May 17, 2019

Axios AM

By Mike Allen
Mike Allen

Happy Friday!

1 big thing: One nation, drowning in debt

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Mounting U.S. debt, and rising credit-card delinquencies, are creating what one big bond investor describes as a "cocktail of economic risk."

  • The Federal Reserve warned that corporate America is taking on too much debt, Axios' Dan Primack writes.
  • Rising consumer debt is also a worry. U.S. banks are tightening their lending standards and raising rates on commercial loans and credit cards, according to Axios' Dion Rabouin and Courtenay Brown.

Why it matters: These realities run contrary to the overall narrative of a strong U.S. economy.

  • Credit card delinquency rates in Q1 hit the highest level since 2012, driven partly by a spike in overdue payments by people ages 18–29, according to the New York Federal Reserve.
  • U.S. national debt is $1 trillion higher than the previous record.

What they’re saying: "Junk bonds are flying out the door once again. Deeply indebted companies are borrowing even more to pay equity holders." (Bloomberg)

  • On the consumer front: "Borrowers think life is good and income is rising, and ... they overextend themselves," said James Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association. "You tend to see more of that behavior" toward the end of an economic cycle.

What to watch: As companies struggle under their enormous debt loads, expect them to start looking to the high-flying stock market for rescue.

  • First up: Chewy, being spun out by its highly-leveraged parent, PetSmart, for much-needed cash.
2. SAT's new "adversity score"

What's new: The College Board will report SAT takers' so-called "adversity score" to college admissions officers, a measure "calculated using 15 factors, including the relative quality of the student’s high school and the crime rate and poverty level of the student’s neighborhood," writes the N.Y. Times' Anemona Hartocollis.

  • Why it matters: "The new measurement brings the College Board squarely into the raging national debate over fairness and merit in college admissions, one fueled by enduring court clashes on affirmative action, a federal investigation into a sprawling admissions cheating ring and a booming college preparatory industry that promises results to those who can pay."
3. Sneak peek: Renewed culture war

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With red states passing a record wave of abortion restrictions, Planned Parenthood Federation of America today will announce a six-figure digital ad buy over the coming weeks urging women voters to contact their legislators.

  • The first ads will run in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky and North Carolina.
  • The message: "You deserve to know if the people who represent you in office support the Republican Party’s dangerous agenda to ban all abortion, or if they stand against it, and will stand up for your health and rights."

What conservatives are thinking ... National Review's David French:

"Two generations of pro-life activism, persuasion, and argument have yielded pro-life supermajorities in state houses across much of the South and Midwest, and they recognize the fact that we have reached a moment of legal possibility we may never attain again — perhaps not for generations. It is possible (maybe not likely, but possible) that the Supreme Court could overrule Roe v. Wade, and these legislatures have chosen to go for broke."

Go deeper: Blue states rush to protect abortion

Bonus: Cover du jour
Courtesy N.Y. Post
4. Iran misreading?

"Intelligence collected by the U.S. government shows Iran’s leaders believe the U.S. planned to attack them, prompting preparation by Tehran for possible counterstrikes, according to one interpretation of the information," report The Wall Street Journal's Warren Strobel, Nancy Youssef, and Vivian Salama (subscription).

  • Why it matters: "[T]here are sharply differing views within the Trump administration over the meaning of intelligence showing Iran and its proxies making military preparations, people familiar with the matter said."
5. Trump micromanages wall construction
Workers install new fencing along the border with Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

What's new: As the White House is diverting billions of dollars in military funds to the border wall, President Trump "is micromanaging the project down to the smallest design details," Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey report:

  • "The bollards, or 'slats,' as he prefers to call them, should be painted 'flat black,' a dark hue that would absorb heat in the summer, making the metal too hot for climbers to scale, Trump has recently told White House aides, Homeland Security officials and military engineers."

Why it matters: "Trump’s frequently shifting instructions and suggestions have left engineers and aides confused."

6. Fortune 500
Courtesy FORTUNE

Here's the top of the 65th FORTUNE 500 list — the largest U.S. corporations, ranked by 2018 revenue:

  1. Walmart
  2. ExxonMobil
  3. Apple
  4. Berkshire Hathaway
  5. Amazon
  6. UnitedHealth Group
  7. McKesson
  8. CVS Health
  9. AT&T
  10. AmerisourceBergen (drug wholesaler)

See the list.

7. Remembering I.M. Pei, 102
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, designed by I.M. Pei. Photo: Mark Duncan/AP

I.M. Pei (pronounced PAY), the Chinese American architect who left landmarks around the world, died in Manhattan yesterday at 102.

  • "He carried on working well into old age, creating one of his most famous masterpieces — the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar — in his 80s." (BBC)

Why he matters: "Pei ... had a client list that was a who's who of 20th century notables, including French President Francois Mitterrand for the Louvre, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston, and art collector and philanthropist Paul Mellon for the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington." (L.A. Times)

8. Amazon eyes shipping war

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The $1.5 trillion per year business of moving stuff around is one of the most lucrative and complex industries in the U.S. — and Amazon is attempting to conquer it, writes Axios' Erica Pandey.

Why it matters: It could spark an out-and-out war. If Amazon strengthens its network and stops relying on the big shippers, UPS and FedEx could lose one of their biggest customers, hurting their bottom line. And smaller firms could pick Amazon over them, too.

9. Video du jour

AI company Dessa claims that it's created "the most realistic AI simulation of a voice we’ve heard to date" — an audio deepfake of podcaster Joe Rogan.

  • "[I]n the next few years (or even sooner), we’ll see the technology advance to the point where only a few seconds of audio are needed to create a life-like replica of anyone’s voice on the planet."

Worth noting, via Axios' Kaveh Waddell: Dessa hasn't published any technical details about how it made the voice — it promises a follow-up in the coming days.

10. 📱1 phone thing: Why we lie

"On My Way! Smartphones Are Turning Us Into Liars: Demand for frequent E.T.A. updates leads to a rash of easily exposed prevarications," The Wall Street Journal's Katherine Bindley writes in an A-hed (subscription):

  • "They text 'On my way' from their beds, because they’ve started thinking about leaving. They’ll fire off an 'En route' while walking to the garage or the elevator (true, both are 'on the route' to their destination). At the time of a meeting — still a solid 10 minutes away from where they’re supposed to be — they might write, 'Sorry, hit traffic!' because there are other cars on the road."

Why it matters: "We can communicate more easily, more often, in more ways than ever before. And although we can be reached at most any time, we don’t always want to be reached. Our options are to either ignore someone or to deceive them with white lies." (Jeff Hancock, Stanford communications professor)

Mike Allen

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