Markets Laser-Focused on Jerome Powell's Next Move; Fed Head Speaks Today

Posted on 03/04/2021 8:41 AM

Big U.S. corn sales shifted from unknown destinations to China in most recent week


In Today’s Digital Newspaper


Market Focus:
• Bond market a focus as comments from Fed’s Powell loom
• Fed report sounds familiar themes on U.S. economic situation
WSJ: Saudi Arabia & Russia discussing bringing back one million barrels a day of oil
• Jobless claims rose slightly
• Covid baby bust is here

• Ag bankers: Farm income improves significantly
• Ag demand update
• Was final USDA estimate of 2020 U.S. corn yield an outlier?

Record-setting grain crop possible for Ukraine
• EU rapeseed imports expected to hit a record high
• Winter grain ratings improve after mild Russian winter
• Global food prices reach the highest level since July 2014
• FAO calling for a record-setting global wheat crop in 2021

Policy Focus:
• Senate work on Covid aid/stimulus will likely mean weekend activity
• Boozman warns Covid aid plan could trigger cuts to farm programs
• Stabenow supports Covid aid/stimulus measure
• White House meeting today to discuss rebuilding aging roads, dams and railroads
• Initial competition/antitrust focus in Senate will not be on agriculture


Biden Administration Personnel

• Senate Finance advances Tai, Adeyemo nomination; tie vote on Becerra to lead HHS
• Interior, OMB nominations on tap in Senate


China Update:
• Big U.S. corn sales shifted from unknown destinations to China in most recent week

Food & Beverage Industry Update:
• Vilsack reiterates changes may be made to Food Box program
• Meat Institute asks Supreme Court to review California’s Prop 12
• Vilsack: Tackling hunger is about food quality, too

Coronavirus Update:
• About half of seniors have yet to receive a single shot of a coronavirus vaccine
• Biden rips Texas and Mississippi for ‘neanderthal
• Link between obesity and Covid deaths revealed
• U.K. will raise taxes starting in 2023 to cover pandemic costs
• EU and China will move ahead on ‘vaccine passports’


Politics & Elections:
• Facebook restarts political advertising
• Inspector general release report on former Trans. Sec. Elaine Chao
• Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York apologized for his behavior, but…

Other Items of Note:
• House cancels today’s session after security warning
• Officials: 117,000 children at U.S.-Mexico border without parent/guardian in 2021
• Trump navigable waters rule in effect
• Lofgren, Newhouse reintroduce Farm Workforce Modernization Act




Equities today: U.S. stock futures edged lower Thursday as investors awaited comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell about the outlook for inflation and the central bank’s views on rising bond yields — see details below. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note ticked down to 1.467%. It had jumped to 1.469% on Wednesday, its second-highest level this year, ending three days of declines. That level marks a steep climb from early January, when it was as low as 0.915%. Yields rise when bond prices fall. Most major Asian markets fell by the close of trading. The Hang Seng Index fell 643.63 points, 2.15%, at 29,236.79. The Nikkei was off 628.99 points, 2.13%, at 28,930.11. European equities are showing losses.


     U.S. equities yesterday: The Dow finished down 121.43 points, 0.39%, at 31,270.09. The Nasdaq dropped 361.04 points, 2.70%, at 12,997.75. The S&P 500 fell 50.57 points, 1.31%, at 3,819.72.


On tap today:


