Amazon Wades Into Health Care With Berkshire, JPMorgan

Amazon is diving into health care, teaming up with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and the New York bank JPMorgan Chase, to create a company that helps their U.S. employees find quality care “at a reasonable cost.”

The leaders of each company, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Buffett, and JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, offered few details Tuesday and said that the project is in the early planning stage.

“The ballooning costs of [health care] act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” Buffett said in a prepared statement. “Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable.”

The new company will be independent and “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” The businesses said the new venture’s initial focus would be on technology that provides “simplified, high-quality and transparent” care.

It was not clear if the ultimate goal involves expanding the ambitious project beyond Amazon, Berkshire or JPMorgan. However, JPMorgan’s Dimon said Tuesday that, “our goal is to create solutions that benefit our U.S. employees, their families and, potentially, all Americans.”

Shares in health care companies took a big hit in early trading Tuesday, hinting at the threat of the new entity to how health care is paid for and delivered in the U.S.

Before the opening bell, eight of the top 10 decliners on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index were health care companies.

 The need for a solution to the health care crises in the U.S. is intense. With about 151 million non-elderly people, employer-sponsored coverage is the largest part of the U.S. health insurance market.

Health care costs for companies routinely rise faster than inflation and eat up bigger portions of their budgets. Americans are mired in a confusing system that creates a mix of prices in the same market for the same procedure or drug and offers no easy path for finding the best deal.

Employers have hiked deductibles and other expenses for employees and their families to dissipate the costs, which have hit Americans hard.

Only 50 percent of companies with three to 49 employees offered coverage last year, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s down from 66 percent more than a decade ago. The federal Affordable Care Act requires all companies with 50 or more full-time employees to offer it.

Amazon, Berkshire and JP Morgan say they can bring their scale and “complementary expertise” to what they describe as a long-term campaign.

Amazon’s entry into the health market has been perceived as imminent, even though the company had announced nothing publicly.

It has been watched very closely on Wall Street, which has seen Amazon disrupt numerous industries ranging from book stores to clothing chains.

Amazon, which mostly sold books when it was founded more than 20 years ago, has radically altered the way in which people buy diapers, toys or paper towels. Most recently it has upended the grocery sector, spending $14 billion last year for Whole Foods Market Inc.

AP writer Joseph Pisani contributed to this report from New York. Murphy reported from Indianapolis.


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As Trade Tensions Rise With US, China Prepares to Retaliate

As trade tensions grow between the United States and China, there is concern among foreign companies in China that a possible trade war between the two countries could leave them caught in the crossfire.

 

President Donald Trump has been ratcheting up trade pressure on China, and a senior administration official has said the U.S. leader would be “emphasizing the fair and reciprocal nature of trade” in his State of the Union speech Tuesday.

 

Already, Trump has issued what some believe could be the opening salvo in a more intense showdown over trade, recently slapping stiff import tariffs on solar panel imports and washing machines. More trade actions could be announced soon.

 

“If that does go forward, I have been told by certain officials [in China] that yes, definitely, there will be retaliation,” said William Zarit, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, or AmCham China. “And what we’ve been telling our interlocutors is that if there is some kind of tariff and if the Chinese do want to retaliate, they do so maturely and with precision so as to not actually adversely affect their own economy.”

 

Zarit spoke on Tuesday at the launch of AmCham China’s annual survey on the business climate in the world’s second-largest economy. The survey for 2017 was conducted at the time of Trump’s visit late last year and cited growing optimism among members about the outlook for growth and investment in China.

 

Seventy-eight percent of the respondents said that positive relations between the U.S. and China are extremely important or very important, compared with 64 percent in 2015.

Three out of every four companies surveyed, however, said they still feel unwelcome in China. One key driver of that perception – regulatory barriers for foreign companies and unfair treatment relative to local ones, the survey found.

 

While no one wants a trade war, the survey found that more than 60 percent are advocating for the U.S. government to take actions to help correct trade imbalances.

 

Zarit said some have grown weary of years of negotiations on trade and investment issues between the governments and think Washington should use pressure.

