IMF Says Trade Tensions, Debt Load Threaten World Economy

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The International Monetary Fund’s policymaking committee said Saturday that a strong world economy was threatened by increasing tension over trade and countries’ heavy debt burden. Longer-term prospects are clouded, it said, by sluggish growth in productivity and aging populations in wealthy nations.

In a statement at the end of three days of meetings, the lending agency urged countries to take advantage of the broadest-based economic expansion in a decade to cut government debt and to enact reforms that will make their economies more efficient.

The IMF expects the world economy to grow 3.9 percent this year and next, which would be the strongest since 2011. But an intensifying dispute between the U.S. and China over Beijing’s aggressive attempt to challenge U.S. technological dominance has raised the prospect of a trade war that could drag down worldwide growth.

“Trade tensions are not to the benefit of anyone,” said Lesetja Kganyago, who leads the policymaking committee and is governor of the South African Reserve Bank.

The U.S. has resisted pressure to back off President Donald Trump’s protectionist “America First” trade policies.

Treasury Steven Mnuchin urged the IMF to do more to address what the Trump administration says are unfair trade practices and called on the World Bank to steer cheap loans away from China and toward poorer countries.

Unfair trade policies “impede stronger U.S. and global growth, acting as a persistent drag on the global economy,” Mnuchin said.

He appealed for the IMF to go beyond its traditional role as an emergency lender for countries in financial distress and said it should more closely monitor the practices of countries that persistently run large trade surpluses.

“The IMF must step up to the plate on this issue, providing a more robust voice,” Mnuchin said. “We urge the IMF to speak out more forcefully on the issue of external imbalances.”

The World Bank, he said, must not back away from shifting its lending from fast-growing developing countries such as China to poorer nations. In a speech prepared for the bank’s policy committee, Mnuchin urged the bank to aim its resources at “poorer borrowers and away from countries better able to finance their own development objectives.”

Many have used the finance meetings to protest Trump’s protectionist trade policies, which mark a reversal of seven decades of U.S. support for ever-freer global commerce.

“We strongly reject moves toward protectionism and away from the rules-based international trade order,” said Már Guðmundsson, governor of the Central Bank of Iceland. “Unilateral trade restrictions will only inflict harm on the global economy.”

While finance officials struggled to find common ground with Washington on trade, they agreed on the importance of coordinating other policies in an effort to sustain the strongest global economic expansion since the 2008 financial crisis.

“We have to keep this group working together,” said Nicolas Dujovne, Argentina’s treasury minister.

In addition to wrangling over trade, finance officials from the Group of 20 powerful economies focused on geopolitical risks and rising interest rates, two threats to growth. Dujovne, whose country is chairing the G-20 this year, met with reporters Friday to summarize talks held as a prelude to the IMF-World Bank meetings.

The U.S. has rattled financial markets with a series of provocative moves in recent weeks.

Last month, it imposed taxes on imported steel and aluminum, and later proposed tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese products as a punishment for Beijing’s aggressive efforts to obtain U.S. technology. China countered by targeting $50 billion in U.S. exports. Trump then ordered his trade representative to go after up to $100 billion more in Chinese products.

Finance leaders repeatedly sounded warnings about a potential trade war.

“The larger threat is posed by increasing trade tensions and the possibility that we enter a sequence of unilateral, tit-for-tat measures, all of which generate uncertainties for global trade and GDP growth,” Roberto Azevêdo, director-general of the World Trade Organization, told the IMF’s policy committee.

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the steel and aluminum tariffs could lead to retaliation by other countries and “a significant risk that the situation could escalate.” He said “tensions between the U.S. and China have taken a worrying turn.”

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US Treasury Secretary Weighs China Trip for Trade Talk

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U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Saturday that he was contemplating a visit to China for discussions on issues that have global leaders concerned about a potentially damaging trade war.

“I am not going to make any comment on timing, nor do I have anything confirmed, but a trip is under consideration,” Mnuchin said at a Washington news conference during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank spring meetings.

Mnuchin said he discussed the possible trip and potential trade opportunities with the new head of China’s central bank.

Tensions have escalated between the U.S. and China over Beijing’s attempts to challenge America’s technological prowess, raising the prospects of a trade war that could hinder global economic growth. 

Mnuchin said he had spoken with a number of his counterparts who have been forced to deal with U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” trade policies, including U.S. tariffs on foreign aluminum and steel and on up to $150 billion in Chinese goods. Some of the leaders, he said, were focused on exemptions from the tariffs.

He said he emphasized that the U.S. was not trying to construct protectionist trade barriers with the tariffs. Instead, he said, “we are looking for reciprocal treatment.”

Mnuchin also said he wanted the IMF to do more to address what the Trump administration believes are unfair trade practices. He also called on the World Bank to redirect low-interest loans from China to more impoverished countries. 

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China: No Military Aim of Corridor Project With Pakistan

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China has strongly refuted suggestions its multibillion-dollar economic corridor now under construction with Pakistan has “hidden” military designs as well.  

Beijing has pledged to invest about $63 billion in Pakistan by 2030 to develop ports, highways, motorways, railways, airports, power plants and other infrastructure in the neighboring country, traditionally a strong ally.

 

The Chinese have also expanded and operationalized the Pakistani deep water port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, which is at the heart of the massive bilateral cooperation, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC. The strategically located port is currently being operated by a Chinese state-run company .

China has positioned CPEC as the flagship project of its $1-trillion global Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, championed by President Xi Jinping.

“I want to make it very clear, BRI initiative and with CPEC under it, it’s purely a commercial development project. We don’t have any kind of military or strategic design for that,” said Yao Jing, Chinese ambassador to Islamabad. He made the remarks in an exclusive interview with VOA.

Within five years of finalizing and launching CPEC, Jing said that 22 “early harvest” projects out of the 43 total projects under CPEC have been completed or are under construction, with a total investment of around $19 billion, the largest influx of foreign investment in Pakistan’s 70-year-old history. The projects have already brought 60,000 local jobs and effectively addressed the country’s once crippling energy crisis.

 

Power plants built under the joint venture, officials say, will have added more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity to the national grid by June, leading to a surplus of power.

While speaking to VOA, the Chinese diplomat urged the United States and India to “come to the CPEC project” and “witness the progress on the ground” for themselves, saying it will enable them overcome misunderstandings vis-a-vis CPEC.

“There are some kind of doubts that may be there are some things hidden in it. I think that when you have an objective lens to look at this project and to come to the ground to find this progress on the ground then you may have a better understanding of what we are doing here,” said Jing.

The Chinese envoy was responding to concerns expressed in Washington and New Delhi that Beijing could try to turn Gwadar into a military port in the future to try to dominate the Indian Ocean.

