Stress checks handed, banks are primed to pay shareholders.


Daily Business Briefing

June 24, 2021Updated 

June 24, 2021, 11:01 p.m. ET

June 24, 2021, 11:01 p.m. ET

The nation’s biggest banks can get back to business as usual.

The Federal Reserve said on Thursday that Wall Street lenders were most likely strong enough to fully resume shareholder payouts after the regulator lifted pandemic-related restrictions — the latest sign that the economy is returning to normal.

“The banking system is strongly positioned to support the ongoing recovery,” the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, Randal K. Quarles, said in a statement.

That means the nation’s biggest lenders — including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America — can increase the amount they pay out to shareholders through stock buybacks and dividends.

Industry representatives immediately took a victory lap.

“The strength and resiliency of the nation’s largest banks have been reconfirmed,” Kevin Fromer, the chief executive of the Financial Services Forum, said in a statement. The resumption of “reasonable” dividends and buybacks would support the economy’s recovery, said Mr. Fromer, whose group represents the leaders of the eight largest U.S. banks.

The Federal Reserve imposed temporary limits on dividends and buybacks last year as a way to protect against loan losses that could have threatened the financial system. But government efforts to prop up the economy, including enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus payments, meant that such losses never emerged. Indeed, Americans used some of that money to pay down debts and are, overall, comparatively flush and eager to spend after a year of lockdowns.

In March, the Fed’s governors unanimously approved plans to end the buyback and dividend limits after the second quarter as long as banks passed their so-called stress tests — the annual evaluations of banks with $100 billion or more in assets. The test were established by the Dodd-Frank reform law established after the 2008 financial crisis.

On Thursday, the Fed said the banks had passed the test, which assessed how they would fare under dire situations such as a severe global recession punctuated by major stress in commercial real estate and corporate debt markets alongside a 55 percent decline in equity prices. That hypothetical case would trigger collective losses of $470 billion among the 23 large banks, with nearly $160 billion of the losses coming from commercial real estate and corporate loans, the Fed said. While the banks’ capital ratios would fall to 10.6 percent under that scenario, that is still more than double the lowest required ratio.

The stringent conditions in the stress tests contrast with a more rosy reality: U.S. lenders have maintained a firm footing during the pandemic, racking up profits and building up reserves in preparation for a torrent of losses that so far hasn’t materialized. Bank stocks have jumped about 28 percent since January as a speedy vaccine rollout bolstered economic activity.

If a bank’s capital dips below certain levels in the tests, the Fed can restrict it from paying out money to shareholders. But a New York Times analysis of results suggested that none of the six largest banks were close to facing such restrictions.

The banks’ passing grades prompted criticism that the test had been too easy.

“I’m losing my faith in the stress tests,” said Sheila Bair, who was head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation during the financial crisis. She pointed out that the tests are predictable because they have been made more transparent, and that the scenarios are reflective of the 2008 meltdown — not emerging risks, like climate change.

“They need to get a little more creative,” she said. “They’re looking in the rearview mirror — that’s the problem.”

Lenders are expected to announce their capital plans on Monday afternoon, according to the Fed. The lag will allow banks to compare their own analyses with the Fed’s and potentially revise their payout proposals.

“The expectations have been high regarding payouts,” said Ian Katz, an analyst at Capital Alpha Partners, a research firm in Washington. “I think they’re going to meet those expectations, and they’ve gotten the green light to do that.”

Mayra Rodríguez Valladares, a financial risk consultant who trains bankers and regulators, said she expected banks to boost their dividend payouts and share buybacks — although she believed doing so would be premature.

“We still do not know how many corporate or individual defaults are coming our way once all stimulus and Fed programs to provide respite during Covid end,” Ms. Rodríguez Valladares said. “Banks should not be excessive in dividend payouts and should make sure that they are well above minimum capital levels to protect them if defaults rise later in the year.”

Gregg Gelzinis, associate director for economic policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, added that bigger dividends and buybacks wouldn’t bolster the economy.

“That’s money that could have been used to expand lending to businesses and households, aiding the recovery,” he said.

But the Bank Policy Institute, an industry group, said large lenders were on solid ground to help the economy bounce back from the past year’s upheaval.

Large banks “remain in an excellent position to continue to support the economic recovery as loan demand strengthens,” said Francisco Covas, the institute’s executive vice president.

