer or project manager. At gaming company Roblox, a top-level engineer could make $1.2 million, according to Levels.fyi. Productivity software firm Asana, which held its stock market debut in 2020, has never turned a profit but offered engineers starting salaries of up to $198,000, according to H1-B visa data.
Fast forward to the last quarter of 2022, and those halcyon days are a distant memory.
Layoffs at Cisco, Meta, Amazon and Twitter have totaled nearly 29,000 workers, according to data collected by the website Layoffs.fyi. Across the tech industry, the cuts add up to over 130,000 workers. HP announced this week it’s eliminating 4,000 to 6,000 jobs over the next three years.
For many investors, it was just a matter of time.
“It is a poorly kept secret in Silicon Valley that companies ranging from Google to Meta to Twitter to Uber could achieve similar levels of revenue with far fewer people,” Brad Gerstner, a tech investor at Altimeter Capital, wrote last month.
Gerstner’s letter was specifically targeted at Zuckerberg, urging him to slash spending, but he was perfectly willing to apply the criticism more broadly.
“I would take it a step further and argue that these incredible companies would run even better and more efficiently without the layers and lethargy that comes with this extreme rate of employee expansion,” Gerstner wrote.
Activist investor TCI Fund Management echoed that sentiment in a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, whose company just recorded its slowest growth rate for any quarter since 2013, other than one period during the pandemic.
“Our conversations with former executives suggest that the business could be operated more effectively with significantly fewer employees,” the letter read. As CNBC reported this week, Google employees are growing worried that layoffs could be coming.
Those special purpose acquisition companies, or blank-check entities, created so they could go find tech startups to buy and turn public were a phenomenon of 2020 and 2021. Investment banks were eager to underwrite them, and investors jumped in with new pools of capital.
SPACs allowed companies that didn’t quite have the profile to satisfy traditional IPO investors to backdoor their way onto the public market. In the U.S. last year, 619 SPACs went public, compared with 496 traditional IPOs.
This year, that market has been a bloodbath.
The CNBC Post SPAC Index, which tracks the performance of SPAC stocks after debut, is down over 70% since inception and by about two-thirds in the past year. Many SPACs never found a target and gave the money back to investors. Chamath Palihapitiya, once dubbed the SPAC king, shut down two deals last month after failing to find suitable merger targets and returned $1.6 billion to investors.
Then there’s the startup world, which for over a half-decade was known for minting unicorns.
Last year, investors plowed $325 billion into venture-backed companies, according to EY’s venture capital team, peaking in the fourth quarter of 2021. The easy money is long gone. Now companies are much more defensive than offensive in their financings, raising capital because they need it and often not on favorable terms.
“You just don’t know what it’s going to be like going forward,” EY venture capital leader Jeff Grabow told CNBC. “VCs are rationalizing their portfolio and supporting those that still clear the hurdle.”
The word profit gets thrown around a lot more these days than in recent years. That’s because companies can’t count on venture investors to subsidize their growth and public markets are no longer paying up for high-growth, high-burn names. The forward revenue multiple for top cloud companies is now just over 10, down from a peak of 40, 50 or even higher for some companies at the height in 2021.
The trickle down has made it impossible for many companies to go public without a massive markdown to their private valuation. A slowing IPO market informs how earlier-stage investors behave, said David Golden, managing partner at Revolution Ventures in San Francisco.
“When the IPO market becomes more constricted, that circumscribes one’s ability to find liquidity through the public market,” said Golden, who previously ran telecom, media and tech banking at JPMorgan. “Most early-stage investors aren’t counting on an IPO exit. The odds against it are so high, particularly compared against an M&A exit.”
There have been just 173 IPOs in the U.S. this year, compared with 961 at the same point in 2021. In the VC world, there haven’t been any deals of note.
“We’re reverting to the mean,” Golden said.
An average year might see 100 to 200 U.S. IPOs, according to FactSet research. Data compiled by Jay Ritter, an IPO expert and finance professor at the University of Florida, shows there were 123 tech IPOs last year, compared with an average of 38 a year between 2010 and 2020.
Buy now, pay never
There’s no better example of the intersection between venture capital and consumer spending than the industry known as buy now, pay later.
Companies such as Affirm, Afterpay (acquired by Block, formerly Square) and Sweden’s Klarna took advantage of low interest rates and pandemic-fueled discretionary incomes to put high-end purchases, such as Peloton exercise bikes, within reach of nearly every consumer.
Affirm went public in January 2021 and peaked at over $168 some 10 months later. Affirm grew rapidly in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, as brands and retailers raced to make it easier for consumers to buy online.
By November of last year, buy now, pay later was everywhere, from Amazon to Urban Outfitters‘ Anthropologie. Customers had excess savings in the trillions. Default rates remained low — Affirm was recording a net charge-off rate of around 5%.
Affirm has fallen 92% from its high. Charge-offs peaked over the summer at nearly 12%. Inflation paired with higher interest rates muted formerly buoyant consumers. Klarna, which is privately held, saw its valuation slashed by 85% in a July financing round, from $45.6 billion to $6.7 billion.
The road ahead
That’s all before we get to Elon Musk.
The world’s richest person — even after an almost 50% slide in the value of Tesla — is now the owner of Twitter following an on-again, off-again, on-again drama that lasted six months and was about to land in court.
Musk swiftly fired half of Twitter’s workforce and then welcomed former President Donald Trump back onto the platform after running an informal poll. Many advertisers have fled.
And corporate governance is back on the docket after this month’s sudden collapse of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, which managed to grow to a $32 billion valuation with no board of directors or finance chief. Top-shelf firms such as Sequoia, BlackRock and Tiger Global saw their investments wiped out overnight.
“We are in the business of taking risk,” Sequoia wrote in a letter to limited partners, informing them that the firm was marking its FTX investment of over $210 million down to zero. “Some investments will surprise to the upside, and some will surprise to the downside.”
Even with the crypto meltdown, mounting layoffs and the overall market turmoil, it’s not all doom and gloom a year after the market peak.
Funds from those bills start flowing in January. Intel, Micron and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company have already announced expansions in the U.S. Additionally, Golden anticipates growth in health care, clean water and energy, and broadband in 2023.
“All of us are a little optimistic about that,” Golden said, “despite the macro headwinds.”
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