The S.E.C. head is considering banning a key way Robinhood makes money.

Daily Business Briefing

Aug. 31, 2021, 6:19 p.m. ET

Aug. 31, 2021, 6:19 p.m. ET

Gary Gensler, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He called a key way that free brokerages make money “an inherent conflict of interest.”
Credit…Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Gary Gensler, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, said on Monday that a ban was “on the table” for a practice that underpins some of the most popular free stock-trading apps.

Mr. Gensler told Barron’s in an interview that he would consider banning “payment for order flow” — the practice in which large trading operations pay to execute trades for clients of retail brokerage firms, such as Robinhood.

The arrangement is central to the way Robinhood and some of its competitors, including E-Trade and Charles Schwab, have organized their businesses to offer commission-free trades — a crucial factor in the rush of millions of everyday people into the stock market.

The big trading operations, including Citadel Securities and Virtu Financial, that execute the orders make tiny profits on such trades, and the enormous user base of commission-free brokerage firms means those tiny profits can quickly add up.

Mr. Gensler told Barron’s that the practice has “an inherent conflict of interest” because the firms that execute the trades can benefit from that information.

“They get the data, they get the first look, they get to match off buyers and sellers out of that order flow,” he said.

Over the past several months, Mr. Gensler has made a series of statements saying he was closely examining the practice and was open to a wide range of regulatory options. He ordered the agency to look into the matter shortly after he was confirmed; the review is still ongoing.

Robinhood pointed to comments its chief financial officer, Jason Warnick, made as the company prepared for its initial public offering this year. “We think payment for order flow is a better deal for our customers versus the old commission structure,” he said at the time. In a call with investors earlier this month to discuss quarterly earnings, Robinhood officials said that they did not anticipate an outright ban of payment for order flow, but their sources of revenue were diverse and could easily withstand such a move.

Citadel had no immediate comment. Virtu declined to comment.

Consumer advocates and others have criticized the practice, complaining that it can give the large trading operations an advantage.

Banning it would be a welcome development, said David Lauer, the chief executive of the data analytics firm and a former high-frequency stock trader.

“It is an intractable conflict of interest,” he said. “The brokers cannot get around it.”

But, he said, ending the practice wouldn’t necessarily spell the end of free stock trades: Firms such as Fidelity already offer free trading without employing the payment-for-order-flow system.

Robinhood’s shares finished the day down nearly 7 percent. Shares of Virtu Financial also moved lower after Mr. Gensler’s comments were published, finishing the day down almost 4 percent.

Matthew Goldstein, Kate Kelly and Tara Siegel Bernard contributed reporting.

Lina M. Khan, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, replied to an inquiry from Brian Deese, the head of the National Economic Council.
Credit…Pool photo by Graeme Jennings

The chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina M. Khan, said the agency would try to reduce prices at the pump by seeking more ways to crack down on mergers in the retail gasoline industry.

In a letter to the head of President Biden’s National Economic Council, Brian Deese, dated last week and obtained by The New York Times, Ms. Khan said she was concerned that “the commission’s approach to merger review in recent years has enabled significant consolidation, particularly when it comes to retail fuel outlets.” She added that approach might be “creating conditions ripe for price coordination and other collusive practices” by gasoline vendors nationwide.

The crackdown comes amid rising oil and gasoline prices as the economy reopens and demand for fuel jumps.

Ms. Khan is one of several antitrust crusaders whom Mr. Biden has appointed to top federal jobs as he seeks to install aggressive policies meant to promote competition in the economy. She was responding in her letter to an inquiry this month from Mr. Deese, who asked the F.T.C. to “consider using all of its available tools to monitor the U.S. gasoline market and address any illegal conduct that might be contributing to price increases for consumers.”

Ms. Khan said the commission would increase its enforcement efforts in three ways:

  • She will ask F.T.C. staff to “identify additional legal theories to challenge retail fuel station mergers where dominant players are buying up family-run businesses,” a move taking aim at national chains.

  • She said the commission was already taking new steps to deter proposals of illegal mergers.

  • She said the commission would investigate potential abuses in the franchise market, including whether national chains are able to force franchisees to sell gasoline at higher prices, “benefiting the chain at the expense of the franchisee’s convenience store operations.”

