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Your boss is ordering you back to the office even though they have no idea if COVID is really over

Labor Day marked the end of the total work-from-home era for many U.S. workers, with companies including Apple, Comcast, and Peloton demanding a return to the office after the long holiday weekend.

The unspoken premise behind the edict was that the COVID pandemic as we know it is over—or at least a shadow of what it used to be.

But public health experts say that many Americans—and their bosses—are making rosy assumptions about what the rest of the year will look like that aren’t based in science. The reality is that the virus probably isn’t going away any time soon, and how severe the next COVID wave will be is still a mystery. 

“Any modeling done more than three to four weeks ahead is meaningless,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), told Fortune. He added that anyone who says otherwise “probably wants to sell you a bridge.” 

“We have so little experience with coronaviruses and how they play out,” he said. “We’re kind of in limbo land right now.”

COVID be damned—bosses want workers back in the office 

Last year was filled with failed return to office deadlines. 

Several U.S. companies planned for a Labor Day return in 2021, but the Delta variant upended those plans. Early 2022 was the next target, until Omicron upended those plans, too.

More recent announcements about the end of remote work have left out COVID altogether. Apple recently set a Sept. 5 deadline for employees to return to the workplace at least three days a week but provided no COVID-related explanation as to why, such as the virus potentially letting up. 

And a memo from Comcast CEO Dave Watson reportedly mentioned the importance of in-person collaboration in innovation, but nothing about COVID beyond a statement that vaccines aren’t required, and a request that employees work from home or take time off when they’re sick, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer and other sources.

Although there have been some notable rebellions, it seems that workers with employers hellbent on getting them back into the office are being forced to leave remote work behind—whether or not the virus cooperates.

But bosses could be forgiven for assuming the pandemic is nearly over. The White House and World Health Organization have recently made statements that some experts say are far too optimistic.

Global COVID deaths are at the lowest level they’ve been at since March 2020, prompting World Health Organization head Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus this week to proclaim that the world has “never been in a better position to end the pandemic.”

“We are not there yet,” Ghebreyesus said. “But the end is in sight.”

And earlier this month, the White House seemed to pivot away from a dire forecast it issued in May that projected a fall/winter wave of up to 100 million COVID infections—more than the country’s recorded total so far—and potentially a sizable wave of deaths. 

At a Sept. 6 news conference, Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID response coordinator said that science has “caught up with the virus,” and that annual COVID boosters—similar to annual flu shots—are likely in the near future.

But other public health experts aren’t so optimistic.

“That could be one scenario,” CIDRAP’s Osterholm said. “Another scenario could be that we in fact see a new variant emerge that’s capable of evading immune protection, that’s more infectious.”

Beyond COVID-19, and the SARS and MERS epidemics of the early 2000s, scientists have very little experience with coronaviruses, he said—and there’s no reason to say one scenario is more likely than the other. 

“What we don’t want to do is provide comfort and comforting answers to the public because we think that’s what they want,” he said. 

The trouble with projections

In 2020, the idea of forecasting a virus like one forecasts the weather was a novel one. Bad virus “weather” ahead? Wear a mask, just as you might wear a raincoat if a storm was expected.

But there’s a reason forecasts are only issued for the next few days—or in the case of COVID, weeks, experts say.

“We’ve gotten very good at projecting what the pandemic is going to look like three, four, five weeks from now,” Dr. John Swartzberg, a professor at the Division of Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at the University of California, told Fortune.

“Beyond now—and certainly beyond six weeks from now—the accuracy of predictions drops dramatically,” he added. “You get two to three months out, and it’s almost like flipping a coin.”

The terms forecasting and modeling are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be, according to Dr. Elizabeth Carlton, assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and member of the state’s COVID-19 modeling team. COVID forecasts predict conditions in the near term—the next two to four weeks. Projections, however, are more long term, and require scientists to make assumptions.

Thus, any COVID projection more than a few weeks out—like the White House’s dire fall and winter prediction issued this spring—are based on conjecture and entirely uncertain.

A best attempt at a look ahead

Near-term U.S. COVID forecasts in the U.S. are mostly positive. 

