Rising Oil Prices Haven’t Hurt US Economy

America’s rediscovered prowess in oil production is shaking up old notions about the impact of higher crude prices on the U.S. economy.

It has long been conventional wisdom that rising oil prices hurt the economy by forcing consumers to spend more on gasoline and heating their homes, leaving less for other things.

Presumably that kind of run-up would slow the U.S. economy. Instead, the economy grew at its fastest rate in nearly four years during the April-through-June quarter.

President Donald Trump appears plainly worried about rising oil prices just a few weeks before mid-term elections that will decide which party controls the House and Senate.

“We protect the countries of the Middle East, they would not be safe for very long without us, and yet they continue to push for higher and higher oil prices!” Trump tweeted Thursday. “We will remember. The OPEC monopoly must get prices down now!”

Members of The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, who account for about one-third of global oil supplies, are scheduled to meet this weekend with non-members including Russia.

The gathering isn’t expected to yield any big decisions — those typically come at major OPEC meetings like the one set for December. Oil markets, however, were roiled Friday by a report that attendees were considering a significant increase in production to offset declining output from Iran, where exports have fallen ahead of Trump’s re-imposition of sanctions.

OPEC and Russia have capped production since January 2017 to bolster prices. Output fell even below those targets this year, and in June the same countries agreed to boost the oil supply, although they didn’t give numbers.

Rising oil prices

Oil prices are up roughly 40 percent in the past year. On Friday, benchmark U.S. crude was trading around $71 a barrel, and the international standard, Brent, was closing in on $80.

The national average price for gasoline stood at $2.85 per gallon, up 10 percent from a year ago, according to auto club AAA. That increase likely would be greater were it not for a slump in gasoline demand that is typical for this time of year, when summer vacations are over.

The United States still imports about 6 million barrels of oil a day on average, but that is down from more than 10 million a decade ago. In the same period, U.S. production has doubled to more than 10 million barrels a day, according to government figures.

“Because the U.S. now is producing so much more than it used to, [the rise in oil prices] is not as big an impact as it would have been 20 years ago or 10 years ago,” said Michael Maher, an energy researcher at Rice University and a former Exxon Mobil economist.

The weakening link between oil and the overall economy was seen — in reverse — three years ago. Then, plunging oil prices were expected to boost the economy by leaving more money in consumers’ pocket, yet GDP growth slowed at the same time that lower oil prices took hold during 2015.

Other economists caution against minimizing the disruption caused by energy prices.

“Higher oil prices are unambiguously bad for the U.S. economy,” said Philip Verleger, an economist who has studied energy markets. “They force consumers to divert their income from spending on other items to spending on fuels.”

Since energy amounts to only about 3 percent of consumer spending, a cutback in that other 97 percent “causes losses for those who sell autos, restaurants, airlines, resorts and all parts of the economy,” Verleger said.

Pack leader

The federal Energy Information Administration said this month that the U.S. likely reclaimed the title of world’s biggest oil producer earlier this year by surpassing the output of Saudi Arabia in February and Russia over the summer. If the agency’s estimates are correct, it would mark the first time since 1973 that the U.S. has led the oil-pumping pack.

And that has made the impact of oil prices on the economy a more complicated calculation.

When oil prices tumbled starting in mid-2014, U.S. energy producers cut back on drilling. They cut thousands of jobs and they spent less on rigs, steel pipes and railcars to ship crude to refineries. That softened the bounce that economists expected to see from cheaper oil.

Now, with oil prices rising, energy companies are boosting production, creating an economic stimulus that offsets some of the blow from higher prices on consumers. Oil- and gas-related investment accounted for about 40 percent of the growth in business investment in the April-June quarter this year.

Moody’s Analytics estimates that every penny increase at the pump reduces consumer spending by $1 billion over a year, and gasoline has jumped 24 cents in the past year, according to AAA. That is “a clear-cut negative,” but not deeply damaging, said Ryan Sweet, director of real-time economics at Moody’s.

“Usually with gasoline prices, speed kills — a gradual increase [like the current one], consumers can absorb that,” Sweet said. Consumers have other factors in their favor, he added, including a tight job market, wage growth, better household balance sheets, and the recent tax cut.

Sweet said the boon that higher prices represent to the growing energy sector, which can invest in more wells, equipment and hiring, means that the run-up in crude has probably been “a small but net positive” for the economy.

“That could change if we get up to $3.50, $4,” he said.


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US Official ‘Optimistic’ About Resolving Trade Dispute with China 

The United States is optimistic about finding a way forward in trade talks with China, but no date has yet been determined for further talks between the two countries, according to a senior White House official. 

