LONDON — For Britain, its exit from the European Union is supposed to be the start of a new era as a “Global Britain,” an open, inviting and far-reaching country. For the European Union, Brexit is an opportunity to repatriate some business from across the English Channel and further bolster the continent’s economic standing in the world.And for the City of London, a large hub for international banks, asset managers, insurance firms and hedge funds, Brexit is a political headache. Britain’s financial center has been caught in the middle of these two agendas, leaving the future of the …
WASHINGTON — Janet L. Yellen’s expected nomination as Treasury secretary will place the former Federal Reserve chair into a critical role overseeing President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s economic and national security agenda at an agency that has increasingly become a center of power.While Ms. Yellen’s views on monetary policy are well known from her time leading the central bank, her perspective on a range of issues that are part of the Treasury Department’s portfolio is less known.As Treasury secretary, Ms. Yellen will be the Biden administration’s chief economic diplomat and will face the challenge …
The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday cleared the way for Boeing’s 737 Max to resume flying, 20 months after it was grounded following two fatal crashes blamed on faulty software and a host of company and government failures.
The decision ends a devastating saga for Boeing, which had predicted billions of dollars in losses stemming from the Max crisis even before the coronavirus pandemic dealt a ruinous blow to global aviation. The agency’s chief, Stephen Dickson, signed an order Wednesday formally lifting the grounding.
“The path that led us to this point was long and grueling, but we said from the start that we would take the time necessary to get this right,” he said in a video message. “I am 100 percent comfortable with my family flying on it.”
The Max was grounded worldwide in March 2019 when the F.A.A. joined regulators in dozens of other countries in banning the plane after the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed all 346 people on board.
Investigators have attributed the crashes to a range of problems, including engineering flaws, mismanagement and a lack of federal oversight. At the root was software known as MCAS, which was designed to automatically push the plane’s nose down in certain situations and has been blamed for both crashes.
In August, the F.A.A. determined that a series of proposals by Boeing — including changes to MCAS, flight crew training and the jet’s design — “effectively mitigate” its safety concerns. Mr. Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines pilot, took the controls on a test flight in September, saying he liked what he saw.
In a news conference on Tuesday in anticipation of the F.A.A. announcement, relatives of victims on the second plane that crashed, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, questioned whether Boeing had done enough to address safety concerns with the plane.
“Aviation should not be a trial-and-error process; it should be about safety,” said Naoise Ryan, whose husband, Mick, was aboard that flight on March 10, 2019. “If safety is not prioritized, then these companies should not be in business.”
In a letter to employees, Boeing’s chief executive, David Calhoun, welcomed the lifting of the ban, promising to proceed deliberately with the plane’s return to service and to “never forget” the victims of the crashes.
“We will honor them by holding close the hard lessons learned from this chapter in our history to ensure accidents like these never happen again,” he said.
Now that the F.A.A. has lifted its grounding order, regulators around the world are expected to follow suit, though some may take their time in wrapping up their own in-depth reviews. The agency has worked with its counterparts in Canada, the European Union and Brazil on revised pilot training requirements for the Max.
Even in the United States, it could be months before the Max starts carrying passengers again. The F.A.A. must still approve pilot training procedures for each U.S. airline operating the Max, planes need to be updated, and airlines suffering from a huge decline in traffic during the pandemic may feel little urgency to act quickly.
On an investor call last month, the American Airlines chief executive, Doug Parker, predicted that the carrier would not resume Max flights before late December if the order came in November.
United Airlines said Wednesday that it expected to start flying the Max in the first quarter of next year after 1,000 hours of work on every plane and “meticulous technical analysis.” Southwest Airlines said it did not expect to resume flights until the second quarter.
The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents nearly 60,000 pilots in North America, including those at United and Delta, said in a statement that it was still reviewing changes to training procedures, but that the proposed engineering fixes “are sound and will be an effective component that leads to the safe return to service.”
The F.A.A. decision removes some uncertainty as Boeing seeks to rehabilitate its reputation, start fulfilling longstanding orders for the Max and manage the sharp slowdown in business caused by the pandemic.
The company has lost more than 1,000 orders this year, mostly for the Max, after accounting for orders that either were canceled or are likely to fall through. Aircraft contracts typically allow buyers to cancel or renegotiate terms if deliveries are delayed, adding to the urgency for Boeing to resume delivering the planes. Still, the company has more than 4,200 orders in its backlog, most of them for the Max.
The single-aisle plane is the latest in Boeing’s 737 line, an industry workhorse widely used by airlines around the world for short to intermediate distances. Southwest, for example, has more than 730 planes, all of them versions of the 737, including 34 Max jets. The airline has more on order, but its chief executive, Gary Kelly, said this week that Southwest was in no rush to expand its fleet.
For decades, Boeing had taken an incremental approach to the 737, choosing to update the plane rather than conceive a new model. That strategy had benefits, including reducing the need for costly pilot retraining. But it also resulted in a patchwork design that sometimes required workarounds. When larger, more efficient engines were added to the plane, they caused the Max to tilt up during certain maneuvers. MCAS — for maneuvering characteristics augmentation system — was programmed to counter that.
The Emotional Wreckage of a Deadly Boeing Crash
One year after a second 737 Max jet went down, the victims’ families press on in memory of their loved ones. “They were an extraordinary group of people.”
In both crashes, faulty sensors activated the software, sending the planes toward the ground as the pilots struggled to pull them back up. In a September report, Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said internal Boeing documents showed that concerns raised by employees about MCAS had been dismissed or insufficiently addressed. That report and one from the Transportation Department’s inspector general accused Boeing of misleading the F.A.A. by playing down the complexity of MCAS, perhaps to avoid costly pilot training.
The House committee also faulted the agency’s practice of outsourcing some certification functions to employees of the companies it oversees.
On Tuesday, the House passed a bipartisan bill aimed at changing F.A.A. certification procedures and requiring an expert panel to review Boeing’s safety culture. The Air Line Pilots Association applauded the legislation, saying that it included much-needed changes to the certification process.
