Jun 11, 2020

Axios Capital

The stock market has returned to volatility over the past week, for reasons that remain obscure, rising sharply last Friday only to fall back a similar amount this morning.

  • Here at Axios Edge we have our minds on national institutions, looted goods, charitable donations, unemployment statistics — and pandas.
  • This week’s newsletter, a 1,897-word (7-minute) read, should not be taken as looting advice.
1 big thing: A national crisis of institutional legitimacy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

America's institutions are failing. They no longer command the respect they need to be effective.

Why it matters: A wave of discontent with institutions that started at the federal level has now metastasized to encompass almost every center of power in the country, from the media to technology to sports, retail, and — most visibly — the police.

The big picture: These powerful institutions, which are almost always run by white men, are increasingly being seen as manifestations of systemic racism and white supremacy.

  • A protester saying that Black Lives Matter is talking literally, about the black lives lost to police forces across the nation. But the message is much broader than that, and is addressed at every institution that devalues the lives of its black employees, customers and communities.

How it works: International #brands like Prada and Dolce & Gabbana will happily aver that Black Lives Matter on their Instagram accounts, while remaining symbols of racial inequality. Young black men who covet, inspire, and buy the wares at stores like Gucci and Supreme are acutely aware that the companies in control of these brands are overwhelmingly owned and run by white men.

  • The disconnect is even greater when looking at Black Lives Matter posts from sports teams like the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, and the Chicago Blackhawks.
  • Tech giants Facebook and Google have faced walkouts over the way in which they perpetuate race and gender inequalities. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has resigned from the company's board, saying his act was "long overdue" and that a black person should take his seat.
  • Media organizations across the country are facing race-related reckonings.

In government, President Trump rendered ineffectual or abolished entirely agencies including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Security Council’s global health security unit. His signature move has been to appoint officials like Mick Mulvaney and Rick Perry to run agencies they had previously called to abolish.

  • At the local level, calls to defund police departments are gaining traction. The country's racist criminal-justice system remains intact, however, despite bipartisan consensus that it needs fundamental reform.

Between the lines: Two highly educated lawyers were arrested in New York last week on charges of throwing a largely ineffectual Molotov cocktail into an empty NYPD vehicle.

  • The damage caused was minimal, but if found guilty the two face a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years in prison.
  • Both lawyers, it seems, by taking to property destruction and what is sometimes called not-nonviolent crime, had lost all faith in the system they had sworn to uphold.

The bottom line: A multiracial country's national identity rests on the strength of its institutions. When those institutions no longer command broad respect, the nation is likely to fracture into tribalism.

2. Looting in the age of the internet

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There's one big non-political reason why luxury stores were targeted by looters: Their wares can now be sold for top dollar, thanks to the rise of what is often known as the "circular economy."

Why it matters: The illegal act of looting is not new. What is new is that stores like Chanel and Louis Vuitton are getting looted, rather than a QuikTrip gas station or a grocery store in East Flatbush.

  • Instead of stealing goods they need to live, looters are increasingly stealing the goods they can most easily sell online.

What they're saying: Fashion designer Marc Jacobs, whose stores were looted, declared on Instagram that looting is not violence, while white supremacy is. "Property can be replaced," he wrote. "Human lives cannot."

  • Looting a major luxury brand's retail store is a largely victimless crime, one that sends a message about disrespect for (white) authority and the necessity of wealth redistribution.
  • Economically speaking, looting can have positive effects. Rebuilding and restocking stores increases demand for goods and labor, especially during a pandemic when millions of workers are otherwise unemployed.
  • It also generates cash for the looters.

How it works: Only a few years ago, it was difficult and expensive to fence a luxury handbag or a designer jacket. If you were well connected in the criminal underworld, you might be able to get 30% of the retail price for such an item.

  • Today, authenticating and selling sought-after goods for retail price or higher is as easy as logging on to websites like StockX, The RealReal, or Vestiaire Collective.
  • "They do not check to see how you got the item, or where you got it from," says sneaker expert and former Axios reporter Michael Sykes, whose newsletter, The Kicks You Wear, is required reading for anybody who wants to understand sneaker culture. "The whole system feels kinda nefarious in a way."

The fine print: The StockX terms and conditions indemnify StockX from any liability from the sale of stolen goods.

  • A StockX spokesperson sent a statement saying that the company "will take any available measures to prevent the sale of stolen goods."
  • The RealReal told Axios that they're "working closely with local and federal law enforcement to prevent the trafficking of stolen goods," including sharing "details like serial numbers, photos, and data and location of consignment that can help prevent the sale of stolen goods."

Vestiaire Collective reserves the right to demand that sellers "immediately provide all documents proving their ownership of the Products that are offered for sale and/or the origin of these Products."

  • A spokesperson tells Axios that Vestiaire has "a process in place to collaborate with local law enforcement to prevent the trafficking of stolen goods."

The bottom line: The circular economy helps to reduce waste and can efficiently keep luxury goods in the hands of those who value them most highly. But while internet platforms are good at guaranteeing authenticity, they can't guarantee that the items for sale aren't stolen.

