Axios Trends

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March 30, 2019

Welcome to Axios Trends — our quarterly lookahead for politics, business, economics, tech and more. My thanks to managing editor Alison Snyder for being the maestro.

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1 big thing: Trump goes it alone

Collage illustration of President Donald Trump.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump and his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, realize they have little chance of passing legislation through this divided Congress.

  • No sooner had Trump put out his budget than the conversation among many Capitol Hill Republicans turned to what they expect will eventually happen: No grand spending deal between Democrats and Republicans, and instead perhaps a continuation of 2019 spending levels through 2020. 

Forget infrastructure. Forget any serious action to rein in the national debt. Forget entitlement reform. Forget fixing the nation’s broken immigration system.

What to expect: More executive orders, more foreign deals sealed by a presidential signature rather than congressional approval, and more creative applications of the law — for example, declaring a national emergency to build the wall — to get Trump what he wants. — Jonathan Swan

Sign up for Jonathan's Axios Sneak Peek newsletter here.

2. Congress confronts drug prices

Collage illustration of Congress, coins and a medicine bottle.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Trump administration is plowing ahead on drug prices, hoping to break through the cycle of legal and political setbacks that have stymied the rest of its health care agenda.

The big picture: The administration has several proposed rules that take on some aspect of the drug-pricing system, and is quietly talking with congressional Democrats on the issue, too.

  • New rules should be finalized soon requiring drugmakers to include prices in their TV ads. The industry will likely sue.
  • Conservatives are uneasy about Trump’s plan to import some European price controls, but Democrats may be willing to help.

The administration needs a win.

  • Trump’s legal assault on the ACA faces long odds and a backlash from congressional Republicans.
  • Medicaid work requirements — the most substantive rightward shift the administration has imposed so far on health policy — have been struck down in court.

The bottom line: There will be headwinds on drug prices, too. But the general political climate and some alliance-building on Capitol Hill could easily make it a bright spot for the White House.  — Sam Baker

Sign up for Sam's Vitals newsletter here.

3. Markets' smooth ride is coming to a halt

Collage illustration of an American Bald Eagle and Chinese Dragon.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The U.S. and China have been on a decade-long glide path up — especially if we are talking about the economy, jobs and stock markets.

There's about to be a reckoning:

  • For China: Since 1979, the economy has performed swimmingly. But a combination of factors will weigh on China's rise — Xi Jinping's premature hubris about China's ascendance as a superpower; the world view of the Orwellian surveillance state; and the trade war, which will likely stay in place regardless of who is in the White House after 2020. 
  • For the U.S. bull run: The market has been going sideways for a year and longer. The tax cut has come and gone. A major recession indicator was triggered last week. What more upside is there? The look is of people glancing over their shoulders.  — Steve LeVine

Sign up for Steve's Axios Future newsletter here.

4. Tech companies storm the content business

Collage illustration of a television, a record and a smart phone.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As TV advertising sales season approaches, traditional East Coast media companies are under pressure to hold on to precious content rights or create popular programming to keep users from ditching their cable packages.

What's happening: Apple, Amazon and other West Coast tech giants, keen on gaining subscribers, are bundling news, music, movies and TV shows.

  • They can give away some content or charge less than traditional content companies thanks to the fact that they can make money from selling hardware (Apple) or goods (Amazon).

The bottom line: Media consumption is likely to be dominated by a few big companies that can offer a variety of services, as opposed to individuals accessing many different subscriptions individually.

  • That could be potentially very cost-efficient for consumers, but puts more pressure on traditional media companies.  — Sara Fischer and Ina Fried

Sign up for Sara's Axios Media Trends newsletter here, and Ina's tech newsletter, Login, here.

5. Wall Street awaits major Silicon Valley IPOs

Collage illustration of the Wall Street street sign and IPO filing papers.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Lyft's initial public offering this week was the first of several expected from some of Silicon Valley’s hottest tech companies in the next quarter (or two).

Why it matters: These companies remained private for years, but are finally making their public market debuts — and letting employees and early investors cash out.