  • U.S. stocks pushed higher into record territory on Monday. The S&P 500 rose 0.4 percent, while the Nasdaq composite finished 0.9 percent higher.

  • Oil prices were volatile as investors responded to Hurricane Ida, which led to a shutdown of more than 90 percent of production in the Gulf of Mexico, making this storm the first of the year to significantly disrupt those industries. Futures for West Texas Intermediate crude, the United States benchmark, were up 0.5 percent to $69.06 a barrel.

  • European stock indexes fluctuated, with the Stoxx Europe 600 flat on Monday.

  • Shares of Affirm were more than 46 percent higher after the buy now, pay later payment provider announced on Friday it had reached a deal with Amazon, allowing customers to pay for their purchases in installments. Amazon was up 2.2 percent.

A nurse administering the AstraZeneca vaccine to a patient in Sydney, Australia.
Credit…Loren Elliott/Reuters

AstraZeneca has mandated that its U.S.-based employees be vaccinated against the coronavirus if they are returning to the workplace or visiting customers, the company confirmed on Monday.

The drug maker, which has headquarters in Cambridge, England, said the requirement also applied to employees of its Alexion Pharmaceuticals subsidiary, which is based in Boston. Workers can request exemptions for medical, religious or other reasons but will be required to take weekly coronavirus tests.

“To safeguard the health and well-being of our employees and communities, we must follow the science,” an AstraZeneca spokesman said in a statement.

AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine has been authorized for use in 87 countries, according to the company’s website, and 913 million doses have been shipped. The vaccine has not been authorized for use in the United States.

Johnson & Johnson, which offers a single-shot vaccine that is authorized for use in the United States, also has a vaccine mandate for its U.S.-based employees and on-site contractors, effective Oct. 4. Those with medical conditions or other reasons to not be vaccinated will be able to seek accommodations, said the company, which is based in New Brunswick, N.J.

“The data shows getting vaccinated is critical to helping end the pandemic,” a Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman said in a statement.

Pfizer, an American competitor based in New York, is requiring all of its U.S. employees and contractors to be vaccinated or participate in weekly Covid-19 testing. Moderna, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Coral Murphy Marcos contributed reporting.

Gas pumps at a station in Gulf Hills, Miss., on Friday as residents prepared for Hurricane Ida.
Credit…Hannah Ruhoff/The Sun Herald, via Associated Press

Energy markets swirled on Monday as investors responded to the immediate disruption of Hurricane Ida while also trying to gauge the economic toll of rising hospitalizations in the United States caused by the coronavirus.

Gasoline futures were 2 percent higher, after climbing more than 4 percent when trading started. West Texas Intermediate oil, the United States benchmark, also jumped at first, but then dropped into negative territory and was 0.8 percent lower Monday morning.

Before Hurricane Ida stormed ashore in Louisiana on Sunday, oil and gas companies shut down more than 90 percent of production in the Gulf of Mexico, making this storm the first of the year to significantly disrupt those industries.

Workers were evacuated from nearly half of the area’s staffed production platforms, federal officials said on Saturday. BP, Chevron, Phillips and Shell were among the companies that closed facilities.

The disruption could affect gasoline prices throughout the region ahead of Labor Day, traditionally one of the year’s high-demand peaks.

“It’s a little speculative to say yet what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be an event,” said Tom Kloza, the global head of energy analysis at Oil Price Information Service. “This could lead to a mini-price spike.”

Analysts at ING said the timing of oil industry’s recovery from the storm could affect prices.

“The big question is, which will make a quicker return — offshore oil production or refining capacity?” the analysts said in a note. “If it is the former, we could start to see a buildup of crude oil inventories,” which could weigh on prices.

Oil prices have slowly recovered from their pandemic depths as economies around the globe reopen from lockdowns and energy demand climbs. But the rise in coronavirus cases caused by the highly contagious Delta variant has threatened an already shaky revival, and the shutdown of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico could further hamper recovery.

The daily average for hospitalized Covid-19 patients in the United States is now more than 100,000, reaching a level not seen since last winter, before most Americans were vaccinated. The European Union is expected on Monday to recommend that member states reimpose travel restrictions on Americans wishing to travel to Europe.

Power companies in southern Louisiana are bracing for significant outages. Cleco and Entergy, two major providers in the New Orleans metro area, said they anticipated widespread flooding and had called up thousands of additional workers and contractors. Entergy warned that customers in the hardest-hit areas “could experience power outages for weeks.”