 

“Strictly just dialogue has not really brought much in terms of progress. So, perhaps some pressure will help get us more progress to a more balanced economic and commercial relationship,” he said.

 

Seeking ‘level playing field’

According to the survey, 27 percent of its business members “advocate more strongly for a level playing field” for U.S. businesses in China. Another 19 percent want the U.S. government to “apply investment reciprocity as an approach to improve market access in China.”

 

A third group comprising 14 percent of AmCham members wants Washington to pursue a new multilateral trade agreement that would include the U.S. replacing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

 

One of Trump’s first actions in office was to pull the United States out of the TPP, but last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he hinted at a possible path back toward the TPP or something similar to the trade agreement.

Lester Ross, head of AmCham China’s policy committee, said American companies should be ready to deal with harsh measures and other forms of retaliation from Beijing.

“I don’t think any company wants to absorb or make a sacrifice for trade relations, but I think some companies will inevitably suffer some repercussions if there are trade frictions between the two countries,” he said. “They [U.S. companies] have to consider that possibility.”

 

Ross said retaliation from the Chinese government could include measures targeting the airline and agriculture sectors, and possibly affecting industries and communities where support for Trump was strong during the elections.

 

“It would be likely that they [Chinese] will target sectors that have political resonance in the United States, and particular products or commodities,” he said.

Rising friction over trade is not the only way companies doing business in China could be caught in the middle.

 

As part of Trump’s efforts to exert more pressure on North Korea, he previously has complained that China is not doing enough and used the threat of possible trade actions as a carrot and stick to try to get Beijing to do more.

Some analysts said the Trump administration might go slowly on trade remedies against China if Beijing does more to help Washington in resolving the North Korea problem.

But that, in turn, could distract Washington from its plans to deal with what the U.S. sees as Beijing’s unfair trade practices.

Zarit said AmCham members also want the North Korea issue to be resolved as peacefully as possible.

 

“We also hope that our needs for addressing the structural imbalances in the relationship are not sacrificed in the process,” he said.

 


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Nutella Scuffles: France Investigates Discounts After Frenzy

French consumer fraud authorities are investigating a promotional campaign for Nutella that prompted scuffles in several supermarkets – and even a police intervention.

The Finance Ministry’s fraud agency said Tuesday it will examine whether the campaign by the Intermarche supermarket chain violated pricing regulations. An official with the agency would not give further details.

Intermarche drew big crowds at several stores last week after announcing sales of the chocolate and hazelnut spread for just 1.41 euros ($1.74), some 70 percent below the regular price.

Video circulated online of ensuing scuffles in some stores, drawing worldwide attention – and questions from authorities.

Nutella manufacturer Ferrero has distanced itself, saying Intermarche is entirely responsible.

The investigation comes as the government prepares to present a draft law this week aimed at stricter and clearer regulation for big retailers.


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Trump to Herald Economic Progress in State of the Union

President Donald Trump will herald a robust economy and push for bipartisan congressional action on immigration in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, as he seeks to rally a deeply divided nation and boost his own sagging standing with Americans.

The speech marks the ceremonial kickoff of Trump’s second year in office and is traditionally a president’s biggest platform to speak to the nation. However, Trump has redefined presidential communications with his high-octane, filter-free Twitter account and there’s no guarantee that the carefully crafted speech will resonate beyond his next tweet.

Still, White House officials are hopeful the president can use the prime-time address to Congress and millions of Americans watching at home to take credit for a soaring economy. Though the trajectory of lower unemployment and higher growth began under his predecessor, Trump argues that the tax overhaul he signed into law late last year has boosted business confidence and will lead companies to reinvest in the United States.

 

Considering the strength of the economy, Trump will step before lawmakers Tuesday night in a remarkably weak position. His approval rating has hovered in the 30s for much of his presidency and at the close of 2017, just 3 in 10 Americans said the United States was heading in the right direction, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. In the same survey, 67 percent of Americans said the country was more divided because of Trump.