Future tests, however, may not be so forgiving.

Mr. Quarles was appointed vice chair for supervision by President Donald J. Trump, and his term will expire in mid-October. The next time the banks go through their annual checkups, they most likely will be facing scenarios approved by different leadership.

Isaac Boltansky, the director of policy research at the research and trading firm Compass Point, said the change will introduce an element of uncertainty for banks, who might encounter more strenuous scenarios related to the kinds of risks Ms. Bair said could lie ahead.

“Where I think it is a little bit hazier is what happens after this,” he said.

Read moreCredit…Laura Morton for The New York Times

Google pushed back plans to phase out a widely used technology to track the web activity of users, in an effort to address growing concerns from regulators and digital advertising industry rivals.

In a blog post on Thursday, Google said it intended to start gradually blocking trackers, or cookies, from its Chrome web browser in mid-2023 and eliminate them altogether later that year. Previously, Google had said it planned to begin stripping cookies from Chrome in January 2022.

Google’s approach to removing cookies from Chrome, the world’s most popular web browser, upset many in the digital advertising industry and captured the attention of regulators. The fear was that Google’s dominance, already evident through its stranglehold on advertising, search and web browsing, would be further entrenched by removing a tool used by many rival online marketers to target ads.

“It’s become clear that more time is needed across the ecosystem to get this right,” wrote Vinay Goel, director of privacy engineering for Chrome. “This will allow sufficient time for public discussion on the right solutions, continued engagement with regulators, and for publishers and the advertising industry to migrate their services.”

The company’s announcement came on the heels of the European Union saying it will investigate Google’s plans to eliminate cookies as part of a broader inquiry of its dominance in digital advertising technology. Earlier this month, Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority reached an agreement with Google to allow the regulator to review any changes to Chrome as part of another investigation.

Other web browsers such as Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox have taken more aggressive measures to curb tracking online, but Google has struggled to move forward — in part because of the concerns that its privacy initiatives are self-serving for a company that already knows so much about the interests and habits of its users.

Under an initiative called the Privacy Sandbox, Google has proposed a new set of tools to approximate the role played by cookies without the same privacy concerns of tracking individuals on the internet.

Read moreAndy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, recently compared the British economy to “a coiled spring,” and inflation to a sleeping tiger.Credit…Toby Melville/Reuters

Britain’s economic recovery is continuing apace and inflation is now expected to climb even higher than previously predicted, but the Bank of England’s policymakers stood firm on Thursday and saw little need to scale back their large monetary stimulus program.

That is, all but one.

In his final meeting, Andy Haldane, the central bank’s chief economist, cast the lone dissenting vote, arguing that the bank should pare back its bond-buying program because of the improved economic outlook and rising price pressures. It continued a theme he has sounded for months. In February, he described inflation as a sleeping tiger that had been “stirred from its slumber.”

Since the central bank’s previous meeting in May, it has raised its expectations for economic growth and predicted that the annual inflation rate would temporarily climb above 3 percent, higher than previously forecast and exceeding its 2 percent target.

“It is possible,” the minutes from this week’s meeting said, that “upward pressure on prices could prove somewhat larger than expected.”

Still, the majority of policymakers were not ready to withdraw any of the support they were giving to the economy, arguing that the central bank should not undermine the economic recovery by tightening monetary policy too quickly, the minutes said.

The policy-setting committee held interest rates at a record low of 0.1 percent and kept the size of its bond-buying program at 895 billion pounds. It offered few clues about when it might reduce stimulus. After the announcement, the pound dropped 0.5 percent against the U.S. dollar.

Mr. Haldane contends the economy is approaching takeoff speed and, for a second consecutive month, urged the central bank to reduce its target for the amount of bonds it intends to buy by £50 billion. That would end the program in August instead of at the end of the year.

It was the 68th and last policy meeting for Mr. Haldane, 53, who joined the bank in his early 20s and has recently been one of the most optimistic proponents of strong economic recovery in Britain — and a leading worrier that central banks risk underreacting to rising inflation.

He is leaving to run the Royal Society of Arts, a British think tank focused on the future of work and sustainable business practices.

With Mr. Haldane’s departure, the monetary policy committee will lose its most hawkish member as it has to decide how to emerge from its pandemic response measures. Even while Britain was enduring a strict lockdown through a cold and dark winter, Mr. Haldane kept up his confidence in the economy.