     • U.S. jobless claims are expected to rise to 750,000 in the week ending Feb. 27 from 730,000 a week earlier. Follow our coverage here. (8:30 a.m. ET) Update: Jobless claims rose slightly to 745,000 for the week ended Feb. 27, from a revised 736,000 the prior week. The four-week moving-average, which smooths out week-to-week volatility in claims numbers, fell to its lowest level since early December.
     • U.S. labor productivity in the fourth quarter is expected to fall 4.7% from the prior quarter, a slight upward revision from the previously reported 4.8% decline. (8:30 a.m. ET) Update: Productivity slowed again in the fourth quarter, but the pace of the decline slowed to a decline of 4.2% from a prior 4.8%. But labor costs are also on the rise as businesses seek to attract workers at a time when they are competing against expanded government jobless benefits. But the 6% rise in labor costs was actually below expectations for an increase of 6.7%.
     • USDA Weekly Export Sales report, 8:30 a.m. ET See item under China section for some details.
     • U.S. factory orders for January are expected to rise 2.3% from a month earlier. (10 a.m. ET)
     • Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell speaks on the economy at an online Wall Street Journal Jobs Summit at 12:05 p.m. ET. With markets suddenly worried about inflation caused by a much-faster-than-previously expected forecast, Powell will have to convince investors that Fed policy is on the right path — see more, below.
     • Congressional Budget Office releases long-term budget projections at 2 p.m. ET.
     • White House: President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will meet with a bipartisan group of House members on infrastructure. Biden campaigned on a promise to pass a $2 trillion infrastructure package and is expected to send Congress an infrastructure proposal after the passage of a Covid-19 relief bill. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation committee, this week called for the federal government to bear the cost of funding a new infrastructure package. “The states can’t go it alone,” he said, in a video released by his office. “The cities can’t go it alone. They need a federal partner.” The Biden administration hasn’t revealed the text of its infrastructure package or said what it hopes to build other than listing the categories regularly cited by politicians of both parties: rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges, shoring up aging water infrastructure and expanding broadband in rural areas. Biden has said his infrastructure bill will give priority to the response to climate change.


Bond market a focus as comments from Fed’s Powell loom. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell will deliver remarks today to a Wall Street Journal forum, with markets keen for any comments on the recent selloff in U.S. gov’t bonds, sending yields rising. Fed Governor Lael Brainard this week noted the Fed was closely monitoring the situation and that the shift in yields had caught her attention. Focus will be on how Powell addresses the bond situation and whether he offers any potential actions by the central bank on that front. Some expect the Fed could again deploy “Operation Twist” which was used in the early 1960s and again in 2011 when the Fed sold shorter-dated debt to buy longer-dated debt in a bid to lower longer-term rates. It seems unlikely he would suggest the deployment of the option outright, but any mention of it would heighten expectations that could be one of the developments emerging from the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting March 16-17. Powell’s remarks today will be his last before the FOMC session.


Fed report sounds familiar themes on U.S. economic situation. The Fed’s Beige Book report noted improvement in many of the Fed’s 12 districts, but some reported declining activity over the period from January to mid-February (the report was based on information gathered before Feb. 22). But several common threads continued in the anecdotal recap of the U.S. economy — hiring workers was a struggle in many areas due to Covid restrictions, childcare and several districts noted expanded unemployment benefits as a factor. Other pointed to worker skills not transferring well between sectors. Upward price pressures for businesses are being seen but the ability to pass those prices through to consumers remained an issue. The cold temps that his much of the country in February were also noted in several districts. Agriculture optimism was improved as prices for some commodities have risen, with income expectations improved despite a forecast decline in government payments. The other common thread was that economic activity remained below pre-pandemic levels for many sectors. The bottom line of the report appears to be that the U.S. economy is mostly growing, but the path higher is rated as modest to moderate in most areas. There is optimism that Covid-related restrictions will be reducing as vaccine deployment broadens but getting workers — especially for entry-level jobs — remains a significant challenge. That suggests that getting improvement in the jobs market will take an extended period. Plus, there appears to be little concern about inflation reaching levels that could damage consumer demand.


Ag bankers: Farm income improves significantly. Following sharp increases in commodity prices, farmers and ranchers across the Midwest and Plains are paying off bank loans and spending for big-ticket purchases, said a report (link) from the Federal Reserve on Wednesday based on surveys of ag lenders. “Dramatic improvements in crop prices drove the sharpest turnaround in agricultural lending conditions in more than a decade.” Based on conditions at the close of 2020, “farm income was higher than a year ago across all participating districts,” said the Fed. The regional Federal Reserve banks in Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and St. Louis conducted surveys of farm bankers in their regions. “With better financial outcomes in 2020, capital spending plans for farm borrowers also strengthened in the fourth quarter and were expected to increase in all districts in coming months.”


     It’s not all rosy. Continued weakness in cattle markets and harsh weather “still left some headwinds for some producers,” wrote economist Cortney Cowley and assistant economist Ty Kreitman of the Kansas City Fed, which produced the report.