The official told reporters Friday at the White House that China “must come to the table in a meaningful way” for there to be progress on the trade dispute. 

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said while there is no confirmed meeting between the United States and China, the two countries “remain in touch.”

“The president’s team is all on the same page as to what’s required from China,” according to the official. 

The Trump administration has argued that tariffs on Chinese goods would force China to trade on more favorable terms with the United States.

It has demanded that China better protect American intellectual property, including ending the practice of cybertheft. The Trump administration has also called on China to allow U.S. companies greater access to Chinese markets and to cut its U.S. trade surplus.

Earlier this week, the United States ordered duties on another $200 billion of Chinese goods to go into effect on September 24. China responded by adding $60 billion of U.S. products to its import tariff list.

The United States already has imposed tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods, and China has retaliated on an equal amount of U.S. goods.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump threatened even more tariffs on Chinese goods — another $267 billion worth of duties that would cover virtually all the goods China imports to the United States.

“That changes the equation,” he told reporters.

China has threatened to retaliate against any potential new tariffs. However, China’s imports from the United States are $200 billion a year less than American imports from China, so it would run out of room to match U.S. sanctions.


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NAFTA Deal Not Yet in Sight, Canada Stands Firm on Auto Tariffs

Canada and the United States showed scant sign on Thursday of closing a deal to revamp NAFTA, and Canadian officials made clear Washington needed to withdraw a threat of possible autos tariffs, sources said.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump wants to be able to agree on a text of the three-nation North American Free Trade Agreement by the end of September, but major differences remain.

“We discussed some tough issues today,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters after meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Freeland, who has visited Washington four weeks in a row to discuss NAFTA, gave no further details.

Market fears over the future of the 1994 pact, which underscores $1.2 trillion in trade, have been regularly hitting stocks in all three nations, whose economies are now highly integrated.

While multiple deadlines have passed during the more than year-long negotiations to renew NAFTA, pressure on Canada to agree to a deal is growing, partly to push it through the U.S. Congress before Mexico’s new government takes office on Dec. 1.

Canada says it does not feel bound by the latest deadline.

Asked whether time was running out, Freeland said her focus was getting a deal that was good for Canadians.

Trump came to power last year vowing to tear up NAFTA unless major changes were made to a pact he blames for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Trump struck a side-deal on NAFTA with Mexico last month and has threatened to exclude Canada if necessary. He also said he might impose a 25 percent tariff on Canadian autos exports, which would badly hurt the economy.

​Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, who was briefed on the talks by Canada’s negotiating team, said Ottawa insisted that the tariff threat be withdrawn.

“Why would Canada sign a trade agreement with the United States … and then have Donald Trump impose a 25 percent tariff on automobiles?” Dias told reporters.

“That for us is a deal breaker. It doesn’t make a stitch of sense. … We are a small nation, we’re not a stupid nation,” added Dias.

Freeland said she would return to Canada on Thursday ahead of a two-day meeting of female foreign ministers she is co-hosting in Montreal. Early next week she will be in New York for a United Nations session.

Ottawa is under pressure from some sectors to abandon its insistence that a bad NAFTA is worse than no NAFTA.

Jim Wilson, the trade minister of Ontario — Canada’s most populous province and heart of the country’s auto industry — met federal negotiators on Wednesday and tweeted on Thursday, “It is imperative that the feds reach a deal.”

The Globe and Mail newspaper on Thursday reported that U.S. negotiators want Ottawa to agree to capping its auto exports to the United States at 1.7 million vehicles a year, something that Canadian industry sources dismissed as unacceptable.

Separately, a Canadian source directly familiar with the negotiations said, “We have not discussed a cap.”

Reuters and other outlets reported in August that a side letter with Mexico would cap tariff-free or nearly duty-free Mexican imports to the United States at 2.4 million vehicles.

U.S. automakers privately question why the United States would seek to cap Canadian exports to the United States, given that companies are unlikely to expand production in Canada compared with lower-cost Mexico.


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Analysts: Poor Economy, Unemployment Lure Tunisians to Extremism

Seven years after the Arab Spring, little has been done to address youth unemployment in Tunisia, a key factor in extremist groups’ ability to recruit marginalized youth, rights groups and experts warn.

“Someone who is marginalized with nothing to lose, no stability in life, no vision of the future, no hope for change, can become a very easy target for terrorist groups,” Amna Guellali, director of Human Rights Watch’s Tunisia office, told VOA.