In February, he said there was “enormous amounts of pent-up financial energy waiting to be released, like a coiled spring.” Since then, that spring has turned into warnings about the “beast of inflation.”

Now central bankers face their “most dangerous moment” since the early 1990s, when policymakers began using targets for inflation to guide decisions, Mr. Haldane recently wrote in New Statesman magazine. “While nothing is assured, acting early as inflation risks grow is the best way of heading off future threat.”

Mr. Haldane’s imaginative language and directness have been a consistent feature of his time at the Bank of England, which he joined in 1989. He became a member of the policy-setting committee and became chief economist in 2014.

After the 2008 financial crisis, he was outspoken about the risks that banks and large asset managers could pose to national economies, sometimes making him a pariah in the financial sector. But he just as eagerly addressed what he believed was a crisis in economics that left his profession blindsided, and has warned against groupthink in central banks. He has also voiced his support for the Occupy movement, and worked with students determined to make economics education more intellectually diverse.

In 2009, Mr. Haldane founded the charity Pro Bono Economics, which sends economists into charities to help them use data to measure their impact, while also advocating higher levels of math skills across the country. Although he has said economics needs to be more easily accessible, Mr. Haldane has also insisted that economists need to better understand the public. He has crisscrossed Britain meeting community groups and students to discuss topics including homelessness and mental health.

“Technocratic institutions require the continuous consent not just of Parliament but of the wider public,” Mr. Haldane wrote in the foreword to “The Econocracy,” a book by ex-students on reforming economics.

His successor has not been named.

Read moreA Maricopa County constable posting an eviction order for non-payment of rent last October in Phoenix.Credit…John Moore/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday approved a one-month extension of the national moratorium on evictions, scheduled to expire on June 30, as officials emphasized this will be the final time they will push back the deadline.

The moratorium, instituted by the agency last September to prevent a wave of evictions spurred by the economic downturn associated with the coronavirus pandemic and extended earlier this year, has significantly limited the economic damage to renters and sharply reduced eviction filings.

On Thursday, the C.D.C. director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, signed the extension, which goes through July 31, after a week of internal debate at the White House over the issue.

Local officials and tenants rights groups have warned that phasing out the freeze could touch off a new, if somewhat less severe, eviction crisis than the country faced last year during the height of the pandemic.

White House officials agreed and pressed reluctant C.D.C. officials to extend the moratorium, which they see as needed to buy them more time to distribute $21.5 billion in emergency federal housing aid funded by a pandemic relief bill passed this spring.

Administration officials, speaking on a conference call with reporters on Thursday, unveiled a range of other actions intended to blunt the impact of lifting the moratorium and the lapsing of similar state and local measures.

Among the most significant is a new push by the Justice Department, led by Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, to coax local housing court judges to slow the pace of evictions by forcing landlords to accept federal money intended to pay back rent.

In a letter to state court officials, Ms. Gupta urged judges to adopt a general order requiring all landlords to prove they have applied for federal aid before signing off on evictions, while offering federal funding for eviction diversion programs intended to resolve landlord-tenant disputes.

Other initiatives include a summit on housing affordability and evictions, to be held at the White House later this month; stepped-up coordination with local officials and legal aid organizations to minimize evictions after July 31; and new guidance from the Treasury Department meant to streamline the sluggish disbursement of the $21.5 billion in emergency aid included in the pandemic relief bill in the spring.

White House officials, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said recently that the one-month extension, while influenced by concerns over a new wave of evictions, was prompted by the lag in vaccination rates in low-income communities.

Ms. Walensky was initially reluctant to sign the extension, according to a senior administration official involved in the negotiations. She eventually concluded, the official said, a flood of new evictions could lead to greater spread of the virus by displaced tenants.

Forty-four House Democrats wrote to Ms. Walensky, on Tuesday, urging them to put off allowing evictions to resume. “By extending the moratorium and incorporating these critical improvements to protect vulnerable renters, we can work to curtail the eviction crisis disproportionately impacting our communities of color,” the lawmakers wrote.

Groups representing private landlords maintain that the health crisis that justified the freeze has ended and that continuing the freeze even for an extra four weeks would be an unwarranted government intrusion in the housing market.