     Values for non-irrigated farmland increased on most states. The largest increases were 9% in northern Indiana and 8% in North Dakota. “Lower interest rates have likely provided some support to farm finances and the values of farm real estate,” said the Fed. Interest rates on short-term operating loans and long-term farm real estate loans fell by roughly 1 percentage point during the fourth quarter of 2020.


A year into the Covid pandemic, data and surveys point to a baby bust in many advanced economies from the U.S. to Europe to East Asia, often on top of existing downward trends in births. A combination of health and economic crises is prompting many people to delay or abandon plans to have children. Demographers warn the dip is unlikely to be temporary, especially if the pandemic and its economic consequences drag on. Link to more details via the Wall Street Journal.




Market perspectives:


     • Outside markets: The U.S. dollar index is firmer early today. Gold and silver futures are narrowly mixed ahead of US trade action. Gold was firmer around $1,716 per troy ounce while silver was weaker around $26.14 per troy ounce. Yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note has eased, trading around 1.46%.

     •  Saudi Arabia and Russia are discussing a proposal to bring back a combined one million barrels a day of oil to global markets, the Wall Street Journal reported (link). The two sides are preparing to hammer out a deal as an alliance of some of the world’s biggest producers meets today. OPEC+ initially agreed to cut oil production by a record of 9.7 million barrels per day in 2020, before easing cuts to 7.7 million and eventually 7.2 million from January (about 7% of global supply). At that meeting, a clash ensued, triggering Saudi Arabia to unilaterally slash 1 million barrels per day in production in February and March, while Russia and Kazakhstan said they would increase their output by a combined 75,000 bpd.


     • Crude oil futures have shifted between losses and gains as markets await results from the OPEC+ meeting. U.S. crude was recently trading around $61.50 per barrel and Brent around $64.20 per barrel. Crude oil prices rose in Asian action, with U.S. crude up 24 cents at $61.52 per barrel, after a strong rise Wednesday, while Brent crude was up 24 cents at $64.31 per barrel.


     • Was the final USDA estimate of the 2020 U.S. corn yield an outlier? The kerfuffle regarding USDA’s crop estimate continues, with the latest coming from the farmdocDaily. Link to article.


     • Ag demand: The Taiwan Flour Millers’ Association bought around 100,410 MT of milling wheat to be sourced from the United States. Egypt tendered to buy at least 30,000 MT of soyoil and 10,000 MT of sunflower oil. South Korea’s Major Feedmill Group bought around 68,000 MT of corn to be sourced from South America or South Africa in its international tender for up to 140,000 MT of the grain.


Items in Pro Farmer's First Thing Today include (Link to subscribe to FTT):

Record-setting grain crop possible for Ukraine
• EU rapeseed imports expected to hit a record high
• Winter grain ratings improve after mild Russian winter
• Global food prices reach the highest level since July 2014
• FAO calling for a record-setting global wheat crop in 2021




—  Senate work on Covid aid/stimulus will likely mean weekend activity. Ahead of debate on the coronavirus relief/stimulus bill, Senate Democrats retooled direct aid for localities and narrowed eligibility for direct payments in the measure. Total funding for states would remain the same at $195.3 billion, but direct aid for cities, counties and smaller units of local government would take a hit in order to finance a new $10 billion capital projects fund. There would also be new limitations on the funds.


          Another major change affects direct payments, lowering the income threshold at which the payments cut off completely. The biggest change would shrink the $1,400 checks to zero more quickly for individuals making more than $75,000 and married couples making more than $150,000, according to lawmakers and aides. Under the plan approved in the House last week, those $1,400 payments phase out completely for individuals making $100,000 and married couples making $200,000. Lawmakers in the Senate are expected to bring the payments to zero for individuals making $80,000 and married couples making $160,000. Individuals making less than $75,000 and married couples with incomes lower than $150,000 will still receive the full $1,400 check.


     Among health care provisions, a new draft of the bill (HR 1319) would increase funding for health care providers and fully cover job-based health insurance premiums for recently unemployed workers.