Boeing is nearing the end of a dreadful year. The pandemic has bruised its airline clients, leading to layoffs across the industry. Boeing expects to start 2021 with a global work force of about 130,000, nearly 19 percent fewer than it had at the start of this year. Also, quality concerns have slowed deliveries of its wide-body 787 Dreamliner.
Still, despite the twin crises of the Max grounding and the pandemic, there is hope. Orders for the Max may be difficult to cancel; some airlines, like Southwest, rely exclusively on Boeing planes, making it difficult to switch to the other major manufacturer, Airbus; and the Max offers savings on maintenance and fuel that may be difficult for some to pass up, especially as corporate clients pressure airlines to cut carbon footprints.
Boeing’s stock has risen more than 40 percent this month, with investors encouraged by news from Pfizer and Moderna that coronavirus vaccines under development appear to be highly effective.
LONDON — European Union regulators brought antitrust charges against Amazon on Tuesday, saying the online retail giant broke competition laws by unfairly using its size and access to data to harm smaller merchants who rely on the company to reach customers.
The European Commission, the executive branch of the 27-nation bloc, said Amazon had abused its dual role as both a retail store used by scores of vendors, and a merchant that sells its own competing goods on the platform. The authorities accused Amazon of harvesting nonpublic data from sellers who use its marketplace to spot popular products, then copy and sell them, often at a lower price.
“We must ensure that dual role platforms with market power, such as Amazon, do not distort competition,” Margrethe Vestager, the commission’s vice president for digital issues, said in a statement. “Data on the activity of third party sellers should not be used to the benefit of Amazon when it act as a competitor to these sellers.”
The case, which has been expected for months, is the latest front in a trans-Atlantic regulatory push against Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google as the authorities in the United States and Europe take a more skeptical view of their business practices and dominance of the digital economy. Last month, the Justice Department brought antitrust charges against Google, and Apple and Facebook are also facing investigations in both Washington and Brussels.
Many in Europe will be watching to see how the Amazon announcement is received by the incoming administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is expected to pursue policies that limit the industry’s power. The Trump administration has criticized Ms. Vestager for aiming at American companies like Apple, even as it initiated its own investigations of the industry.
In the Amazon case, the announcement on Tuesday is still preliminary and is just one part of the regulatory process. Amazon now has a chance to respond to the charges. It can take many months, or even years, before a fine and other penalties are announced. The commission also could reach a settlement with Amazon, or the case could be dropped.
The European Commission said it has also started a parallel investigation of Amazon policies around its “buy box,” an important piece of real estate on Amazon’s website that makes it easy for consumers to quickly click to make a purchase.
The commission is studying whether Amazon gives preferential treatment for the buy box to its own products and those of other sellers that pay to use Amazon’s logistics services.
Amazon denied any wrongdoing and said it supports thousands of businesses in Europe.
In Brussels, Amazon has been gearing up for a legal fight. It has hired a team of lawyers and economists, including several who in the past were encouraging tougher enforcement against Google and Microsoft.
“We disagree with the preliminary assertions of the European Commission and will continue to make every effort to ensure it has an accurate understanding of the facts,” the company said in a statement. “No company cares more about small businesses or has done more to support them over the past two decades than Amazon.”
The case reinforces the European Union’s role as a leading tech-industry watchdog, even as past investigations of companies like Google have done little to diminish their power. Authorities in Brussels have argued that the biggest tech platforms unfairly use their power to box out competitors, though means like bundling products, charging high fees in app stores and hoarding data.
Ms. Vestager has raised alarms about the “gatekeeper” role of companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The companies have reached such a size, Ms. Vestager has argued, that they are essentially micro-economies, setting rules and policies with little transparency that determine the fate of millions of other businesses that have no choice but to follow along.
About 2.3 million third-party merchants around the world use Amazon to reach customers, including about 37 percent who rely on the company as their sole source of income, according to a United States congressional report published last month. In the European Union, Amazon has information on about 800,000 active sellers using its platform, covering more than 1 billion products, according to the European Commission.
Ms. Vestager has warned the biggest companies will only grow stronger without tougher antitrust enforcement and new regulations, blocking new companies and innovations from emerging.
Next month, the European Commission is expected to unveil a new package of laws that would represent one of the world’s most sweeping set of regulations of the tech industry. It could include rules prohibiting the self-preferencing of products and requiring the biggest companies to share data with smaller rivals.
In the Amazon case, European authorities spent two years investigating the company’s dual role as both a retail store and seller of its own goods.
Amazon argues that it only makes up a small sliver of the global retail market, but for many smaller merchants the company is the main gateway to online sales. Worries about Amazon’s power have only grown during the pandemic, as internet sales become increasingly vital to businesses grappling with lockdowns and lost foot traffic. Since 2015, e-commerce sales in the European Union nearly doubled to about 720 billon euros, or about $850 billion.
Sellers have long raised concerns that if Amazon sees a particular product doing well on its website, the company would create its own version, sell it at a lower price and then give it better placement on the Amazon website.
The European Commission said those concerns were supported by a review of data on more than 80 million transactions and 100 million products. Ms. Vestager said it showed how Amazon used the data from outside sellers to determine what computer accessories, kitchen tools or other products to introduce, as well as where to set prices and how to manage the inventory.
The real-time information Amazon collects includes order totals, number of visitors to certain products and a merchant’s revenue.
“This is a case about big data,” said Ms. Vestager. She said the investigation centers on Amazon’s behavior in France and Germany, where she said Amazon has a “dominant” position in the market.
Critics of Amazon cheered the European decision.
“Amazon, by using its very powerful position on e-commerce markets and its dual role as both retailer and marketplace, is making it more difficult for independent retailers to compete fairly,” said Agustin Reyna, director of legal and economic affairs at the European Consumer Organization, a group that has been urging regulators to act against Amazon.
Monika Pronczuk contributed reporting from Brussels.
This was supposed to be the week that one of China’s biggest tech companies threw the most lucrative coming-out party in history, sending a swaggering message about the country’s economic might during the pandemic.
