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Dec 13, 2019

Market Insider | Biggest Moves Premarket: Stocks making the biggest moves premarket: Oracle, Adobe, Broadcom, Costco, Tapestry & more

Peter Schacknow

Check out the companies making headlines before the bell:

Oracle (ORCL) – Oracle beat estimates by 2 cents a share, with quarterly profit of 90 cents per share. The business software giant’s revenue fell short of Wall Street estimates and its current-quarter earnings outlook falls largely below Wall Street forecasts. Separately, Chairman Larry Ellison said the company has no plans to appoint a second CEO following the October death of co-CEO Mark Hurd. Safra Catz will remain the sole chief executive.
Adobe (ADBE) – Adobe reported quarterly profit of $2.29 per share, 3 cents a share above estimates. The software company’s revenue was slightly above forecasts as well. Investors were encouraged by Adobe’s ability to maintain a revenue growth rate above 20%.
Costco (COST) – Costco came in a penny a share ahead of estimates, with quarterly profit of $1.73 per share. The warehouse retailer’s revenue came in below forecasts, however, due to a slowdown in e-commerce growth.
Broadcom (AVGO) – Broadcom beat estimates by 4 cents a share, reporting quarterly profit of $5.39 per share. The chipmaker’s revenue also exceeded forecasts. Broadcom said it was benefiting from strong demand for 5G-related chips as well as software unit growth. Broadcom also raised its target dividend by 23% to $3.25 per share for fiscal 2020.
Sarepta Therapeutics (SRPT) – The drugmaker received an early Food and Drug Administration approval for its second treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Sarepta will still need to conduct a trial to confirm the drug’s benefits, which it said it expects to conclude by 2024.
Tapestry (TPR) – The luxury goods company said Kate Spade CEO Anna Bakst will depart at the end of 2019, after less than two years on the job. Same-store sales at the handbag maker have been falling since Kate Spade was acquired by Tapestry – then known as Coach – in 2017.
Liberty Sirius XM Group (LSXMA) – The affiliate of John Malone’s Liberty Media is seeking Justice Department permission to increase its stake in radio broadcaster iHeartMedia (IHRT), according to The Wall Street Journal. Liberty currently owns a 4.8% stake.
Boeing (BA) – American Airlines (AAL) took Boeing’s grounded 737 Max jet off its schedules through April 6.
Snap (SNAP) – The Snapchat parent was upgraded to “outperform” from “market perform” at JMP Securities, which cites optimism about Snap’s ability to grow its user base.
Lyft (LYFT) – The ride-hailing service has begun offering car rentals through its app, with the service initially available in the San Francisco Bay area and in Los Angeles. The news could impact shares of car rental companies like Hertz Global (HTZ) and Avis Budget (CAR).
OneConnect Financial (OCFT) – The financial technology provider priced its initial public offering at $10 per American depositary share. It had lowered the expected range to $9 to $10 per share Wednesday from the prior $12 a share. OneConnect is a unit of China’s Ping An Insurance and has Japan’s SoftBank as one of its primary investors.

Dec 12, 2019

US Business Politics: White House, Chinese negotiators reach trade deal in principle that would dramatically scale back import tariffs