The Arab Spring was ignited in Tunisia, in part because of deteriorating economic conditions. A frustrated street vendor set himself on fire outside a local municipal office in Sidi Bouzid to protest repeated harassment from authorities, who often confiscated his goods or fined him for selling without a permit. 

Although economic conditions that force people to eke out a living on society’s margins play a big role in the unrest, Guellali said that unemployment is the central issue in Tunisia.

 “Unemployment stands at 15 percent, rising to 36 percent for Tunisians under 24 years old. Unemployed youths with diplomas are 25 percent, according to the last statistic of 2017,” Guellali added.

The World Bank, which has been helping Tunisia in its development, has also warned that unemployment among young people is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

Economic growth 

The World Bank says Tunisia has made progress in its transition to democracy and good governance practices, compared with other countries in the Middle East, but still grapples with growing its economy and providing economic opportunities. 

Tunisia’s economic growth in the post-Arab Spring era remains weak despite a modest increase in 2017. According to World Bank data, the economy grew by 1.9 percent in 2017 compared with 1.0 percent in 2016. Since the revolution, the economy has been growing by an average 1.5 percent annually, lower than previous years.

“Tunisian youth don’t see improvement; they actually see that the economic conditions have worsened more than the previous regime,” Darine El Hage, a regional program manager at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), told VOA. 

El Hage added that the institute’s field research indicates that Tunisian youth are both frustrated and feel hopeless, with some appreciating the previous government of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali for its relative stability. 

Mohamed Malouche, founder of the Tunisian American Young Professionals organization, agrees. He believes that ordinary Tunisians feel betrayed by the country’s politicians.

“The Tunisian public has been very patient, but they are not seeing that democracy is paying off. They all feel that they have been cheated by politicians,” Malouche said. 

Ripe for extremism

Terror groups such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaida have large numbers of Tunisians among their ranks and are active in various countries in the region.

Youssef Cherif, an independent Tunisian analyst, believes that when young people join militant groups, it is not due to ideological or religious preferences.

“Tunisian youth are trying to find a space where they can feel that they are important and feel a sense of identity and sense of belonging,” Cherif said.

Malouche agrees. “The lack of economic opportunities, the feeling of injustice and the lack of trust in the government institutions force Tunisian youth to take the extremism route,” he said. 

“Tunisia is becoming a fertile ground to extremism recruiters who are taking advantage of vulnerable young men by offering them money and promises,” he added.

Malouche said lack of political representation is also a factor.

“The Tunisian youth are not [seeing] themselves in the political process. They don’t feel that they are truly represented by the current people in power,” he said.

Root causes

Since the toppling of autocrat Ben Ali in 2011, nine Cabinets have been elected, none of which fully addressed high inflation and unemployment.

“The government has not addressed the root causes of the situation. They haven’t adopted comprehensive policies. They only adopted some cosmetic measures,” Human Rights Watch’s Guellali said.

The government is trying to encourage foreign investment, but continued instability has deterred investors, she said. 

Political division

Political differences between President Beji Caid Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed further complicate efforts to bring about reforms.

In July, Essebsi urged the prime minister to step down, citing the country’s political and economic problems. Chahed ignored the call.

“A change of government will shake the confidence of Tunisia’s international partners … as economic data will begin to improve by the end of this year [2018],” Chahed told state news agency TAP, responding to the president’s call for his resignation.

The Tunisian government has taken a number of steps to try to address  inflation and unemployment, including efforts to strengthen small businesses in the country and exemption of foreign companies from taxation to encourage more foreign investment. But analysts, like USIP’s El Hage, believe that these solutions are at best easy fixes.

“There are some mobilizations at the level of the government. However, these mobilizations are short-lived and don’t reflect long-term and comprehensive economic reform policy,” El Hage said. 

Some of the information in this report came from Reuters.


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Scrounge for Workers Sees US Jobless Claims Hit 48-Year Low

New U.S. claims for jobless benefits fell for the third week in a row, hitting their lowest level in nearly 49 years for the third straight week, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

The new figures suggest the U.S. economy’s vigorous job creation continued unabated this month as the data were collected during the survey week for the department’s more closely watched monthly jobs report, due out next week.

Amid a widely reported labor shortage, employers are reluctant to lay off workers who are difficult to replace.

For the week ended September 12, new claims for unemployment insurance fell to 201,000, down 3,000 from the prior week. Economists had instead been expecting a result of 209,000.

The result was the lowest level since November of 1969, whereas the prior week’s level had been the lowest since December 1969.

However, economists say that in reality the levels are likely the lowest ever, given demographic changes in the United States in the past half century.