“The mounting housing affordability crisis is quickly becoming a housing affordability disaster fueled by flawed eviction moratoriums, which leave renters with insurmountable debt and housing providers holding the bag,” said Bob Pinnegar, president of the National Apartment Association, a trade group representing owners of large residential buildings.

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Stocks on Wall Street climbed into record territory on Thursday, extending a rebound lifted by more good news about the economy and progress on a deal in Washington that could boost infrastructure spending.

After a slide last week, the S&P 500 has climbed nearly 2.5 percent this week, gaining three of four days. Last week’s drop reflected uncertainty about the path forward for interest rates and inflation after the Federal Reserve indicated it was open to raising rates sooner than expected and would begin discussing when to pull back on its emergency stimulus to support the economy.

Thursday’s gains came after the Labor Department reported that weekly claims for state jobless benefits declined,; the Commerce Department said orders at factories for big-ticket items like aircraft and machinery rose in May; and lawmakers in Washington said they had reached an agreement on a $579 billion spending plan for roads, broadband internet and other projects.

Though a final bill is still far from assured, optimism around its prospects meant stocks tied to construction and engineering jumped. Terex Corporation, a supplier of cranes and lifts used in large construction projects, jumped 4 percent, while Dycom, which specializes in telecommunication systems, rose 5.8 percent.

Fluor, another engineering and construction company that has a large government contracting business, climbed 4.5 percent. Vulcan Materials, which makes asphalt for roads, rose 3.3 percent, and construction-equipment giant Caterpillar was the one of the best-performing stocks in the Dow Jones industrial average, rising more than 2.6 percent.

Banks also rallied on Thursday ahead of the release of the Federal Reserve’s annual “stress tests” on the largest financial firms. The Fed could drop or relax restrictions put on the banks’ ability to distribute cash to shareholders — limits that were put in place earlier in the pandemic to strengthen the financial system. Goldman Sachs gained 2.1 percent, while JPMorgan Chase rose more than 0.9 percent.

Microsoft climbed about half a percent to end the day with a market value of over $2 trillion for the first time. It’s not the first company to cross that threshold, Apple did so in August 2020, and oil giant Saudi Aramco did so in late 2019.

The S&P 500 gained 0.6 percent, notching a record high. The Dow rose 1 percent.

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The venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz announced a $2.2 billion cryptocurrency fund on Thursday, during a stormy week for Bitcoin in a season of extremes for digital assets. A crackdown in China has driven down crypto prices in recent days, the latest bout of volatility that makes regulators wary of the industry as it moves into the mainstream.

Katie Haun, a co-chair of the fund, is a former federal prosecutor who created the first U.S. government cryptocurrency task force. Anyone who has been around crypto for years realizes it will be “a bumpy ride,” she told the DealBook newsletter before the announcement. Nonetheless, the fund is oversubscribed. “We could have quite easily raised a lot larger funds without any issue at all,” she said.

The crypto fund is “all weather,” investing at all stages, in both the equity of companies and directly in crypto coins and tokens, according to a statement from the fund. “We are radically optimistic about crypto’s potential,” Ms. Haun and her fellow co-chair, Chris Dixon, said in the statement. “The size of this fund speaks to the size of the opportunity before us: crypto is not only the future of finance but, as with the internet in the early days, is poised to transform all aspects of our lives.”

This is Andreessen’s third crypto fund. Each is progressively bigger, as the firm expands into new areas and doubles down on what worked before. Ms. Haun said the latest fund — focused on infrastructure, non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, and decentralized finance, or DeFi — is made up entirely of repeat investors. Through the ups and downs, interest in crypto is only getting stronger, she said. That’s why the industry needs more clarity about “the rules of the road,” she added.

To that end, Andreessen isn’t just betting on crypto businesses, but hiring former government insiders to help steer its strategy as crypto regulation evolves. Bill Hinman, the former director of the SEC’s corporate finance division, where he worked on digital asset issues, is joining as an advisory partner, as is Brent McIntosh, the former under secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs, who coordinated the G7’s work on crypto. Tomicah Tillemann, the technologist and former adviser to Joe Biden in the Senate, is joining to run global policy.

“As with any new computing movement, crypto has endured a variety of challenges and misconceptions,” the statement said. “That’s why we are also bringing together heavy-hitters across several functions to help translate crypto to the mainstream.”