Instead, China sent a different message: No private business gets to swagger unless the government is on board with it.
Regulators pulled the plug Tuesday on the initial public offering of Ant Group, the internet finance giant, which had been all but ready to press “Go” on its $34 billion stock debut in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
The I.P.O. would have brought in more cash than did Saudi Aramco, the state-run oil giant, when it went public last year. And Ant would have raised the money on the opposite side of the planet from New York, which has long been the favored listing destination for Chinese tech groups.
But by firing a last-minute torpedo at Ant and Jack Ma, the company’s controlling shareholder and celebrity founder of the e-commerce titan Alibaba, the authorities made clear that international bragging rights mattered less than ensuring private companies know where they stand next to the state.
Ant sits at the intersection of two industries — finance and tech — that are facing intense scrutiny everywhere. American officials are circling the giants of Silicon Valley, plotting a reckoning for the power they wield over commerce and society.
Yet in China, the authorities under Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, have brought a steely, uncompromising edge to their tactics for enforcing the Communist Party’s will.
Globe-straddling conglomerates have been leashed. A tycoon was disappeared into custody. In September, Ren Zhiqiang, a wealthy, politically connected property developer, was sentenced to 18 years in prison after he criticized Mr. Xi for the government’s handling of the coronavirus.
After Mr. Xi declared war on food waste this year, the official news media and video platforms turned against streamers who recorded themselves chowing down on extravagant spreads — a niche category of internet fame, but a remunerative one for its stars.
“What happened to Ant reinforces that sense that it’s really essential to show respect for party-state authority,” said Kellee S. Tsai, the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Capitalists have to play by the political rules of the game.”
For many businesses in China, this has been a year to be thankful — all things considered — for the government. Economic growth is bounding back. The authorities are keeping the virus largely under control.
Ant filed to go public in August, nearly a decade after the company was spun out of Alibaba. Ant’s Alipay app is used by more than 730 million people every month. It has become a major portal for personal credit, loans, investments and insurance in addition to a payment tool. But getting to this point was a long journey for Ant, one with numerous dust-ups with regulators.
More controls were already on the way. China’s banking and insurance regulator discussed new rules for online lenders in September. Tighter supervision of financial holding companies was scheduled to go into effect on Nov. 1.
Late last month, as Ant’s mega I.P.O. was coming together, Mr. Ma made an appearance at a financial conference, the Bund Summit in Shanghai. He spoke after bigwigs including Wang Qishan, China’s vice president, and Yi Gang, the central bank governor.
“Our next speaker needs little introduction,” the host said. “He says he came to the Bund Summit today to throw a bomb.”
A camera catches Mr. Ma standing up from his seat and shrugging, as if caught off guard.
“I’m not throwing any bombs,” he said once he reached the podium. “Who would dare throw a bomb?”
He then proceeded to throw several bombs. He roasted financial regulators for being obsessed with minimizing risk, even though, he said, “there is no innovation in this world without risk.” He accused China’s banks of behaving like “pawnshops” by lending only to those who could put up collateral.
The audience applauded politely as he left the stage. But state-run news outlets criticized his remarks in the days that followed.
After Ant set the listing price for its stock, investors stampeded to place orders. More than five million people applied in Shanghai alone. The total number of shares they wanted to buy was 870 times the number being offered.
But on Monday evening, financial regulators announced that they had summoned Mr. Ma and other company executives for a meeting. In a shock announcement the next night, the Shanghai Stock Exchange called time on the I.P.O.
One wag on social media called Mr. Ma’s remarks in Shanghai “the most expensive speech in history.”
It was not a speech he had been under any obvious obligation to give. Mr. Ma retired from Alibaba last year and has no formal role in Ant’s management. His net worth has been estimated to be more than $50 billion.
In recent months, his public work has had to do with fighting the pandemic, improving rural education and empowering entrepreneurs in Africa. At the Shanghai summit, he was introduced as a chairman of the U.N. High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation and a U.N. Sustainable Development Goals advocate.
By opining on financial regulation, Mr. Ma struck at a sensitive subject. In recent years, China has reined in a proliferation of fly-by-night online loan operations. The country had 5,000 such lenders not long ago, according to regulators. By the end of September, there were only six.
This week, the state news media framed the decision to suspend Ant’s I.P.O. as a prudent one taken to protect investors.
Andrew Collier, the founder and managing director of Orient Capital Research, said he believed that protecting China’s big government-run banks was a factor in the move. Banks pay Ant fees to help them extend credit to customers they might not otherwise serve, but at a cost to their own profitability.
“My personal view is that the banks were looking for an excuse to nip this in the bud and also give them adequate time to try to get their own online operations up to speed,” he said.
Mr. Collier added: “Twenty years ago, when China needed global capital more, and was also much less confident about its own scope in the world,” the leadership “would have been very loath to do this, because it would make them look indecisive.”
Today, China’s leaders care less about how their actions look overseas than about fulfilling domestic priorities. The rupture with the United States on trade, technology and other fronts has led the Communist Party to reaffirm Mr. Xi’s broad mandate to steer China through turbulent times.
“They are trying to figure out a balanced course between opening and maintaining control in this entirely new environment,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “Coming out of Covid, even though China has done well, there’s a lot of unknowns ahead.”
“The sentiment is one of uncertainty, caution,” Mr. Pei said. “When you have Ant, which is truly gigantic, which will allow people to move money around a lot more easily, with very little transparency, really — that can worry the hell out of them.”
On Friday, Ant was in the process of refunding investors who put down money for a piece of the thwarted I.P.O.
Sha Sha, 33, an insurance broker in Hong Kong, borrowed more than $20,000 to get in on the action. She applied to buy 2,500 Hong Kong shares at around $10.30 apiece, but was allotted only 50 shares.
She had been excited to take part in such a historically significant listing. Now she is more circumspect.
“It definitely feels like there are greater uncertainties,” Ms. Sha said. “In half a year, if there are new listing plans, I will be more careful and put more thought into it.”
