Epic Texas Energy Woes Have Major Market and Potential Political Implications

Posted on 02/18/2021 8:13 AM

USDA official sizes up 2021 acreage prospects and outlook for crops, livestock

 


In Today’s Digital Newspaper


 

Market Focus:
• Almost 40% of U.S. crude production is now offline… Brent price above $65 in Asia
• Saudi Arabia plans to reverse oil cuts as prices rise
• Refinery activity, other energy sector impacts remain from winter storm
• Gasoline prices expected to rise 10 to 20 cents a gallon in coming days
• Many U.S. frackers unable to take advantage of latest price rise
• Retail spending up 5.3% in January, boosted by arrival of Covid-relief payments
• U.S. industrial production rose 0.9% in January, led by 1% gain in mfg output
• Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, industry analysts upping U.S. economic forecastss

• USDA’s Meyer outlines Covid impacts, 2021 acreage prospects
• World's debt-to-GDP ratio rose to 356% in 2020
* Building a home? It’s price is going up… as lumber surges
• Brazil soybeans sprouting in pod where harvest delayed
• Ag demand update
Canadian producers expected to boost canola plantings at expense of wheat
• ANEC remains optimistic Brazil’s soybean & corn exports could top year-ago this month
• Argentine gov’t accuses some companies of holding back production
• Sime Darby expects 2020 to be “a respectably good year for palm oil”
• German pork prices rise for the first time since November

Policy Focus:
• Biden minimum wage plan could be modified
• IRS: All stimulus checks delivered
• EPW sets infrastructure hearing
• Low-income Californians set to receive a $600 state stimulus payment

 

Biden Administration/Personnel

• Federal offices in Washington area closed today due to inclement weather
• Biden rescheduled today’s planned trip to a Pfizer vaccine mfg site in Michigan

 

China Update:
NYT: Biden on ‘short leash’ as administration rethinks China relations
• Report: China and U.S. are headed towards an inevitable divorce

 

Energy & Climate Change:

• Epic Texas energy failure continues
• Buttigieg sets climate, race equity as infrastructure priorities  
• Sen. Carper sees prospect for eventual rise in gasoline, diesel taxes
• Net Zero Business Alliance formed; including United Airlines, Tyson Foods


Food & Beverage Industry Update:
• Dole Food merging with Total Produce… world’s largest fresh produce firm
• Senators push for Covid vaccinations for food industry workers


Coronavirus Update:
• Weather has disrupted coronavirus vaccination programs in several states
• Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine effective against South African strain
• Cuba says it has developed a Covid-19 vaccine
• Gov. Andrew Cuomo of N.Y. facing federal inquiry over handling of nursing homes
• Life expectancy in the U.S. fell by a full year in early 2020
• U.S. to pay back dues to WHO by month-end

 

Politics & Elections:
• Potential political fallout from Texas energy crisis
• Singer and talk show host Kelly Clarkson will sit down with Jill Biden
• Trump-McConnell feud could hurt GOP prospects in 2022
• Democrat Lasry enters Wisconsin Senate race


Other Items of Note:
• Number of immigrant families illegally crossing U.S. border rises
• Biden’s immigration overhaul to be introduced in Congress today  
• Foreign ministers of U.S., India, Japan and Australia hold virtual meeting today
• Biden: majority of elementary schools open five days a week by first 100 days in office
• Millionaires get a lot more tax audits in Democrat’s IRS bill
• Mexican glyphosate lawsuits.

 


MARKET FOCUS


 

Equities today: Global stock markets were mixed but mostly weaker overnight. Mainland China markets were open Thursday after being closed several days for the Lunar New Year holiday. U.S. stock indexes are pointed toward weaker openings. China’s Shanghai Composite Index gained 0.6%, while Japan’s Nikkei 225 slipped 0.2% and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 1.6%.

 

     U.S. equities yesterday: The Dow closed up 90.22 points, 0.29%, at 31,613.02, a new record close. The Nasdaq declined 82.00 points, 0.58%, at 13,965.49. The S&P 500 lost 1.26 points, 0.03%, at 3,931.33.