David J. Lynch

The U.S. and China have reached agreement on a tentative trade deal, which President Trump is expected to formally approve this afternoon, according to several people familiar with the administration’s internal deliberations.
“The deal is essentially done. The mechanics of how you execute it and how you get it signed still have to be worked out,” said one of the people, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Under one scenario, Robert E. Lighthizer, the president’s chief trade negotiator, and Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai could sign the document as soon as tomorrow. Alternatively, Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin could travel to Beijing for the signing.
Business leaders who have grown anxious for relief from the trans-Pacific tariff wars welcomed the news. “That is excellent news. It puts a floor under the deterioration in the relationship,” said Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council.
Myron Brilliant, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the deal would benefit American manufacturers and farmers. “It’s an important first step, but just a first step,” he said. “There is more work to be done.”
Several people close to the talks said the administration had not shared with them the text of the deal, which they described as an “agreement-in-principle.” Trump two months said he had reached “an agreement in principle” with China and expected to commit the terms to paper within a few weeks.
Trump met with his top advisers Thursday afternoon as they prepared for a final decision within hours.
The president has until Sunday to determine whether to impose tariffs on $160 billion in Chinese imports. Most analysts expected Trump to delay or cancel the import tax in hopes of reaching an initial trade deal.
Even before a formal presidential decision to proceed, Republican critics of the so-called “Phase One” agreement sounded the alarm.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned against settling too quickly with Beijing. “@WhiteHouse should consider the risk that a near-term deal with #China would give away the tariff leverage needed for a broader agreement on the issues that matter the most such as sub­sidies to do­mes­tic firms, forced tech transfers & blocking U.S. firms access to key sectors,” Rubio tweeted.
Derek Scissors, a China hawk with the American Enterprise Institute and occasional administration adviser, accused the president of rushing to make a deal. “This is really weird,” Scissors said. “Technically, there’s been a deal on the table for the president to sign for some time. What’s changed is they think the president will say ‘yes.’”
Early Thursday morning, Trump teased investors with word of a potential deal with China, sending the stock market briefly higher amid optimism about a breakthrough in the lengthy standoff.
“Getting VERY close to a BIG DEAL with China,” the president tweeted shortly after Wall Street opened. “They want it, and so do we!”
The Dow Jones industrial average quickly rose more than 300 points, or roughly 1 percent, within the first hour of trading as financial markets cheered the prospect of a “Phase 1” deal with China. The market later surrendered some of its gains, though, and was up fewer than 100 points in shortly before the close of trading.
U.S. officials have said they are nearing a limited accord that will require China to buy large amounts of American farm goods, tighten its intellectual property protections, ease access to its financial services market and agree to strict enforcement measures in return for the reversal of some U.S. tariffs.
The emerging deal would fall well short of the president’s initial goal: a comprehensive settlement of U.S. complaints about subsidized Chinese state businesses and trade secrets theft.
The president has often suggested the two sides were close to a deal only to see negotiations stall in the past. In April, Trump said the White House and Chinese negotiators were within weeks of an “epic” deal. The next month, talks collapsed amid U.S. charges that Beijing had reneged on a tentative bargain.
Hints of progress with China come as the White House is celebrating victory on another front in Trump’s trade wars. This week, House Democrats agreed to support a revised version of a new North American trade deal, which the president had signed last year with Mexico and Canada.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) backed the agreement after securing amendments that toughened enforcement of labor and environmental standards. The modified accord also dropped an extension of patent protections for a class of new drugs known as biologics, which Democrats said would lead to higher prescription drug prices.
The new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is expected to reach a House vote next week and clear the Senate early next year. Once approved by the legislatures in each country, it will supplant the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has called “our country’s worst trade deal.”
The bipartisan cooperation on trade is occurring even as House Democrats move forward with plans to impeach the president over his demand that Ukraine announce an investigation of one of his political rivals before receiving $391 million in congressionally authorized military aid.

US Business Policy News: Financial regulators propose overhaul of anti-redlining law

