Mar 13, 2020

Axios Navigate

By Joann Muller
Joann Muller

Welcome back! If you have tips or feedback, send me an email at

  • 📺 This week on "Axios on HBO": Rep. James Clyburn, the Democratic "kingmaker" largely credited for Biden's surge, says he thinks President Trump is a racist and warns the U.S. "could very well go the way of Germany in the 1930s" (clip). Tune in Sunday 6 pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.
  • Heads-up: We have a special report about the coronavirus coming this weekend. As a subscriber to this newsletter, you'll see that in your inbox from Mike Allen on Saturday.
  • Smart Brevity count: 1,547 words, a 6-minute read.
1 big thing: The cost of staying put

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The world is hunkering down and staying home, which is sending the travel industry — and the rest of the economy — into a tailspin.

Why it matters: A freedom we usually take for granted — the ability to go anywhere, anytime — is taking a back seat to public health concerns as officials try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

  • The interruption of travel has far-reaching economic consequences, especially for the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on it.

What's happening: Starting today, the U.S. is banning travel from most European countries, except for Americans who undergo screening when they return.

The latest restrictions are sure to hurt the airline industry, already suffering from a plunge in bookings not seen since the aftermath of 9/11.

  • Budget airline Norwegian Air said Thursday it would cancel 4,000 flights and temporarily lay off about half of its staff because of the coronavirus outbreak.
  • British airline Flybe collapsed a week ago, while British Airways suspended service to New York's JFK Airport, one of its most lucrative routes.
  • United Airlines and others have also been cutting routes, and offering voluntary furloughs to employees.

The economic fallout will be widespread, according to the International Air Transport Association, which just a week ago warned the crisis could wipe out some $113 billion of airline revenue.

  • Last year, 46 million passengers flew on roughly 200,000 flights between the U.S. and the 26 affected European countries, says IATA.
  • In March 2019, international visitors arriving from Europe (excluding the U.K.) accounted for about 29% of total overseas arrivals to the U.S., according to the U.S. Travel Association.
  • Those visitors spent approximately $3.4 billion in the U.S., the group said.

There are unintended consequences for air freight, too.

  • The restrictions are meant to apply only to people, not cargo, the White House said, correcting an early misstatement in the president's TV address to the nation.
  • But more than 60% of the airfreight that moves between Europe and the U.S. travels on passenger flights.
  • Suspending those flights could snarl trans-Atlantic commerce, notes the Wall Street Journal.
  • Everything from electronics to auto parts, pharmaceuticals and medical supplies are transported in the belly of passenger planes.

The $150 billion cruise industry is also suffering due to the rapid spread of COVID-19.

  • Princess Cruises and Viking canceled voyages for the next two months after ships became a hotbed for coronavirus outbreaks.
  • The State Department warned that "U.S. citizens, particularly travelers with underlying health conditions, should not travel by cruise ship."

The bottom line: As long as the coronavirus is running rampant, the economic effects will continue to mount.

2. Virus impact will test Detroit's mettle

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The economic fallout of the global pandemic will test the resiliency of U.S. automakers, who vowed after going bankrupt a decade ago that they would be prepared for the next downturn.

Why it matters: No one is suggesting the coronavirus means a repeat of 2009's bleak days, when the U.S. auto industry was on the verge of collapse and needed a taxpayer bailout to survive.

  • But what began in late January as an issue for auto supply chains in China now threatens vehicle demand around the globe, writes Bloomberg, citing RBC Capital Markets.
  • One analyst at Morgan Stanley is even suggesting the U.S. should bring back the hugely popular "Cash for Clunkers" rebate program that propped up car sales during the Great Recession.

The state of play: It could be a month or two before parts shortages that began in China ripple through supply chains and potentially interrupt U.S. production, industry experts say.

  • "There are bubbles that haven't shown up yet," said Dan Hearsch, a managing director at consulting firm AlixPartners.

Another problem could be weakening consumer demand: People who are working from home and avoiding airports, conferences and sporting events aren't likely to visit a dealership to buy a new car amid the coronavirus outbreak.

  • Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas now expects a 9% sales decline for the year. Before the outbreak, he had expected a decline of 1–2%.

Even if the virus gets much worse, the industry is generally healthier today than it was in 2009.

  • At GM, for example, CEO Mary Barra spent years shedding unprofitable assets and has vowed to maintain a "fortress balance sheet" to withstand a severe downturn.
  • Ford, which is in the midst of an $11 billion restructuring, is in a tougher spot. But Ford had $22.3 billion in cash at the end of 2019, and could cut its $2.4 billion shareholder dividend if necessary to power through the worst of the storm.

The bottom line: Detroit's long era of prosperity is about to be upended.

