At last, the Federal Reserve has begun to raise interest rates, and markets around the world are breathing a sigh of relief. The main share indexes in Europe were up between 1% and 2% in early trading, following similar increases in Asia and the U.S.
The Fed’s plan appears to be four more quarter-point moves next year. But Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s comments were full of comforting pragmatism, making it clear the central bank could slow its moves if conditions warrant.
What’s still unclear is what the effects of an unprecedented seven years of zero interest rates will be. The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip, one of the most insightful financial journalists around, has a piece this morning that looks at history and concludes that “the scale and nature of the distortions brought on by easy money can take some time to show up.”
A key area that regulators are watching, he says, is the flood of money that has poured into corporate debt and has been used, not so much to expand investment, but rather to buy back stock and acquire companies. This year alone, companies have borrowed $327 billion to finance mergers and acquisitions, more than double the previous high in 2012. Business debt now equals 70% of annual gross domestic product, surpassing its pre-recession peak. Ip’s column is worth a read here (subscription required.)
Meanwhile, the two bad boys of the pharmaceutical business – Turing CEO Martin Shkreli and Valeant CEO Michael Pearson – were both talking yesterday. The two have come under fire for business models based on jacking up drug prices and cutting research. The latter showed some humility and humor in his comments to investors, which you can read about here. The former gave an interview to the web site HipHopDX, which mentioned sex acts with Taylor Swift and called into question his fitness to be CEO. If you have a strong stomach, you can read that here.
More news below.
• Martin Shkreli arrested
If you follow business news closely, it is likely the name “Martin Shkreli” rings a bell: he doesn’t lead a Fortune 500 firm but he is infamous after his company bought the rights to a life-saving pill and jacked up the price from $13.50 to $750. Bloomberg is reporting Shkreli was arrested on securities fraud related to a firm he founded, saying the case has nothing to do with pharmaceutical costs. Prosecutors are charging him with illegally taking stock from Retrophin, a biotechnology firm he started in 2011, and using it to pay off debts from unrelated business dealings. He was later ousted from that company and sued by its board.
• Energy sector’s next big risks
Analysts have warned that oil-and-gas companies will slowly feel the impact from the historic agreement signed at COP 21 – even if it takes years for the consequences to become clear. The Paris Agreement commits 195 nations to report progress to a U.N. body in cutting carbon emissions every five years, beginning in 2023. While firms linked to fossil fuels have brushed off any worries about the deal, analysts at banks like Morgan Stanley are warning investors that the Paris Agreement creates a long-term challenge to the business model.
• Norfolk Southern investors courted
Canadian Pacific Railway and its activist backer Bill Ackman appealed directly to Norfolk Southern’s shareholders, urging them to back a sweetened takeover offer. CEO Hunter Harrison said he was willing to opt for a “street fight” – by taking a revised bid to a proxy fight – against the wishes of the Norfolk Southern board. The proposal now includes a contingent-value right that provides Norfolk Southern investors an extra payout of $3.4 billion on top of the existing cash-and-stock offer at about $27 billion.
• CVS gripes about Walgreens move
CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo lamented a new drug pricing and distribution deal struck by arch-rival Walgreens and drugmaker Valeant, a pact that calls for Walgreens to sell Valeant’s signature skin and eye drugs at a 10% discount under a 20-year agreement. Walgreens will also sell at low generic-drug prices more than 30 other Valeant-branded drugs. The move could marginalize pharmacy benefit managers, such as CVS’s Caremark unit. “This is another example of Valeant attempting to circumvent what PBMs do for payers,” Merlo said at CVS investor day in New York.
• Valeant cuts sales forecast
Valeant Pharmaceuticals sharply cut its sales and earnings forecasts for this year and next, as it deals with controversies over pricing and distribution strategies. While Valeant didn’t disclose the reasons for the trimmed targets, the company this fall severed ties to a mail-order pharmacy that helped win reimbursement for its costly dermatology drugs. It is facing government inquiries over its pricing practices. Valeant’s stock price has fallen sharply, limiting its ability to use its shares to help fund takeovers.
New York Times (subscription required)
Around the Water Cooler
• Las Vegas newspaper buyer revealed
Members of the media have spent nearly a week trying to determine who spent $140 million to buy Nevada’s largest daily newspaper, The Las Vegas Review-Journal. The primary buyer had tried to remain anonymous, but Fortune has learned that the buyer is Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of casino operator Las Vegas Sands Corp. and a major Republican Party donor. He was widely rumored to be the buyer – though Adelson has not responded to requests for comment the past several days.
• Pandora ‘wins’ copyright ruling
Copyright judges issued a ruling that will only modestly raise the royalties that Pandora must pay to music publishers – and the news led investors to sing a different tune. Sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves. But seriously, Pandora’s shares rose sharply in after-hours trading on Wednesday after the decision, which applies to all free Internet radio services, means Pandora must pay 17 cents to rights holders for every 100 songs listeners hear. Previously, it paid 14 cents per 100 plays. There had been concerns that much higher royalty rates could have devastated Pandora’s business.
• Clinton wants a ‘Buffett Rule’
Hillary Clinton, the candidate leading the Democratic field in the race for the presidential nomination, has advocated for a tax law proposed by Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett. The Buffett Rule is a proposal on any household in the U.S. making more than $1 million per year that requires payment of at least 30% of their income in taxes. Buffett has been a supporter of President Barack Obama, who initially backed the proposal, and is now helping out Clinton.
• Bill Ackman’s tough year
Hedge fund investor William Ackman told investors that 2015 could be his firm’s worst ever, suffering double-digit losses so far for the year. The performance is even worse than 2008 during the financial crisis, Ackman noted. Ackman added that because investors have asked for only a minimal amount of money back recently, the firm wasn’t forced to sell out of positions in order to meet redemption requests.