Cao Li contributed reporting.
Ant Group challenged China’s state-dominated banking system by bringing easy-to-use payments, borrowing and investing to hundreds of millions of smartphones across the country. On Tuesday, Chinese officialdom reminded the company who was really in charge.
In a late-evening announcement that stunned China, the Shanghai Stock Exchange slammed the brakes on Ant’s initial public offering, which was set to be the biggest stock debut in history with investors on multiple continents and at least $34 billion in proceeds.
The stock exchange’s notice to Ant said that the company’s proposed offering might no longer meet the requirements for listing after Chinese regulators had summoned company executives, including Jack Ma, the co-founder of the e-commerce titan Alibaba and Ant’s controlling shareholder, for a meeting on Monday.
Neither the regulators nor Ant have said in detail what was discussed at the meeting. But the timing of the conversation, mere days before Ant’s shares were expected to begin trading concurrently in Shanghai and Hong Kong, suggested discord with the company or with Mr. Ma, who spun Ant out of Alibaba in 2011.
Though he is not part of Ant’s management, Mr. Ma has been a spirited champion for the company’s mission of bringing financial services to small businesses and others in China who he says have been ill-served by stodgy, government-run institutions.
“We will keep in close communications with the Shanghai Stock Exchange and relevant regulators,” the company said, “and wait for their further notice with respect to further developments of our offering and listing process.”
Shares of Alibaba, a major Ant shareholder, fell more than 6 percent on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday morning after news of the delay.
Over the past decade, Ant has transformed the way people in China interact with money. The company’s Alipay app has become an essential payment tool for more than 730 million users, as well as a platform for obtaining small loans and buying insurance and investment products.
But competing against China’s politically connected financial institutions always came with risks. Regulators have looked warily upon Ant’s fast growth in certain areas, fearful it might become too big to rescue in the event of a meltdown.
Ant has pivoted in response. Instead of using its own money to extend loans, the company now primarily acts as an agent for banks, introducing them to individual borrowers and small enterprises that they might not otherwise reach. It describes itself as a technology partner to banks, not a competitor or a disrupter.
This business model works just fine for many of Ant’s investors, evidently. The company’s expected market valuation after the dual listing, of more than $310 billion, would make it worth more than many global banks. Mr. Ma, who is already China’s richest man, would become even richer.
Still, Ant’s future remains at the mercy of Chinese regulators, whose views on the melding of tech and finance are still evolving.
“The regulators have long been looking at the risks in this area and how it should be regulated, but it’s all suddenly coming out at this specific time,” said Yu Baicheng, head of the Zero One Research Institute, a think tank in Beijing focused on finance and tech. “It’s definitely a statement of the regulators’ attitude.”
An article on the website of Economic Daily, an official Communist Party newspaper, praised the decision to suspend Ant’s share sale, calling it in the best interest of investors.
“Every market participant must respect and revere the rules — no exceptions,” the article said.
Besides Mr. Ma, the meeting on Monday with the regulatory agencies also included Ant’s executive chairman, Eric Jing, and its chief executive, Simon Hu. “Views regarding the health and stability of the financial sector were exchanged,” Ant said in a statement.
In another sign of the continuing scrutiny, the nation’s banking regulator, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, on Monday issued new draft rules for online microfinance businesses. Among them were higher capital requirements for loans and tighter controls on lending across provincial lines.
The Shanghai exchange’s suspension of the Ant I.P.O. appeared to take note of the draft rules, saying that recent changes in the regulatory environment had affected Ant significantly. Bai Chengyu, an executive at the China Association of Microfinance, said the new rules could cause the entire microfinance industry to shrink.
The famously outspoken Mr. Ma did not ingratiate himself with the authorities when he said, in a recent speech in Shanghai, that financial regulators’ excessive focus on containing risk could stifle innovation.
“We cannot manage an airport the way we managed a train station,” he said. “We cannot use yesterday’s methods to manage the future.”
The head of consumer protection at China’s banking regulator, Guo Wuping, slapped back on Monday, calling out two popular features in Alipay by name in a sharply critical article in 21st Century Business Herald, a government-owned newspaper.
Mr. Guo argued that online finance products were not fundamentally different from traditional ones, and that financial technology companies should therefore be regulated in the same way as established institutions.
Huabei, a credit function in Alipay, is no different from a credit card issued by a bank, Mr. Guo wrote. And Jiebei, an Alipay loan feature, is no different from a bank loan. Ant has called Huabei and Jiebei the most widely used consumer credit products in China.
Loose regulation has allowed financial technology companies to charge higher fees than banks, Mr. Guo wrote. This, he said, “has caused some low-income people and young people to fall into debt traps, ultimately harming consumers’ rights and interests and even endangering families and society.”
Ant declined to comment on Mr. Guo’s article.
For years, the Labor Department has made a practice of issuing sternly worded news releases calling out companies deemed by its enforcement staff to have violated the law, including rules governing discrimination, worker safety, the minimum wage and overtime.
But the department’s appetite for using that spotlight appears to have waned.
In a Sept. 24 memo, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, Deputy Secretary Patrick Pizzella instructed the heads of the department’s enforcement agencies that “absent extraordinary circumstances,” the findings of their agencies “generally should not be the basis” for news releases.
Mr. Pizzella argued that such releases tend to linger prominently in search results about companies and can prove misleading if a citation or other enforcement action “is ultimately found to be unjustified.” He instructed officials responsible for enforcing labor and employment laws to generally refrain from issuing releases until after a matter has reached its conclusion — for example, once a court has issued a judgment or an employer has reached a settlement with the department.
Citations are often issued at roughly the same point in the enforcement process that a prosecutor would bring an indictment in a criminal matter.
The memo may be having some effect already. Since its flurry of releases about citations in mid-September, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not issued discrete news releases about particular companies for Covid-related violations, instead providing a weekly summary of proposed penalties with a table listing up to three dozen companies that have recently been cited.
The summaries include little detail about what violations the companies may have committed and no comments from department officials.