Renae Merle

Financial regulators appointed by the Trump administration proposed Thursday an overhaul of a 40-year-old anti-discrimination law, potentially upending the way banks make loans to low-income communities.
The proposal is another big win for the banking industry, which has argued for years that 1977’s Community Reinvestment Act was outdated and didn’t account for the popularity of online banking. Under the proposal, the industry would gain new flexibility when attempting to comply with the law aimed at stamping out redlining, in which banks either refused to lend to people in minority neighborhoods or charge those borrowers more.
The proposal is the Trump administration’s latest effort to radically transform the housing market, including a massive plan released earlier this year to shrink the government’s role in making mortgages.
Democrats and consumer groups warn the most recent proposal would make it easier for banks to comply with a law meant to stamp out decades of redlining. “This is a major transformation of the law. It upends how the CRA works,” said Jesse Van Tol, chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
The proposal was unveiled by Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. It has sparked a rare split between financial regulators: The Federal Reserve, which also regulates some banks’ compliance with the law, has yet to sign off.
The Federal Reserve still hopes to reach an agreement with the other regulators to support the proposal, Chair Jerome Powell said at a press conference Wednesday. “I don’t know whether that will be possible or not. We’ll just have to see,” he said. “We would certainly not want to create confusion or a sort of tension between the regimes if they do turn out to be slightly different regimes.”
Powell said the Fed is “strongly committed to the mission of ensuring that banks provide credit through their communities, particularly addressing the needs of low- and moderate-income households and neighborhoods. We also think it’s time for modernization."
The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposal.
“We are concerned that the changes … will make it easier for banks to pass their CRA exams, weakening their obligation to responsibly serve communities across the country," Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chair of the Financial Services Committee, said in a statement before the proposal was officially released. “It is critical that the banking regulators do not jam through their proposal without giving the public ample time to weigh in, or without coordinating with the Federal Reserve.”
Under the Community Reinvestment Act, or CRA, regulators periodically examine banks lending practices for low- and moderate-income borrowers. A bank may get CRA credit, for example, for issuing a mortgage to a black borrower, financing an affordable housing project or a small business loan. Banks given a low rating can be hit with sanctions.
Banks have complained that they are judged too subjectively and don’t often know what types of loans would qualify for credit under the law. The proposal would clarify what would qualify for CRA credit and potentially give banks more flexibility around what parts of the country the lending would be done in. Banks would also be encouraged to make loans to lower-income borrowers based on where their customers are rather than where the bank has physical branches.
But Van Tol warned that broadening the definition of what counts toward compliance with CRA could allow banks to focus on projects with the most profit. They “would rather finance a billion-dollar hospital facility than make mortgage loans to low- and moderate-income people,” he said. “The motivations and incentives are going to go places where you can make the most money.”
The existing law should be modernized and simplified, consumer advocates say. But the Trump administration’s proposal would only benefit banks and dilutes the original intention of the law to address redlining, they say.
Redlining persists in 61 metro areas — including Detroit, Philadelphia, Little Rock and Tacoma, Wash., according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. The proposal also comes at a time when research shows that banks are closing down physical branches in black neighborhoods — including high-income ones — faster than in the rest of the country.
Since 2010, the number of bank branches in majority-black areas has shrunk 14.6 percent compared with 9.7 percent in all other communities, according to an analysis by S&P Global Market 

Intelligence. At JPMorgan Chase, the country’s largest bank, the number of bank branches in majority-black areas fell by 22.8 percent compared with an overall decline of less than 1 percent, the data showed.

US Politics: US has a phase one trade deal with China in principle pending Trump's approval

Jacob Pramuk

The Trump administration appeared to move closer to a trade deal with China as the president was set to meet with his top economic advisors Thursday afternoon.
The White House has offered to scrap its next round of tariffs on Chinese goods set to take effect Sunday and slash some existing duties in half, two sources told CNBC. The U.S. proposed cutting existing tariffs on $360 billion in Chinese products by 50%.
The development signals the White House’s willingness to rein in a trade war between the world’s two largest economies that threatens to drag on global growth. Bloomberg reported Thursday that the U.S. reached a trade deal in principle in China, pending approval from President Donald Trump. It is unclear how the agreement the news outlet describes differs from a partial deal the president announced in October.
Trump planned to meet with top advisors at 2:30 p.m. ET on Thursday about whether to delay the next round of tariffs. Duties of 15% on about $160 billion in consumer goods are set to take effect on Sunday, including on Chinese-made toys, computers, phones and clothing.
On Thursday morning, Trump signaled optimism about an agreement with China. He tweeted that the U.S. has moved close to a trade deal with Beijing after several false starts and near misses.
“Getting VERY close to a BIG DEAL with China. They want it, and so do we!” the president wrote.
The White House tariff offer to Beijing, first reported in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday, came last week and may have changed. Recent talks have taken place mostly at the deputy level as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer tries to push the administration’s NAFTA replacement through Congress.
Trump’s acknowledgement that the U.S. wants a deal marks a shift in tone from recent weeks. He has repeatedly contended that Beijing needs an agreement more than Washington does, and suggested he was content waiting until after the November 2020 election to strike a deal — a statement that disappointed investors.
Major U.S. stock indexes jumped as reports signaled a deal could be near. Investors hope the U.S. and China can reach an accord before the tariff deadline and avoid a potentially damaging escalation in their nearly 2-year-old trade war.
Trump in October announced a partial “phase one” agreement with China as the world’s two largest economies try to rein in the economic conflict. Washington and Beijing have so far failed to sign the agreement, which would have involved increased Chinese purchases of U.S. agricultural products and possible tariff relief.
During months of trade talks with China, the president has previously touted progress before discussions crumbled. He has repeatedly said the negotiations are going well, even as trade officials struggled to reach a deal.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
Trump wants a broad trade agreement with China to address concerns about intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers and trade deficits. The president, who promised to crack down with China during his 2016 campaign, sees an agreement as an economic and political priority ahead of his 2020 reelection bid.
Not all of Trump’s advisors want to back off the planned duties. China hawk Peter Navarro, under the pseudonym “Ron Vara,” wrote a memo supporting the White House’s tariff strategy.
In the document obtained by CNBC on Wednesday, he wrote that tariffs “are working to defend [the] economy and have had no negative impacts on growth or stock market rise.”