“Most scenarios indicate that hospitalization rates from COVID-19 infection will be similar to current rates or decline slowly over the next few weeks,” the CDC told Fortune earlier this month. 

Beyond that, though, other public health agencies are careful to highlight the uncertainty in their projections about what will happen over the next few months. 

Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for COVID-19 response at the World Health Organization, told Fortune this week that “continued” waves of COVID are expected, though she added that providing a more specific picture is currently impossible.

Carlton believes there is reason for hope this holiday season—hope with a “giant asterisk.”

At the individual level, one’s risk of coming down with COVID “is lower than it has been for a while,” she said, especially given new Omicron boosters.

While now is not the time to throw caution to the wind and personal precautions should continue, “I think there is some justification for letting your hair down,” she added.

“This is not the flu—we’ve lost over 200,000 people this year to COVID,” she said. “In bad flu years we lose tens of thousands. But we’re not where we were a few years ago.”

But it’s not the time for public health and disaster preparedness officials to take a breather, Carlton noted.

When it comes to the world’s next COVID wave—and there will be another, experts say—the virus is holding its cards close. Most of the experts Fortune spoke to named subvariants BA.4.6 and BA.2.75 as potential variants of concern worth keeping an eye on this fall and winter. No one variant, however, is currently raising major red flags.

Little is known about the duo of Omicron spawns—including how severe symptoms might be and whether they may be able to evade immunity from even new Omicron boosters. Both show the ability, at least in some locations, to compete with the globally dominant BA.5—though neither so far is making rapid progress.

Because some variants like BA.2.75, also known as Centaurus, are making slow progress in the face of BA.5, they must have some advantages over it when it comes to transmissibility, Osterholm said.

But he adds that a “sense of humility” is what’s most needed as the U.S. faces another COVID winter.  

“For all we know, a Pi or Sigma could show up, replacing Omicron,” he said. 

An unpredictable virus

The virus wasn’t always so difficult to predict. In the pandemic’s earlier days, a variant that hit the U.K. hard would often have the same effect on the U.S. several weeks later.

But now, the virus is spawning so many subvariants in so many different locations that it’s difficult to pinpoint any one of them in any one region, and predict if and when it’s headed to the U.S., Carlton said.

With BA.5 seemingly dropping to a relatively low plateau of 60,000 newly reported cases per day, it’s easy to interpret the lull in waves as an end to the pandemic, Swarztberg says.

But we’ve come to that conclusion before—incorrectly so—and we keep doing it. It’s what Carlton and other experts call the “fear-fatigue” cycle or the “panic-neglect” cycle, both of which entail a lack of proactive precaution and reactivity that often involves too little action, too late.

Last year, the U.S. was in a good place in late September, October and November, Swarztberg said. 

“But then we saw a new variant called Omicron in South Africa,” he said. “Within three weeks, it was here.”

Past epidemic coronaviruses SARS and MERS, while far less transmissible, were far more lethal, with fatality rates ranging from 20%-30%, versus that of COVID-19, which is less than 1%, Osterholm said.

But it’s possible, he contends, that COVID-19 eventually evolves to develop the lethality of SARS and MERS while maintaining its signature transmissibility.

Even if such a scenario never plays out, COVID is currently the fourth leading cause of death in the country—a fact we’ve collectively numbed to, according to Osterholm.

“The same number three years ago would have been a ‘house on fire’ moment,” he said. 

“The question is, is that number going to keep dropping gradually, like a soft landing? Stay the same? Potentially go back up again with a climb? We just don’t know.”

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Federal Reserve gets serious about ending the party in Q3, asset valuations fall

JimVallee

During the third quarter of 2022, the Federal Reserve jacked up its key policy rate by 150 points across two meetings, accounting for half of its rate hikes since it started tightening policy in March. That, and Fed officials’ insistence that they’ll keep rates higher for longer to beat down inflation, put a damper on asset prices.

Also not to be ignored, the Fed’s actions to shrink its balance ramped up during the quarter, reaching its full reduction rate in September. At its full pace, the central bank is letting $60B of Treasury securities and $35B of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities roll off its balance sheet, an action that reduces liquidity to the financial markets.