 

     GameStop frenzy prompts SEC to consider new rules, the Wall Street Journal reports (link). The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is weighing whether to require more transparency in short selling and the opaque network of stock lending and borrowing that facilitates it. House lawmakers are due to meet today to discuss the dearth of short-sale data. Meanwhile, the House Financial Services Committee will grill Wall Street leaders today on the potential risk to capital markets posed by retail trading after shares in companies like GameStop skyrocketed last month before plunging again. If the SEC were to act, it could pursue a series of rules, ranging from short interest caps to taxing short-term bets, according to BofA analyst Michael Carrier. The commission may also move to review payment for order flows (PFOF) and pursue social media oversight to ward off potential market manipulation.

 

On tap today:

 

     • USDA Ag Outlook Forum, today into Friday.
     • European Central Bank publishes minutes from its Jan. 20-21 meeting at 7:30 a.m. ET
     • U.S. jobless claims are expected to fall to 773,000 in the week ended Feb. 13 from 793,000 a week earlier. Follow our coverage here. (8:30 a.m. ET) Update: U.S. jobless claims total 861,000 vs. 773,000 estimate.
     • U.S. housing starts for January are expected to fall to an annual pace of 1.66 million from 1.669 million the prior month. (8:30 a.m. ET) Update: 1.580 million... well below expectations for 1.66 million. Permits, however, were way above expectations… 1.881 million vs expectations of 1.67 million.
     • U.S. import prices for January are expected to rise 1% from a month earlier. (8:30 a.m. ET)
     • Philadelphia Fed's manufacturing survey for February is expected to fall to 20 from 26.5 the prior month. (8:30 a.m. ET)
     • European Commission's flash consumer confidence indicator for February is out at 10 a.m. ET.
     • Japan consumer prices for January are out at 6:30 p.m. ET.
     • Federal Reserve speakers: Governor Lael Brainard at a virtual U.S. Climate Finance Summit at 8 a.m. ET and Atlanta’s Raphael Bostic on educational inequality at 10 a.m. ET.

 

USDA’s Meyer outlines Covid impacts, 2021 acreage prospects as USDA Outlook Forum opens. USDA’s Outlook Forum is in virtual form this year, with USDA Chief Economist Seth Meyer laying out the economic landscape for the agricultural sector. He noted the rebuilding of the Chinese hog herd as a factor in markets, including corn and soybeans.

 

     For corn, Meyer detailed, “What we have seen, though, in China, and what has sparked this big import of corn has been the spread between internal prices for corn in China and what corn prices are elsewhere in the world.” He put the difference in price at round $150 per tonne. He also said the tariff-rate quota (TRQ) will not be a limit on Chinese corn imports.

 

     For 2021 U.S. planted acreage, he said USDA sees corn planting at 92 million acres and soybeans at 90 million for a combined 182 million acres, a record. For wheat, Meyer said that USDA sees a “small rise” in wheat area for 2021. He also noted that winter wheat harvested area is a “question.” He also said USDA sees cotton plantings at 12 million.

 

     He said USDA sees season average prices for corn at $4.20 per bushel, soybeans at $11.25 per bushel and wheat at $5.50 per bushel in their respective 2021-22 marketing years.

 

     For livestock, he outlined higher prices forecast compared with 2020 for live cattle at $115 per cwt., hogs at $50.50 per cwt., and broilers at 84. 5 cents per pound. But to hit the price marks, he said there needs to be “robust domestic demand and solid exports.”

 

The U.S. economic recovery is broadening. Consumers used stimulus checks to boost retail spending in January to its largest increase in seven months, a significant jump that comes as manufacturers continued to increase output and employers resumed hiring. Retail sales, a measure of purchases at stores, at restaurants and online, jumped a seasonally adjusted 5.3% in January from a month earlier, and manufacturing output neared pre-pandemic levels. Consumer spending is the main driver of the U.S. economy, accounting for more than two-thirds of economic output. Improvements continued to be seen compared with year-ago marks for building materials and garden equipment stores and food and beverage stores versus year-ago levels, while clothing retailers saw improved activity compared with December. But food service and drinking places, while up from December, still remain in a struggle as outdoor dining and Covid-related restrictions continue to restrict that sector.

