Business briefing

The daily business briefing: December 23, 2021

Biden says administration, companies averted holiday supply crisis, the FDA authorizes Pfizer's pill to treat COVID-19, and more

1

Biden says holiday supply crisis averted

President Biden said Wednesday that measures taken by his administration had eased supply-chain bottlenecks to avoid a pre-Christmas logjam. "The much-predicted crisis didn't occur," Biden said ahead of a meeting between government officials and leaders of major companies. "Packages are moving, gifts are being delivered, shelves are not empty." Biden created a task force in June to address high prices and inventory shortages blamed on pandemic-related shipping and labor problems, along with high demand. The administration pushed ports to operate around the clock to clear bottlenecks, resulting in a record number of goods passing through Southern California ports, with shipping wait time cut in half. FedEx CEO Fred Smith said some issues remained but "most of Santa Claus' products will be delivered to the consumers."

2

FDA authorizes Pfizer's pill to treat COVID-19

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized Pfizer's antiviral pill Paxlovid to treat early COVID-19 cases, making it the first drug approved for people to take at home to prevent severe symptoms. The milestone came as infections and hospitalizations rise and authorities warn of a potential flood of cases due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Another antiviral pill, developed by Merck, also is expected to receive authorization soon. Health experts have high expectations for Pfizer's drug due to its mild side effects and tests showing it reduces hospitalizations and deaths by nearly 90 percent among patients at risk for severe disease. "The efficacy is high, the side effects are low, and it's oral. It checks all the boxes," said Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic.

3

Biden extends student loan payment relief

President Biden announced Wednesday that he would extend a suspension of student loan payments until May 1 to help people facing financial problems due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. The pause had been scheduled to expire Feb. 1. The change comes as the Biden administration and local public health officials rush to address the new COVID-19 surge fueled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant. "Given these considerations, today my administration is extending the pause on federal student loan repayments for an additional 90 days — through May 1, 2022 — as we manage the ongoing pandemic and further strengthen our economic recovery," Biden said in a statement. Biden also said the Education Department was working to help borrowers "transition smoothly" back into making payments when the time comes.

4

Existing-home sales rise with boost from low mortgage rates 

U.S. existing-home sales rose by 1.9 percent in November compared to the month before as low mortgage interest rates and a strong job market continued to fuel strong demand. The seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.46 million sales marked the fastest pace since January, although November sales were down 2 percent from a year earlier. Existing-home sales are headed for their best year since 2006, with sales up by 10 percent from a year earlier in the first 11 months of 2021, thanks to low interest rates, higher household savings, and buyers looking for more space to work from home. Competition for limited inventory has driven prices up, with the median existing-home price up by 13.9 percent in November from a year earlier, to $353,900, the National Association of Realtors said.

5

Stock futures edge higher after 2 days of gains

U.S. stock futures rose slightly early Thursday after a second day of gains despite ongoing concerns about the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant. Futures tied to the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 were up by about 0.3 percent at 6:30 a.m. ET. Futures for the tech-heavy Nasdaq were up by 0.2 percent. The Dow and the S&P 500 rose by 0.7 percent and 1 percent, respectively, on Wednesday. The Nasdaq gained 1.2 percent. The three main U.S. indexes on Tuesday ended a three-day losing streak fueled by fears of economic fallout from the Omicron surge. "December is a month where we're not supposed to see much volatility, but we have thanks to the Omicron variant news," said Angelo Kourkafas, an investment strategist at Edward Jones.

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