     Centrists weren’t successful in their push to whittle the size of weekly federal jobless aid down to $300, from the $400 level passed by the House, where it is expected to remain in the Senate bill.


     Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to offer a motion to proceed to the bill once the text is finalized and key budget scores come in. The 20 hours of debate on the measure and subsequent “vote-a-rama” could be delayed, however, by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) who has threatened to object to allowing debate to begin without reading the text of Schumer's amendment in full, which could delay the process by some 10 hours.


     Timeline: Democrats were still waiting Wednesday night to get an official estimate of the bill’s cost, to make sure it complies with the process being used to pass the bill with just a simple majority. The Senate on “must-pass” measures usually lingers until a deadline, and in this case that’s the March 14 cessation of jobless benefit increases. A weekend session is likely, and the final vote could linger into early next week, with the House then having to act on the Senate changes. Democrats are expected to approve the legislation in the Senate with little Republican support. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Wednesday that while she thought the bill had “way too much excess,” she hadn’t yet decided whether to oppose it. “I’m coming from a state where people are saying we need some help,” she said.


— Boozman warns Covid aid plan could trigger cuts to farm programs. The budget reconciliation measure used for the Covid aid plan the Senate is expected to work on potentially into the weekend could trigger pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) budget rules and force cuts to farm support programs, according to Senate Ag Committee Ranking Member John Boozman (R-Ark.), something he says could potentially zero out farm program spending over the next five years.


     Background: PAYGO, which stands for “pay as you go,” is a budget rule requiring that tax cuts and mandatory spending increases must be offset (i.e., “paid for”) by tax increases or cuts in mandatory spending. PAYGO does not apply to discretionary spending (spending that is controlled through the appropriations process).


     “Triggering PAYGO is a very real risk that this bill carries, and if that happens, our family farmers will be among those who will be hurt the most. In their rush to fill this bill with non-Covid related spending, Congressional Democrats have recklessly put the farm community at risk just when the agriculture economy is starting to turn a corner after several difficult years,” Boozman said.


     The PAYGO impacts could come via sequestration orders for non-exempt programs like farm safety net programs, he warned. But waiving the PAYGO requirements would remove the threat, he noted, an action that require 60 votes in the U.S. Senate.


     “Agricultural producers have faced tough economic times over the last several years,” he said. “Instead of continuing the precedent of working together on Covid relief, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats have opted to use reconciliation so they could pass unrelated items from their wish list. It is wrong to ask our farmers to pay for all this additional non-Covid spending.”


     Boozman also lamented the lack of GOP input into the plan and his opposition to bailing out states for what he called “mismanagement.”


— Stabenow supports Covid aid/stimulus measure. On Wednesday, in her position as chair of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Ag panel, released a report (link) detailing the need for the legislation (link). She has also scheduled a news conference today with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), to promote the bill. In a joint statement, Stabenow, Wyden, Menendez and Ossoff said, “Currently, 19 million Americans are relying on unemployment benefits and millions are struggling to pay rent, keep the lights on and the water running, and put food on the table for their families. The U.S. Senate is taking up a comprehensive package of legislation this week that would provide $1,400 checks, extend enhanced unemployment benefits and increase the federal supplemental unemployment benefit. The bill will also provide assistance for renters and homeowners, extend SNAP benefits and bolster other vital nutrition assistance to help ensure families, children and seniors don’t go hungry.”


— Initial competition/antitrust focus in Senate will not be on agriculture. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announced the first of what will likely be several hearings by the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee on the issue of monopolies. The effort “isn’t just about one industry,” Klobuchar told Politico in announcing the sessions, specifying that separate sessions on pharmaceuticals and agriculture will be coming down the road. Tech CEOs are also not expected to be witnesses in the first session set for Thursday, March 11.