Entergy’s new New Orleans plant, while under construction next to an older, decommissioned plant, in 2019. 
Credit…William Widmer for The New York Times

The widespread loss of power in New Orleans wasn’t supposed to happen again.

Entergy, the power company serving the city, campaigned to build a new natural gas-fueled power plant in the city, arguing that it was needed for just this kind of situation, when the transmission system that normally supplies the city with power generated elsewhere can’t do the job.

Over protests from numerous community groups and city leaders, Entergy got its way, and the plant was built just south of Interstate 10 and Lake Pontchartrain, bordering predominantly African American and Vietnamese American neighborhoods. It went into operation last year, running mainly at times of peak demand.

But when Hurricane Ida knocked out the transmission lines on Sunday, the plant did not save the day for the city. Power was out almost everywhere on Monday, with little prospect of a swift return. And many residents are unhappy.

“The gas plant was built over our objections,” said Monique Harden, assistant director for public policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, one of the leading organizations fighting the gas plant. “No resident was in support of it. Nonetheless, Entergy with the City Council teamed together and got the gas plant.”

Susan Guidry, a former council member, argued at the time that Entergy should have focused instead on renewable energy technologies like solar power and battery storage to help keep the lights on in New Orleans after a hurricane. But while the utility did build some of that, the gas plant became the focus of its plans.

“If anything happened to the transmission, this gas plant was supposed to supply power to the City of New Orleans,” Ms. Harden said. “This is going to require some investigation.”

Ms. Harden’s organization and others argued for microgrids and other resources that could operate even if the traditional electric grid was knocked out of service. Some residents and businesses have their own solar installations and batteries, or are connected to such sources through microgrids, but customers who are connected only to the traditional power grid do not.

Entergy has warned that it may take its crews days just to assess the damage to its system, and much longer than that to complete repairs.

“It’s getting more and more desperate,” Ms. Harden said. “Our lives are now in the hands of this company.”

Entergy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Recruits from the Essex County Police Academy help load boxes of free food into waiting cars during an emergency food distribution event in Newark, New Jersey.
Credit…Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

New Jersey will end special unemployment benefits put in place during the pandemic when they expire on Saturday, rather than using federal relief funds to extend them, the state’s governor announced on Monday.

The governor, Phil Murphy, said at a news conference that he had decided to let three federal assistance programs expire because it would cost the state millions of dollars to preserve them. At least 500,000 people will lose benefits. The programs set to expire are Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

President Biden had suggested earlier this month that states like New Jersey, which has an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, could use federal Covid-19 relief funds to extend benefits beyond Sept. 4.

New Jersey received $6.2 billion from the American Rescue Plan, but Mr. Murphy said it would cost the state’s taxpayers $314 million a week to maintain the benefits. “In other words, we’re talking about well more than $1 billion per month to maintain this benefit at its current level,” he said during the news conference.

Mr. Murphy said that since the start of the pandemic last year, the state has spent $33.7 billion in various kinds of assistance funds to about 1.6 million people. As the federal benefits come to an end, Mr. Murphy said the state will use Covid relief funds to fund other programs, including those that provide people help with rent, food and child care.

“We must ensure that we are appropriating these funds judiciously for the greatest possible long term recovery,” he said.

In neighboring New York State, a host of pandemic-related unemployment benefits were also scheduled to expire in the coming days, even though its economic driver, New York City, has one of the highest unemployment rates among large cities in the country.

The benefits about to stop in New York include a $300 per week federal supplement, which has been paid on top of state unemployment benefits. Also expiring soon are unemployment payments for self-employed workers and contractors, who would not normally qualify for assistance.

More than 4.7 million New Yorkers have received unemployment benefits totaling more than $97 billion in the pandemic, the state said.

Most parts of New York State have an unemployment rate near the national average, around 5.4 percent. But the lagging economy in New York City has driven the overall state rate up to 7.6 percent, the second highest in the country. In the city, the unemployment rate is 10.5 percent.

Matthew Haag contributed reporting.

The Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes faces allegations that she defrauded investors, doctors and patients.
Credit…Kate Munsch/Reuters
  • Consumer confidence: The Conference Board is set to report its consumer confidence index for August. Consumer’s optimism could ebb after mostly unchanged results from the month before as the Delta variant continued to spread in August. Another measure of consumer attitudes, the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index, showed a sharp decline in August.

