First up: war. You’ve probably heard by now that the US launched several airstrikes against ISIS targets inside Syria and, separately, in potentially averting an imminent threat to the homeland from an al Qaeda group called Khorasan. Many of the targets were in and around Raqqa, Syria, believed to be an ISIS stronghold. Several Arab nations took part in the US-led operation: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. A spokesman for the Pentagon said they are still assessing the effectiveness of the bombing campaign but the Pentagon believes they were “successful in hitting what we were aiming at.”
The airstrikes against Khorasan was in response to threats, however officials so far have provided no details about the terrorists’ planned attack or the credibility of the intelligence they had on it. A Pentagon spokesman said “the individuals plotting and planning it were eliminated.”
The Syrian government says the US told it of plans to carry out airstrikes. The State Department immediately denied that it gave prior notification. Reuters reports Iranian officials were informed of the airstrikes in advance, but not specific targets. Meanwhile, the Israeli military said that it had shot down a Syrian fighter jet that had “infiltrated into Israeli airspace,” the first such incident in at least a quarter of a century. It is thought that the jet wandered into Israeli airspace accidentally. Maybe, but it also illustrates the possibility of unintended entanglements coming out of the conflict.
In economic news: manufacturing activity is near a 4-1/2 year high in September and factory employment is up, but housing prices were sluggish in July.
Financial data firm Markit said its preliminary or “flash” factory purchasing managers index came in at 57.9, unchanged from August when it touched its highest level since April 2010. A reading above 50 indicates expansion. Manufacturing activity in the third quarter was the strongest since Markit started tracking it in mid-2007. Factory jobs rose for a second straight month, and new orders held steady above 60 for the third time in the last 4 months.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said its new general activity index for non-manufacturing firms in the mid-Atlantic region jumped sharply. The increase in activity reflected more new orders, sales and full-time hiring. Service sector employees also worked longer hours, while firms increased their capital spending.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency said home prices increased 0.1% in July, and 4.4% in the 12 months through July, the smallest gain since September 2012.
Further data showed euro zone business activity in September was the weakest this year, while factory activity in China picked up only slightly.
The Treasury Department today announced new rules to crack down on corporate tax inversions. The idea behind inversions is that a US business merges with or is acquired by a foreign company in a country with a lower tax rate; by redomiciling, or moving their headquarters to the lower tax rate country, they can lower their tax bill, even if they keep most of their business in the US. Obama applauded the Treasury for taking steps to reverse the trend of companies seeking to “exploit this loophole” to avoid paying their fair share in taxes. Yet he said he was still calling on Congress to pursue broader tax reform that would reduce the corporate tax rate, close loopholes and make the tax code simpler.
The new rules will mean little for companies that have already inverted, but for at least 10 companies in the midst of completing such deals, and for those considering inversions, the impact will be significant. Most pending deals could become more costly for the buyers, such as AbbVie, and its $54 billion deal to acquire Ireland’s Shire, as well as Medtronic and its $42 billion takeover of Covidien. Neither of these transactions, the biggest of the year, was expected to fall apart completely, partly because paying a break-up fee to walk away would likely be even more costly. AbbVie would have to pay Shire a $1.6 billion penalty if it were to renege on their merger agreement. Medtronic has a contract that lets it or Covidien walk away from their deal if the US Congress changes tax law. The Treasury’s new rules fall short of that, so a break-up fee likely would loom in this case, too, if the merger were called off. Burger King said it will proceed with its $11 billion deal with Canada’s Tim Hortons, stressing that the transaction was not about tax benefits.
There are also some new rules unveiled by the Treasury today, and some of these tax evasion schemes have names that sound like they came right off the playground. One rule will prevent inverted companies from using “hopscotch” loans that allow them to avoid dividend taxes when tapping tax-deferred foreign profits. Another rule will bar inverters from gaining access to offshore profits by using “decontrolling” strategies that restructure foreign units so they are no longer US-controlled. The Treasury is also tightening limits on the levels of ownership that the former US investors can have in an inverted company for it to qualify for foreign tax treatment under US law, a move that will make it harder to do the deals. And then there’s the “spinversion” which is a partial inversion where the US company transfers some of its assets to a newly formed foreign corporation. That corporation is then spun off to public shareholders. New rules would treat the spun-off company as a domestic corporation.
Ultimately, this is an issue that will require legislative action, but for now, it will be more difficult for companies to skip out on their tax obligations by moving offshore; more difficult but not impossible. I suspect there are a lot of tax attorneys working overtime today.
The United Nations Climate Summit kicked off today in New York. The summit was convened to lay the groundwork for nations to sign a binding emissions treaty late next year during climate negotiations in Paris. In speeches delivered at the summit, diplomats from 120 countries laid out a series of new, nonbinding climate commitments. Here is an overview of what world leaders have pledged so far: President Obama delivered an address at the summit this afternoon where he announced an executive order requiring federal agencies to take climate change into account when doling out dollars for international aid and investment abroad. The US has previously pledged to curb emissions 17% from 2005 levels by 2020.
The EU unveiled a new commitment to slash greenhouse-gas emissions 40% from 1990 levels by 2030. British Prime Minister David Cameron said that the U.K. is on track to cut emissions by 80% by 2050. Cameron did not, however, announce any new targets not already agreed to by the country. China’s Vice Premier repeated China’s previously stated goal of cutting carbon emissions by 40 to 45% from 2005 levels by 2020. Iceland said that it aims to power its economy entirely with clean energy, but did not set a date. Mexico announced that it aims to generate more than one third of its electricity from zero-emissions sources by 2018. Costa Rica will be powered purely from clean energy by 2016. And a whole bunch of countries pledged hundreds of million to the Green Climate Fund.
Sounds familiar, right? But maybe this time will be different, and the reason is because this time it might actually pay to go green. All things considered, the cost of curbing carbon emissions may be considerably cheaper than earlier estimates had suggested. For all the fears that climate change mitigation would put the brakes on growth, it might actually enhance it.
Last week, an international commission published the “New Climate Economy” report concludes that efficient investments could deliver at least half of the emission cuts needed by 2030 to keep global temperatures in check. And they could do so while delivering extra economic gains on the side. Side benefits include things like lower health costs.
And it looks like corporations are getting on the climate change bandwagon. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple was in New York, and he said: “The long-term consequences of not addressing climate are huge,” he said. “I don’t think anyone can overstate that.” Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt announced Google would stop funding the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, claiming the Council had been “literally lying” about the reality of climate change. Schmidt said: “The company has a very strong view that we should make decisions in politics based on facts — what a shock,” said Schmidt. “And the facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.”
The basics of climate change have been understood for a long time, don’t seem to be budging much and yet remain challenged by many non-specialists. What’s significant then, in such a public debate, is who acknowledges those basics, as much as what is said. That’s why it was news when former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson called for a carbon tax, when the Rockefellers, the first family of oil pulled out of oil sands or, the head of the world’s largest company by market cap endorses a brand new climate and business initiative by showing up and saying absolutely anything at all. Tim Cook also challenged the still-common fallacy that good business and environmentalism are mutually exclusive. “Too many people believe you can do this or that,” he said. “If you innovate and you set the bar high you will find a way to do both.”
The World Bank yesterday released a list of 73 countries and more than 1,000 companies that support a price on carbon dioxide pollution. Apple, which now powers 73% of its facilities with renewable energy and has raised its environmental profile, was not among the signatories.