— CNBC’s Kayla Tausche and Eamon Javers contributed to this report

Central Banks: ECB holds rates steady at Lagarde's debut policy meeting

Elliot Smith

The European Central Bank (ECB) kept its rates unchanged on Thursday following new President Christine Lagarde’s first monetary policy meeting in Frankfurt.
The Governing Council voted to keep the main deposit rate at the historic low of -0.5%, in line with market expectations, while the marginal lending facility remained at 0.25%.
The ECB’s statement reiterated that rates will stay at the current level or lower until the central bank has seen the inflation outlook “robustly converge” to a level close to but below 0.2% and that underlying inflation has remained consistently convergent with that level.
It also confirmed that net asset purchases had started in November at a monthly rate of 20 billion euros ($22.3 billion) and that this will continue to run “as long as necessary” to reinforce the accommodative policy stance.
The euro traded roughly flat against the dollar at $1.1132 following the announcement awhile equity markets turned slightly negative after marginal early gains.
The ECB forecast annual real GDP growth for the euro area at 1.2% in 2019, 1.1% in 2020 and 1.4% in 2021 and 2022, an upward revision of 0.1% for 2019 and a downward shift of 0.1% for 2020 compared with September’s projections.
Lagarde suggested that the growth slowdown was stabilizing but that incoming data since October’s policy meeting “pointed to continued muted inflation pressures and weak euro area growth dynamics.”
“The risks to the euro area growth outlook relating to geopolitical factors, rising protectionism and vulnerabilities in emerging markets remain tilted to the downside, but have become somewhat less pronounced,” she added.
Inflation was revised up by 0.1% for 2020 but down by 0.1% to 1.4% for 2021, with 2022 forecast at 1.6%.
“In our 2022 forecast for inflation, while the entire year is forecast at 1.6%, the fourth quarter is at 1.7%, so directionally it is slightly increasing across the course of 2022,” Lagarde said in her first press conference at the ECB’s helm.
“Is it satisfactory? It is certainly directionally good, but is it the aim that we pursue? No,” she added.
The former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and former French finance minister inherited an inflation rate of 1.0% against the ECB target of “below but close to 2%” upon taking the reins in November.
In September, Lagarde’s predecessor Mario Draghi launched a massive stimulus package which entailed a cut to the central bank’s main deposit rate a second round of quantitative easing in a bid to stimulate the sluggish euro zone economy.
The move proved controversial among the Council, but Lagarde offered support to the bond-buying program and record low rates back in September, highlighting that the challenges warranting a highly accommodative policy stance had not diminished.
While Lagarde was not expected to break from the trajectory set in motion by Draghi so early in her tenure, investors will be closely monitoring the semantics in her impending press conference for any hints on future policy direction.
One of her first moves was to announce a wide-ranging policy review, the first since 2003, with the euro zone central bank’s current stance under fire from market participants.
At Thursday’s press conference, Lagarde said the review would get underway in January with a view to completion by the end of 2020, and would reach out “not just to the usual suspects” but also Members of European Parliament (MEPs), the academic community and “civil society representatives.”