News of the memo alarmed some experts in workplace regulation, who see publicizing violations as one of the most cost-effective tools the department has for ensuring compliance with regulations, such as those enforced by OSHA.
“OSHA is a tiny agency, and if it doesn’t amplify the impact of its inspections it will have very little effect on almost every workplace in the United States,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist who headed the agency under President Barack Obama. “The basis of every inspection is to increase deterrence.”
A Labor Department spokeswoman said, “The departmental memo is part of an effort to take a more thoughtful and deliberative approach that informs the public about bad actors while allowing accused labor unions and employers the opportunity to defend themselves.”
She added that the recent, consolidated announcements of Covid-related violations were a response to the rising number of such citations — “to make it easier for the public to see all of the establishments.”
Dr. Michaels, who now teaches at the George Washington University School of Public Health, is credited for increasing the practice of issuing news releases when he was at the department.
In 2009, he helped make it OSHA policy to put out a news release in any case where the agency had proposed a fine of roughly $40,000 or more. At the time, Dr. Michaels said the purpose was to discourage other employers from running afoul of OSHA rules. Borrowing from an academic literature on the subject, he called the approach “regulation by shaming.”
An article by the Duke University economist Matthew S. Johnson, published this year in The American Economic Review, concluded that the policy had largely achieved its goals. Mr. Johnson found that an OSHA news release led to a more than 70 percent reduction in violations at facilities in the same sector within roughly three miles of the company cited, and a 30 percent reduction in violations at facilities within 30 miles.
According to Mr. Johnson’s analysis, the releases created negative publicity in the local press, mobilizing workers at other companies to increase pressure on employers.
To have the same impact as a single news release through inspections alone, Mr. Johnson estimated, OSHA would need to perform more than 200 additional safety inspections.
After President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, it was unclear if his administration would continue the practice. But after Alexander Acosta, Mr. Trump’s first labor secretary, was sworn in that April, the department largely resumed its publicity strategy, albeit with less frequency.
Under the Obama administration, the news releases “tended to be scathing, inflammatory, embarrassing for the company,” said Eric J. Conn, a lawyer who represents employers in OSHA enforcement actions and follows the department’s releases closely. “There was a lot of, ‘This company made employees choose between their lives and a paycheck, that sort of tone.’”
“What was really surprising to us was when the Trump administration started issuing press releases again, they maintained those D.O.L. and OSHA official quotations,” Mr. Conn added. “They were maybe marginally less inflammatory, but they still followed that same pattern.”
That appeared to continue through the pandemic. In the second week of September, the department issued a series of news releases citing employers for Covid-related violations. Among them was a release about a plant owned by the pork producer Smithfield Foods and a separate release about a plant owned by its fellow meatpacking giant JBS, both of which were cited for “failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus.”
“Employers need to take appropriate actions to protect their workers from the coronavirus,” OSHA’s Denver-area director said in the release about JBS.
Arthur G. Sapper, a lawyer at Ogletree Deakins who represents employers in such matters, said such releases undermined the rule of law.
“Employers spend decades and resources, often in the millions of dollars, to ensure their good name, and they treat their customers well, and they believe they treat employees well,” Mr. Sapper said. “But with one press release issued by a prosecution-minded agency without any review by an impartial observer, all that can be destroyed. And it stays destroyed even if the employer is later vindicated.”
Mr. Sapper said that he was aware of several instances in which citations were thrown out but the employer could not undo the damage caused by OSHA’s news releases. Mr. Conn argued that the department could just as easily wait until the cases were fully resolved before issuing a news release and still have a steady flow of enforcement actions to publicize.
But M. Patricia Smith, the Labor Department’s top lawyer under President Obama from 2010 to 2017, said publicizing the findings of enforcement actions was standard practice across government, including at the Justice Department, where prosecutors routinely publicize charges before any trial or settlement.
“Press releases are good compliance tools,” Ms. Smith said. “You want the general public, the regulated public, to know what you’re doing.”
She said it was relatively simple for the department to update a news release on its website if the case status changed.
Dr. Michaels said waiting until the legal process runs its course could take years, as deep-pocketed companies contest and appeal. “It will have no effect if it will occur long after the inspection occurs,” he said.
As far as the law is concerned, there is no reason that Amedeo Rossi can’t reopen his martini bar in downtown Des Moines, or resume shows at his concert venue two doors down. Yet Mr. Rossi’s businesses remain dark, and one has closed for good.
There are no restrictions keeping Denver Foote from carrying on with her work at the salon where she styles hair. But Ms. Foote is picking up only two shifts a week, and is often sent home early because there are so few customers.
No lockdown stood in the way of the city’s Oktoberfest, but the celebration was canceled. “We could have done it, absolutely,” said Mindy Toyne, whose company has produced the event for 17 years. “We just couldn’t fathom a way that we could produce a festival that was safe.”
President Trump and many supporters blame restrictions on business activity, often imposed by Democratic governors and mayors, for prolonging the economic crisis initially caused by the virus. But the experience of states like Iowa shows the economy is far from back to normal even in Republican-led states that have imposed few business restrictions.
A growing body of research has concluded that the steep drop in economic activity last spring was primarily a result of individual decisions by consumers and businesses rather than legal mandates. People stopped going to restaurants even before governors ordered them shut down. Airports emptied out even though there were never significant restrictions on domestic air travel.
States like Iowa that reopened quickly did have an initial pop in employment and sales. But more cautious states have at least partly closed that gap, and have seen faster economic rebounds in recent months by many measures.
Economists say it is hard to estimate exactly how much economic activity is still being restrained by capacity limits, social-distancing rules and similar policies, many of which have been lifted or loosened even in places governed by Democrats. In most states, restaurants, retail stores and even bars are allowed to operate.
Perhaps the most widespread government action that has hindered economic growth is the decision by many school districts to adopt virtual learning at the start of the school year, which appears to have driven many parents, particularly women, out of the labor force to care for young children who would otherwise be in class.
But as the pandemic flares again in much of the country, most economists agree this much is clear: The main thing holding back the economy is not formal restrictions. It is people’s continued fear of the virus itself.