Jing explained that a state-to-state defense-related cooperation has for decades existed between the two allied nations and China through “normal channels” is determined to contribute to “military and strategic ability’ of Pakistan.

“We don’t want to make the CPEC as such a kind of platform,” the ambassador emphasized.

However, he added, it is “natural and understandable” that the project’s massive size and design has raised doubts and suspicions” about its aims.   

The skepticism about Chinese intentions stems from, among other things, a massive airport being built in Gwadar, with a landing strip of 12-kilometers. China has given nearly $300 million to Pakistan for the construction of the airport.

“Basically, it is for China and Pakistan to make this project a successful economic project, then we can make it clear our intention here,” Jing said.

India is also opposed to CPEC because a portion of the project is located on territory that is claimed by both New Delhi and Islamabad. But Pakistan and China both dismiss the objections as politically-motivated.

CPEC aims to link the landlocked western Chinese region of Xinjiang to Gwadar, allowing ships carrying China’s oil imports and other goods from the Persian Gulf to use a much shorter and secure route and avoid the existing troubled route through the Strait of Malacca.

There are currently up to 10,000 Chinese nationals working on CPEC-related projects in Pakistan. Ambassador Jing said that 21 new mega-projects, including the establishment of Special Economic Zones across the country, are ready to be launched in the next stage with particular emphasis on encouraging private engagement.

In the next five to seven years, officials estimate, CPEC will have created employment for half-a-million Pakistanis. The country’s troubled economy, lately impacted by insecurity and energy crisis, has grown 5.4 percent in the previous financial year, the fastest rate in a decade, and officials forecast the expected growth in the year ending June 2018 will be six percent.

Pakistan’s deepening cooperation with China comes as the country’s diplomatic relations with the U.S. continue to deteriorate. Washington complains that Islamabad is not doing enough to eliminate terrorist groups using the country’s soil for attacks against neighboring countries, including Afghanistan.

While U.S. economic assistance has significantly reduced in recent years, the Trump administration also suspended military assistance to Pakistan in January and linked its restoration to decisive actions against terrorist groups.

 

Pakistan strongly rejects the allegations and says it is being scapegoated for the U.S.-led coalition’s failures in ending the war in Afghanistan. .

China is also worried about the spread of regional terrorism in the wake of a low-level Muslim separatist insurgency in its troubled Xinjiang border region. But Beijing has steadfastly supported Islamabad’s counterterrorism efforts and dismisses U.S. criticism of them.

China’s arms exports to Pakistan have in recent years exponentially increased while exports of military hardware from the country’s traditionally largest supplier, the U.S., have reportedly declined to just $21-million in 2017 from $1-billion.

“China will never leave Pakistan. I shall say we have confidence in the future of Pakistan,” said Chinese Ambassador Jing, when asked whether terrorism-related concerns might also push Beijing away from Islamabad.

China’s investment under CPEC has also encouraged hundreds of private Chinese companies and thousands of Chinese nationals to arrive in Pakistan to look for business opportunities and buy property. The influx of the foreigners has raised alarms among local businesses and sparked worries that the Chinese labor force will take away local jobs.

Jing stressed that China and Pakistan are working together to promote mutual people-to-people connectivity through enhanced education and cultural linkages to improve mutual understanding.

Ambassador Jing says there are eight Chinese universities working to promote Pakistan’s official Urdu language while 12 Pakistan-study centers are working to promote mutual understanding between the two countries. There are 22,000 Pakistanis seeking education in China.

Pakistani officials say currently, about 25,000 students are learning Chinese language in 19 universities and four Confucius Institutes affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

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France: EU Needs Full Exemption from US Tariffs

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The European Union needs to be exempted from steel and aluminum tariffs announced by the United States in order to work with Washington on trade with China, France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Friday.

“We are close allies between the EU and the United States. We cannot live with full confidence with the risk of being hit by those measures and by those new tariffs. We cannot live with a kind of sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” Le Maire told a press conference during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank spring meetings. 

“If we want to move forward … if we want to address the issue of trade, an issue of the new relationship with China, because we both want to engage China in a new multilateral order, we must first of all get rid of that threat,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports last month to counter what he has described as unfair international competition.

Le Maire said the EU’s exemption from the tariffs should be “full and permanent.”

The EU is seeking compensation from the United States for the tariffs through the World Trade Organization. Brussels has called for consultations with Washington as soon as possible and is drawing up a list of duties to be slapped on U.S. products.

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DOJ Investigates: Did AT&T, Verizon Make it Hard to Switch?

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The Justice Department has opened an antitrust investigation into whether AT&T, Verizon and a standards-setting group worked together to stop consumers from easily switching wireless carriers.

 

The companies confirmed the inquiry in separate statements late Friday in response to a report in The New York Times. 

 

The U.S. government is looking into whether AT&T, Verizon and telecommunications standards organization GSMA worked together to suppress a technology that lets people remotely switch wireless companies without having to insert a new SIM card into their phones. 

 

The Times, citing six anonymous people familiar with the inquiry, reported that the investigation was opened after at least one device maker and one other wireless company filed complaints.

Verizon, AT&T respond 

Verizon, which is based in New York, derided the accusations on the issue as “much ado about nothing” in its statement. It framed its efforts as part of attempt to “provide a better experience for the consumer.” 

 

Dallas-based AT&T also depicted its activity as part of a push to improve wireless service for consumers and said it had already responded to the government’s request for information. The company said it “will continue to work proactively within GSMA, including with those who might disagree with the proposed standards, to move this issue forward.”

 

GMSA and the Justice Department declined to comment.

Merger trial

 

News of the probe emerge during a trial of the Justice Department’s case seeking to block AT&T’s proposed $85 billion merger with Time Warner over antitrust concerns. That battle centers mostly on the future of cable TV and digital video streaming.

 

Verizon and AT&T are the two leading wireless carriers, with a combined market share of about 70 percent.

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Report: Sanctions-Hit Russian Firms Seek $1.6B in Liquidity

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Russian companies hit by U.S. sanctions, including aluminum giant Rusal, have asked for 100 billion rubles ($1.6 billion) in liquidity support from the government, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Friday.

The United States on April 6 imposed sanctions against several Russian entities and individuals, including Rusal and its major shareholder, Oleg Deripaska, to punish Moscow for its suspected meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and other alleged “malign activity.”

Rusal, the world’s second-biggest aluminum producer, has been particularly hard hit as the sanctions have caused concern among some customers, suppliers and creditors that they could be blacklisted, too, through association with the company.