Claims have now held below the symbolic level of 300,000 for more than 3.5 years, the longest such streak ever recorded.

Though they can see big swings from week to week, jobless claims are an indication of the prevalence of layoffs and the health of jobs markets.

In a decade of economic recovery, the United States has seen uninterrupted job creation, driving the unemployment rate to historical lows.

In light of these trends, the Federal Reserve is widely expected to raise interest rates next week to prevent inflation from rising too quickly.

 

 

 


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Report: Extreme Poverty Declining Worldwide 

The world is making progress in its efforts to lift people out of extreme poverty, but the global aspiration of eliminating such poverty by 2030 is unattainable, a new report found.

A World Bank report released Wednesday says the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day fell to a record low of 736 million, or 10 percent of the world’s population, in 2015, the latest year for which data is available.

The figure was less than the 11 percent recorded in 2013, showing slow but steady progress.

“Over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history. This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said.

“But if we are going to end poverty by 2030, we need much more investment, particularly in building human capital, to help promote the inclusive growth it will take to reach the remaining poor,” he warned. “For their sake, we cannot fail.”

Poverty levels dropped across the world, except in the Middle East and North Africa, where civil wars spiked the extreme poverty rate from 9.5 million people in 2013 to 18.6 million in 2015.

The highest concentration of extreme poverty remained in sub-Saharan Africa, with 41.1 percent, down from 42.5 percent. South Asia showed the greatest progress with poverty levels dropping to 12.4 percent from 16.2 percent two years earlier.

The World Bank’s preliminary forecast is that extreme poverty has declined to 8.6 percent in 2018.

About half the nations now have extreme poverty rates of less than 3 percent, which is the target set for 2030. But the report said that goal is unlikely to be met.


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China’s Alibaba Scraps Plan to Create 1M US Jobs

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma said Wednesday that the Chinese e-commerce giant had canceled plans to create 1 million jobs in the U.S., blaming the ongoing trade war for the decision, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua.

“This commitment is based on friendly China-U.S. cooperation and the rational and objective premise of bilateral trade,” Ma told Xinhua. “The current situation has already destroyed the original premise. There is no way to deliver the promise.”

Ma originally pledged to spur job growth by letting American small businesses and farmers sell their goods on Alibaba, which is one of the world’s largest online retailers, when he visited then-President-elect Donald Trump early 2017.

Trump imposed 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports on Monday, threatening to place taxes on an additional $267 billion worth of Chinese imports if China attempts to retaliate.

China placed tariffs on about $60 billion worth of U.S. products the next day as previously planned, though it reduced the size of the tariffs.

At an Alibaba investor conference Tuesday, Ma described the state of economic relations between the two countries as a “mess” with consequences that could last for decades.

Some experts said Ma’s plan to bring 1 million jobs to the U.S. might have been overly ambitious in the first place.


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Chinese Entrepreneur Rescinds Offer to Create 1 Million US Jobs

Chinese technology billionaire Jack Ma has rescinded his offer to create 1 million new jobs in the United States, saying it is no longer possible with the escalation of trade disputes between the world’s two biggest economies.

The Alibaba chief made the U.S. jobs pledge to then-President-elect Donald Trump in January 2017 at Trump Tower in New York, just before Trump assumed power. The prospective U.S. leader declared, “Jack and I are going to do some great things.”

But in an interview published late Wednesday by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, Ma said tit-for-tat tariffs imposed by Washington and Beijing, including new levies this week on billions of dollars of trade between China and the U.S., have scuttled his investment plans in the U.S..

“This promise was on the basis of friendly China-U.S. cooperation and reasonable bilateral trade relations, but the current situation has already destroyed that basis,” Ma said. “This promise can’t be completed.”

Trump this week said he was imposing a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, with Beijing immediately responding by targeting $60 billion worth of U.S. imports with 5 to 10 percent taxes.

As part of its 1 million jobs pledge, Alibaba, a massive online shopping site, had not planned to build factories or customer product fulfillment centers in the U.S. Rather, it had hoped to boost trade by helping small U.S. businesses sell their products in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Alibaba held a conference in the Midwest city of Detroit last year to encourage small U.S. businesses and farms to sell their products in China through Alibaba’s online portals.

The 54-year-old Ma said in the interview that Alibaba “will not stop promoting the healthy development of China-U.S. trade.”

But he told investors earlier this week that the trade disputes between the two countries could last for 20 years.

“It’s going to last long, it’s going to be a mess,” Ma said. “Trade is not a weapon and cannot be used for wars. Trade should be the propeller of peace.”