In response, investors realized during the quarter that the central bank is serious about removing the punch bowl to ratchet down the economy in an effort to reign in prices.

“Markets welcome the arrival of monetary injections from central banks very warmly; the departure of those injections and the reintroduction of liquidity withdrawals, however, are not warmly welcomed and are accompanied by volatility as market participants sweat while discovering true prices in less distorted markets,” said Interactive Brokers economist José Torres, in a note.

During that three-month period, the 10-year Treasury yield has increased by 93 basis points to 3.829% on the last session of the quarter. Last Wednesday it touched as high as 4.0%, its highest level since the global financial crisis of 2008. Remember, as bond yields rise, bond prices fall.

The bear rallies: Hopes earlier in the quarter that the bear market may have run its course were quashed, with the S&P 500 falling 6.3%, the Nasdaq composite slipping falling 5.0%, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average off 7.6%.

Bitcoin (BTC-USD), which has been generally tracking risk assets, only edged down ~0.2% for the quarter, and is still below the $20K mark at $19.4K, and less than a third of its $68.9K all-time high in November 2021. Ethereum (ETH-USD), which achieved its Merge event in mid-September, jumped 25% during Q3.

Commodities: The phenomenon of investors turning to gold during uncertain times didn’t hold in Q3. The continuous gold contract fell 7.7% during the quarter.

Copper contracts, which generally tracks investors’ expectations for the economy, also fell, dropping 7.9% during the quarter.

Crude oil, more tied to geopolitical events than the Fed’s policy, fell 25%, ending the quarter at ~$79.74 per barrel.

Real estate cooldown: After experiencing super-charged growth during the height of the pandemic, the real estate market cooled some in Q3 as tighter financial conditions pushed mortgage rates higher and forced some homebuyers to the sidelines. The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 6.70% for the week ended Sept. 29, up a full percentage point from 5.70% for the week ended June 30.

In August, the most recent data available, the median sale price of a new home fell to $436.8K from $439.4K in July. The median existing home sales price fell to $389.5K vs. $403.8K in July. The Real Estate Select Sector SPDR ETF (NYSEARCA:XLRE) sank 12% during the quarter.

But consumers are still spending as inflation rises, even on discretionary items. The Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR ETF (NYSEARCA:XLY) managed a 3.6% increase during Q3.

Technology stocks stayed weak during the quarter, as the Technology Select Sector SPDR ETF (NYSEARCA:XLK) slipped 6.6% during the quarter.

The mighty dollar: With the Fed’s aggressive rate hikes, the U.S. dollar surged as higher interest rates made investing in the U.S. more attractive. The U.S. Dollar Index climbed 6.7% to 112.17 during the quarter. While the strong dollar makes it less expensive for Americans to travel abroad, it makes U.S. export more expensive and increases the debt burden for emerging economies with U.S. dollar-denominated debt.

Looking ahead: Going into Q4, Interactive Brokers’ Torres expects inflation to stay hot, the U.S. labor market remains strong, and the Fed to hang tough. “This will cause economic conditions to continue slowing, bond yields to rise further, albeit they’re probably close to the top, and equities to reach new lows, although they’re probably close to the bottom,” he said.

Traders tilt toward the Fed raising its key rate by 125 basis points over the next two meetings, though many expect a 100 bp increase. CME FedWatch tool puts a 44.1% probability on the rate rising to 4.00%-4.25% and a 51.9% probability on a 4.25%-4.50%.

SA contributor John M. Mason says the Federal Reserve is doing what it promised to do, but be on the lookout for how long it stays on track.

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Toyota’s CEO cautions against electric vehicles hype, views them as just one option in his ‘department store’ of powertrains

Toyota Motor Corp. plans to keep gas-powered cars as a key part of its lineup, rejecting efforts by rivals to go fully electric amid concerns over how quickly consumers will embrace new technologies.

While the world’s largest automaker will introduce more electric vehicles in the coming years, it will also offer a range of other options, including gasoline-electric hybrids, hydrogen- and traditional fossil fuel-powered models, according to Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda, who met with reporters Thursday.