“Temporary nationalization” is an option for some sanctions-hit companies, but not Rusal, Siluanov was quoted as saying. He did not name the companies he was referring to.

A Kremlin spokesman had said Thursday that temporary nationalization was an option for helping Rusal.

According to another news agency, RIA, Rusal has requested only government support with liquidity and with demand for aluminum so far, Siluanov said.

RIA quoted the minister as saying the government was not considering state purchases of aluminum for now.

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Reports: $1B Fine for Wells Fargo for Illegal Sales

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U.S. news reports say Wells Fargo will be fined as much as $1 billion for illegally selling customers car insurance policies they did not want or need, and for charging unnecessary fees in connection with mortgages.

This would be the largest fine ever imposed by federal bank regulators and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The fine is part of a settlement regulators negotiated with the bank.

Wells Fargo and federal officials have not commented on the reports.

The San Francisco-based lender admitted selling the unwanted insurance policies to hundreds of thousands of car loan customers. In many cases, the borrowers could not afford both the insurance and car payments and their cars were repossessed.

Many U.S. banks have enjoyed looser federal regulations under President Donald Trump’s pro-business administration.

But Trump denied reports that Wells Fargo would not be punished, tweeting in December that fines and penalties against the bank would, if anything, be substantially increased.

“I will cut regs but make penalties severe when caught cheating,” he wrote.

Wells Fargo previously paid a $185 million fine for opening bank and credit card accounts in its customers’ names without telling them.

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US-China Trade Row Threatens Global Confidence: IMF’s Lagarde

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The biggest danger from the U.S.-China trade dispute is the threat to global confidence and investment, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said on Thursday.

The IMF chief said the tariffs threatened by the world’s two largest economies would have a modest direct impact on the global economy but could produce uncertainty that choked off investment, one of the key drivers of rising global growth.

“The actual impact on growth is not very substantial, when you measure in terms of GDP,” Lagarde said of the tariffs, adding that the “erosion of confidence” would be worse.

“When investors do not know under what terms they will be trading, when they don’t know how to organize their supply chain, they are reluctant to invest,” she told a news conference in Washington where world financial leaders gathered for the start of the IMF and World Bank spring meetings.

In its World Economic Outlook released on Tuesday, the IMF cited 2016 research showing that tariffs or other barriers leading to a 10 percent increase in import prices in all countries would lower global output by about 1.75 percent after five years and by close to 2 percent in the long term.

In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry warned that the Trump administration’s tariff threats and other measures to try to force trade concessions from Beijing was a “miscalculated step” and would have little effect on Chinese industries.

In the latest escalations in the trade row, Washington said this week that it had banned U.S. companies from selling parts to Chinese telecom equipment maker ZTE for seven years, while China on Tuesday announced hefty anti-dumping tariffs on imports of U.S. sorghum and measures on synthetic rubber imports from the United States, European Union and Singapore.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office also is planning to soon release a second list of Chinese imports targeted for an additional $100 billion of U.S. tariffs, tripling the amount of Chinese goods under a tariff threat.

Lagarde said the trade tensions would be a major topic of discussion among finance ministers and central bank governors at the IMF and World Bank meetings.

“My suspicion is that there will be many bilateral discussions to be had between the various parties involved,” Lagarde said, adding that the issue would also be discussed in larger sessions involving the Fund’s 189 member countries.

“Investment and trade are two key engines that are finally picking up. We don’t want to damage that,” Lagarde said.

If the tariffs go into effect, the hit to business confidence would be worldwide because supply chains are globally interconnected, she added.

 

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Unsold Aluminum Piling Up at Russian Sanctions-Hit Rusal Factory

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Russian aluminum giant Rusal is stockpiling large quantities of aluminum at one of its plants in Siberia because U.S. sanctions imposed this month have prevented it from selling the metal to customers, five sources close to the company said.

With the firm’s own storage space filling up with unsold aluminum, Rusal executives in Sayanogorsk, in southern Siberia, have had to rent out additional space to accommodate the surplus stock, one of the sources told Reuters.

“Aluminum sales have broken down. And now the surplus aluminum is being warehoused in production areas of the factory itself,” said someone who works on the grounds of one of Rusal’s two plants in Sayanogorsk.

Several people connected to Rusal said that Oleg Deripaska, the company’s main shareholder who along with the company was included on a U.S. sanctions blacklist, visited Sayanogorsk this week for a closed-door meeting with staff.

Asked if the firm was stockpiling aluminum in Sayanogorsk, a Rusal spokeswoman declined to comment.

Rusal and Deripaska were included on a U.S. sanctions blacklist this month, scaring off many of its customers, suppliers and creditors who fear they too could be hit by sanctions through association with the company.

A number of traders and customers of Rusal’s aluminum have stopped buying the firm’s products, citing the sanctions risk, and Rusal has stopped shipping some of its products for export, according to a logistics firm and a railway operator that used to carry much of its aluminum.

While shipments have stalled, Rusal cannot readily reduce its production of aluminum because the electrolysis pots that are at the heart of the manufacturing process can be irreparably damaged if they are shut down.

At Rusal’s two plants in Sayanogorsk — which together accounted last year for about a quarter of the firm’s production — aluminum is now stacking up in ad hoc stockpiles dotted around the factory grounds, the sources said.

An employee with a Rusal subsidiary described how the unsold aluminum ingots were being stored in garages in the plant. He said his company had just agreed to rent out space to Rusal so it could store more of the ingots.

A contractor at the Sayanogorsk plants said the stockpiled ingots, stacked on pallets, were building up fast. He said two days’ worth of production would fill up a five-car train, but already a week had gone by with aluminum piling up.

“Can you imagine a week?” he said. “There’s a hell of a lot there, a hell of a lot. It’s being stockpiled, it’s not being shipped.”

An electrician working for Rusal said the ingots were being squeezed into all available space.

“The storage is not quite full,” said the electrician, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal company affairs. “Something is still being loaded all the same, some stuff is being shipped.”

Deripaska, who started his metals industry career in Sayanogorsk in the 1990s, visited the town this week and held a closed-door meeting with staff, according to several people with links to Rusal.

Deripaska himself was included on the U.S. sanctions blacklist, along with Rusal and other businesses where he has a controlling stake.

Washington said it took the measure against Deripaska and others because, it said, they were profiting from a Russian state engaged in “malign activities” around the world.

Since the sanctions were imposed on April 6, Rusal’s share price has slumped, the value of its bonds has plummeted and partners around the world have distanced themselves from Deripaska and his business empire.

U.S. customers cannot do business with Rusal any more under the sanctions, while major Japanese trading houses asked Rusal to stop shipping refined aluminum and other products and are scrambling to secure metal elsewhere, industry sources said.