—  Senate Finance advances Tai, Adeyemo nomination but tie vote on Becerra to lead HHS. The Senate Finance Committee Wednesday approved the nominations of Katherine Tai to be U.S. Trade Representative and Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo to be deputy Treasury secretary on a voice vote, sending the nominations ahead to the full Senate. But the panel voted 14-14 on the nomination of Xavier Becerra to be Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary. This means there will be additional steps needed to get his nomination for consideration by the Senate. Under Senate rules, either Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could file a motion to discharge the nomination from the committee after consulting with the chair and ranking members of the panel. That would then result in up to four hours of floor debate in the full chamber. This sets the stage for what could be a very close vote on Becerra, who has been the subject of conservative attacks since his nomination was announced in December. As California attorney general for four years, Becerra has earned a reputation among Republicans as a liberal culture warrior, having filed over 100 lawsuits against the Trump administration, including those aimed at strengthening ObamaCare and broadening access to contraception.


— Interior, OMB nominations on tap in Senate. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources panel is voting on Rep. Deb Haaland’s nomination to lead the Interior Department. After the markup, the committee will hear from David M. Turk, nominated to be deputy Energy secretary. Haaland faced Republican opposition in her confirmation hearing, but she got the endorsement of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Wednesday. Collins cited Haaland’s work on a landmark conservation bill last Congress, her support for Maine’s Acadia National Park and her “deep knowledge of tribal issues.”


     Shalanda Young, who is currently tapped for OMB deputy director, is testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, along with Jason S. Miller, nominated for OMB deputy director for management. With the OMB director spot open for a new nominee, the top three House Democrats threw their weight behind Young on Wednesday. They noted her “legislative prowess, extensive knowledge of federal agencies, incisive strategic mind and proven track record” in a joint statement.


     Also today, Colin H. Kahl, nominated to be Defense undersecretary for policy, is testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.




Big U.S. corn sales shifted from unknown destinations to China in most recent week. Even as sales of U.S. corn to all destinations was at a marketing year low of 115,900 tonnes for 2020-21, there were big sales of corn shifted from unknown destinations to China for the week ended Feb. 25. The reason that the amount of more than 1 million tonnes did not result in big sales overall is that USDA’s figures only reflect sales activity that results in a net increase (or decrease) in total sales of a commodity to foreign buyers. Activity specifically for China in the week ended Feb. 25 for 2020-21 included net sales of 65,931 tonnes of wheat (65,000 was switched from unknown destinations), 1,054,700 tonnes of corn (1,046,000 switched from unknown destinations), net reductions of 52,193 tonnes of sorghum, net reductions of 61,736 tonnes of soybeans, and net sales of 24,147 running bales of Upland Cotton.


     Sales for 2021-22 included 198,000 tonnes of soybeans and 13,200 running bales of Upland Cotton.


     Sales for 2020 of 4,486 tonnes of beef and 28,020 tonnes of pork were also reported.


U.S./China Phase 1 tracker: China’s purchases of U.S. goods. Link




— Vilsack reiterates changes may be made to Food Box program. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack Wednesday told a National Press Foundation meeting that he does support the Food Box program deployed by the Trump administration and said that it would run through April, but again said there could be changes to the effort ahead and that no decision to continue it had been made.


     A review of the program is underway at USDA, Vilsack said, including that if the program or “something akin to a food box program” were continued, would it be on a smaller, more-targeted scale. “No decision has been made as to whether or not it will be extended and if extended what it will look like,” he said.


     Vilsack did suggest one option could be to involve The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) as that program has an established distribution system in getting food out to nonprofits and charities.


     Bottom line: It still appears that the popular program will continue in some form given the overall concept has won backing of some key lawmakers. Most expect the effort will be tweaked from its initial version and it could be renamed or as Vilsack suggests, combined with another existing effort such as TEFAP.


— Meat Institute asks Supreme Court to review California’s Prop 12. The North American Meat Institute has filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review an earlier ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit regarding the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 12: The Farm Animal Confinement Initiative. “Prop 12 hurts the family on a budget by causing higher prices for pork, veal and eggs, and unfairly punishes livestock producers outside of California by forcing them to spend millions just to access California markets,” Meat Institute President and CEO Julie Anna Potts said in a release. “If this unconstitutional law is allowed to stand, California will dictate farming practices across the nation.” The Meat Institute argues the Ninth Circuit’s decision conflicts with those of other federal appeals courts regarding whether the constitution limits a state’s ability to extend police power beyond its territorial border via a trade barrier dictating production standards. It also says Prop 12 insulates in-state farmers from out of state competition, while “imposing crushing burdens” on out of state producers with no political voice to shape the rules.