3. The charity stimulus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic had already prompted an increase in charitable donations before the current national reckoning over systemic racism kicked that number up even further.

By the numbers: An FT analysis has found more than $450 million in corporate pledges made to groups focused on social and racial justice — and that's before the increase in disbursements from the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and others.

How it works: Some of America's largest foundations are borrowing money as part of their plans to increase their annual payouts. The Ford Foundation, for instance, will issue $1 billion in 30- and 50-year "social bonds" and spend that money over the next two years.

  • The idea is to maximize the proportion of the existing $13.7 billion endowment that remains invested in the market rather than given to the needy.

What they're saying: A long list of high-profile philanthropists has called on Congress to mandate a 10% payout from foundations and donor-advised funds.

  • "Increased funding could be immediately absorbed by food banks, health care providers, educational institutions, and organizations addressing issues like poverty alleviation, economic development, safe and secure voting, and social justice," they write.
  • The proposal seems unlikely to go anywhere, and is opposed by substantially all of the foundations and funds that it would affect. As the social bond issues show, maintaining or increasing the size of a charitable foundation in perpetuity seems always to be the highest priority.

My thought bubble: We're at an unprecedented time in terms of demand for charitable services. Philanthropic foundations need to give away only 5% of their assets each year, and donor-advised funds — which are also tax-exempt — need to give away nothing at all. Now would be a great time to force a large rise in payouts.

4. Counting the unemployed

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Just how many unemployed Americans are there? According to last month's employment report, there were 20,985,000 unemployed in May, down from 23,078,000 in April.

  • That's not the only way to count, however. Axios' Dion Rabouin looked at the number of people claiming various forms of unemployment benefits and came to a much larger number of 37.2 million people.
  • Betsey Stevenson, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, tells Axios that her preferred measure is the "continued claims" number that comes out each Thursday. This morning, that was 20.9 million.

The big picture: Part of the reason for the discrepancy is that the very meaning of unemployment has changed during the pandemic. If you have to stay at home rather than work in order to look after kids who aren't at school, or because you're immunocompromised and can't leave the house, then you're not actively looking for work — something that has historically been a central criterion of unemployment.

  • Different data sets will give you different information. Some will include small business owners who have lost their income; others will include gig workers who simply decided on their own to stop working.

The bottom line: There is no one "real" number of unemployed Americans. But the important thing, as the Federal Reserve put it in yesterday's statement, is that "the coronavirus outbreak is causing tremendous human and economic hardship across the United States and around the world."

  • The unemployment rate, however you measure it, is unfathomably, unconscionably, enormous. The societal repercussions from this shock will echo for decades.

Go deeper: How Many Unemployed People? Comparing Survey Data and Unemployment Insurance Counts (BLS)

5. Gambling on worthless stock
Expand chart
Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

If stock trading is the new sports betting, then the best kind of stock to gamble with is a stock that's guaranteed to end up being wiped out entirely.

  • Bankrupt companies like Hertz, Whiting Petroleum and JC Penney are great gambling vehicles for low-information bettors. Much like bitcoin, they have no intrinsic value; their share price is therefore simply a reflection of short-term flows and manias.

By the numbers: Hertz rose from 83 cents per share on the morning of June 4 to as much as $5.85 per share in the afternoon of June 8. Whiting Petroleum closed on June 4 at 85 cents; on June 8 it closed at $3.48. JC Penney rose from 21 cents per share on June 5 to 67 cents the following trading day.

  • The buyers were not making sophisticated bets that the equity of these companies might somehow have residual value post-bankruptcy. (It won't.)
  • Instead, they were playing a game of "how long can you hold on to a rising stock with a fundamental value of $0 before it crashes."

My thought bubble: Day trading bankrupt penny stocks is a bit like buying lottery tickets. So long as you know the risk involved, it can be a fun way to dream of riches while (ideally) leaving your long-term retirement investments untouched.

6. Coming up: A rebound in retail sales

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Retail sales likely bottomed in April, Axios' Courtenay Brown writes. Spending figures for May out on Tuesday are expected to show a rebound as shelter-in-place restrictions eased.

Why it matters: Consumer spending is the key driver of the U.S. economy. The data could be another sign — after May's hugely better-than-expected jobs report — the economy is beginning to recover.

By the numbers: The consensus estimate is that spending jumped 6.3% last month, though economists' forecasts have been spectacularly wrong.

7. Building of the week: The panda house at Copenhagen Zoo

Photo: Ole Jensen/Getty Images

The first job of a panda enclosure is to enclose pandas.

  • The $24 million panda house at Copenhagen Zoo, designed by Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels and opened with great fanfare last year, seems to have failed at that job.

The "yin and yang" building is designed to keep the male panda (Xing Er) apart from the female panda, Mao Sun — ensuring that the two cannot smell or hear each other except for three days a year when they're both let into a smaller, separate enclosure in the hopes that they will mate.

Driving the news: Xing Er made a daring escape from the enclosure this week, crawling up a metal pole and then out into the garden.

  • He was cornered and sedated with a dart before being returned to his half of the house.