Rusal is encountering problems at the other end of its production cycle too, with the sanctions affecting the overseas operations that supply it with the raw materials it uses to produce metal.

Rio Tinto, which supplies bauxite to some of Rusal’s refineries and buys refined alumina, said it will declare force majeure on some contracts.

Further besieging Rusal, creditors and bond-holders are trying to offload the firm’s liabilities because many financial market players believe that to handle Rusal debt could leave them too susceptible to U.S. sanctions.

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Russia Demands Compensation for US Tariffs on Aluminum, Steel

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Russia demanded compensation from the U.S. for its worldwide tariffs on foreign aluminum and steel Thursday, becoming the third influential member of the World Trade Organization to do so.

China, the European Union and India have also objected, arguing the tariffs are a “safeguard” measure to protect U.S. domestic products from imports, which require compensation for major exporting countries.

The Trump administration has rejected that argument and says the tariffs are for national security reasons and are therefore allowed under international law.

The U.S. has agreed to negotiate with China and has informed the EU and India it is willing to discuss any other issue, while maintaining their compensation claims are unwarranted.

It is unclear what Moscow’s demand means in practice because it did not challenge the tariffs through a WTO appeals mechanism through which the organization’s 164 members can negotiate solutions to trade disputes.

China is the only country that has pursued that course and India has asked to be present at negotiations with the U.S. on the issue.

U.S. allies Australia, Canada, the EU, Mexico and South Korea have received temporary exemptions from the tariffs, pending negotiations with the U.S.

 

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SunPower Buys US Rival SolarWorld to Head Off Trump Tariffs

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SunPower Corp. on Wednesday said it would buy U.S. solar panel maker SolarWorld Americas, expanding its domestic manufacturing as it seeks to stem the impact of Trump administration tariffs on panel imports.

The White House cheered the deal, saying it was proof that Trump’s trade policies were stimulating U.S. investment.

Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

The news sent SunPower’s shares up 12 percent on the Nasdaq to their highest level since before President Donald Trump imposed 30 percent tariffs on imported solar panels in January.

“The time is right for SunPower to invest in U.S. manufacturing,” chief executive Tom Werner said in a statement.

SunPower is based in San Jose, California, but most of its manufacturing is in the Philippines and Mexico. The company had lobbied heavily against the solar trade case brought last year by U.S. manufacturers, including SolarWorld, which said they could not compete with a flood of cheap imports.

‘This is great news’

The deal is a win for the Trump administration’s efforts to revive U.S. solar manufacturing through the tariffs. SunPower will manufacture its cheaper “P-series” panels, which more directly compete with Chinese products, at the SolarWorld factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, it said. It will also make SolarWorld’s legacy products.

“This is great news for the hundreds of Americans working at SolarWorld’s factory in Oregon and is further proof that the president’s trade policies are bringing investment back to the United States,” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said in an emailed statement.

The announcement comes as SunPower is seeking an exemption from tariffs on its higher-priced, more efficient panels manufactured overseas. It has argued to the U.S. trade representative, which will make a decision on exemptions in the coming weeks, that those products should be excluded because there is no U.S. competitor that makes a similar product.

In a note to clients, Baird analyst Ben Kallo said the SolarWorld deal would enable the company to compete against Chinese imports should SunPower’s products not receive an exemption. But he added that skeptics “may question the company’s ability to generate profits with U.S. manufacturing.”

Capital injection

The deal will inject much-needed capital into SolarWorld’s long-suffering manufacturing plant and give it the support of a major market player. SunPower is one of the largest solar companies in the world and is majority owned by France’s deep-pocketed oil giant Total SA.

The U.S. arm of Germany’s SolarWorld AG opened the Hillsboro factory in 2008 as it sought to capitalize on surging solar demand in the United States. But its start coincided with a dramatic increase in the production of cheaper solar products in Asia, and SolarWorld struggled to compete.

Twice, in 2012 and 2014, trade cases brought by SolarWorld prompted the U.S. Commerce Department to slap import duties on solar products from China and Taiwan. Yet prices on solar panels continued their free fall, and in 2017, the company joined rival Suniva in asking for new tariffs.

SolarWorld called the outcome “ideal” for its hundreds of employees in Hillsboro.

Suniva’s future in doubt

During the trade case and after the tariffs were announced, the solar  industry’s trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, argued that the tariffs would not be enough to keep SolarWorld and Suniva afloat.

Indeed, Suniva’s future remains uncertain after a U.S. bankruptcy court judge this week granted a request by its biggest creditor that will allow it to sell a portion of the company’s solar manufacturing equipment through a public

auction.

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US Manufacturers Seek Relief From Steel, Aluminum Tariffs

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President Donald Trump’s tariffs on imported aluminum and steel are disrupting business for hundreds of American companies that buy those metals, and many are pressing for relief.

Nearly 2,200 companies are asking the Commerce Department to exempt them from the 25 percent steel tariff, and more than 200 other companies are asking to be spared the 10 percent aluminum tariff.

Other companies are weighing their options. Jody Fledderman, chief executive of Batesville Tool & Die in Indiana, said American steelmakers have already raised their prices since Trump’s tariffs were announced last month. Fledderman said he might have to shift production to a plant in Mexico, where he can buy cheaper steel.

A group of small- and medium-size manufacturers are gathering in Washington to announce a coalition to fight the steel tariff.

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Merkel Wants European Monetary Fund With National Oversight: Sources

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel backs the idea of a European Monetary Fund, provided national governments have sufficient oversight, sources close to her said before a visit by the French president.

President Emmanuel Macron, who will meet Merkel in Berlin on Thursday, is pushing hard for bold euro zone reforms to defend the 19-member currency bloc against any repeat of the financial crisis that took hold in 2009 and threatened to tear it apart.

His vision includes turning Europe’s existing ESM bailout fund into a European Monetary Fund (EMF). At one point, Macron also suggested the zone should have its own budget worth hundreds of billions of euros, an idea that does not sit well with Germany.

Merkel told lawmakers from her conservative bloc on Tuesday that she favored the EMF concept as long as member states retain scrutiny over the body, participants at the meeting said.

“It’s not that one side is putting the brakes on and the other pushing ahead,” one of the participants at Tuesday’s meeting said. “We want to find a good reform path together.”

German conservatives worry that an EMF could fall under the purview of the European Commission and could use German taxpayers’ money to fund profligate states. They also fear the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, would lose its ability to veto euro zone aid packages.

Merkel told the meeting that an EMF should be incorporated into European law via a change in the EU treaty, though she did not make this a stipulation for creating it, participants said.

European treaty change is a tricky feat that could take time to achieve, but by not categorically insisting on it Merkel leaves wiggle room for her talks with Macron.