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  • Initial claims for state jobless benefits fell last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

  • The weekly figure was about 393,000, down 15,000 from the previous week. New claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally funded program for jobless freelancers, gig workers and others who do not ordinarily qualify for state benefits, totaled 105,000, up 7,000 from the week before. The figures are not seasonally adjusted. (On a seasonally adjusted basis, state claims totaled 411,000, a decrease of 7,000.)

  • A total of 26 states have announced plans to discontinue some or all federal pandemic unemployment benefits this month or next — including a $300 supplement to other benefits — even though they are funded through September.

  • New state claims remain high by historical standards but are one-half the level recorded in early February. The benefit filings, something of a proxy for layoffs, have receded as businesses return to fuller operations, particularly in hard-hit industries like leisure and hospitality.

Climate activists protesting during the Group of 7 summit in Cornwall, Britain, this month.Credit…Jon Rowley/EPA, via Shutterstock

An influential watchdog group said on Thursday that the British government was doing far too little to carry out the ambitious pledges it had made on tackling climate change.

Although the government has promised to cut its greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2050, it has failed to take interim steps — such as tax incentives for reducing emissions — essential to meet that goal, according to a report by the group, the Committee on Climate Change.

“The trouble is the action, the delivery has just not been there,” said John Gummer, chairman of the committee, which is funded by the British government to advise lawmakers on environmental policies.

The criticism may prove uncomfortable for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has made leadership on climate diplomacy a key pillar for the post-Brexit Britain that he is trying to shape.

Britain’s ambitions to wield influence in this area will be on display in November in Glasgow, where Mr. Johnson is expected to lead a significant international gathering known as COP26, which leaders like President Biden hope will be a forum for advancing the global climate agenda.

In 2019, Mr. Johnson sketched a vision for a “green industrial revolution” in Britain, pledging to ban the sale of most new gasoline- and diesel-powered cars by 2030 and holding out the prospect of creating some 250,000 jobs in areas like offshore wind, hydrogen and battery production. The ideas followed legislation passed in 2019, before Mr. Johnson took office, that established the net-zero pledge for 2050.

On Thursday, though, the committee said that while such pledges were “historic,” the government was badly lagging in making good on them.

“What we have seen since then is almost nothing at all,” Chris Stark, the chief executive of the committee, said in an interview.

The committee and environmentalists have warned that continued lack of follow-through could make it difficult for Mr. Johnson to persuade other governments to take potentially painful steps on reducing emissions at the climate summit.

“Everyone is looking for action and delivery, not for promises,” said Mr. Gummer, a former cabinet minister who, like Mr. Johnson, is a member of the Conservative Party.

Credit…Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament, via Reuters

Unless the government comes up with credible plans, he said, “the whole concept of global Britain being a leader will, in fact, be undermined.”

In the report published on Thursday, the committee wrote that reaching net zero as well as interim milestones would require what it called a significant change in government action. In addition to tax incentives to spur reduced emissions, the committee called for dedicated government spending to reduce emissions from industry, buildings and agriculture, and a bigger effort to point out the opportunities offered to people and businesses by tackling climate change.

So far, the report’s authors wrote, “it is hard to discern any comprehensive strategy in the climate plans we have seen in the last 12 months.”

Analysts say the criticism may well nudge the government to do more, especially with the climate summit coming.

Doug Parr, the chief scientist of the environmental group Greenpeace UK, said the committee’s critique would be “awkward” for the government. “In this year of all years, yes, it will matter,” he added.

Responding to the report, George Eustice, the government’s environment secretary, told the BBC that Mr. Johnson was closely following climate issues. “This is an agenda that matters to the prime minister, and it is not true to say that he just made a promise and isn’t following through,” he said.

The committee has clout because it is part of the legal framework credited with Britain’s achievements to date on climate. In recent decades, Britain has by some metrics been among the world leaders on tackling climate change, reducing emissions by 40 percent from 1990 to 2019.

Many observers give credit for Britain’s performance to legislation in 2008 that set legally binding emissions targets and established the committee to monitor progress and advise the government.

At the same time, many say, government foot-dragging at this juncture is not surprising, because Britain has previously picked the low-hanging fruit on climate change and now faces more difficult hurdles to make further progress.

A large portion of the earlier gains have come in the power sector. Britain has replaced most of its highly polluting coal-fired generators — first with natural gas plants and, more recently, with renewable generation sources, carpeting the shallows of the North Sea with wind turbines.