— From ‘food security’ to nutrition security’… USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack frequently says times have changed since he first led USDA under the Obama administration, and he has changed. One of the changes is how to speak about policy. It’s a version of political correctness or more accurately political ideology. On Wednesday, Vilsack continued his campaign to stress the importance of “nutrition security” as opposed to “food security.” During a briefing for journalists sponsored by the National Press Foundation, Vilsack said it is as important to improve the way Americans eat as it is to make sure they have enough to eat. “In the past, we have looked at hunger over here, nutrition over there,” Vilsack said. “We are going to learn a lot more about our genetic makeups,” which should make it possible to develop specific diets for people with one condition or another, he said. “We need to think about that at USDA: How can we make programs provide precise nutrition?”


     What does that mean for policy moves ahead? The Biden administration plans to restore the school meal nutrition standards that were implemented under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act but altered by the Trump administration. The Biden team also plans to bring school meals standards in line with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines, Vilsack said, saying that farm groups say they want rules to be based on sound science, so “nutrition at schools should be based on sound science. We know what the science is telling us. It is going to be more and more precise as time goes on.”


     Not all the work of government. Vilsack said USDA needs to work with the food industry to “transform our food system” to expand the availability of and consumption of healthier food, detailing that the U.S. spends $160 billion per year through Medicare and Medicaid fighting diabetes and that more is spent through private insurance.


     Linking equity issue to food security. Vilsack said “people of color” are more likely than the white population to eat poorly and said improving diets should also be part of USDA’s focus on addressing racial discrimination.


     More funding needed. Vilsack said the Biden administration favors increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/food stamps) benefits and increasing use of the Pandemic-EBT program, especially for children under age 6. He detailed that 21 states have approved P-EBT plans, 15 states have submitted applications that are being reviewed, but 14 states have not submitted plans. Pandemic EBT provides purchasing power to families with children who would normally get free or reduced-price school meals. He said P-EBT benefits should reflect the fact that schools are usually able to buy food cheaper than parents because the schools buy food in bulk.


     Vilsack also talked about the Farmers to Families Food Box programsee related item above for details.


     There’s more: The Biden administration also wants to find out why only 50% of the people eligible to participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are participating.




 Summary: Global cases of Covid-19 are at 115,257,713 with 2,561,585 deaths, according to data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. case count is at 28,760,954 with 518,458 deaths. The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center said that there have been 80,540,474 doses administered, 26,957,804 have been fully vaccinated, or 8.23% of the U.S. population. Worldwide, their data shows 268,570,060 doses administered, with 55,967,765 fully vaccinated, or 0.73% of the world population.

       Link to Covid Case Tracker
       Link to Our World in Data


— About half of seniors have yet to receive a single shot of a coronavirus vaccine. The still-unvaccinated population includes 36% of people over age 75 and 54% of people ages 65 to 75, according to data shared yesterday by President Biden’s coronavirus task force (graphic via Washington Post).




— President Biden rips Texas and Mississippi for “neanderthal thinking.”  President Biden unleashed a rhetoric attack on Texas and Mississippi for ending their mask mandates. “The last thing — the last thing — we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask,” he said. “It still matters.”


— Link between obesity and Covid deaths revealed. Nine out of 10 deaths from coronavirus have occurred in countries with high obesity levels, according to World Health Organization-backed research that sets out the stark correlation between excessive weight and lives lost to the disease. The study from the World Obesity Federation (WOF), which represents scientists, medical professionals and researchers from more than 50 regional and national obesity associations, showed mortality rates were 10 times higher where at least 50% of the population was overweight. Age has been seen as the biggest predictor for severe outcomes, which has led to priority being given to older people in most countries’ Covid-19 vaccine rollouts. But the WOF said its report “shows for the first time that overweight populations come a close second”. It is now calling for this group to be prioritized for immunization.