The chancellor’s remarks to her parliamentary bloc tread a careful line between Macron’s drive for bold euro zone reform and her conservatives’ push to retain scrutiny of any EMF.

A succession of bailouts for Greece aroused stiff opposition in Germany. The Bundestag approved them all, but the rise of the anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) – now the main opposition party – has since heightened the conservatives’ wariness of going too far with euro zone reforms.

“Angela Merkel must not become Macron’s assistant,” the AfD’s leader in parliament, Alexander Gauland, said in a statement, urging her to distance the government from the French leader’s plans.

Reform road map

One participant at Tuesday’s meeting of lawmakers with Merkel said she wanted an EMF to act with conditionality – the same approach taken by the International Monetary Fund, which attaches strict reform conditions to aid.

In line with leading members of her conservatives in parliament, she also rejected plans floated by the European Commission to make use of a specific EU legal provision to develop the existing euro zone bailout fund into an EMF.

Merkel’s coalition partners, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), sympathize with Macron and want him to be rewarded for his efforts to reform the French economy, well aware that a large chunk of French voters remains susceptible to far-right and far-left populists skeptical about the EU.

France and Germany, which account for around 50 percent of euro zone output, are essential to the reform drive. But while they often put on a strong show of political unity and shared intent, the devil is often in the detail.

On Tuesday, Merkel said creating a euro zone banking union was a priority for her, but she also broadened out the reform question to include a European asylum system, as well as foreign, defense and research policy.

Framing reform as such a broad issue risks diluting Macron’s drive to beef up the euro zone with extra funding fire power.

In Brussels, senior EU officials are playing down expectations for rapid and substantial progress. They hope the next couple of months can lay the groundwork for what will be agreed over the coming years.

“We hope to get an early harvest in June and a road map for the rest,” said one senior official, describing the Commission’s hopes for a Franco-German deal to conclude some euro zone reforms at a summit on June 28-29 and agree a schedule for further moves.

 

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EU Pushes to Approve Japan Trade Deal

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The European Commission will put forward a proposed free-trade agreement with Japan for fast-track approval Wednesday, hoping to avoid a repeat of the public protests that nearly derailed a trade pact with Canada two years ago.

The European Union and Japan concluded negotiations to create the world’s largest economic area in December, signaling their rejection of the protectionist stance of U.S. President Donald Trump. Now they want to see it go into force.

The agreement would remove EU tariffs of 10 percent on Japanese cars and the 3 percent rate for most car parts. It would also scrap Japanese duties of some 30 percent on EU cheese and 15 percent on wines, and secure access to large public tenders in Japan.

Canada deal memories

The commission, which negotiates trade agreements for the EU, will present its proposals to the 28 EU members, along with another planned trade agreement with Singapore. EU countries, the European Parliament, and the Japanese parliament will have to give their assent before the trade pact can start.

The EU is mindful of protests against and criticism of the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in 2016, which culminated in a region of Belgium threatening to destroy the deal. It provisionally entered force last September.

Both Brussels and Tokyo want to ensure the agreement can enter force early in 2019, ideally before Britain leaves the EU at the end of March. If it does, it could apply automatically to Britain during a transition period until the end of 2020.

Otherwise, it might not.

Before Brexit

Many of Japan’s carmakers serve the EU from British bases, and it has said having a deal in force during the transition would buy it more time to establish a separate trade agreement with Britain.

One reason the Japan deal may get rapid approval is that it does not deal with investment protection, which critics say allows multinational companies to influence public policy with the threat of legal action.

The agreement could then enter force after approval by the national governments and the European Parliament, rather than also having to secure clearance from national and even regional parliaments.

In fact, EU and Japanese negotiators have not agreed on the way in which foreign investors should be protected.

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Chinese City Turns to Wind Power Lottery

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The city of Yanan, a major wind power base in northwest China’s Shaanxi province, has introduced a lottery system to decide which wind projects will go ahead this year, a sign that grid constraints are forcing local governments to restrict capacity.

China has been aggressively developing alternative power as part of its efforts to cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Grid-connected wind power reached 163.7 gigawatts (GW) last year, up 10.1 percent on the year and amounting to 9.2 percent of total generating capacity.

But capacity expansion has outpaced grid construction, and large numbers of wind, solar and hydropower plants are unable to deliver all their power to consumers as a result of transmission deficiencies, a problem known as curtailment.

Grid constraints

According to a Yanan planning agency notice seen by Reuters, the city was given permission to build 900 megawatts of wind capacity this year, but 1,300 megawatts (or 1.3 GW) have already been declared eligible for construction, forcing authorities to whittle the total number of projects.

“After study it was decided that the lottery method should be used to determine what plans will be submitted (for approval) to the provincial development and reform commission,” it said.

The authenticity of the document was confirmed by a local municipal government official. He declined to give his name or provide details.

China aims to raise the share of non-fossil fuels in its total energy mix to around 15 percent by the end of the decade, up from 12 percent in 2015.

​Renewable power grows

But while renewable power has grown rapidly, around 80 GW of wind capacity was still unable to transmit electricity to consumers in 2015. Wasted wind power amounted to around 12 percent of total generation in 2017, according to the energy regulator.

An environmental group is suing grid companies in the northwest for failing to fulfill its legal obligation to maximize purchases of local renewable power.

To try to prevent waste, China has drawn up guidelines aimed at preventing new plant construction in regions suffering from surplus capacity.

It also released draft guidelines last month for a new renewable energy certificate system that will force regions to meet mandatory clean electricity utilization targets. The plan is expected to help alleviate curtailment.

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IRS Website Crashes as US Tax Deadline Looms

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Americans who waited until the last day to file their federal taxes faced a major hurdle hours before the midnight deadline. 

The Internal Revenue Service website’s “Direct Pay” page, which allows filers to pay their taxes directly from their bank account free of charge, crashed Tuesday. 

The IRS still expects Americans to pay their taxes but U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said extensions would be granted to those affected when the site was up again.

“We’ll make sure taxpayers have extensions once the system comes up to make sure they can use it and it in no way impacts people paying their taxes,” Mnuchin told reporters in New Hampshire. “It was just a technical issue we’re working through — a high-volume technical issue that impacted the system.”

For most of Tuesday, the message on the Direct Pay page described a “Planned Outage: April 17, 2018 – December 31, 9999.”The IRS removed the link to that page later in the day.

Pages on the IRS website used to view account information, make a direct payment or set up a payment plan were all not functioning most of the day Tuesday.

It’s unclear when and why the failure occurred.

President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, offered a deadpan reaction when asked about the failure.