“You can’t just open the economy and expect everything to go back to pre-Covid levels,” said Michael Luca, a Harvard Business School economist who has studied the impact of restrictions during the pandemic. “If a market is not safe, people won’t participate in it.”
Iowa was one of only a handful of states that never imposed a full stay-at-home order. Restaurants, movie theaters, hair salons and bars were allowed to reopen starting in May, earlier than in most states. Gov. Kim Reynolds has emphasized the need to make the economy a priority, and has blocked cities and towns from requiring masks or imposing many other restrictions.
Even so, Iowa has regained just over half of the 186,000 jobs it lost between February and April, and progress — as in the country as a whole — is slowing. Many businesses worry they won’t be able to make it through the winter without more help from Congress. Others have already failed. Now, coronavirus cases are rising there.
Vaudeville Mews, the small performance hall that Mr. Rossi opened in Des Moines in 2002, was a labor of love even in the best of times. The venue attracted a fan base with its willingness to book independent acts, but it often lost money. Mr. Rossi had been saving up in hopes of buying a new space, but the pandemic ended that dream.
Legally, music venues in Iowa were allowed to reopen in June, but with social-distancing requirements that significantly reduced their capacity. Even if those rules were lifted, Mr. Rossi said, he couldn’t see a path toward reopening safely and profitably anytime soon. This month, he announced that Vaudeville Mews would be closing permanently.
“We couldn’t pay our rent, and it was piling up, and we were constantly still getting drained by internet bill, insurance bill, utility bill,” he said. “Who wants to go into huge debt to float a business that we don’t see any end in sight?”
Mr. Rossi’s nearby bar, the Lift, is officially still in business, but aside from a brief experiment with deliveries, it hasn’t served a drink since March. He has considered welcoming a small number of customers on a reservation-only basis, but so far hasn’t figured out how to reopen in a way that would both be safe and not cost him even more than staying closed.
“We felt it would be worse for us to reopen,” he said.
At Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Company, around the corner from Vaudeville Mews and the Lift, the lack of nightlife is taking a toll on business. So is the lack of the normal lunchtime crowd, with many office employees still working from home. Court Avenue reopened in May, but has regained just 30 to 40 percent of its pre-pandemic sales, according to the owner, Scott Carlson.
“Even if the governor said, ‘Hey, we’re taking away all restrictions and all mandates and all recommendations,’ our numbers wouldn’t change, not very dramatically,” he said.
Iowa has outperformed many other states economically during the pandemic, at least by some measures. The unemployment rate capped out at 11 percent in April — below the 14.7 percent hit by the country as a whole — and it has fallen quickly, to 4.7 percent in September.
But economists attribute Iowa’s success primarily to its favorable mix of industries. The state relies more heavily than most on agriculture and manufacturing, which were comparatively insulated from the virus.
Vulnerable industries like tourism, hospitality and retail sales are struggling in Iowa as they are everywhere else. Data compiled by researchers at Harvard and Brown Universities from private sources shows that consumer spending has rebounded more slowly in Iowa than in neighboring states.
“Retailers are still having a tough go of it in Iowa,” said Ernie Goss, a Creighton University economist who studies Iowa and the Midwest. “You’re talking about individuals who regardless of regulations are not going back in a restaurant right now.”
Mike Draper owns a chain of T-shirt shops with three stores in Iowa and others in Omaha, Chicago and Kansas City, Mo. Customer traffic is down 30 to 50 percent in all of them, he said, with no consistent patterns based on the rules local governments have imposed.
“It has almost nothing to do with regulations,” Mr. Draper said. “It’s really driven by people’s mentality more than regulations.”
There is little doubt that restrictions are restraining some economic activity, particularly in parts of the country that have strictly limited restaurant capacity and indoor gatherings. Local business owners say that restaurants are noticeably busier in Davenport, Iowa, than across the Mississippi River in Moline, Ill., where rules on mask-wearing and social distancing are stricter and more consistently enforced, although business is not back to normal on either side of the river.
But greater activity can also come with a cost, to both public health and the economy. When college campuses in Iowa reopened in August, students packed into bars and nightclubs — and coronavirus cases quickly began to rise. Governor Reynolds shut down bars in several college towns for more than a month.
For some workers, Iowa’s situation is the worst of both worlds: They are back at work, putting them at risk of contracting the virus, but don’t have enough customers to make a living.
Ms. Foote, 24, had worked at the beauty salon for just a few weeks when it shut down because of the pandemic. The job was the fulfillment of a longstanding dream — after years of juggling school and low-wage jobs, she was finally working full time and on track to get benefits.
Even so, when the salon reopened in the spring, she was scared to return to work. And once she did go back, there was little work for her.
“I just kind of sit around and don’t do anything,” she said. “People are scared to go into the salon and sit for an hour.”
Ms. Foote said she was taking home just $200 for each two-week pay period, meaning she again needs to supplement her income with part-time jobs. But she isn’t sure she should be rooting for business to pick up.
“I don’t see how me going to the salon more often and exposing myself is going to make things better,” she said. “I don’t think that’s safe, personally.”
For decades, America’s antitrust laws — originally designed to curb the power of 19th-century corporate giants in railroads, oil and steel — have been hailed as “the Magna Carta of free enterprise” and have proved remarkably durable and adaptable.
But even as the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Google on Tuesday for unlawfully maintaining a monopoly in search and search advertising, a growing number of legal experts and economists have started questioning whether traditional antitrust is up to the task of addressing the competitive concerns raised by today’s digital behemoths. Further help, they said, is needed.
Antitrust cases typically proceed at the stately pace of the courts, with trials and appeals that can drag on for years. Those delays, the legal experts and economists said, would give Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple a free hand to become even more entrenched in the markets they dominate.
A more rapid-response approach is required, they said. One solution: a specialist regulator that would focus on the major tech companies. It would establish and enforce a set of basic rules of conduct, which would include not allowing the companies to favor their own services, exclude competitors or acquire emerging rivals and require them to permit competitors access to their platforms and data on reasonable terms.