— U.K. said it would raise taxes starting in 2023 to cover pandemic costs, making it the first major economy to explain how it will pay for the huge government programs meant to keep businesses and households afloat. New official forecasts showed rapid vaccination progress puts the economy on course to make up ground lost to Covid-19 sooner than previously hoped. The U.K. budget calls for higher corporate taxes starting in 2023, their first rise in Britain since the 1970s.


— EU and China said they would move ahead on “vaccine passports,” potentially unlocking some international travel.




— Facebook restarts political advertising. After imposing a ban to clamp down on misinformation during the election, the social network told political advertisers it would begin to allow new ads about “social issues, elections or politics.”


— Inspector general’s report cites Elaine Chao for using office to help family. A government watchdog found that Elaine Chao, President Donald Trump’s transportation secretary, used her office to help her family’s shipping business, which has ties to China. Link to New York Times article for details.


— Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York apologized for his behavior after three women accused him of sexual harassment, but he refused to resign.



— House cancels its Thursday session after a security warning. Federal security agencies warned that domestic extremists remain inspired by election-fraud beliefs, with some conspiracy theorists focused on March 4 — Inauguration Day until it was moved to Jan. 20 in 1937. House Democratic leaders who discussed the warning decided the threat of violence was too significant to ignore. The Senate is scheduled to convene at noon.


— Border officials anticipate 117,000 children will arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border without a parent or guardian in 2021. The number is higher than the 68,000 taken into custody during the 2014 surge of solo children, which President Barack Obama termed an "actual humanitarian crisis." It's greater than the 80,000 who arrived during the 2019 surge, which then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called "a humanitarian and security crisis." The Biden administration has announced emergency tent facilities in several spots on the border to hold overflow families and children. Border Patrol is only supposed to hold people three days before they are transferred out, but with transfer agencies inundated and out of beds, Border Patrol is increasingly getting stuck getting people through the system.


— Trump navigable waters rule in effect. The Trump administration’s Navigable Water Protection Rule is now in effect across the U.S. in the wake of federal appeals court reversing a lower court ruling that had blocked it from taking effect in Colorado. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Colorado ruling was in error as it did not agree that there would be irreparable harm if the rule were to take effect.


— Lofgren, Newhouse reintroduce Farm Workforce Modernization Act. House Judiciary Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) reintroduced their Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), a bill they say “aims to provide a compromise solution that makes meaningful reforms to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program and creates a first-of-its-kind, merit-based visa program specifically designed for the nation’s agricultural sector.” The bill passed the House in the 116th Congress, but not the Senate. Lofgren said in a news release that “Stabilizing the workforce will protect the future of our farms and our food supply. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act accomplishes this by providing a path to legal status for farmworkers and updating and streamlining the H-2A temporary worker visa program while ensuring fair wages and working conditions for all workers.” The lawmakers said their bill would assure a legal and reliable workforce for the agriculture sector and make it easier to employ foreign workers. Their bill would provide three-year visas to guestworkers and allow up to 60,000 of them to work year-round on dairy farms and at other locations offering steady work. At present, H-2A visas are granted only for seasonal labor.  Link to summary of the FWMA.


     Many of the bill’s provisions were incorporated into the comprehensive immigration reform bill that is backed by President Biden, but it proposes a longer and more expensive path to obtaining a green card than the White House plan.


     Differences. The Biden administration’s immigration plan would make undocumented farmworkers and their families eligible for green cards immediately if they pass background checks, pay fees, and have performed at least 400 days of farm work in the past five years. They could apply for citizenship three years later if they pass additional background checks and demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics. The Lofgren-Newhouse measure would grant legal status to undocumented farmworkers who have performed at least 180 days of labor in the past two years. They could retain the “certified agricultural worker” status indefinitely by continuing to work for at least 100 days a year in agriculture. Workers who want a green card would have to complete four to eight additional years of farm work to qualify. The H-2A program would be streamlined by allowing employers to file one application for all the workers they need during a year, freeze wages for one year, and then limit wage increases for the next nine years. It also would phase in use of the E-Verify electronic database to ensure that applicants can work legally in the United States.


— Sorenson to lead NPPC. Jen Sorenson, part of an Iowa business that markets more than 5 million head of hogs per year, was elected president of the National Pork Producers Council at the annual Pork Industry Forum. Link for details.



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