  • What to watch: 2018 was a solid year for tech IPOs, but many companies listed in Asia, in large part thanks to changes to Hong Kong’s listing rules. However, bankers predict listings will swing back to the U.S. this year.  — Kia Kokalitcheva and Felix Salmon

Read more on the latest business deals in the Pro Rata newsletter by Dan Primack with Kia here. Sign up for the business lookahead by Felix in the Axios Edge newsletter here.

6. CEOs take a bigger stand

Collage illustration of a business man with a megaphone as a head.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

CEOs are facing increasing pressure to address divisive 2020 campaign issues.

Why it matters: The days of the apolitical CEO are over. Questions from employees, shareholders and analysts about where they stand — and how policies could impact profits — have already started, and will only increase in intensity as we get closer to November 2020.

  • The heads of insurers Humana and Centene have been pressed by Wall Street analysts on Medicare for All.
  • JP Morgan Chase, Berkshire Hathaway and Amazon have made their own health care opinions clear by founding their short-on-details venture.
  • The CEOs of ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron are being asked about the Green New Deal.
  • The chief executives of Uber, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson and others denounced Trump's immigration policy — an issue that didn't directly impact their business.

What to watch: Expect CEOs to address more issues directly and/or take a stance by launching programs within their own companies in a way that tries to balance shareholder, employee and customer interests. — Courtenay Brown

To read more on finance and market trends, sign up here for the Axios Markets newsletter by Dion Rabouin with Courtenay Brown.

7. Climate change takes over shareholder meetings

Collage illustration of a board meeting table with a plant growing in the center.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Springtime is go-time for investors to present non-binding but symbolically important resolutions to companies on a range of topics.

Driving the news: Environmental issues, particularly climate change, top the list for activist investors, accounting for 21% of roughly 400 proposals filed. That’s second only behind political activity, according to a report released in mid-March by several nonprofits.

  • Why it matters: The investment community is becoming an alternative battleground between big companies and climate change as government policy on the matter retreats under Trump. While the resolutions are nonbinding, companies usually comply with the requests if they get more than 50% support.

What we’re watching: Will the SEC, which governs the process, grant a request by ExxonMobil to throw out an investor proposal calling on the oil giant to set targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. — Amy Harder

Sign up for Amy's weekly Harder Line column, which will tackle this topic Monday, and the energy newsletter Generate by Ben Geman.

8. Gene editing is coming under pressure

Collage illustration of a microscope and embryonic cells.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The fallout from a Chinese researcher's gene editing of human embryos last year is putting pressure on health officials to come up with new international guidelines for using the technology.

Why it matters: There's a growing consensus among experts that the experiment in embryos went too far.

  • The National Institutes of Health and others recently called for a moratorium on editing heritable genes and the World Health Organization's advisory committee continues to meet to develop an international framework for research on all types of gene editing.
  • The technology holds promise for treating genetic disorders so officials are trying to balance the need for regulation with that for innovative experimentation.

What else we're watching:

  • The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to rage, and if gains are not made by early summer, it's possible the virus could become endemic to this region. 
  • The effects of an El Niño event on the Atlantic and eastern Pacific Ocean hurricane seasons, plus new climate science studies, are likely to show how harmful climate change impacts are well underway. — Andrew Freedman and Eileen Drage O'Reilly

Sign up for Andrew's Axios Science newsletter here.

9. The world's biggest democracy goes to the polls

Collage illustration of Narendra Modi and a thumbprint.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

India's upcoming elections will be the world's largest-ever exercise in democracy.

What's happening: Starting April 11, the country's 879 million eligible voters will cast their ballots over 5 weeks across 1 million polling places, with the results announced on May 23.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi polished his strongman image in a high-stakes standoff with Pakistan last month. But his economic record has been mixed, and opposition parties are teaming up against him.

  • Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP Party is generally projected to win the most seats, but might struggle to capture a majority.
  • The primary opposition comes from the Congress Party, led by the heir to India’s most powerful political dynasty, Rahul Gandhi. Regional parties will also play a major role.

The bottom line: Under Modi, India is playing a more assertive role on the world stage. The U.S., with one eye always on China, has a major stake in the rise of another Asian power. But Modi’s critics warn that if you give a strongman a fresh mandate, the results can be unpredictable. — David Lawler

Sign up for David's Axios World newsletter here.