Battery-electric vehicles “are just going to take longer than the media would like us to believe,” Toyoda, grandson of the automaker’s founder, told dealers gathered in Las Vegas. He pledged to offer the “widest possible” array of powertrains to propel cars cleanly.

“That’s our strategy and we’re sticking to it,” he said.

Toyota’s stance reflects the numerous and sometimes conflicting considerations for automakers, which are seeking to boost sales, serve diverse customer bases and meet increasingly strict environmental standards in many countries. The decision contrasts with that of competitors such as General Motors Co., which has pledged to go all electric by 2035.

Environmentalists and shareholders have criticized Toyota for dragging its feet in embracing EVs, with Greenpeace putting the brand at the bottom of its ranking of global automakers’ decarbonization efforts. Critics have accused Toyota of clinging to its 25-year history with the gasoline-electric Prius hybrid, which once earned Toyota plaudits.

“The fact is: a hybrid today is not green technology,” Katherine Garcia, director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation For All campaign, wrote in a blog post last month. “The Prius hybrid runs on a pollution-emitting combustion engine found in any gas-powered car.”

Toyota’s electric vehicle pledge

The company last year pledged to spend 4 trillion yen, or $28 billion, to roll out 30 EVs by 2030. Still, that’s less than the $50 billion that Ford Motor Co. is spending to build EVs through 2026.

Despite the apparent disparity, Toyoda said his company already has been investing in battery-powered hybrids for more than two decades. He contends that makes Toyota the “top runner” in reducing carbon emissions from vehicles worldwide.

“Our investments may appear smaller than others’, but when you look at what Toyota has been doing over the last 20 years, the total amount might not necessarily be small,” Toyoda said.

The CEO said a lack of sufficient infrastructure will hold back EV adoption rates, which is a factor in its decision not to go all in on electricity.

“Toyota is a department store of all sorts of powertrains,” he said. “It’s not right for the department store to say, ‘This is the product you should buy.’”

Toyoda expressed skepticism that automakers will be able to achieve the California mandate that will effectively ban gasoline-fueled vehicles by 2035 and require a substantial portion of sales be EVs by 2030. New York said Thursday it would institute similar regulations.

“We have to look at the current price range and infrastructure availability and at what pace they’re going to be upgrading,” he said. “Realistically speaking, it seems rather difficult to achieve.”

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Tesla deliveries set a new record but missed forecasts in the third quarter

Tesla Inc. worldwide deliveries missed forecasts in the third quarter and the company warned of challenges in getting its cars to customers, suggesting that supply-chain snarls remain a blight.

It delivered a record 343,830 cars worldwide in the third quarter. Analysts had expected that nearly 358,000 vehicles would be shipped, based on the average of estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

“Historically, our delivery volumes have skewed towards the end of each quarter due to regional batch building of cars,” Austin, Texas-based Tesla said in a statement. “As our production volumes continue to grow, it is becoming increasingly challenging to secure vehicle transportation capacity and at a reasonable cost during these peak logistics weeks.”

Quarterly deliveries are among the most closely watched indicators for Tesla since they underpin the carmaker’s financial results. Though legacy automakers and new entrants alike are bringing more EVs to market, Tesla has led the charge for battery-powered cars since the first Model S sedans were delivered to customers a decade ago. 

Tesla had said that its delivery count is conservative and that final numbers could vary by 0.5% or more. The company produced 365,923 vehicles for the quarter. 

Tesla began shifting to a “more even regional mix” of vehicle production, leading to an increase of cars in transit during the end of the quarter. “These cars have been ordered and will be delivered to customers upon arrival at their destination,” the company said. 

The carmaker doesn’t break out sales by geography, but the U.S. and China are its largest markets and the overwhelming number of sales were of the Model 3 sedan and Y crossover. 

Tesla makes the Model S, X, 3 and Y models at its factory in Fremont, California. It makes the newer Model 3 and Y at the factory near Shanghai. Tesla recently began delivering Model Ys from its latest plants in Berlin and Austin. 

The delivery figures come on the heels of Tesla’s “AI Day” late Friday night, which was largely a recruiting event. Chief Executive Office Elon Musk showed off a prototype humanoid robot walking and waving its hand, seeking to demonstrate Tesla’s advances in artificial intelligence.

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