 

It’s unlikely Trump will be able to rely on a robust legislative agenda to reverse those numbers in 2018. Congress has struggled with the basic function of funding the government, prompting a brief government shutdown earlier this month that was resolved only with a short-term fix that pushed the spending deadline to Feb. 8.

 

Against the backdrop of the spending fight, Republicans and Democrats are also wrestling with the future of some 700,000 young immigrants living in the United States illegally.

Trump has vowed to protect the so-called Dreamers from deportation, but is also calling for changes to legal immigration that are controversial with both parties.

 

“We’re going to get something done, we hope bipartisan,” Trump told reporters Monday, before giving his speech a practice run-through in the White House map room. “The Republicans really don’t have the votes to get it done in any other way. So it has to be bipartisan.”

 

Though Democrats are eager to reach a resolution for the young immigrants, the party is hardly in the mood to compromise with Trump ahead of the midterm elections. Lawmakers see Trump’s unpopularity as a key to their success in November, and are eager to mobilize Democratic voters itching to deliver the president and his party a defeat at the ballot box.

 

Seeking to set the tone for their election-year strategy, party leaders have tapped Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, to deliver a post-speech rebuttal aimed at casting Democrats, not Trump, as champions of the middle class.

 

Democrats are also looking to make their mark in other ways. A handful of lawmakers are planning to boycott the president’s remarks. And several Democratic women plan to wear black to protest sexual harassment, an issue that has tarnished several lawmakers in both parties. Trump himself has been accused of assault or harassment by more than a dozen women, accusations he has denied. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that the president’s lawyer arranged a payment to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, to prevent her from talking about her alleged encounter with the future president.

 

First lady Melania Trump, who has largely stayed out of the spotlight following those allegations, will attend Tuesday’s address, according to the White House. She’ll be joined in the audience by several guests whose stories amplify the president’s agenda, including an Ohio welder who the White House says will benefit from the new tax law and the parents of two Long Island teenagers who were believed to have been killed by MS-13 gang members.

 

 


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Car Manufacturers Boast of Fuel Efficiency

The annual Washington Auto Show is not the biggest or the most important convention of the year, but it still attracts a lot of attention, from enthusiasts and potential customers to automotive industry professionals.  Self-driving cars are still some time off, so the focus this year continues to be on fuel efficiency. VOA’s George Putic has more.


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Concern Fitness Tracking App Exposed US Military Bases Just the Start

The controversy over information gathered from GPS-enabled fitness devices and published online – in some cases highlighting possible activity at U.S. military bases in places like Syria and Afghanistan – could be just the start of an ever-growing problem in a world where more people and devices are connected to the internet.

Already, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has ordered a review of security protocols following concerns that a so-called Heatmap published by the fitness app company Strava showed locations and movement patterns of troops serving overseas.

“We take matters like these very seriously and are reviewing the situation to determine if any additional training or guidance is required,” the Pentagon said in a statement Monday.

“Recent data releases emphasize the need for situational awareness when members of the military share personal information,” the statement continued, further noting that annual training for all military personnel, “recommends limiting public profiles on the internet, including personal social media accounts.”

Yet the concern about the impact is not new. 

“Digital dust”

Numerous sensitive U.S. military and intelligence offices and installations ban the use of so-called smart devices on their premises, including smart phones and the GPS-enabled fitness trackers from companies like Fitbit, Garmin and Polar, which helped Strava create its global Heatmap, highlighting the most popular routes for walking, running and biking this past February.

And U.S. intelligence officials have been warning for years about the impact of what they call “digital dust,” information that by itself seems to have little relevance and that users have posted to social media.

The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center cautions member of the U.S. intelligence community they could be targeted by adversaries who have, “Collected information on you from social media postings.” 

And a pamphlet from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence warns employees to, “Maintain direct positive control of, or leave at home, electronic devices during travel, especially when traveling out of the U.S.”

Still, the potential consequences of sharing information with a fitness tracking app seemed to have escaped notice until Nathan Russer, a student at the Australian National University in Canberra, tweeted about the Strava Heatmap this past Saturday.

It was not just the United States, though. Russer also identified the routes of Turkish forces and Russian activity in Syria, as well.