Go deeper.

3. Analysts: Oil's plunge won't bring down EVs

A mechanic maintains an electric vehicle in Germany. Photo: Marijan Murat/picture alliance via Getty Images

Cheaper gasoline due to the oil price collapse won't undercut electric vehicles too much, analysts say, but the coronavirus impact will be a hurdle, writes Axios' Ben Geman.

  • Why it matters: EV sales have grown in recent years, but they're still basically a niche market and tiny percentage of overall vehicle purchases, so any new headwinds are worth watching.

What they're saying: "For many years the theory is that low oil and gas is not good for EV demand from a high level," Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives tells Ben. But he adds...

  • "I believe on the margin some customers will stay away from EV in light of cheap gas, but overall the environmental movement and next generation technology and design behind Tesla neutralizes most of this dynamic."

The big picture: He's not alone. Morgan Stanley analysts gamed out the effects of gasoline prices at $2.37 per gallon — where it was a few days ago — compared to $3.50 per gallon.

Yes, that lengthens the "payback period" from switching to an EV from a traditional car to roughly seven years rather than four.

But, but, but: Fleets and cities will drive EV adoption more than individual consumers, notes Morgan Stanley.

4. Women returning to work after career break

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Women who took extended time off from work to raise a family often assume their careers have hit a dead end. But in a tight job market, many companies are rolling out the red carpet to bring back that kind of experienced talent.

Why it matters: Career reentry programs — sometimes called "returnships" — give employers an opportunity to repopulate the ranks with high-caliber mid- to senior-level women. And they provide women who've been out of the workforce a chance to get back on the career path.

What's happening: More than 100 of the world's largest companies offer some type of return-to-work initiative.

  • The trend started in the financial services sector, first at Lehman Brothers and then at Goldman Sachs, which in 2008 coined — and trademarked — the term "returnship" for its 10-week program for women (and men) with career gaps looking to rejoin the workforce.
  • Since then, the concept has spread to other professions like law, IT, engineering and manufacturing.

GM's Take 2 program, launched in 2016, was one of the first STEM programs.

  • Originally focused on engineering jobs, GM later opened up the program for IT and finance professionals.

The bottom line: GM CEO Mary Barra broke barriers in 2014 as the only woman to lead a global automaker, but the industry as a whole remains a boys' club, reports USA Today.

  • Encouraging women to resume their careers after a break is one way to boost that diversity and establish role models for future working mothers.

Read the full story.

5. Driving the conversation

Help wanted: China automakers seek government relief after February sales dive 79% on coronavirus (Yilei Sun and Brenda Goh — Reuters)

  • Why it matters: China's central government has used its policy-making authority many times to assist favored industries. Their response to the current crisis could have a big effect on how quickly the rest of the global industry recovers.

Cleaning crew: In planes and trains, mini-mops and Fog machines battle coronavirus (Aarian Marshall and Alex Davies — Wired)

  • The big picture: Airlines, bus companies, and transit operators find themselves suddenly at the front lines of a public health crisis.

Back in business: Uber resumes autonomous car testing in San Francisco (Kyle Wiggers — Venture Beat)

  • Why it matters: It marks Uber's return to autonomous driving in California two years after the company suspended testing following a fatal accident in Arizona.
6. What I'm driving

Photo: GM

This week I'm driving the 2020 Chevrolet Bolt, an affordable electric hatchback.

The big picture: The timing of the loan was interesting, coming just a few days after GM unveiled a broad lineup of electric vehicles based on a new, more advanced battery and modular EV architecture.

  • The Bolt seems tiny compared to the plug-in behemoths GM showed like the new Hummer EV pickup and SUV.
  • And it faces a lot more competition today than it did when it debuted in 2017 like the Tesla Model 3, Hyundai Kona EV, Kia Niro EV and Nissan Leaf.


  • The Bolt's interior is roomier than you'd expect — partly because it doesn't have a transmission hump running down the center of the car. Its high roofline also provides more shoulder and legroom.
  • There's not a ton of room for cargo unless you fold down the seats.
  • I might pick a few quibbles with the quality of the materials in the Bolt, but it's so peppy to drive, it's easy to forget them.

Key stat: The Bolt EV has a driving range of 259 miles between charges.

  • We topped off for free at a mall charging station during dinner and a movie.

One catch: GM has sold more than 200,000 plug-in vehicles, which means the $7,500 federal tax credit on EVs is no longer available starting in April.

  • With a base price of $37,495, the Bolt could start to look expensive compared to other EVs that still qualify for the tax credit.

What to watch: If GM delivers on its promise for lower-cost batteries in its next crop of EVs, they could be affordable even without federal tax credits.

Joann Muller