A Reuters Special Report: Egypt's strongman extends crackdown to new foe: soap operas

By Reuters staff

CAIRO - Gamal el Adl’s company is one of the most popular television producers in the Middle East. Its gritty soap operas, touching on drug addiction amongst the middle classes, sexual abuse and life in a women’s prison, have been hits on TV in Egypt and across the Arab world.
Until, that is, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi unleashed a new wave of censorship.
In the past three years, the former general has turned the screws on the entertainment and news industries. A new regulatory agency is overseeing output and censoring content. Soap operas, it insists, must contain no sex scenes, no blasphemy, no politics. Police and other authority figures should be presented in a positive light.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, above, has clamped down on TV news and entertainment and a state-owned firm has been buying up networks and programme makers. REUTERS/Al Youm Al Saabi Newspaper

El Adl says he thought he could manage by steering clear of the biggest taboos. But when he heard that police had raided the film set of a rival early this year because it lacked a necessary permit, he revised his view. He immediately halted work on the two soaps he was filming, fearing he too would run into trouble for not having a permit.
He couldn’t operate in this environment, he said. “There was just one entity, one eye, one taste, one vision.”
It is President Sisi’s vision – one of heroism and patriotic virtue. And it is being pursued with innovative techniques.
In interviews, programme makers, and news media executives described how the Sisi administration has clamped down with controls that they say are stricter than those that existed under Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt with a hard grip until being overthrown in 2011. Many details of the new methods are reported here for the first time.
They include the withholding of filming permits and a list of banned topics for soaps that programme makers must agree to. The government has also created two WhatsApp groups that instruct news media what to report, and has placed censors at TV stations to oversee output.

Gamal el Adl’s firm, one of Egypt’s most successful TV production companies, halted work on two shows that were due to screen this year. REUTERS/Stringer

The government is also getting deeper into the entertainment business itself. Since 2017, a new firm called United Group for Media Services has taken control of news outlets, TV production companies and channels - in all, at least 14 so far -  giving it unrivalled influence over the TV schedule. United Group has enthusiastically enforced government censorship rules.
A dozen industry and government sources told Reuters that United Group for Media Services was set up by the state. Two of its four board members have links to Egyptian General Intelligence, and one of the company’s units was previously headed by the intelligence chief, Reuters found.
Actors critical of the government say they fear arrest. Programme makers say the dramas they make have become bland like an insipid soup. Prime time talk show hosts who don’t fully toe the government line are fired or side-lined. One producer said the authorities have blocked him from working in TV or cinema, without giving a reason.
Khaled Youssef, a member of the Egyptian parliament and a prominent film director, said the government is “interfering in the content of drama” and had pushed out private production firms to exert control. A Sisi critic, Youssef now lives in Paris in voluntary exile. “They don’t want people to think,” he said.

Film director Khaled Youssef, above, believes the Egyptian government is interfering in the content of drama. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Sisi’s clampdown on entertainment and news comes as his government battles Islamist extremists who have launched deadly attacks against tourists, churches and on the streets of Cairo. The president’s hold on the media is typical of many authoritarian governments, from China to Russia. Still, the clampdown in Cairo is notable because of its implications outside Egypt. The nation of 100 million is not only the Arab world’s most populous country, it is home to its biggest film industry by far.
Censorship is more oppressive now than under Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule, programme makers say. In the final decade of the Mubarak regime, there were productions that grappled with police brutality and homosexuality. Where Mubarak’s censors would approve a soap after sampling just a few episodes, Sisi’s insist on watching the entire series of 30 shows or more.
An editor at a leading newspaper told Reuters that even under Mubarak, publishers only faced intimidation if articles named intelligence or military officers. Now, he said, the chief of the General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, and his officers have firm and direct influence over what the media report. So much, he said, that journalists have begun calling them “Egypt’s editors in chief.”
The Egyptian government, intelligence agency and media regulator didn’t respond to detailed questions for this article. Reuters’ calls to the United Group for Media Services went unanswered.

Sisi’s presidency began on a wave of goodwill in 2014 after he led the military in toppling President Mohammed Mursi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who was democratically elected but deeply unpopular by the time of his removal.
Sisi exhorted the media to back his government. Announcing plans to dig a second Suez Canal, a patriotic project on a vast scale, Sisi urged the media to “help us in our fight” to unify Egypt. “It’s a very big fight,” he declared. Delivering a speech to honour the country’s police a year later, he called on the entertainment industry to make dramas and movies that “give people hope and improve our values and ethics.”
By 2016 Sisi’s relationship with the media was deteriorating. In April of that year, the president ceded two islands in a strategic part of the Red Sea to his ally Saudi Arabia, leading to protests. When some newspapers joined the outcry, security forces raided the Cairo office of an organization that represents journalists. Two reporters critical of the government were arrested and charged with spreading false news. It was the beginning of a wider crackdown.