“The IRS is crashing? Sounds horrible. Really bad,” he said during a briefing with reporters in West Palm Beach, Florida. “I hope it gets fixed.”

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Airlines Agency Backs Creation of Global Drone Registry 

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Concerned by a rise in near misses by unmanned aircraft and commercial jets, the world’s airlines back development of a U.N.-led global registry for drones, an executive of their trade group said Tuesday.

The International Air Transport Association backs efforts by the U.N. aviation agency to develop such a registry, which could also help track the number of incidents involving drones and jets, said Rob Eagles, IATA’s director of air traffic management infrastructure.

IATA would consider collaborating with the International Civil Aviation  Organization (ICAO) with using the registry for data analysis to improve safety.

ICAO is developing the registry as part of broader efforts to come up with common rules for flying and tracking unmanned aircraft.

“One of the important things we would like to see on a registry as well is the compilation of data which would include incident and accident reporting,” Eagles said in an interview on the sidelines of IATA’s Safety and Flight Ops Conference in Montreal.

Airlines and airport operators are looking to drone registries, geo-fencing technology and stiffer penalties for operating drones near airports. They hope these steps will ensure flying remains safe as hobbyists and companies like

Amazon.com use more drones.

More close calls

In Britain, the number of near misses between drones and aircraft more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year, according to the U.K. Airprox Board.

Air New Zealand said last month that a flight from Tokyo with 278 passengers and crew on board encountered a drone estimated to be just 5 meters away from the Boeing 777-200 jet during its descent into Auckland.

A single registry would create a one-stop shop that would allow law enforcement to remotely identify and track unmanned aircraft, along with their operators and owners.

It’s not yet clear what kind of drones would be listed in the registry, although IATA would support inclusion of most drones, including large unmanned aircraft and smaller ones used for commercial and industrial purposes, Eagles said.

“The intention at present is to merge this activity into the ICAO registry for manned aircraft, so that the sector has a single consolidated registry network,” ICAO spokesman Anthony Philbin said by email.

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Starbucks Closing All Company-owned Stores for Anti-bias Training

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Starbucks said Tuesday it will close all of its more than 8,000 company-owned U.S. stores on May 29 to educate employees about racial bias in an attempt to prevent more acts of discrimination.

The announcement was made days after the arrest of two African American men who sat in a Starbucks in the northeastern city of Philadelphia. The arrests were captured on video and widely circulated on social media, triggering protests and calls for a boycott.

“I’ve spent the past few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team listening to the community, learning what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it,” said CEO Kevin Johnson. “Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.”

The coffeehouse chain, which is also closing its corporate offices on May 29, said a curriculum is being developed for its 175,000 employees, with assistance from several racial bias training experts. They include Equal Justice Initiative executive director Bryan Stevenson, NAACP Legal Defense Education Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill and former attorney general Eric Holder.

The two men who were arrested were later released because of a lack of evidence that a crime had been committed. Philadelphia media reported the men had been waiting for a friend at the time of their arrests.

Starbucks said the employee who called police on the men no longer worked at that location.

Johnson, who met with the men, called the arrests “reprehensible.”

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As Drought Keeps Men on the Road, Mauritania’s Pastoralist Women Take Charge

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Every year when the pastoralist men in Fatima Demba’s Mauritanian village return from their months-long journey to find pastures and water, the women erupt in wild celebrations.

“We draw henna tattoos on our bodies, we braid our hair, we wear our nicest clothes,” she said, re-adjusting her bright yellow and blue robe.

Yet although she longs for her husband to come home, Demba sees one benefit in his absence.

“I am in charge of everything,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting in the shade of a mud-brick hut in Mafoundou village. “Our money, our field of millet — even the village’s borehole is my responsibility.”

Prolonged dry spells in this southern region of Mauritania have depleted grazing land, forcing pastoralists to travel ever longer distances to search for food and water for their herds.

That gives women in these predominantly male-dominated societies newfound power to manage harvests, the family’s remaining animals and household finances, experts say.

“Women pastoralists are the first up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night,” said Aminetou Mint Maouloud, who started the country’s first association of women herders in 2014.

“Whether it’s making butter from cow milk, fetching wood or tending to ill animals, it all comes down to women,” she added.

Worsening Drought

Livestock herding is a traditional way of making a living in West Africa’s Sahel, a semi-arid belt below the Sahara, but herders have become increasingly vulnerable to food insecurity as climate change disrupts rain patterns in the region.

That is particularly true in the impoverished desert nation of Mauritania, according to El Hacen Ould Taleb, head of the Groupement National des Associations Pastorales (GNAP), a charity working with pastoralists.

“Transhumance — the seasonal migration of pastoralists and their herds to neighboring Senegal or Mali — normally starts in October but the rains were so bad last year that people started leaving in August,” he said.

His organization is helping pastoralists find smarter migration routes — with water sources and markets along the way, for example — as part of the British government-funded Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) program.

Demba, whose husband has been gone for seven months, says she does not know when he will return.

“He has no choice, he must save our animals,” she said, pausing to take a sip of a glass of green mint tea.

In the meantime, “the family depends on me,” she added.

Under-recognized

Although women play a crucial role in pastoralism, it is rarely acknowledged, according to Mint Maouloud.

“A man will listen to everything his wife whispers on the pillow, but in the morning she won’t get any credit for it,” she said.

To change that, her association has elected a council of eight women from villages around the country. Together they lobby the country’s government on pastoralism issues.

“We tell them where an animal clinic might be needed, or which markets are best for specific kinds of animals,” she explained.

Their suggestions could find an unusually understanding ear.

Since Mauritania’s livestock ministry was created in 2014, both of its leaders have been women.

Vatma Vall Mint Soueina, the current minister, says women seeking political roles is “extremely encouraging” — and that she has seen women grow in economic clout.

“We are seeing women becoming more independent, by virtue of being so active economically,” she said from her office in Nouakchott, the capital.

Financial Independence

In Hadad village, amid stretches of sand and dirt dotted with the odd wilting tree, a dozen women huddle under a large tent covered with striped rugs.

Mariem Mint Lessiyad, a tiny woman with piercing brown eyes, chats energetically to the group, interrupted only by a bleating baby goat.

She leads a cooperative of 100 pastoralist women from nearby villages who buy chickens and sheep to raise and slaughter, selling affordable portions to local families.

“There is less meat going around, so we need to be clever with how we consume it,” she said.

The women buy a sheep for 12,000 Mauritanian ouguiya ($34), for instance, and make a profit of about 2,000 ouguiya ($6) per animal, she said.

They plan to reinvest the surplus in setting up a leather goods business.

