US markets close as Frankenstein's Monstorm heads to NYC

Hurricane Sandy marks first full trading-day lost to weather in over 25 years.

Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit in New York City in just under 15 hours, is likely to throw everything we expected about the upcoming week off-course.

For readers of this blog, the biggest immediate effect is that all equity trading is cancelled for today, and likely for tomorrow as well. The shutdown, announced by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), follows the NYSE's decision, announced yesterday, to close floor trading for the storm.

The NYSE had hoped to leave digital markets open, but the SEC's decision trumps that and also brings down a further dozen exchanges, including the other major NYC exchange, NASDAQ, but also ones based further afield, all the way to BATS in Kansas.

While the NYSE decision was based largely on the physical safety of traders on the floor, the SEC's mandate seems more built around a desire for fairness and stability. Given the storm will likely shut down most of the east coast for at least part of today, large numbers of traders would be unable to log-on wherever they are. The COO of NYSE confirmed to Bloomberg that:

Operating the market that way didn’t seem to serve the public interest. Why do this? To prove we can? That didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

The last time the NYSE closed for a full day due to weather was because of Hurricane Gloria in 1985, which says a lot about how bad Sandy is expected to be.

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has written about Why Sandy Has Meteorologists Scared in 4 Images (including one animated GIF, obviously); this is Frankenstein's Monstorm, with a massive confluence of adverse factors. Firstly, and most importantly, it's really, really big. The winds are faster, the affected area is larger, and it will likely stick around for a lot longer once it makes landfall.

Beyond that, though, there's the fact that the eye of the storm will be on central New Jersey, meaning that New York City – the most densely populated area in the US – will be getting full-strength hurricane winds; the fact that the same cold winds that will cause it to "pinwheel" on to land will also strengthen it just before it does, hitting coastal areas even harder; and the problem that the "sheltered" New York City coastline will instead funnel the storm surge directly towards populated areas, meaning that for the coast between Queens and the Bronx especially, there is more chance than not that the surge will be greater than six feet.

The effect of the storm is expected to be worse than last summer's Hurricane Irene, which, despite being thought of as a damp squib (pun not intended), still caused nearly $16bn of damage, mostly from flooding. But the comparatively underwhelming nature of Irene has meant that a number of people aren't taking Sandy as seriously as they perhaps ought to, with evacuations (Mayor Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of around 375,000 people in the worst-hit parts of the city) reportedly being largely ignored.

As well as the physical and economic damage of the storm, there is one other big effect that Sandy could have: it may mess up the US presidential election. No matter how well-run the response is, there are likely to be some areas still lacking power by the 6th. Contingency plans will be in effect, but if there is any uniformity to the areas affect – if, say, rural counties are more likely to be cut-off than urban – then there is the chance that some swings could be down to the storm.

The chance of it affecting the outcome is slim but the possibility is there. Who knows how the parties, and the public, would take it?

Hurricane Sandy making landfall. Image: WeatherBELL

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.