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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

What a difference a month makes.

Then: The nation's largest companies were on top of the world — buying back stock, watching their share prices flirt with all-time highs and hiring in droves.

Now: Corporate America is prepping for what could be a very lengthy and severe recession.

The big picture: The never-before-considered scenario of revenues coming to an absolute standstill is now a reality for a slew of companies from a cross-section of industries. And it's threatening millions of jobs.

  • Companies are going to lengths to preserve the cash they have — and seeking ways to raise more.
  • They're fortressing their balance sheets and, in some cases, looking to federal bailouts.

Flashback: The S&P 500 hit an all-time high on Feb. 19 — an indication that investors were confident in the state of the economy even as the coronavirus outbreak worsened around the world. (The bond market was less confident.)

  • Now stock prices are plummeting, amid one of the worst bouts of volatility in stock market history.
  • The S&P 500 closed down more than 5% today — nearly 30% below that all-time high.
  • J.P. Morgan estimated today annualized Q1 GDP growth would fall to -4.0%, and -14% in Q2.

Driving the news: A stimulus proposal from the White House on Wednesday suggests that many suffering companies could get help from Congress, though it could come with some strings attached.

  • That's already leading to bad P.R., with citizen watchdogs asking why these now ailing industries spent so much money on stock buybacks in recent years. But even the most prolific forecasters couldn't see this coming.
  • "The setup going into the last 30 days took 10 years to develop," Nicholas Colas, co-founder of DataTrek Research and a long-time market research analyst, tells Axios, referring to how companies positioned themselves (or didn't) for a crisis.

What's going on: A wave of companies —including airlines and banks— are putting share repurchase and capital expenditure programs on hold. They're letting go of workers, or asking for government help so they can making payroll.

  • Boeing, Hilton, SeaWorld Kraft Heinz, and beer giant AB Inbev are among the companies that have tapped billion-dollar credit lines in recent days.
  • Others, including Coca-Cola, Verizon, and ExxonMobil, issued debt on Tuesday to raise a total of $25 billion in cash, as the Financial Times reports.

The bottom line: Preparing for an economic slowdown is one thing. Preparing for a never-before-seen halt in economic activity is another.

Go deeper

Cuomo asks New York AG and chief judge to choose "independent" investigator into sexual harassment claims

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at a press conference on Feb. 24. Photo: Seth Wenig/pool/AFP via Getty Images

A special counselor to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement on Sunday asking the state's attorney general and chief judge to jointly pick an "independent and qualified lawyer in private practice without political affiliation" to investigate claims of sexual harassment against the governor.

The state of play: The statement is an about-face from Cuomo, who had previously selected a former judge close to a top aide to lead the investigation, the New York Times reported, a move that was widely criticized.

Republican Sen. Sasse slams Nebraska GOP for "weird worship" of Trump after state party rebuke

Sen. Ben Sasse, (R-Neb.) Photo: Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images

The Nebraska Republican Party on Saturday formally "rebuked" Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) for his vote to impeach former President Trump earlier this year, though it stopped short of a formal censure, CNN reports.

Why it matters: Sasse is the latest among a slate of Republicans who have faced some sort of punishment from their state party apparatus after voting to impeach the former president. The senator responded statement Saturday, per the Omaha World-Herald, saying "most Nebraskans don't think politics should be about the weird worship of one dude."

Cuomo barraged by fellow Dems after second harassment accusation

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced a barrage of criticism from fellow Democrats after The New York Times reported that the second former aide in four days had accused him of sexual harassment.

Why it matters: Cuomo had faced a revolt from legislators for his handling of nursing-home deaths from COVID. Now, the scandal is acutely personal, with obviously grave political risk.