Strava says it excluded activities that users marked as private or ones that took place in areas people did not want to make public. Even so, the map included 1 billion activities between 2015 and September 2017.

And in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, where activities show up bright against otherwise dark terrain, combining the Strava data with information from other maps available online could have far reaching consequences.

“This is pattern analysis,” according to Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer now with the Hudson Institute. “This [Strava] map is a tool that most intelligence analysts seek out.”

And, it is a tool that can be exploited by a wide range of actors.

“This allows an enemy to pinpoint their fire,” Pregent said, noting this type of information could have been used to great effect by Shia militias who had been targeting U.S. bases during the Iraq War.

Now, he said, it could guide new attacks by the Taliban or even the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan.

“Several of the [Strava] graphics are our bases in Afghanistan and you can see the most trafficked areas,” he said.

So far, there is no evidence that groups like the Taliban, IS or al-Qaida have managed to make use of the type of information provided in the Strava Heatmap. Still, the possibility has gotten their attention.

“All I’ve seen is Jihadi groups sharing the Strava news, consuming it just like us,” Raphael Gluck, an independent researcher, told VOA. “Maybe there’s some wishful thinking on their part, but so far [I’ve] not seen anyone talking further than that.” 

And the information may only be so useful to an untrained eye.

Interpreting the data

“The map alone is sometimes inadequate to provide useful analysis,” Aric Toler, a lead researcher for the investigative journalism website Bellingcat wrote on his blog. 

Toler told VOA activity in Strava can be falsified. For example, he found Strava activity in the Atlantic Ocean, south of Ghana – likely a spoof or an error. But he said in less obvious cases, without understanding the context, it can be difficult to know what the data means.

Still, he warned,”obvious that there can be danger in this.”

As for why it appears so many U.S. military personnel in war zones like Afghanistan and Syria allowed their devices to keep sending data to Strava, some experts say it’s just human nature.

“These aren’t necessarily the special operators out there killing ISIS or helping our partners on the ground,” said Hudson Pregent. “The majority of these forces are back at bases where they try to normalize life.” 

“We’ve seen everyone from police officers to members of the military, members of the foreign service — people in sensitive positions — oversharing online, whether it be Facebook or Twitter,” said Stratfor Threat Lens Senior Analyst Ben West. “I see this, the Strava map, as an extension of this.”

And Strava is just one of hundreds of apps and devices that make it easy to expose this vulnerability.

“Wherever these things are located and are operating, they are collecting information on our daily routines which can be used to anticipate our behavior and bad guys can exploit that,” West said. 

 

 


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Cuba Tourism Slides in Wake of Hurricane Irma, Trump

Tourism to Cuba, one of the few bright spots in its ailing economy, has slid in the wake of Hurricane Irma and the Trump administration’s tighter restrictions on travel to the Caribbean island, a Cuban tourism official said on Monday.

Although the number of visitors rose nearly 20 percent in 2017, it fell 10 percent on the year in December, and is down 7-8 percent this month, Jose Manuel Bisbe York, the president of Cuban state travel agency conglomerate Viajes Cuba, said.

Arrivals from the United States, which had surged in the wake of the U.S.-Cuban detente in 2014, took the worst hit, dropping 30 percent last December, he told Reuters.

“Since Hurricane Irma, we’ve seen arrivals shrink,” Bisbe York said on the sidelines of the event organized by U.S. travel agency insightCuba to dispel tourist misperceptions about Cuba.

Irma hit in September, just as the tourism sector was taking reservations for its high season from November to March.

Images of destruction put many would-be visitors off although Cuba had fixed its tourism installations within two months, said Bisbe York. Arrivals of Canadians, the largest group of tourists to Cuba, were down 4-5 percent.

“But we see this as a temporary thing and what we are seeing is that arrivals are recovering from month to month,” said Bisbe York, adding that Cuba would go ahead with its plans to launch more than 15 hotels island-wide this year.

“The first trimester will be the most difficult, because logically the change in the public perception takes time.”

Occupancy rates at the hotels in Cuba managed by Spain’s Meliá Hotels International S.A. were down around 20 percent on the year in December and January, said Francisco Camps, Meliá’s Cuba deputy general manager.