Instead, Ma said Alibaba would focus on business opportunities in Europe, South America, Russia and Africa.


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Canada Wants to See Flexibility in NAFTA Talks With US

Canada said on Wednesday that it would need to see movement from the United States if the two sides are to reach a deal on renewing NAFTA, which Washington insists must be finished by the end of the month.

Although the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and its allies are increasing pressure on Canada to make the concessions they say are needed for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made clear he also wanted to see flexibility.

“We’re interested in what could be a good deal for Canada but we’re going to need to see a certain amount of movement in order to get there and that’s certainly what we’re hoping for,” he told reporters in Ottawa.

Shortly afterwards, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland met U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer for their fourth set of talks in four weeks with the two sides still disagreeing on major issues.

Trump has already wrapped up a side deal with Mexico and is threatening to exclude Canada if necessary. Canadian officials say they do not believe the U.S. Congress would agree to turn NAFTA into a bilateral treaty.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said it would be extremely complicated, if not impossible, for the administration to pull off a Mexico-only agreement.

“If Canada doesn’t come into the deal there is no deal,” Donohue told a media breakfast in Washington.

Donohue said he believed that if the administration wanted to end the current NAFTA, such a move would be subject to a vote in Congress, which would be difficult to get.

The Chamber, the most influential U.S. business lobby, wants NAFTA to be renegotiated as a tri-lateral agreement, citing how highly integrated the three member nations’ economies have become since the pact came into force in 1994.

Negotiators are arguing over cultural protections, dispute resolution, and a U.S. demand for more access to Canada’s protected dairy market. Sources say Ottawa has made clear it is prepared to make concessions, which would anger the influential dairy lobby.

“For American farmers the Canadian market is a drop in the bucket. For us it’s our livelihood,” Dairy Farmers of Canada vice president David Wiens told reporters in Ottawa. Concessions in past trade deals had already hurt Canadian farmers, he said.

“The dairy sector cannot be negatively impacted again by a new trade agreement,” he said. “Enough is enough.”


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Kenya’s Finance Minister Cuts Spending, Money Transfer Taxes to Rise

Kenya’s Finance Minister Henry Rotich has cut the government’s spending budget by 55.1 billion shillings ($546.90 million), or 1.8 percent, for the fiscal year from July this year, a Treasury document showed on Wednesday.

The government is facing a tough balancing act after a public outcry over a new 16 percent value added tax on all petroleum products forced President Uhuru Kenyatta to suggest to parliament to keep the VAT and cut if by half.

In the document detailing the new spending estimates, Rotich said the budget had to be adjusted because of the amendments to tax measures brought by lawmakers when they first debated it and passed it last month.

The proposed halving of the VAT rate on fuel has left the government with a funding shortfall, hence the cuts in spending.

Parliament will vote on a raft of proposals, including the 1.8 percent cut on spending, in a special sitting on Thursday.

Kenya’s economy is expected to grow by 6 percent this year, recovering from a drought, slowdown in lending and election-related worries that cut growth in 2017, but investors and the IMF have expressed concerns over growing public debt.

While the next election is still four years away, the government’s economic policies are chafing with citizens angered by increasing costs of living. Fuel dealers protested when the VAT on fuel kicked in this month and citizen groups have gone to court to try to block new or higher taxes.

Separate documents sent by Kenyatta to parliament ahead of Thursday’s sitting underscored the debate in government over how to boost revenues without hurting the poor.

His government has to reduce a gaping fiscal deficit while boosting spending on priority areas such as healthcare and affordable housing.

In order to balance the government’s books after the reduction of the fuel tax, he is trying to reinstate several tax measures struck out by parliament, including a 2 percentage hike on excise duty for mobile phone money transfers to 12 percent.

Kenya’s biggest mobile phone operator Safaricom said in June it was opposed to any tax rise on mobile phone-based transfers, arguing that it would mainly hurt the poor, most of whom do not have bank accounts and rely on services such as its M-Pesa platform.

The president also asked parliament to double the excise duty on the fees charged by banks, money transfer services, and other financial institutions to 20 percent.

Parliament in August threw out an earlier version of proposed fees on bank transfers, a so-called “Robin Hood” tax of 0.05 percent on transfers of more than 500,000 shillings.

The president has not yet signed the budget due to the dispute over the planned tax hikes. Kenyatta’s Jubilee party and its allies have a comfortable majority in parliament.

The Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry this month said the government should widen the tax base. It also urged the state to cut expenditure, reduce wastage of public funds and deal with corruption, which some studies have found lose the government about a third of its annual budget.

 


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