“We can’t rely on our husbands to support us financially. They are too poor, especially now that they have to spend more money on keeping our animals healthy,” Mint Lessiyad said.

Mint Maouloud and her association are trying to persuade financial institutions to make it easier for women to get loans, so groups like Mint Lessiyad’s can get ahead.

Access to finance can be problematic, she said, with some banks outright refusing to lend money to women.

“It’s important to make women herders more independent financially, so they don’t rely on their husbands’ generosity or understanding,” she added.

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Toyota to Launch ‘Talking’ Vehicles in US in 2021

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Toyota Motor Corp. plans to start selling U.S. vehicles that can talk to each other using short-range wireless technology in 2021, the Japanese automaker said on Monday, potentially preventing thousands of accidents annually.

The U.S. Transportation Department must decide whether to adopt a pending proposal that would require all future vehicles to have the advanced technology.

Toyota hopes to adopt the dedicated short-range communications systems in the United States across most of its lineup by the mid-2020s. Toyota said it hopes that by announcing its plans, other automakers will follow suit.

The Obama administration in December 2016 proposed requiring the technology and giving automakers at least four years to comply. The proposal requires automakers to ensure all vehicles “speak the same language through a standard technology.”

Automakers were granted a block of spectrum in 1999 in the 5.9 GHz band for “vehicle-to-vehicle” and “vehicle to infrastructure” communications and have studied the technology for more than a decade, but it has gone largely unused. Some in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission think it should be opened to other uses.

In 2017, General Motors Co began offering vehicle-to-vehicle technologies on its Cadillac CTS model, but it is currently the only commercially available vehicle with the system.

Talking vehicles, which have been tested in pilot projects and by U.S. carmakers for more than a decade, use dedicated short-range communications to transmit data up to 300 meters, including location, direction and speed, to nearby vehicles.

The data is broadcast up to 10 times per second to nearby vehicles, which can identify risks and provide warnings to avoid imminent crashes, especially at intersections.

Toyota has deployed the technology in Japan to more than 100,000 vehicles since 2015.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said last year the regulation could eventually cost between $135 and $300 per new vehicle, or up to $5 billion annually but could prevent up to 600,000 crashes and reduce costs by $71 billion annually when fully deployed. 

NHTSA said last year it has “not made any final decision” on requiring the technology, but no decision is expected before December.

Last year, major automakers, state regulators and others urged U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to finalize standards for the technology and protect the spectrum that has been reserved, saying there is a need to expand deployment and uses of the traffic safety technology.

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US Bans American Companies from Selling to Chinese Phone Maker ZTE

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The U.S. Department of Commerce has banned American companies from selling components to Chinese telecom equipment maker ZTE for seven years after breaking an agreement reached after it was caught illegally shipping goods to Iran, U.S. officials said Monday.

The U.S. action, first reported by Reuters, could be devastating to ZTE since American companies are estimated to provide 25 percent to 30 percent of the components used in ZTE’s equipment, which includes smartphones and gear to build telecommunications networks.

The ban is the result of ZTE’s failure to comply with an agreement with the U.S. government after it pleaded guilty last year in federal court in Texas to conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions by illegally shipping U.S. goods and technology to Iran, the Commerce Department said.

The Chinese company, which sells smartphones in the United States, paid $890 million in fines and penalties, with an additional penalty of $300 million that could be imposed.

“If the company is not able to resolve it, they may very well be put out of business by this. Many banks and companies even outside the U.S. are not going to want to deal with them,” said Eric Hirschhorn, a former U.S. undersecretary of commerce who was heavily involved in the case.

As part of the agreement, Shenzhen-based ZTE Corp promised to dismiss four senior employees and discipline 35 others by either reducing their bonuses or reprimanding them, senior Commerce Department officials told Reuters. But the Chinese company admitted in March that while it had fired the four senior employees, it had not disciplined or reduced bonuses to the 35 others.

ZTE, whose Hong Kong and Shenzhen shares were suspended on Tuesday, said it was assessing the implications of the U.S. decision and was communicating with “relevant parties.”

 The Commerce Department order quoted a ZTE official’s letter admitting it “had not executed in full” some disciplinary measures and that there were “inaccuracies” in a 2017 letter.

But, the Commerce order said, ZTE “argued that it would have been irrational for ZTE to knowingly or intentionally mislead the U.S. government in light of the seriousness of the suspended sanctions.”

‘Vigilant against Chinese threats’

Under terms of the ban, U.S. companies cannot export prohibited goods, such as chip sets, directly to ZTE or via another country, beginning immediately.

Shares of big U.S. ZTE suppliers fell sharply on the Commerce ban. Optical networking equipment maker Acacia Communications, which got 30 percent of its total 2017 revenue from ZTE, tumbled 35 percent, hitting a near two-year low. Acacia said it was suspending affected transactions and assessing the impact.

Shares of optical component companies including Lumentum Holdings fell 8.9 percent and Finisar dropped 4 percent. Oclaro, which got 18 percent of its fiscal 2017 revenue from ZTE, lost 14.1 percent.

ZTE “provided information back to us basically admitting that they had made these false statements,” said a senior department official. “That was in response to the U.S. asking for the information.”

The ban on supplying ZTE comes two months after two Republican senators introduced legislation to block the U.S. government from buying or leasing telecommunications equipment from ZTE or its Chinese rival Huawei Technologies, citing concern the companies would use their access to spy on U.S. officials.

“China does not play by our rules, and we must be vigilant against Chinese threats to both our economic security and national security,” said Republican Representative Robert Pittenger after the Commerce announcement. Pittenger is sponsoring legislation that would strengthen the U.S. national security review process for foreign investments.

Meanwhile, Britain’s main cybersecurity agency said Monday it has written to organizations in the U.K.’s telecommunications sector warning about using services or equipment from ZTE.

‘Devastating’

Douglas Jacobson, an exports control lawyer who represents suppliers to ZTE, called the ban highly unusual and said it would severely affect the company.

“This will be devastating to the company, given their reliance on U.S. products and software,” said Jacobson. “It’s certainly going to make it very difficult for them to produce and will have a potentially significant short- and long-term negative impact on the company.”

ZTE has sold handset devices to U.S. mobile carriers AT&T, T-Mobile US and Sprint. It has relied on U.S. companies including Qualcomm, Microsoft and Intel for some components.

Shares of Taiwan’s MediaTek, which sells smartphone chips and competes with Qualcomm, were not trading when the announcement was made.

The U.S. action against ZTE is likely to further exacerbate current tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade.

After the U.S. placed export restrictions on ZTE in 2016 for Iran sanctions violations, China’s Ministry of Commerce and Foreign Ministry criticized the decision.