 

     The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s GDPNow model on Wednesday predicted the economy will grow at a 9.5% seasonally adjusted annual rate in the first quarter, up sharply from a 4.5% estimate a week ago. Minutes from the Fed’s January policy meeting separately showed that policy makers expected the end-of-year federal stimulus package and progress toward widespread vaccinations would improve the outlook for the economy.

 

     Atlanta Fed

 

     The Federal Reserve separately on Wednesday said that industrial production, a measure of factory, mining and utility output, increased a seasonally adjusted 0.9% in January compared with December. That marked the fourth consecutive month of gains with manufacturing output rising 1% in January to just below its pre-pandemic level in January a year ago. Meanwhile, Fed officials at the Jan. 26-27 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) kept their policy stance steady, reiterating stances that the pandemic path, vaccine progress and fiscal policy are key for the economic path ahead. But they are also watching other areas as the recovery continues.

 

     Retail spending

     Mfg output

 

     Goldman Sachs economists upgraded their U.S. economic forecast, predicting the U.S. economy will grow 7% this year with the unemployment rate falling to 4.1% and core PCE inflation rising to 1.85% by year-end.

 

The world's debt-to-GDP ratio rose to 356% in 2020, a new report from the Institute of International Finance (IIF) finds, up 35 percentage points from where it stood in 2019, as countries saw their economies shrink and issued an ocean of debt to stay afloat. "The upswing was well beyond the rise seen during the 2008 global financial crisis," IIF economists said in the report. "Back in 2008 and 2009, the increase in global debt ratio was limited to 10 percentage points and 15 percentage points, respectively." Government debt accounts for 105% of global GDP, up from 88% in 2019, rising by $12 trillion in 2020 or nearly triple its $4.3 trillion increase in 2019.

 

Market perspectives:

 

     • Outside markets: The U.S. dollar index is trading lower. The U.S. Treasury 10-year note is currently fetching 1.282%. If U.S. Treasury yields continue to rise, investors would be more inclined lock in those higher returns, analysts note. For perspective, the German 10-year bond (bund) yield stands at -0.359% and the U.K. bond (gilt) yield is 0.585%. Nymex crude oil futures prices are slightly lower and trading around $61.00 a barrel.


     • Crude oil futures are higher and have moved closer to marks seen in Asian trading. U.S. crude was around $61.50 per barrel and Brent around $64.70 per barrel ahead of the U.S. trading start. The U.S. crude oil production decline fueled a rise in Asian trading, with U.S. crude up 59 cents at $61.73 per barrel and Brent up 80 cents at $65.17 per barrel.

 

     • Gasoline prices are expected to rise 10 to 20 cents a gallon in the coming days after winter storms knocked out about a dozen refineries in Texas, capping a sharp run-up in prices since Halloween and possibly heralding a move toward $3 by summer as the pandemic eases. Regular unleaded gas averaged $2.54 a gallon nationally Wednesday, up two cents from the previous day, according to AAA.

 

     • Saudi Arabia plans to reverse oil cuts as prices rise. In a sign of growing confidence over an oil-price recovery, the world’s largest oil exporter said it will reverse a recent big production cut in April. Oil prices returned to pre-pandemic levels recently as vaccination programs make progress. The world’s largest oil exporter surprised oil markets last month when it said it would unilaterally slash 1 million barrels a day of crude production in an effort to raise prices. But the Kingdom plans to announce a reversal of those cuts next month. "We are in a much better place than we were a year ago, but I must warn, once again, against complacency," Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the Saudi energy minister, told a conference on Wednesday. "The uncertainty is very high, and we have to be extremely cautious."

 

     • Refinery activity, other energy sector impacts remain from winter storm. As of Feb. 17, refinery shutdowns, rate reductions, or process unit outages have been reported at refineries representing approximately 4.2 million barrels per day (bpd) of refinery capacity, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). Natural gas production has also been affected, with DOE noting, “Although production losses due to freeze-offs are temporary, output takes time to return to normal levels, and the cumulative reduction over several days could be substantial.” DOE is also predicting there will be the “largest withdrawal from storage in the history of the South Central Region” relative to natural gas for the week ending Feb. 19. Texas Governor Greg Abbot has also urged liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals to “dial back operations,” DOE said. 

