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The water cooler’s existential moment

A long stretch of remote working has understandably led companies to think again about their office space — particularly about whether they need so much.

Buildings were already half-empty. This provocative finding, in a new report by Heather Jordan Gerety at Heda Jordan Consulting, is based on access card data, Wi-Fi use and in-room sensors. In recent years, more flexible schedules have resulted in record “hidden vacancies,” with up to 50 percent of headquarters space and 65 percent in other offices going unused.

• Polls suggest that people won’t rush to return, the report notes — virus-shadowed commutes will be stressful.

• There’s also this: “Excitement to see colleagues may only last for a couple of days.”

Cutting costs could mean losing space. The cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase said yesterday it would shift permanently to “remote-first” working, similar to what Twitter announced earlier this month.

• Big banks plan to spread employees out when they first reopen, staggering shifts and leasing satellite space in the suburbs, Bloomberg reports. And traders have mostly adapted to working from home, according to The Financial Times, reducing the need for packed trading floors.

• This doesn’t necessarily spell the end of crowded city centers, according to Eric Kober of the Manhattan Institute:

If some big companies lease less space, there will be (for a time) more vacant space, and asking rents will fall to the point where it makes sense for other businesses to expand or new businesses to start up. More people, not fewer, will be working in Manhattan offices in the future, at least some of the time.

Going back to the office won’t be pleasant, at least at first. “Many workers will find a mess of masking tape, plastic sheets, police tape, floor decals, and a host of half-baked design solutions” for social distancing, Anne Quito writes for Quartz. And water left stagnant in the plumbing of empty buildings could breed Legionnaires’ disease, The Times notes. Be careful out there.

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Credit…Ruben Sprich/Reuters

The World Bank taps a crisis specialist

Carmen Reinhart of Harvard is the new chief economist at the World Bank, starting next month.

She made her name studying financial crises, most notably with her colleague Ken Rogoff. Their 2009 book, “This Time Is Different,” analyzed 800 years of panics, defaults and other catastrophes.

• Their follow-up research generated controversy when the two claimed that growth cratered after debt hit 90 percent of G.D.P. Some policymakers used the finding to justify austerity measures after the 2008 financial crisis, but other researchers found errors in the calculations.

Ms. Reinhart isn’t worried about too much debt — for now. “You worry about winning the war and then you worry about how you’re going to pay down the debt,” she said in an interview yesterday with the Harvard Gazette. She also wrote in a recent opinion piece that “this is a ‘whatever-it-takes’ moment for large-scale, outside-the-box fiscal and monetary policies.”

She says the pandemic is “the nail in the coffin of globalization.” That might sound “melodramatic,” she told the Gazette, but she expects “more inward-oriented strategy” after the crisis subsides, which is bad news for many trade-dependent developing countries that rely on World Bank support.

• Global cooperation on debt restructuring and relief for poorer countries is crucial, she said. And China will have a special role, she added, given how much it has lent to developing countries recently.

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Credit…John Locher/Associated Press

Americans are braced for a depression

Only a fifth of people think that overall business conditions will be “very” or even “somewhat” good over the coming year, according to a poll for The Times by SurveyMonkey. Most expect years of hardship.

Sixty percent of respondents expect “periods of widespread unemployment or depression” over the next five years, The Times’s Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley write. That may reflect a decline in the national mood, also seen in other data.

A survey by the Census Bureau found that nearly a third of Americans reported feeling anxious or nervous more than half the days last week.

Fewer people now believe in a V-shaped recovery, as we’ve noted. And as Ben and Jim point out, pessimists may be less likely to spend even if their own finances are fine, so this shift could itself prolong the economic misery.

More rescue and reopening news:

• The “experience economy” — travel, sports, museums, concerts and more — isn’t sure how it can recover, and some $1.6 trillion in G.D.P. is on the line.

• Ford halted production at two plants that had reopened this week after workers tested positive.

• Lawmakers criticized Delta and JetBlue for cutting hours, weeks after receiving over $5 billion in federal aid.

White Collar Watch: Pandemic insider trading investigations

Peter J. Henning is a professor at the Wayne State University law school, and previously served in the enforcement division of the S.E.C. and the fraud section of the U.S. Department of Justice. Here, he considers the prospects for charges against senators over coronavirus-related trades.

The Justice Department is looking into stock trades by several lawmakers after they received closed-door briefings and other information during the early stages of the outbreak. The 2012 STOCK Act prohibits lawmakers from trading on material nonpublic information received as part of their duties.

Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, recently had his phone seized by the F.B.I., and has temporarily stepped down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He denies wrongdoing. Other senators — Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California; James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma; and Kelly Loeffler, Republican of Georgia — have also come under scrutiny. All deny wrongdoing. Unlike Mr. Burr, they also said that they did not direct the trades in question.

Will indictments follow? Insider trading is notoriously hard to prosecute, and the STOCK Act is yet to feature prominently in any case. But a verdict in a case last year, which involved a former staffer at a Medicare agency tipping off hedge funds, established that tippers could be prosecuted even if there wasn’t a quid pro quo. This is a boon for prosecutors.

Could the Securities and Exchange Commission also get involved? Lawmakers are protected by the “speech or debate clause” of the Constitution, which limits liability for actions taken as part of the legislative process. Trading stocks would not necessarily qualify, so that shouldn’t hold back the S.E.C. In March, the agency said it was on heightened alert for insider trading around coronavirus information.

Still, I suspect that the Justice Department will take the lead here. This is a high-profile investigation, to say the least, and the S.E.C. could file a parallel civil enforcement action.

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Credit…Jason Lee/Reuters

How to shore up the dollar

The U.S. dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency could be tested by the pandemic and China’s efforts to boost the renminbi, Hank Paulson, the former Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs C.E.O., writes in Foreign Affairs.

Developing a digital currency is important, Mr. Paulson writes. China is well ahead in making the renminbi digital-friendly, which could speed its international adoption. American policymakers should team up with Silicon Valley to counter that, while keeping in mind concerns about privacy, he adds.

• Vikram Pandit, the former Citigroup C.E.O., made a similar point in this space last week, arguing that central bank-issued digital currencies “could pave the way for an infrastructure that serves everyone.”

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


Otherwise, Mr. Paulson writes, the U.S. risks losing ground in digital finance, among “those who prefer digital finance over conventional banking” and with billions of people “in developing countries with weaker financial markets and volatile currencies.”

The speed read

Deals

• Apollo has invested $1.75 billion in the supermarket chain Albertsons, which is owned by a rival, Cerberus, and planning to go public. (Reuters)

• Recent private stock sales reportedly valued TikTok’s parent company at as much as $140 billion. (Bloomberg)

Germany’s Lufthansa is in advanced talks for a $10 billion bailout that would give the state a 20 percent stake. Leasing firms, including one owned by Bank of China, took control of Norwegian Air. (Reuters)

Politics and policy

• The Senate unanimously passed a bill that could force some Chinese companies to delist in the U.S. (WSJ)

Tech

• Why Facebook and private equity have bet nearly $9 billion on a mobile carrier founded by India’s richest man. (WSJ)

• Apple tweaked the face-unlock process on iPhones to play nicely with masks. (CNET)

Best of the rest

• The U.S. authorities arrested two men suspected of helping Carlos Ghosn flee Japan, including a former Green Beret. (NYT)

• Pandemic baking in Britain has led to surging business for flour mills. (NYT)

Thanks for reading! We’ll see you tomorrow.

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