TV soap Kingdom Of Gypsies breached the censor’s code on 105 occasions this year. Photo from website

Then, in 2017, Sisi established the Supreme Council for Media Regulation to oversee all news and entertainment. Its drama committee was tasked with monitoring all soap operas on Egyptian television. The council’s head was picked by the president.
The committee has taken a keen interest in moral issues.
In one report, issued this year, it criticised some soaps for their depiction of characters smoking, swearing and “insulting the Arabic language” by using English words. In a one-week period during the holy month of Ramadan, when Egyptian families traditionally come together in the evening to enjoy their favourite dramas, the committee recorded 948 breaches of its code. One series, “Kingdom of the Gypsies,” notched up 105 violations for vulgar language, violence, sexual innuendo and “disrespecting” the Arabic language. Reuters couldn’t determine whether the programme or its creators faced any sanction.

News media are under even greater scrutiny. Hundreds of news websites and blogs have been blocked in recent years and a media law passed in 2018 gives the state powers to block social media accounts and punish journalists for publishing what it considers to be false news.
The security agencies created two WhatsApp groups to relay instructions to news organizations about how to cover events. Reuters reviewed messages in both groups. One is called “Editors” and run by the General Intelligence. The second is run by the Ministry of the Interior. Neither the ministry nor the intelligence agency responded to Reuters’ request for comment about the WhatsApp groups.
When 20 people were killed in an explosion outside a Cairo cancer hospital in April this year, an intelligence official wrote: “I don't want expansion of the coverage of the cancer centre coverage.” Egyptian media obliged and reporting was limited.
In May, a blast near Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum injured at least 12 South African tourists. The WhatsApp instruction was: “Please wait for the Ministry of Interior statement and don’t add anything to it.” Reuters reviewed the reports carried by four news outlets and found that they were almost identical.
WhatsApp orders also flowed in September, when a former actor called for protests against Sisi in a series of YouTube videos. Mohamed Ali, who lives in Spain, accused Sisi and Egypt’s military of corruption, claims that Sisi dismissed as “lies and slander.”
“Please don’t publish news reports about Mohammed Ali,” said one WhatsApp message. Obediently, media reviewed by Reuters didn’t cover the videos, which went viral on social media, until Sisi mentioned them in a speech two weeks later. Contacted by Reuters, Ali declined to comment.
For staff at TV network DMC, also controlled by United Group for Media Services, the state is intrusive. Before the station can broadcast its news, sports and entertainment programmes, its editors need a green light from the plain-clothed intelligence officers who are a constant presence in DMC’s studios, one current and one former employee told Reuters.
The former employee said the network was effectively “run by intelligence officers” who attended executive meetings. Some senior appointments were made by Kamel, chief of the General Intelligence Service, who also set some salaries. A producer who still works at DMC said an intelligence officer sometimes sat in the control room to see what was going on at the channel. Reuters couldn’t reach company management for comment and Kamel, contacted via the Egyptian authorities, didn’t respond.
“The damage that has been done to the Egyptian media is unbelievable, unprecedented," said Hisham Kassem, a former newspaper publisher and political activist. “It’s easily the worst media disaster in the history of Egypt. They don’t care about quality – if you disagree, they’ll sack you."