 

     • Many U.S. frackers are unable to take advantage of the latest price rally as they work to restore as much as one-third of the nation’s oil production. The winter storm that left millions without power this week knocked out as much as 2.5 million barrels a day in the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford of Texas and one million in other oil-rich states.

 

        COF futures

 

     • Building a home? It’s price is going up… as lumber surges. Lumber markets aren’t paying much attention to normal seasonal trends. Prices for wood products have shot to fresh records, the Wall Street Journal reports (link), defying the normal winter slowdown in a sign that the pandemic building boom is barreling into 2021. Lumber for March delivery recently reached twice the price of a year ago, sending some buyers into May contracts in search of lower costs. The growth is the result of big moves in consumer markets that are coursing through supply chains. Americans seeking more room under the pandemic are stampeding toward new houses, with home sales defying typical seasonal patterns with strong winter growth while housing starts and new building permits rose in December to their highest levels since 2006. That helped lumber transports on U.S. railroads grow in the fourth quarter at the fastest pace in more than five years, according to the Association of American Railroads.

 

       Lumber prices

 

     • Reports are surfacing out of Brazil of the beans sprouting in the pod where the harvest is delayed.  Analyst and trader Richard Crow says the damage and sprouting problems are hard to define over such a large area. 

 

     • Ag demand: Jordan purchased 60,000 MT of hard milling wheat from optional origins. The Philippines reportedly rejected all offers in their tender to buy 75,000 MT of feed wheat and 70,000 MT of milling wheat, citing high prices. Tunisia issued an international tender to buy 92,000 MT of durum wheat, 100,000 MT of soft wheat and 100,000 MT of animal feed barley. Egypt’s state grain buyer tendered to buy at least 30,000 MT of soyoil and 10,000 MT of sunflower oil. South Korea’s Major Feedmill Group purchased around 55,000 MT of animal feed wheat in its international tender. Pakistan tendered to buy 300,000 MT of wheat. Japan’s ag ministry purchased 82,393 MT of food-quality wheat from the U.S. in a regular tender.

 

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

     • Canadian producers expected to boost canola plantings at the expense of wheat
     • ANEC remains optimistic Brazil’s soybean & corn exports could top year-ago this month
     • Argentine gov’t accuses some companies of holding back production
     • Sime Darby expects 2020 to be “a respectably good year for palm oil”
     • German pork prices rise for the first time since November

 


POLICY FOCUS


 

— Biden minimum wage plan could be modified. The White House acknowledged that President Joe Biden’s proposed $15 minimum-wage hike may not make it through Congress as he framed it, following objections from key moderate Democrats. Biden recognizes that the economic rescue bill that includes the wage increase “may not look exactly the same on the other end when it comes out” of Congress, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing yesterday.

 

— IRS says all stimulus checks have been delivered. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) said this week that it has finished issuing stimulus checks to all of the eligible taxpayers that it has on file — meaning some Americans will need to ask for the money when they file their 2020 tax return. Starting last April, the IRS sent more than 160 million stimulus checks worth $270 billion. Some payments may still be in the mail, but otherwise, you will have to use a recovery rebate worksheet to calculate how much you should receive and claim that amount on Line 30 on your 2020 tax return. The IRS will include your stimulus payments as part of your refund check.

 

—  EPW sets infrastructure hearing. The Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee scheduled a hearing on transportation infrastructure on Feb. 24. The hearing is titled “Building Back Better: Investing in Transportation while Addressing Climate Change, Improving Equity, and Fostering Economic Growth and Innovation.” Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) said last week he was planning a hearing on the reauthorization of the federal surface transportation programs that will include “a strong climate title.” He said he’s aiming to report the bill out of committee in May.

 

     Meanwhile the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Bipartisan Policy Center led a letter (link) to lawmakers “urging Congress to enact a fiscally and environmentally responsible infrastructure package that stimulates the economy and improves the quality of life for every American.” The groups called on lawmakers to enact legislation by July 4, 2021 that would “propel public and private efforts to decarbonize our economy in a meaningful way, address infrastructure challenges with both manmade and natural solutions, and close the digital divide by expanding broadband and internet access.”