  • Elizabeth Holmes jury selection: Jury selection begins for the trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of the blood-testing start up Theranos, which will be held in San Jose, Calif. Ms. Holmes, who could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted, has pleaded not guilty to allegations that she defrauded investors, doctors and patients.

  • OPEC+ meeting: The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies are expected to meet after the cartel agreed in July to increase production by 400,000 barrels a day each month beginning in August. Analysts expect the coalition to ratify that schedule amid concerns that the Delta variant could threaten the global economic recovery.

  • Campbell earnings: The maker of Campbell’s Soup, Prego pasta sauce and Swanson broth is set to report its financial performance for the quarter ending Aug. 1. Will inflationary pressures and increasing supply chain bottlenecks affect the company’s bottom line?

  • Jobs report: The Labor Department is expected to release its monthly jobs report for August after reporting the biggest monthly gain in hiring in nearly a year for July. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect to see an increase of 750,000 positions, but they’ll be looking to see if the rapid pace of hiring remains or if the sustained outbreak of the Delta variant hampered industries trying to regain their footing.

Facebook introduced a service this month called Workrooms, a virtual meeting room.
Credit…Facebook/Via Reuters

Facebook’s virtual reality service Horizon Workrooms, announced this month, will allow users to don a virtual reality headset, create an avatar and sit among colleagues in computer-generated corporate settings.

It’s not the only company betting on enterprise VR. You can host virtual fireside chats (using Roomkey), navigate through a gamified office space (on Gather), or put on an entire virtual expo event (on MootUp).

The research firm ARtillery Intelligence expects the sector to be worth about $4 billion in 2023. But not all experts are convinced that meetings in the “metaverse” will catch on quickly, according to the DealBook newsletter. Here are three reasons they gave:

  • Content is king, even in virtual reality. Florian Couret, the head of the immersive lab at the property broker BNP Paribas Real Estate, used VR headsets to hold some meetings with colleagues across five European countries last year. But the experiment petered out. “You can have the best tools in the world to meet in virtual reality, but if the content is not interesting, nobody cares,” he said.

  • Employee resistance will be a major obstacle, said Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Gamers might already be living in the metaverse, but workers are creatures of habit, he said. Virtual reality may be too “far afield from our regular forms of interaction” to make it into the workplace anytime soon, Mr. West said.

  • Better broadband infrastructure is needed. “Connectivity is actually still a big challenge,” Mr. West said. If companies want realistic virtual office spaces, they, and tech companies, are going to have to invest a lot more money in infrastructure, he added.

Despite the hurdles, some industries are already embracing the technology. Alexandros Sigaras, an assistant professor of research at Weill Cornell Medicine, said mixed-reality headsets were piloted in I.C.U.s during the pandemic to bring additional expertise into the room without risking exposure to the virus. He regularly hosts meetings in VR and believes there’s potential for the technology in all types of workplaces.

Gary Gensler, the chair of the Securities Exchange Commission, has made stricter regulation of SPACs a priority.
Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

When 49 major national law firms that often compete with one another banded together on Friday to condemn lawsuits targeting special-purpose acquisition companies, the financial world took notice, the DealBook newsletter reports.

The financial vehicles known as SPACs have recently come under attack in prominent shareholder suits that challenge their fundamental structure, starting with an action against the $4 billion blank-check firm run by the billionaire investor William Ackman, which forced him to rethink his approach.

While SPACs seek a merger target, they park their funds in short-term investments like Treasury bills. The lawsuits say these financial vehicles aren’t operating companies but investment funds, so they should be subject to the stricter oversight of the Investment Act of 1940 (which would dampen the freewheeling SPAC market).

Two prominent securities law professors, John Morley of Yale and Robert Jackson, a former commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission who is now at New York University, were behind the suits. After suing Mr. Ackman, the professors sued two other SPACs.

Kirkland & Ellis, one of the top legal advisers to SPACs, helped to organize other firms to issue the statement, which said the lawsuits were “without factual or legal basis.” Some who signed on, like Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, have comparatively little involvement with SPACs. They are protesting on principle, organizers said.