The British government has already said it would create a digital markets unit, with calls for a Big Tech regulator to also be introduced in the European Union and in Australia. In the United States, recommendations for a digital markets regulator have also been made in expert reports and in congressional testimony. It could be a separate agency or perhaps a digital division inside the Federal Trade Commission.
Significantly, the leading proponents of this path in the United States are mainstream antitrust experts and economists rather than break-’em-up firebrands. Jason Furman, a professor at Harvard University and chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, led an advisory group to the British government that recommended the creation of a digital markets unit in 2019.
Breaking up the big tech companies, Mr. Furman said, is a bad idea because that would risk losing some of the consumer benefits these digital utilities undeniably deliver. A regulator is necessary to police digital markets and the behavior of the tech giants, he said.
“I’m a small ‘c’ conservative, and I’m not a fan of regulation generally,” Mr. Furman said. “But it’s needed in this space.”
Regulators that focus on specific sectors of the economy are common in the United States. For financial markets, there is the Securities and Exchange Commission; for airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration; for pharmaceuticals, the Food and Drug Administration; for telecommunications, the Federal Communications Commission; and so on.
There is also precedent for picking out a handful of big companies for special treatment. In banking, the biggest banks with the most customers and loans are classified as “systemically important financial institutions” and subject to more stringent scrutiny.
Several supporters of a new tech regulator were officials in the Obama administration, which was known for being friendly to Silicon Valley. But the advocates said that experience — as well as the conservative, pro-big business drift of court rulings in recent years — left them frustrated with antitrust law as the only way to restrain the growing market power and conduct of the big tech companies.
“The mechanism of antitrust is not working to protect competition,” said Fiona Scott Morton, an official in the Justice Department’s antitrust division in the Obama administration, who is an economist at the Yale University School of Management. “So let’s do something else — use a different tool.”
Ms. Scott Morton led an expert panel on antitrust in a report last year on digital platforms by the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The report recommended the creation of a regulatory authority. (Ms. Scott Morton has been a forceful critic of Google, but also a consultant to Apple and Amazon.)
Such a regulatory approach carries the risk of government’s meddling in a fast-moving industry that could hobble innovation, some antitrust experts warned. While antitrust law reacts to alleged anticompetitive behavior and can thus be slow, that shortcoming is preferable to prescriptive government rules and regulations, they said.
“I’m very uncomfortable with the regulatory path, especially if it means things like getting government approval for product changes,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “The history of regulation shows that it is an innovation killer.”
A. Douglas Melamed, a former general counsel of Intel and a former antitrust official in the Justice Department, shared that concern. But Mr. Melamed, a member of the expert panel for the Stigler Center report, said the tech giants did pose a competition problem.
“I think regulation might make sense if it is narrowly focused, not running the industry,” said Mr. Melamed, who is a professor at Stanford Law School.
The last major antitrust action against a big technology company was the landmark Microsoft case in the 1990s. The case began with a suit filed in 1994 by the Federal Trade Commission and a simultaneous consent decree.
The Justice Department and several states later picked up the pursuit, investigated anew, filed suit and conducted an exhaustive trial. Microsoft was found to have repeatedly violated the nation’s antitrust laws, and the company then reached a settlement with the government, which a federal court approved in 2002.
In the Microsoft case, the antitrust legal process worked, in its way. Yet its impact is still debated. Without the suit and years of scrutiny, some observers said, Microsoft could have throttled the rise of Google.
But others said the technological shift toward the internet and away from the personal computer meant that Microsoft had lost the gatekeeper power it once held. Technology, not antitrust, they insisted, opened the door to competition.
Triumph or not, the Microsoft case was two decades ago. Proponents of a new regulator said antitrust law was ill suited by itself to restraining today’s faster-moving digital giants. In the internet economy, they said, the forces that reinforce and expand the power of a market leader — called network effects — are stronger and more rapid than in the personal computer era.
“Antitrust is not a fully adequate tool to deal with the companies that dominate these markets,” said Gene Kimmelman, who was on the Stigler Center panel and a co-author of a recent report by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard that called for the creation of a “digital platform agency” in America.
Another argument for the regulatory option is that competition concerns now span four companies, not just one. Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google are in different markets, including search, online advertising, e-commerce and social networks. Bringing separate antitrust cases against them would most likely be beyond the resources of the government.
“When the competition issues are larger than a single firm, regulation might be the better tool to use,” said Andrew I. Gavil, a law professor at Howard University.
When the pandemic hit in March, a JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., began providing paid leave to workers at high risk of serious illness.
But last month, shortly after the plant was cited by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a serious virus-related safety violation and given two initial penalties totaling about $15,500, it brought the high-risk employees back to work.
“Now the company knows where the ceiling is,” said Kim Cordova, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union local that represents the workers, about half a dozen of whom have died of Covid-19. “If other workers die, it’s not going to cost them that much.”
JBS USA said the return of the vulnerable workers in late September had nothing to do with the citation. “It was in response to the low number of Covid-19 cases at the facility for a sustained period of time,” a spokesman said, noting that the company began informing workers of the return in late July.
The JBS case reflects a skew in OSHA’s Covid-related citations, most of which it has announced since September: While the agency has announced initial penalties totaling over $1 million to dozens of health care facilities and nursing homes, it has announced fines for only two meatpacking plants for a total of less than $30,000. JBS and the owner of the second plant, Smithfield Foods, combined to take in tens of billions of dollars worldwide last year.
The meat industry has gotten the relatively light touch even as the virus has infected thousands of its workers — including more than 1,500 at the two facilities in question — and dozens have died.
“The number of plants with outbreaks was enormous around the country,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist who headed the agency in the Obama administration and now teaches at the George Washington University School of Public Health. “But most OSHA offices haven’t yet issued any citations.”
The disparity in the way OSHA has treated health care and meatpacking is no accident. In April, the agency announced that it would largely avoid inspecting workplaces in person outside a small number of industries deemed most susceptible to coronavirus outbreaks, like health care, nursing homes and emergency response.
