A Mega Airline Merger Hits Turbulence


DealBook Newsletter

Regulators looking to block JetBlue’s $3.8 billion bid to buy Spirit Airways think there’s no other way to address their competition concerns.


A jetBlue plane taking off, with motion blur in the background.
A mega airline deal headed for a bumpy landing?Credit…Mike Segar/Reuters

The Justice Department plans to sue to block JetBlue’s deal to buy the low-cost airline Spirit Airways for $3.8 billion, JetBlue acknowledged on Monday. Word of the suit — which could come as soon as Tuesday — sent shares in Spirit down nearly 9 percent.

Expect prosecutors to argue that the deal, which would create the fifth-largest airline in the U.S., would create an unacceptable level of consolidation in an industry already under scrutiny for delays, hidden fees and travel disruptions. And, they are expected to say, there is no reasonable way to avoid that except by blocking the transaction.

Merging the two would yield a new airline giant, doubling JetBlue’s market share to 10 percent. JetBlue has argued the deal is good for consumers, pointing to the so-called “JetBlue effect” where its entrance into a market leads to lower fares across the board. Adding Spirit’s capacity, it contends, would amplify that phenomenon.

Moreover, JetBlue plans to remake the famously no-frills, low-cost Spirit flying experience by removing seats, increasing legroom and shaking up the economics of each flight.

But the Justice Department disagrees. It plans to argue that there’s also a Spirit effect, where the airline’s very existence helps lead to lower fares. Regulators also will say that by removing seats from Spirit flights, the combined airline won’t be able to increase revenue per passenger without raising prices — a big financial hit to the passengers who tend to fly the airline.

Divesting airport slots and routes, a standard concession in airline mergers, may not be enough either. The department estimates that the airlines have dozens of overlapping routes; JetBlue said it plans to give up Spirit holdings in markets including Boston, Fort Lauderdale and New York.

But antitrust officials believe that the loss of an independent Spirit would be a big market disruption. Other airlines, whose business models differ from Spirit’s, may not be willing to buy slots that JetBlue might offer to sell. And critics of airline consolidation have questioned whether slot and route divestitures in other carrier deals did enough to eliminate competition concerns.

Other regulators may weigh in as well. The Transportation Department has reviewed the deal, and has the power to block it or require conditions if it thinks the combination would unfairly reduce competition.

Meta is expected to cut more jobs. The social media giant will lay off thousands of staffers as soon as this week, according to Bloomberg, in what would be its second round of reductions since November. Airbnb and the software developer Atlassian are also cutting jobs.

Moody’s will warn Congress about the debt limit. Mark Zandi, the credit ratings agency’s chief economist, plans to testify that America could lose a million jobs and fall into a recession if House Republicans don’t agree to raise the federal borrowing limit.

The White House considers asking for more power to deal with TikTok. Biden administration officials are weighing whether to support bipartisan legislation that would give them additional authority to police apps that could endanger Americans’ data security, The Times reports.

Twitter breaks down, again. For several hours on Monday, large parts of the social network were offline, greeting users with a cryptic error message. Elon Musk later said the cause was internal coding work, which Platformer reports was done by the sole engineer working on a particular project. Twitter’s thinned-out ranks mean such problems could occur again.

Can the Fed cool off red-hot inflation without plunging the U.S. economy into a recession? Jay Powell, the central bank’s chair, is likely to face questions about that and more as he testifies before Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday — and investors will scrutinize his every word for clues about how high interest rates may go.

Powell’s testimony kicks off a consequential stretch for the markets. On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will deliver the February jobs report, and, on March 14, investors will get the latest Consumer Price Index data. Powell is likely to field plenty of questions about how a strong labor market and stubbornly high inflation are influencing the Fed’s thinking on interest rates.

Expect Powell to be hawkish on inflation. He’s likely to reiterate that the central bank is not done raising interest rates, and that it’s premature to start contemplating cuts. Bill Adams, the chief economist for Comerica Bank, told DealBook that he expected rates to stay high “well into 2024.”

The prospect of additional interest-rate rises has made markets more volatile in recent weeks. Prominent figures — including Mary Daly, president of the San Francisco Fed; Christopher Waller, a Fed governor; and Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase’s C.E.O. — have said in recent days that the central bank may need to do more to fight inflation.