Analysts say reducing carbon in electric power is relatively easy because consumers do not see any real change when they flip a light switch. Future progress may require more intrusive and expensive measures, such as replacing natural gas heating systems with devices known as heat pumps and widespread retrofitting of homes with insulation.

“All politicians are deeply afraid of having to engage with consumers and people’s houses because of the political sensitivities,” said Nick Mabey, the chief executive of E3G, an environmental group.

Mr. Stark listed other areas that the government must address, beginning with around 30 million privately owned buildings that will need to have their emissions slashed over 30 years — a daunting task.

There is also much work to be done in transportation, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The government has pledged to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles but now must follow through on needed infrastructure like electric charging points. The government must also figure out how to clean up heavy industries like steel and chemicals without forcing these businesses to close.

It all adds up to a huge effort for Britain or any other industrialized country to meet climate targets. Last year, because of the pandemic, Britain reached a level where emissions were around half the level of 1990.

“The next half will be the most difficult half,” Mr. Stark said. “We have done most of the easy bits.”

Read moreThe New York Stock Exchange in March 2020. The early days of the pandemic in the United States rattled the markets.Credit…John Taggart for The New York Times

Laurence D. Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, was in frequent touch with the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in the days before and after many of the Fed’s emergency rescue programs were announced in late March, Jeanna Smialek reports for The New York Times.

Emails obtained by The New York Times through a records request, along with public releases, underscore the extent to which Mr. Fink planned alongside the government for parts of a financial rescue that his firm referred to in one message as “the project” that he and the Fed were “working on together.”

Mr. Mnuchin held 60 recorded calls over the frantic Saturday and Sunday leading up to the Fed’s unveiling on Monday, March 23, of a policy package that included its first-ever program to buy corporate bonds, which were becoming nearly impossible to sell as investors sprinted to convert their holdings to cash. Mr. Mnuchin spoke to Mr. Fink five times that weekend, more than anyone other than the Fed chair.

The Fed and Treasury consulted with many financial firms as they drew up their response — and practically all of Wall Street and much of Main Street benefited — but no other company was as front and center.

The Fed has explained the decision to hire the advisory side of the house in terms of practicality.

“We hired BlackRock for their expertise in these markets,” Mr. Powell has since said in defense of the rapid move. “It was done very quickly due to the urgency and need for their expertise.”

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  • Delegates to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters convention on Thursday approved a resolution making it a priority to organize Amazon workers and help them secure a union contract. The union represents more than one million workers in industries including parcel delivery and freight and had more than $200 million in revenue last year. The resolution states that Amazon “presents an existential threat to the standards we have set in these industries” and that the union will eventually create a division to organize workers at the company.

  • President Biden removed the chief of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, hours after the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the president had the authority to dismiss the agency’s director. The director, Mark Calabria, had overseen a number of rules aimed to end the federal government’s conservatorship of Fannie and Freddie, imposed in 2008 at the start of the financial crisis. Mr. Calabria favored the eventual privatization of the mortgage giants, and his dismissal hit the companies’ share prices, hurting hedge funds that had bet on an exit from government control.

  • BuzzFeed, the digital publisher known for quizzes, listicles and a news division that won its first Pulitzer Prize this month, is close to reaching a merger deal that would take the company public, a person with knowledge of the company said Wednesday. An announcement could come as soon as this week, the person added. BuzzFeed declined to comment. Led by its founder and chief executive, Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed has been in talks to merge with an already public shell company, 890 Fifth Avenue Partners, in what is known as a SPAC deal.

  • After nearly two decades leading Southwest Airlines, Gary C. Kelly, will step down from the chief executive position next year, the airline said on Wednesday. He will be replaced by Robert E. Jordan, a top executive who has held a number of jobs at the company. Both men have worked for Southwest since the 1980s. Mr. Kelly, 66, has been in the top job since 2004, expanding Southwest into the nation’s largest airline by passengers carried. Mr. Jordan, 60, an executive vice president who oversees communication and outreach and human resources, will become chief executive on Feb. 1.

VideoCinemagraphCreditCredit…Brenna Murphy

Today in the On Tech newsletter, Shira Ovide talks to Cecilia Kang about a package of bills written by House lawmakers that poses existential threats to the tech giants.