 

— Low-income Californians are set to receive a $600 state stimulus payment to help them weather financial hardships during the pandemic. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders announced they have agreed to a $9.6-billion economic recovery package that also includes $2.1 billion in grants for small businesses, as well as help for state-subsidized child-care and preschool providers. The “Golden State stimulus” payments provided under the state proposal, which will be expedited for legislative approval next week, are in addition to the $600-per-person stimulus checks already approved by Congress and would be on top of direct payments of up to $1,400 per person that have been proposed by House Democrats.
 


BIDEN ADMINISTRATION PERSONNEL


 

—  Federal offices in the Washington area will be closed today due to inclement weather, the Office of Personnel Management said in a statement. President Biden rescheduled today’s planned trip to a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing site in Michigan for tomorrow. The president has no public events scheduled today.
 


CHINA UPDATE


 

NYT: Biden on ‘short leash’ as administration rethinks China relations. “The Biden administration has argued that by being more strategic in how it addresses China, it will ultimately be more effective than the Trump administration,” the NYT reports (link). “It has laid out an ambitious task as it looks to not only crack down on China for what it sees as unfair trade practices but also develop a national strategy that helps build up America’s economic position to better counter Chinese competition.”

 

— China and the U.S. are headed towards an inevitable divorce, but the U.S. needs to manage it in a targeted way, according to an American study on economic ties with China. “Decoupling is likely to continue in one form or another, even if it does evolve in a more measured, targeted way,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s China Center and New York-based research firm Rhodium Group said in a joint report (link) released on Wednesday. “In both Washington and Beijing, political trust is at a nadir, and a return to the cooperative engagement policy that dominated the relationship since 1972 is difficult to imagine absent a sea change in both capitals,” it said. “Identifying the real consequences and costs of decoupling is urgent because initial steps toward such an act have already been taken,” it said. “The U.S. is debating… whether and how to continue down this path. The prospect of U.S./China decoupling has never been more real. But there is a strong rationale to limit decoupling to segments of trade, investment, people flows and technology that meaningfully impair US national security and not to act gratuitously without regard for economic welfare.” Citing falls in trade, investment flows, tourism and student exchanges, the report said “some degree of decoupling” of the two countries had already occurred, and many US firms were making changes in preparation.

 

     China report

 

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

 


ENERGY & CLIMATE CHANGE


 

— Epic Texas energy failure continues. The Financial Times looked at the state of lack of energy events in Texas and noted: “Texas is the only state that has not connected its grid to others, which it has done to avoid federal regulations. But that also means it was not able to import power from other states as generation failed and demand surged. Plus, Texas is unique in that it does not pay generators to maintain spare capacity that can be drawn on in times of peak demand, a so-called ‘energy only’ market design that will be closely examined.”

 

     Meanwhile, the Austin Fire Department responded to fires at several houses and to several toxic-exposure calls from residents using charcoal indoors, as the blackouts continue with no estimate of when power might return. Link to WSJ update.

 

     Texas is restricting the flow of natural gas across state lines in a move some are calling a violation of the U.S. constitution’s commerce clause. Governor Greg Abbott said he was forced to act as millions of Texans remain without power amid frigid temperatures, with no clear timeline for restoring service.

 

     Pelosi calls for grid changes. The U.S. should build a cheaper, cleaner and more reliable electric grid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in response to the weather and blackouts in Texas. “Extreme weather poses risks to the grid that require smart and urgent investments to reduce blackouts and brownouts,” Pelosi said in a statement.

 

— Buttigieg sets climate, race equity as infrastructure priorities. The Biden administration is revamping a key infrastructure grant program to prioritize projects that address climate change and racial equity. The Transportation Department included the new criteria in its announcement yesterday that it will award $889 million in grants to major freight and highway projects in fiscal 2021 through the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program. Last year’s grant solicitation prioritized projects that contributed to economic growth, had funding from nonfederal sources, used innovative technology, and included measures of accountability. Biden’s package reportedly will include funding for expanded broadband networks, bridge and road repairs as well as technology that reduces greenhouse gasses in a sprawling bill that includes multiple other issues.