Actor Amr Waked, shown in 2012, says today’s Egyptian TV scripts could have been written by a police officer. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Central to the state’s tightening grip on Egypt’s entertainment industry is a company called United Group for Media Services. Established in 2017, the firm has taken over at least six newspapers and news websites, four TV networks encompassing 14 channels, four radio stations and several theatres and cinemas. Eight people in the media industry who have done business with United Group for Media Services said the company was set up by the state. As it has expanded, United Group has come to dominate the TV schedules and determine which programmes make it to air. It has strictly enforced government censorship.
Reuters reviewed documents filed by United Group for Media Services with the authorities since its registration. These documents didn’t disclose the ownership of the company, but they did identify its four board members.
Two intelligence sources told Reuters that two members of the board had links to the intelligence service. One of them, Yaser Ahmed Saber Ahmed Seliem, was previously an intelligence officer. Another document showed that intelligence chief Kamel himself previously sat on the board of a TV firm called D-Media that is now part of United Group. Seliem and Kamel, contacted via the Egyptian authorities, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
For programme makers like el Adl, the dominance of one big buyer, United Group for Media Services, and the emergence of a strict new regulator made creating and selling dramas increasingly difficult. At the end of last year he waited in vain for his usual filming permit. With time running short, he decided to start work on two soaps, assuming the permit would arrive soon and, if his scripts avoided the taboos of sex and politics, he wouldn’t get into trouble.
“I thought I’d make the programmes anyway and if the local channels didn’t buy them then I could sell them outside Egypt,” he explained. But three episodes into filming, police raided the set of a now defunct rival production company. Two police cars pulled up at the shoot and told the crew to stop filming because they didn’t have a license, three crew members and a security source said. The crew complied. El Adl decided to stop filming too in order to stay out of trouble.
El Adl and some other programme makers say that, at first, they supported the state’s intervention in the TV market on economic grounds. Many of Egypt’s television channels were unprofitable, partly because they were trying to outbid one another for content. The cost of the soaps made by el Adl and others were rising and actors’ wages were spiralling. El Adl was among those calling for price regulation, he said. The state’s entry into the business has put a lid on wages but the intervention has gone too far. The authorities are now “the ones who decide whether you work or not.”
He is hopeful that 2020 will be a better year. He expects to pick up filming his two soaps, provided he stays within the new budget limits and works within the new system. “We figured out that the authorities were making a framework for people to follow,” he said.
Another director of movies and soaps, who declined to be identified, said he believes Sisi is trying “to control the narrative.” The director said he’d had to sign a document pledging not to include any scenes in his dramas that “insulted” the police. He was told that if there was a shootout, officers mustn’t be seen to die because this would be bad for the force’s morale. The director fell into line.
The president’s efforts risk backfiring, however, this director said. Viewers are increasingly turning to channels operated by Egyptians outside the country, offering shows with alternative views or less censorship, such as Mekameleen and al-Sharq, both based in Turkey. The channels didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Each year, during the holy month of Ramadan, millions of Egyptian families gather in the evening to watch their favourite soaps. But this year there was a difference.
Government officials held a meeting with a group of trusted writers and directors, according to two sources who were briefed on the conversation that took place. The officials set out the themes and ideas they wanted to see in TV soaps, and those they didn’t. They told the assembled writers and directors that dramas shouldn’t show police officers or members of the security services in a negative light, cheating on their wives, for instance.
Many Egyptians complain that Sisi is depriving them even of the right to have fun. Before the president came to power, the Ramadan audience could choose from 40 or more dramas exploring social issues, family relationships, mysteries and crime. The soaps were a cherished part of the holy month, when millions of Egyptians would spend the evenings glued to their television sets.

Many of this year’s crop of soaps, including Kalabsh, above, portray police officers fighting “evil forces.” Photo from website

But during this year’s Ramadan, which fell in May, there were only 25 soaps, 15 of them made by a firm called Synergy, which is part of the United Group for Media Services. Many of the shows showed police officers heroically fighting “evil forces” – a term Sisi uses to describe opposition figures and Islamist militants.
One, called Kalabsh, told the story of a special forces officer who fights terrorists and corruption.
Shows like this, says award-winning actor Amr Waked, underscore how Egypt’s entertainment industry is withering. Waked reached a global audience when he appeared alongside George Clooney in Syriana, a 2005 thriller.
“It’s as if the soaps are written by a police officer,” Waked said.
Waked was last in an Egyptian soap in 2017, and he now lives in self-imposed exile in Spain. In 2018, a military court sentenced him in absentia to eight years in prison for spreading false news and insulting state institutions. Waked believes he was targeted because of his pro-democracy tweets. The Egyptian government didn’t respond to a request for comment about Waked’s case.
“Throughout my entire life, I have never seen Egypt worse than this,” Waked said.
Sisi’s Script
By Reuters staff
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Design: Catherine Tai
Edited by Janet McBride