“From February though, we are already reaching figures similar to those we had in previous years,” he said.

Republican President Donald Trump’s more hostile stance towards Cuba than his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama looks set to have a more lasting impact than Irma.

The number of U.S. visitors had surged since the Obama administration created greater exemptions to a ban on tourism to the Caribbean’s largest island and restored regular commercial flights and cruises.

Arrivals reached a record 619,523 last year, up from 91,254 in 2014.

But the Trump administration in September issued a warning on travel there due to a spate of alleged health attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana. In November, tighter travel regulations also went into effect.

The double whammy seriously depressed U.S. visits, American tour operators and a cruise line said at Monday’s event, although in reality the restrictions remain looser than before the detente and travel easier.

Cuba is also still one of the safest destinations worldwide, they said.

“While the regulations he changed very little the perception in the U.S. was that you no longer could travel to Cuba legally,” said insightCuba’s Tom Popper, noting his agency’s reservations were down 50 percent this year. “Part of hosting this event was to communicate that it is 100 percent legal to travel to Cuba.”


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Amazon.com Opens Its Own Rainforest in Seattle

Amazon.com on Monday opened a rainforest-like office space in Seattle that it hopes will spark new ideas for employees.

While cities across North America are seeking to host Seattle-based Amazon’s second headquarters, the world’s largest online retailer is still expanding its main campus. Company office towers and high-end eateries have taken the place of warehouses and parking lots in Seattle’s South Lake Union district. The Spheres complex, officially open to workers Tuesday, is the pinnacle of a decade of development here.

The Spheres’ three glass domes house some 40,000 plants of 400 species. Amazon, famous for its demanding work culture, hopes the Spheres’ lush environs will let employees reflect and have chance encounters, spawning new products or plans.

The space is more like a greenhouse than a typical office. Instead of enclosed conference rooms or desks, there are walkways and unconventional meeting spaces with chairs.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s billionaire founder, officially opened the project in a ceremony with Amazon executives, elected officials and members of the media — by voice command.

“Alexa, open the Spheres,” Bezos said, as a circle in the Spheres’ ceiling turned blue just like Amazon’s speech-controlled devices, whose voice assistant is named Alexa.

Amazon has invested $3.7 billion on buildings and infrastructure in Seattle from 2010 to summer 2017, a figure that has public officials competing for its “HQ2” salivating. Amazon has said it expects to invest more than $5 billion in construction of HQ2 and to create as many as 50,000 jobs.

“We wanted to create something really special, something iconic for our campus and for the city of Seattle,” said John Schoettler, Amazon’s vice president of global real estate and facilities.

Earlier this month, the online retailer narrowed 238 applications for its second headquarters to 20. The finalists, from Boston and New York to Austin, Texas, largely fit the bill of being big metropolises that can attract highly educated tech talent.

Amazon started the frenzied HQ2 contest last summer and plans to pick a winner later this year.

At the Spheres’ opening, Governor Jay Inslee said the project now ranked along with Seattle’s Space Needle as icons of Washington State.

The Spheres, designed by architecture firm NBBJ, will become part of Amazon’s guided campus tours. Members of the public can also visit an exhibit at the Spheres by appointment starting Tuesday.


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US Rejects Proposals to Unblock NAFTA, But Will Stay in Talks

U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade chief on Monday dismissed Canadian proposals for unblocking NAFTA modernization talks but pledged to stay at the table, easing concerns about a potentially imminent U.S. withdrawal from the trilateral pact.

Trump, who described the 1994 pact as a disaster that has drained manufacturing jobs to Mexico, has frequently threatened abandon it unless it can be renegotiated to bring back jobs to the United States.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said after a sixth round of NAFTA modernization talks in Montreal that Trump’s views on the pact are unchanged, and cautioned that talks are still moving too slowly on U.S. priorities.

“We finally began to discuss the core issues, so this round was a step forward,” Lighthizer said. “But we are progressing very slowly. We owe it to our citizens, who are operating in a state of uncertainty, to move much faster.”