 

     Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that senior Democratic officials have discussed proposing as much as $3 trillion in new spending as part of what they envision as a wide-ranging jobs and infrastructure package. That would come on top of Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan, as well as the $4 trillion in stimulus measures under former president Donald Trump.

 

— Sen. Carper sees prospect for eventual rise in gasoline, diesel taxes. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) agrees that increasing the gasoline tax or diesel tax during an economic downturn is not a likely way to pay for an expected major infrastructure effort. However, he told Politico in an interview that may well be an outcome down the road. “They say you don't want to raise a user fee in the middle of a recession, and I don't think we'd want to do anything this year,” Carper said, “but I think eventually one of the elements that we may want to consider — not the only one but one of the elements we may want to consider — as we prepare to go to vehicle miles traveled approach would be a very slow, gradual increase in user fees.” Any potential increase in gasoline or diesel taxes, however, would face even Democratic opposition, so Carper’s suggestion of an eventual rise not only reflects the economic situation but also the political situation.

 

— Net Zero Business Alliance formed, with initial members including United Airlines, Tyson Foods. The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) has formed the Net Zero Business Alliance with Occidental Petroleum Corporation, Southern Company, Tyson Foods, United Airlines and Weyerhaeuser as founding members. Additional firms are expected to join in the coming weeks. Their goal is to work with industry and policymakers to boost public-private investment in low-carbon energy technology innovation in a bid to speed development of those efforts. “While all the companies in our organization do not have exactly the same imagination about their company's roles or exactly what is going to be the pathway forward, everyone recognizes the scientific imperative for net-zero,” said Jason Grumet, president of the BPC. He said a key in the group is the “net” portion of “net-zero emissions,” as companies would likely use carbon capture and storage technology to remove emissions from areas that are hard to decarbonize.

 


FOOD & BEVERAGE INDUSTRY


 

— Dole Food is merging with Ireland-based Total Produce to create the world’s largest fresh produce company. Total Produce, which has owned 45% of the U.S. group since 2018, on Wednesday said it had reached a deal with Castle & Cooke, a real estate company that owns a majority stake in Dole’s parent company Dole Holdings, to combine the two and form a company with about $9.7 billion of annual revenues. The new group will be headed by Rory Byrne, chief executive of Total Produce, while Dole chief executive Johan Lindén will become chief operating officer. The companies said the deal would enable “portfolio diversification in large stable categories (bananas, pineapples, fresh and value-add vegetables) allied with above-market growth opportunities in segments such as soft fruit, avocados and organics.”

 

— Senators push for Covid vaccinations for food industry workers. There needs to be a “swift vaccination of farm and food chain workers” as it is “imperative that these essential frontline workers be included in initial phases of vaccine distribution nationwide,” Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said in a letter (link) to White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients. The lawmakers lamented that states and other jurisdictions have excluded farm and food chain workers in their vaccine distribution plans. They also called for vaccines distributed through employers be done in consultation with union and worker representatives. “This must be done in order to both adequately ensure their health and safety while also guaranteeing the continuity of food production and distribution in the U.S.,” the lawmakers said.

 


CORONAVIRUS UPDATE


 

 Summary: Global cases of Covid-19 are at 109,987,995 with 2,432,430 deaths, according to data compiled by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. case count is at 27,827,804 with 490,717 deaths. The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center (CRC) said that there have been 56,281,827 doses administered, 15,471,536 have been fully vaccinated, or 4.73% of the US population. CRC data shows only four countries having higher percentages of their population fully vaccinated than the US—Gibraltar (31.94%), Israel (30.99%), Seychelles (18.78%) and Cayman Islands (10.81%).
 

       Link to Covid Case Tracker
       Link to Our World in Data

 

— Winter storms have disrupted coronavirus vaccination programs in several states, with vaccine deliveries from the main parcel hubs delayed and some officials postponing appointments because of unsafe conditions.

 

— The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is effective against the South African strain. The shot generated a slightly lesser immune response to the variant than to earlier versions of the virus, but remained capable of neutralizing it, new research showed.

