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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.