But Lighthizer’s Mexican and Canadian counterparts said that enough progress was made in Montreal to be optimistic about concluding the pact “soon,” with nine days of talks in Mexico City scheduled to start Feb. 26.

“For the next round, we will still have substantial challenges to overcome. Yet the progress made so far puts us on the right track to create landing zones to conclude the negotiation soon,” said Mexico’s Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo.

Officials are now openly speculating that the bid to salvage the $1.2-trillion free trade pact will continue well beyond an end-March deadline set to avoid Mexican presidential elections.

Canadian proposals dismissed

Heading into Montreal last week, some officials had feared the United States might be prepared to pull the plug on the pact amid frustration over slow progress.

The mood lightened after Canada presented a series of suggested compromises to address U.S. demands for reform.

But Lighthizer criticized Canadian proposals to meet U.S. demands for higher North American content in autos, saying it would in fact reduce regional autos jobs and allow more Chinese-made parts into vehicles made in the region.

He also dismissed a suggestion on settling disputes between investors and member states as “unacceptable” and “a poison pill” and said a recent Canadian challenge against U.S. trade practices at the World Trade Organization “constitutes a massive attack on all of our trade laws.”

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who stood stony faced as Lighthizer made his remarks, later told reporters that “the negotiating process is … always dramatic.”

A Canadian government source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted Lighthizer had not speculated about withdrawal and said the U.S. official had been more positive in private than during previous rounds.

Officials said the negotiating teams had closed a chapter on anti-corruption measures and were close to wrapping up sections on telecommunications, sanitary measures for the agriculture industry and technical barriers to trade.

Challenging demands

But the three sides are still far apart over U.S. demands to boost regional auto content requirements to 85 percent from the current 62.5 percent and require 50 percent U.S. content in North American-built vehicles.

Other challenges are Washington’s demands that NAFTA largely eliminate trade and investment dispute-settlement systems and contain a “sunset” clause to force renegotiations every five years.

Critical comments by Trump, Lighthizer and others have unsettled markets that fret about the potential damage to a highly integrated North American economy if the United States gives six months’ notice it is leaving.

The Mexican round next month is an extra set of talks that officials added to help tackle the many remaining challenges.

Negotiators are supposed to finish in Washington in March with the eighth and final round.

Although some officials have privately speculated about freezing the talks at the start of April, Guajardo told reporters that “we cannot afford to suspend this process.”


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Argentina Freezes Some Government Salaries, Cuts Jobs in Austerity Push

Executive branch government employees in Argentina will get no pay raises this year and one out of every four “political positions” appointed by ministers will be cut, President Mauricio Macri said on Monday, deepening his austerity drive.

The clampdown on political positions, including advisers appointed by government ministers, is viewed as an attack on a patronage system that has been in place for decades.

The firings, expected to save $77 million a year, are symbolic of Macri’s drive to regain market confidence.

“Austerity has to be part of politics,” Macri said in a televised address.

He spent the first two years of his administration dismantling the trade and currency controls set up by his predecessor, Cristina Fernandez, who had expanded the role of government in the economy.

He was elected in 2015 with a mandate to free the markets and improve Argentinas business climate.

Macri, expected to seek re-election next year, denounced “the corruption and clientelism” of past administrations. Included in the measures announced on Monday, family members of ministers were banned from holding government jobs.

Macri scored a series of business-friendly legislative wins late last year after his coalition swept mid-term elections. But passage of his pension reform bill last month triggered violent protests and a decline in the president’s approval ratings.

The government wants to foster the idea that politically appointed officials share the burden of the fiscal adjustment.

“It also wants to convey the message that this administration really is different from its predecessors,” said Ignacio Labaqui, analyst for consultancy Medley Global Advisors.

Pressured by the country’s powerful labor unions, the government canceled a special session of Congress planned for February to debate Macri’s proposed labor reform.

The bill includes amnesty for companies that register workers who had been paid off the books. It aims to curb litigation by workers and would lighten social security taxes paid by employers. The private sector has long argued for more flexibility in labor regulations.

 

 


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