“The market has already driven some reform,” said Christian Nagler of Kirkland & Ellis. “Otherwise, it should be done by proposing rules and laws, not by lawsuits.”

The firms also wanted to push back against attention drawn to the suits by the reputations of Mr. Morley and Mr. Jackson. “We really needed something powerful to take away that P.R. narrative,” said Joel Rubinstein of White & Case.

Of course, the law firms defending SPACs are protecting millions of dollars in legal fees, as well as principles. As for the motivations of Mr. Morley and Mr. Jackson in bringing these cases? The professors declined to comment, citing active litigation.

The S.E.C. has reviewed more than 1,000 SPAC I.P.O.s over two decades and never made a demand that the vehicles be registered under the Investment Company Act of 1940, the law firms’ letter noted.

That said, SPACs were “a sleepy backwater for 18 years and a boomtown for the last 18 months,” said William Birdthistle, an Investment Act specialist at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. Just because the S.E.C. did things one way before doesn’t mean it will continue to do so, especially under the tough-talking leadership of Gary Gensler.

The S.E.C. could opt to file briefs in the lawsuits, though that would only fuel more rumors about what is driving the litigation. The S.E.C. did not respond to a request for comment.

Credit…Thomas Fuchs

New mobile money apps are promoting themselves as part of the solution to a stubborn problem: a lack of financial savvy, particularly among young Americans.

The apps offer slick educational videos and tools while enabling children and teenagers to save and spend and even invest in stocks, Ann Carrns writes for The New York Times. And they’ve caught the attention of researchers and financial advisers who say the tools may help engage and enlighten young users, even as they worry that the apps, without close parental involvement, may encourage bad financial behavior.

Numerous reports have noted that financial literacy in the United States has resisted improvement for some time, even though more states have begun requiring schools to teach it.

Financial technology, or “fintech,” start-ups see the apps as a way to sign up customers early by offering personal finance instruction along with spending and saving tools.

Here are some notable apps:

  • Copper bills itself as “the only bank that teaches teens about money,” and offers brief, peppy videos and a financial literacy quiz that teenagers or their parents can take.

  • Step, an app for teenagers, offers a secured credit card, which can be used to make a deposit that serves as collateral; users can spend up to the amount of the deposit, and build credit when using it.

  • Greenlight began as a tool to help parents manage children’s chores and pay them an allowance. It has added features including cash back on its debit card, and an option that lets children invest through a brokerage account opened in a parent’s name.

Amazon and Affirm are testing a monthly payment option that will be open to more customers in the coming months, Affirm said on Friday.
Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Amazon customers will soon have another payment option at checkout.

Affirm, a so-called buy now, pay later payment provider that allows customers to pay for their purchases in installments, said on Friday that it had reached a deal with the online retail giant.

Affirm said Amazon customers would be able to use its service on purchases of $50 or more — including items like furniture, home goods, electronics and fashion — and pay in monthly installments. Once approved, customers will be able to see the total purchase price upfront — and they won’t be charged any late or hidden fees, the company said.

The service is being tested with select customers now, Affirm said, and will become more broadly available to shoppers in the coming months. Certain purchases, including those from Whole Foods Market, Amazon Fresh and certain digital purchases like movies and books, will not be eligible, according to Affirm.

“Amazon is always looking to add flexible payment options,” an Amazon spokeswoman said, “and Affirm does just that by offering transparent pay-over-time solutions that customers can choose based on their needs.”

Buy now, pay later services have become an increasingly popular option among consumers. And the partnership follows another giant deal last month: Square, the payments firm run by the Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, agreed to acquire Afterpay for $29 billion. That deal will open the installment option to millions of small business that process their credit card transactions through Square’s app.

Affirm — whose shares rocketed more than 30 percent in after-hours trading — has already become partners with 12,000 merchants, including Walmart and Peloton. Peloton accounted for 30 percent of the company’s total revenues in the first fiscal quarter of 2021, according to an August research report from FT Partners, an investment banking firm focused on financial technology. That was up from 14 percent in the same quarter a year earlier.

Amazon’s partnership with Affirm is its first with a buy now, pay later provider in the United States; it works with Zip in Australia, where these options are already more established. Amazon had already provided monthly payment plan options on its own for select customers buying certain products. It also offered installment programs for customers with the Store Card, the Amazon Rewards Visa Card, and eligible Citi credit card members.

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