Recession fears are growing, even as employers continue hiring. Economists expect big gains in Friday’s jobs data, and that could force the Fed to stay aggressive in raising rates.

Grayscale Investments, an asset management firm, is suing the S.E.C. for the right to transform its Bitcoin Trust, a $14 billion crypto fund that was once highly popular with retail investors, into an exchange traded fund, the kind of mainstream investment product favored by Wall Street.

But Grayscale faces its own legal fight. The company and its parent, Digital Currency Group, were sued on Monday by Alameda Research, the trading affiliate of the bankrupt crypto exchange FTX. The lawsuit, filed in Delaware’s Court of Chancery, accuses Grayscale of charging exorbitant management fees and blocking shareholders from redeeming their shares in the Bitcoin and Ether trusts.

Alameda argues that if Grayscale were to allow the redemptions, it would “unlock a combined $9 billion or more for shareholders and a quarter of a billion dollars” for FTX, which is trying to claw back money for investors after its collapse in November.

Grayscale says the S.E.C. is the root of the problem. If Grayscale were to get permission to convert its Bitcoin fund into an E.T.F., the company argues, it could lower fees and allow more shareholder redemptions. But some shareholders say that Grayscale doesn’t need to wait for the S.E.C. to ease up on fees or redemptions.

The S.E.C.’s argument: The agency believes that the Bitcoin market is too volatile to allow the E.T.F. conversion. It has approved Bitcoin futures E.T.F.s under the oversight of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, but rejected E.T.F. applications for funds like Grayscale’s Bitcoin Trust, which trade off “spot” prices for the cryptocurrency.

Grayscale will argue Tuesday that such a distinction is arbitrary and violates the Administrative Procedures Act by treating similar products in different ways. If its argument before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals fails, the company said it would be willing to take the matter to the Supreme Court.

Hong Kong has confronted a series of challenges over the past three years — from strict pandemic restrictions to Beijing’s tightening grip — that have eroded its status as Asia’s financial center.

DealBook got the first look at a new report for the Atlantic Council think tank, in which Logan Wright of the Rhodium Group outlines how difficult it is for international businesses to keep operating there. His prognosis is that success is far from certain.

The big challenges: Pandemic measures that drove scores of expat executives and local professionals out of Hong Kong took their toll on its economy. But, according to Mr. Wright, the biggest hurdles are the myriad ways Beijing can assert even more control, including:

  • The possibility that the Hong Kong dollar may lose its peg to the greenback sooner than expected.

  • The National Security Law enacted in 2020, which means access to reliable information has become constrained, companies’ executives could be detained and customer data could be seized by the Chinese government.

  • Hong Kong’s increasingly precarious position between dueling U.S. and Chinese sanctions.

There are some steps that companies can take, according to Wright, including lobbying Hong Kong and Chinese authorities about the importance of preserving the territory’s special status to remain attractive to global business.

But other steps are more about mitigating risks, including contingency plans for dealing with clients being placed on sanctions lists and data potentially being seized.


Ken Griffin earned how much?Credit…Mike Blake/Reuters

Given the record $16 billion that the investment giant Citadel earned last year, there was little doubt who would top the Rich List, Institutional Investor’s closely watched ranking of hedge-fund tycoons’ performance.

Ken Griffin, Citadel’s founder, was almost certain to lead this year’s list. But plenty of his rivals also had billion-dollar paydays, as their industry beat major stock and bond indexes in 2022.

The top 25 managers earned $21.6 billion last year, even as markets were whipsawed by investor worries about central banks’ raising interest rates to combat inflation. Hedge Fund Research’s HFRI 500 index, which tracks most of the world’s largest hedge funds, fell 4.25 percent last year, while the S&P 500 fell 19 percent.

Here are the top earners, according to Institutional Investor:

  • Ken Griffin, who pulled in an estimated $4.1 billion.

  • Izzy Englander of Millennium Management, $3.2 billion.

  • Steve Cohen of Point72 Asset Management, $1.9 billion.

  • David Tepper of Appaloosa Management, $1.2 billion.

  • James Simons of Renaissance Technologies, $1.1 billion.

Noticeably absent from this year’s top 25 were executives of tech crossover funds, like Coatue Management, Tiger Global Management and Viking Global Investors, who had long been mainstays. Their firms had profited from investing in fast-growing tech start-ups, but the collapse in valuations of early-stage companies hit their hedge-fund backers hard.