A five-year federal investigation found last year that ZTE had conspired to evade U.S. embargos by buying U.S. components, incorporating them into ZTE equipment and illegally shipping them to Iran.

ZTE, which devised elaborate schemes to hide the illegal activity, agreed to plead guilty after the Commerce Department took actions that threatened to cut off its global supply chain.

The U.S. government had allowed the company continued access to the U.S. market under the 2017 agreement.

The new restrictions stem from a Jan. 16 report by a U.S. monitor appointed by a federal judge in Texas who accepted the guilty plea in March 2017. Although Commerce Department officials would not discuss the report, they said the department followed up in February.

The U.S. government’s investigation into sanctions violations by ZTE followed reports by Reuters in 2012 that the company had signed contracts to ship millions of dollars’ worth of hardware and software from some of the best-known U.S. technology companies to Iran’s largest telecoms carrier.

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New AG School Teaches Secrets to Conserving Farmland

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Doug Fabbioli is concerned about the future of the rural economy, as urban sprawl expands from metropolitan areas into farm fields and pastureland. The Virginia winery owner decided to be part of the solution and founded The New AG School. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the school’s mission is raising the next generation of farmers. Faith Lapidus narrates.

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China Eyes Australian Donkey Exports

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The Northern Territory government in Australia says it has been approached by nearly 50 Chinese companies looking to buy land to start donkey farms. Demand for donkey products, especially donkey-hide gelatin is increasing in China, while global supplies are falling.

The Northern Territory government has bought a small herd of wild donkeys for its research station near the outback town of Katherine. Earlier this a month of delegation of Chinese business people visited the facility, and up to 50 companies from China have expressed interest in buying land to set up donkey farms.

It is estimated there are up to 60,000 wild donkeys in the Northern Territory. Donkeys were brought to Australia from Africa as pack animals in the 1860s, and many were released when they were no longer needed. For years feral donkeys have been considered a major pest by farmers.The animals trample native vegetation, spread weeds and compete with domestic cattle for food and water.

Now the authorities believe there are economic benefits in captive donkey herds.

Alister Trier, the head of the Northern Territory’s department of primary industry believes the donkey trade has a bright future.

“My feel[ing] is the industry will develop but it will not displace the cattle industry, for example, I just do not think that will happen.What it will do is add some diversification opportunities for the use of pastoral land and Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory,” said Trier.

In China, donkey skins are boiled down to make gelatin, which is then used in alternative Chinese medicines and cosmetics.

Animal rights campaigners are pressuring the authorities not to allow the live export of donkeys to China, claiming that conditions in transit would be cruel and unacceptable.

Activists also insist that donkeys’ health suffers when they are kept in large herds.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Australia wants the donkey skin trade stopped altogether because of concerns the animals are being skinned alive overseas and treated with extreme cruelty.

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Full Steam Ahead for Mozambique’s Rail Network

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Dozens of passengers line up in single file along the platform in the dead of night, ready to gather their luggage and pile into the ageing railway carriages.

At the small railway station in Nampula, in northeastern Mozambique, the 4:00 a.m. train to Cuamba in the north west is more than full, as it is every day, to the detriment of those slow to board and forced to stand.

In recent years, the government in Maputo has made developing the train network a priority as part of its economic plan.

But mounting public debt has meant that authorities had no choice but to cede control of the project to the private sector.

Seconds before the train — six passenger coaches coupled between two elderly US-made locomotives — leaves Nampula station, the platforms are already entirely empty.

No one can afford to be late.

Inside, the carriages remain pitch dark until the sun rises as the operator has not installed any lighting.

A blast of the horn and the sound of grinding metal marks the train’s stately progress along the 350-kilometre (220-mile) line to Cuamba — more than 10 hours away.

Five or six passengers cram onto benches intended for four without a murmur of complaint.

“The train is always full,” said Argentina Armendo, his son kneeling down nearby.

“Lots of people stay standing. Even those who have a ticket can’t be sure of getting on. They should add some coaches!”

‘Enormous growth potential’

“Yes, but it’s not expensive,” insists the conductor Edson Fortes, cooly. “It’s the most competitive means of transport for the poor. With the train, they are able to travel.”

Sitting in a vast, ferociously air-conditioned office Mario Moura da Silva, the rail operations manager for CDN, the company operating the line, appears more concerned about passenger numbers as a measure of success than perhaps their comfort.

In 2017, its trains carried almost 500,000 — a 265-percent increase on a year earlier.

“Passenger traffic isn’t profitable but it’s a requirement of the contract with the government,” said Moura da Silva.

“It’s not that which earns us money, it’s more the retail,” he added, referring to the company’s commercial operation, which has grown by 65 percent in a year.

Brazilian mining giant Vale, which owns CDN along with Japanese conglomerate Mitsui, began its Mozambican rail venture in 2005.

Having won a contract to run the concession from the government, it restored the former colonial line, which linked its inland coal mines with the port at Nacala.

It now operates a network of 1,350 kilometres (840 miles) following an investment of nearly $5 billion (around 4 billion euros).

“The growth potential is enormous,” said Moura da Silva.

Rail corridors

Mozambique’s government is eyeing the project as a bellwether for the industry.

“We have made infrastructure one of our four investment priorities,” said Transport Minister Carlos Fortes Mesquita.

“Thanks to this investment, the country recorded a strong growth in the railway sector.”

Eight new “rail corridor” projects are now under way in Mozambique, all funded with private capital, as the state grapples with a long-standing cash shortage.

The government has been engulfed in a scandal linked to secret borrowing by the treasury, which is juggling debt amounting to 112 percent of GDP.

As a result, a handful of large companies, attracted by Mozambique’s vast mineral wealth, have taken the lead in developing the country’s rail infrastructure.

But it is unclear if their interest in the sector will continue in the long-term.

Until the coal runs out?

“Today the Nacala line only exists because of coal. But once the mine closes, who will be able to justify continuing operations?” asked Benjamin Pequenino, an economist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

“The private sector won’t continue to invest if it knows it will lose money,” he said.

But in the absence of any alternative, former parliament speaker Abdul Carimo accepts that public-private partnerships are the least worst option.

Carimo, who remains close to the ruling party, now heads up the “Zambezi Development Corridor”.

The scheme is managed by Thai group, ITD, and plans to build 480 kilometres of track between Macuse port and the coal mines at Moatize for a price tag of $2.3 billion.

Carimo, who closely follows developments on the project, has vowed that “his” line will not only be used to carry minerals but will stimulate activity across the region it serves.

“I hate coal but I want this infrastructure to relaunch agriculture in Zambezi province,” he said, adding that the region was “one of the richest in the country in the 1970s.”

 

 

 

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