 

     Meanwhile, health workers in Europe are refusing to take AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine because of concerns over efficacy and reports of side effects. Politicians and scientists insisted shot had been proven to work safely and that not using it would undermine the fight against the pandemic in the region.

 

     Roughly one-third of U.S. military members have declined to get vaccinated for Covid-19, a Pentagon official said in a report Wednesday. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, the Joint Staff’s vice director for operations, told a congressional panel that “acceptance rates are somewhere in the two-thirds territory.” While the vaccine is “clearly safe for service members,” soldiers need education “to help them understand the benefits” of the shots, he told the House Armed Services Committee. In total, the Defense Department has fully vaccinated 147,000 service members and 359,000 have received a first dose, Pentagon official Robert Salesses told the outlet. Those who have declined can still be deployed, Taliaferro said.

 

— Cuba says it has developed a Covid-19 vaccine and will soon begin mass production.

 

— Andrew Cuomo is probed over Covid in nursing facilities. Federal prosecutors have begun an investigation of how the New York governor's administration handled the pandemic in the state's nursing homes, where the death toll is about 50% higher than earlier reports.

 

     The scandal in Albany is finally being reported on by Democratic-friendly cable shows on CNN. “Cuomo said ‘he can destroy me’ was one CNN headline. A New York assemblyman alleged the governor threatened him over the nursing homes scandal. CNN: “Describing an alleged exchange with the governor that has not been previously reported, Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim told CNN that he received a call on his cell phone from the governor last week as he was bathing his children at home. “‘Gov. Cuomo called me directly on Thursday to threaten my career if I did not cover up for Melissa [DeRosa] and what she said. He tried to pressure me to issue a statement, and it was a very traumatizing experience,’ Kim said. Cuomo proceeded to tell the assemblyman that ‘we’re in this business together and we don’t cross certain lines and he said I hadn’t seen his wrath and that he can destroy me,’ according to Kim.”

 

— U.S. life expectancy declined by a year during the first half of 2020, underscoring the deadly impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics said life expectancy at birth was 77.8 years as of the end of June based on provisional estimates. The one-year decline from the previous year was the largest drop since World War II and put life expectancy at its lowest level in the U.S. since 2006. Demographers predict life expectancy will decline further when figures for the full year are published. It also showed a deepening of racial and ethnic disparities: Life expectancy of the Black population declined by 2.7 years in the first half of 2020, slicing away 20 years of gains. The life expectancy gap between Black and white Americans, which had been narrowing, is now at six years, the widest it has been since 1998.

 

    Life expectancy

 

— U.S. to pay back dues to WHO by month-end. The U.S. will pay off arrears it owes to the World Health Organization (WHO) and its current-year obligations, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. will provide more than $200 million to the WHO as a “key step” in complying with U.S. financial obligations to the WHO as a member, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. U.S. dues to the WHO are assessed at 22% of the organization’s budget, or nearly $127 million. The Trump administration froze payments to the WHO last year and pulled out of the organization as it contended the organization did not confront China enough on the Covid-19. In perhaps a nod to a bipartisan concern over China’s lack of information sharing on Covid, Blinken said it was key for “all countries” to “make available all data from the earliest days of any outbreak.”

 


POLITICS & ELECTIONS


 

— Potential political fallout from Texas energy crisis. “Now It’s Coming Back to Bite Them; Democrats See an Opening in GOP Oversight of Texas Grid,” the New York Times reports (link). “As the state reels from power outages, Democrats look to turn the tables on the Republicans who dominate state government.”

 

— Singer and talk show host Kelly Clarkson will sit down with Jill Biden for the first solo broadcast interview since becoming First Lady. The interview will air Thursday, Feb.  25. The program says the episode will feature a special Kellyoke performance by Clarkson and her musical director Jason Halbert, requested by the First Lady and performed in the East Room of the White House. During the interview, Dr. Biden will reveal what inspired her Kellyoke song choice. The two will discuss Dr. Biden’s continued commitment to education, military families, cancer research and bringing the country together, and they’ll both take questions from the show’s live virtual audience.”