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Experts concede that with limited resources for inspections, OSHA, part of the Labor Department, must set priorities according to risk. Some, like Dr. Michaels, argue that this makes it more important to issue a rule instructing employers on the steps they must take to keep workers safe. But the agency chose instead to issue a set of recommendations, like six feet of distance between workers on a meat-processing line.
A Labor Department spokeswoman said OSHA already had more general rules that “apply to protecting workers from the coronavirus.”
Around the time of the recommendations, President Trump signed an executive order declaring meatpacking plants “critical infrastructure” to help ensure that they remained open during the pandemic.
Some union officials representing health care workers praise OSHA for its enforcement work. “Given the times we live in, frankly I am thrilled that we’ve gotten OSHA to issue so many citations,” said Debbie White, president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, which represents about 14,000 nurses and other health workers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“We see improved health and safety in the workplace because of those citations,” she said. “That’s a win for us.”
But when it comes to meatpacking, many union officials and safety experts said there had largely been a regulatory vacuum, one they worry will lead to another round of outbreaks as cases spike again this fall.
“We’re worried that we’re going to see what happened happen again,” Ms. Cordova of the Colorado local said.
OSHA’s oversight of the meatpacking industry has been in the spotlight in a case filed by workers at a Maid-Rite plant in Dunmore, Pa., accusing the agency of lax regulation.
The suit contended that OSHA had done little for weeks after a worker filed a complaint in April describing insufficient precautions amid an outbreak at the plant, and after other workers filed a complaint in May asserting that they faced “imminent danger” because of the risk of infection there.
When OSHA finds that conditions pose an “imminent danger” to workers, it typically intervenes quickly and asks the employer to mitigate the risk. But in a hearing before a federal judge in late July, a local OSHA official testified that she did not consider the term to be appropriate in the Maid-Rite case.
The official said that because OSHA’s central office had designated all meatpacking facilities to be “medium risk,” the agency would not rush to conduct a formal inspection absent some “outlying” issue. The OSHA area director said that of nearly 300 Covid-related complaints his office had received at the time, it had not deemed any an imminent danger.
The agency inspected the Maid-Rite plant on July 9, months after the initial complaint, finding that many workers were spaced two to three feet apart with no barriers separating them. A Labor Department lawyer said at the hearing that OSHA was still studying the feasibility of requiring the company to space them farther apart.
A Maid-Rite spokeswoman said the company was following guidelines suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “as we have been since they were released.”
OSHA has also been accused by union officials and even company executives of having been slow to visit the two meatpacking facilities that it has cited so far.
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Ms. Cordova sent the agency a letter on March 23 asking it to conduct a spot check of the JBS plant and several other workplaces that her union represents. In response, she said, a local OSHA official told her that his office did not have capacity for inspections.
The agency eventually visited the 3,000-worker plant on May 14, after the plant had closed amid an outbreak and then reopened, and several workers had died.
At Smithfield, whose plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., was the other one cited by OSHA, even the company professed frustration over the agency’s inspection constraints.
Keira Lombardo, a Smithfield executive vice president, said in a statement that the company had “repeatedly urged OSHA to commit the time and resources to visit our operations in March and April,” adding, “They did not do so.”
The Labor Department spokeswoman said the agency had six months to complete an investigation under the law.
B.J. Motley, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers local representing workers at the plant, said an OSHA inspection there in mid-May had been thorough, including several dozen interviews. But he said that the company had taken too long to add safety features, and that the penalty was insufficient.
According to Ms. Cordova and Mr. Motley, both plants have provided protective equipment like masks since the spring, but workers often still stand within a few feet of one another.
JBS and Smithfield said they were contesting their citations because the violations applied to conditions at their plants before OSHA had issued guidance. “It attempts to impose a standard that did not exist in March,” the JBS spokesman said.
The companies do not have to take the steps the agency recommended, such as distancing, while they contest the citations, but said their current standards largely exceeded OSHA’s guidance. Both companies said that they had installed barriers between many workers, taken air-purification measures and started virus screening and testing programs. They said that many of the safety measures were in place by late April, and that the rates of infection among their workers were low today.
The Labor Department has defended the penalties for JBS and Smithfield as the maximum allowed under the law for a single serious violation. While OSHA could have cited each plant for multiple instances of the same safety lapses, John L. Henshaw, who served as head of OSHA under President George W. Bush, said this practice was supposed to be reserved for employers who willfully failed to protect workers.
“Either the inspector or the area director or the solicitor’s office — somebody sort of looked at all the evidence and saw what maybe the company was trying to do and did, even though it wasn’t successful,” Mr. Henshaw said.
But Ann Rosenthal, who retired in 2018 as the Labor Department’s top OSHA lawyer after working under administrations of both parties, said the agency could have cited each facility for multiple violations — for different portions of the plant where there were hazards.
“They could well have said that hazards exist on the first floor, the second floor, etc., and could have gotten the penalty over $100,000,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “At least it would have looked like an effort to start to be serious.”
Other experts said the agency could fall further behind in protecting meatpacking workers in the coming months, pointing not just to rising infection rates nationally but to recent changes in the way OSHA regulates employers.
Dr. Michaels, the former OSHA head, cited the agency’s recent reinterpretation of an Obama-era rule that had required employers to report any hospitalization or amputation that resulted from a workplace incident.
Under the new interpretation, outlined last month, an employer is no longer required to report a Covid-related hospitalization within 24 hours of learning about it. Instead, the employer must report only hospitalizations that occur within 24 hours of the worker’s exposure to the virus on the job — timing that may be impossible to determine.
The spokeswoman for the Labor Department said that after initially considering the more expansive interpretation, it had concluded that only the narrower interpretation could be defended in court.
Dr. Michaels said that the regulation was critical for highlighting hot spots and problem areas, and that its weakening was deeply concerning.
“It’s a way to guarantee you have no reports,” he said of the change. “They’re telling employers: ‘Don’t worry. We’re not going to make you do anything.’”