 

— Trump-McConnell feud could hurt GOP prospects in 2022. The Associated Press (link) says Trump “is escalating a political war within his own party that could undermine the Republican push to fight President Joe Biden’s agenda and ultimately return to power.” Trump “continued to attack McConnell” on Wednesday, saying in an interview, “The Republicans are soft. They only hit their own, like Mitch.” Politico says Republicans “are starting their life in the Senate minority mired in a civil war over the future of the GOP and [Trump’s] role in the party.” The New York Times (link) says McConnell has been drawn into “a vicious feud with the former president” and widened “Republican division that could spill into the midterm elections.” The Washington Post (link) reports, “Multiple Republicans close to McConnell said he has little interest in carrying on a back-and-forth with the former president. Having said his piece about Trump’s conduct after the election, McConnell has signaled he plans to focus his attention on opposing Democratic policies and ensuring the most electable Republicans emerge from Senate primaries next year.” But it is unclear “just how far Trump will pursue his vendetta against McConnell.”

 

— Democrat Lasry enters Wisconsin Senate race. The Associated Press reports (link) Democrat Alex Lasry, a 33-year-old Milwaukee Bucks executive and son of a billionaire, entered the Wisconsin Senate race on Wednesday. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has not yet said if he will seek re-election. The AP says the race “is expected to be one of the most hotly contested in the country with control of the Senate hanging in the balance.” The Washington Post reports (link) Lasry “served as an aide in the administration of former president Barack Obama and spearheaded Milwaukee’s successful attempt to land the 2020 Democratic National Convention, which was significantly pared down because of the pandemic.”
 


OTHER ITEMS OF NOTE     


 

— Number of immigrant families illegally crossing U.S. border rises. Federal authorities and aid groups reported a sharp rise in families illegally crossing the Mexican border. Some migrants say they are coming in anticipation of less harsh treatment under the Biden administration.

 

— Biden’s immigration overhaul will be introduced in Congress today. After two decades of failed attempts to reform the system, the proposed changes include an eight-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S., bolstering refugee and asylum processes and the greater use of technology to secure the southern border. It would also raise the current per-country caps for visas and change the word ‘alien’ to ‘noncitizen’ in U.S. law, among other proposals. The White House reportedly wants to break the bill up into pieces. It endorsed a plan to back separate bills for Dreamers, those with Temporary Protected Status and essential workers on a call with advocates Wednesday.

 

     Administration officials signaled they view the legislation more as an opening bid and don’t necessarily expect it to pass with the needed Republican support in its current form.

 

     Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) will introduce the bill in the House today, according to an administration official. The bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), plans to introduce the legislation early next week in the chamber, which is now in recess.

 

— Foreign ministers of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia hold a virtual meeting today for the first time since Biden took office.

 

— Psaki: White House would “support a study” of Black reparations. The Associated Press reports (link) the White House “is giving its support to studying reparations for Black Americans, boosting Democratic lawmakers who are renewing efforts to create a commission on the issue.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that President Biden “backs the idea of studying the issue...though she stopped short of saying he would sign the bill if it clears Congress.” Politico said Psaki “stopp[ed] short of full-throated backing for the bill.” Psaki said, “It’s working its way through Congress. We’d certainly support a study, but we’ll see what happens through the legislative process.”

 

— Biden is promising a majority of elementary schools will be open five days a week by the end of his first 100 days in office, restating his goal after his administration came under fire when aides said schools would be considered open if they held in-person learning just one day a week.

 

— Millionaires get a lot more tax audits in Democrat’s IRS bill. The U.S. gov’t could take in $1.2 trillion in additional tax revenue over a decade without raising marginal rates by aggressively auditing wealthy individuals and corporations, according to a House Democrat’s new bill. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is pushing legislation that would require a major boost in audits by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), along with increased penalties for underpaying taxes. The legislation would require the IRS to annually audit 95% of companies with at least $20 billion in assets and 50% of individuals earning at least $10 million.

 

— Mexican glyphosate lawsuits. The president of Mexico’s top farm group says he expects lawsuits will be filed soon by "all the people who use glyphosate and genetically modified corn" to overturn a government plan to ban use of the weedkiller and GMO corn over the next three years. Link for details.

 


 

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