Markets Sweat on Lopez Obrador’s ‘True Colors’ on Eve of New Mexican Presidency

During Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s successful campaign for the Mexican presidency, his advisers met representatives of dozens of investment funds to allay fears about the leftist’s plans, saying he prized economic stability and wanted to attract foreign capital.

Initially, it worked.

When Lopez Obrador won office by a landslide on July 1, the peso and the stock market rose, buoyed by his conciliatory tone.

The rally continued when Mexico and the United States reached a deal to rework the NAFTA trade pact in late August.

But the mood has since changed.

Lopez Obrador, who takes office Saturday, began saying in September that Mexico was “bankrupt.” When he canceled a new $13 billion Mexico City airport on Oct. 29 on the basis of a widely-derided referendum, investors took flight.

“[Lopez Obrador] behaved quite well from the election in early July until the referendum on the airport. That was really an indication of his true colors,” said Penny Foley, portfolio manager for emerging markets and international equities groups at TCW Group Inc, which manages $198 billion in total.

Foley said the referendum prompted TCW to cut its exposure to bonds issued by state oil firm Pemex, on the grounds that under a Lopez Obrador administration the company would be driven more by politics than by profit.

“We are now slightly underweight Mexico in the dollar fund and neutral in the local currency fund,” she added.

Lopez Obrador wants to attract investment from home and abroad to fuel economic growth and drive an ambitious infrastructure agenda, including a major rail project linking Cancun to Mexico’s southeast, plus a new oil refinery.

Yet decisions such as the airport cancellation have fed investors’ concerns he could push Mexico toward a more authoritarian, arbitrary and partisan form of government.

Mexico’s S&P/BVM IPC stock index has tumbled 17 percent since the market’s post-election peak on Aug. 28, while the peso has fallen around 8 percent against the dollar.

Bond yields on Mexican 10-year sovereign debt have jumped 121 basis points, a sign investors see it as a riskier bet.

By contrast, yields on Brazil’s 10-year debt have fallen over 20 basis points since the Oct. 28 presidential election victory of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who has appointed a group of pro-market economists to his team. Mexican corporate debt markets have taken note.

Airport operator GAP, which controls terminals in a dozen cities including Tijuana and Guadalajara, canceled a planned 6 billion peso debt issuance this week.

“We decided to wait for better conditions,” GAP chief financial officer Saul Villarreal told Reuters.

Some European businesses are also in wait-and-see mode, said Alberico Peyron, a board member and former head of the Italian chamber of commerce in Mexico.

There was “no panic so far,” but a few executives had put plans on hold until the picture became clearer, he said, adding: “There are more who are worried than are optimistic.”

‘Errors’ made

After 30 years of kicking against the establishment, the veteran Lopez Obrador, a 65-year-old former mayor of Mexico City, claimed the presidency with a promise to clean up government, cut poverty and tame Mexico’s drug cartels.

Aiming to almost double economic growth to around 4 percent, Lopez Obrador wants to revive Pemex, increase pensions and spur development in the poorer south to contain illegal immigration that has strained ties with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Lopez Obrador says rooting out corruption will free up billions of dollars, while he intends to save more with pay cuts for civil servants. However, critics say the cuts could affect the quality of officials in his new administration.

Johannes Hauser, managing director of the German chamber of commerce in Mexico, told Reuters the association’s annual survey of firms, currently underway, was upbeat on Mexico.

Still, initial results suggested companies were not quite as eager to invest or create new jobs as they were a year ago. And the airport cancellation had been a shock, he said.

During their campaign outreach, some of Lopez Obrador’s advisers sought to play down the airport’s importance to markets, while others suggested it was likely to be completed.

Without providing evidence, Lopez Obrador said the project — which has been under construction since 2015 — was tainted by corruption. But more than once, Lopez Obrador had raised the possibility of turning its completion into a private concession.

Incoming Finance Minister Carlos Urzua, whose team sat down with financial heavyweights such as Bank of America, BlackRock, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley, told Reuters in April that foreign investors were “not very worried” about the airport.

Now, the scrapping of the hub has raised the prospect of a messy legal dispute with investors that could cost billions of dollars — as well as cloud interest in new projects.

Some members of Lopez Obrador’s incoming government privately express deep misgivings about the decision to cancel the airport, which was based on a referendum organized by his own party in which barely 1 percent of the electorate voted.

They felt the poll, which critics lambasted as opaque and open to abuse, undermined the credibility he had built up over the years he spent campaigning against corruption and vote-rigging.

Lopez Obrador’s taste for rule by referendum, and changes to laws governing everything from banking to mining and pension funds that have been proposed by his National Regeneration Movement and the party’s allies in Congress, have further curdled sentiment.

“I’ve moved from being cautiously optimistic after the election, to being quite pessimistic now,” said Andres Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister of Mexico. “He’s not building on what he got. He’s destroying little by little what he got.”

Facing questions about the airport controversy from a panel of prominent Mexican journalists this month, Lopez Obrador was unrepentant about the referendum, saying that “errors” made were blown out of proportion by adversaries trying to hurt him.

“What I regard as most important in my life is my honesty,” he said. “We are not creating a dictatorship,” he added, repeating what is a frequent aside in his public pronouncements.

Nevertheless, Arturo Herrera, an incoming deputy finance minister, conceded this week that the transition had tested the next government, which must present its first budget by mid-December.

“What we’re all learning is that we need to be extremely careful,” he told Mexican television.


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Indian Politicians Spar Over Dodgy Economic Data as Election Nears

It may be the world’s sixth largest, but most other things about India’s economy are up for debate.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is under fire for the release of new historical GDP figures that significantly downgraded growth during the years the opposition Congress party was in power, replacing old government estimates and those prepared by an independent committee.

The figures, released by the government’s Central Statistics Office (CSO), showed growth in the 10 years of Congress rule to 2014 averaged 6.7 percent, below an average of 7.4 percent under the current government. A previous government estimate had growth under Congress at 7.8 percent.

P. Chidambaram, a former Congress finance minister, called the release “a joke”. In response India’s current finance minister, the BJP’s Arun Jaitley, said the CSO was a credible organization.

The fallout comes at a critical time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India’s economy grew a weaker-than-expected 7.1 percent in the July-September quarter, from a more than two-year high of 8.2 percent in the previous quarter, government data showed on Friday.

Modi faces a general election next year, when the performance of the economy under his pro-business administration compared with the Congress era is likely to dominate campaigning.

The spat has also alarmed India’s top statisticians, who have long faced the difficult task of estimating growth and unemployment in an economy with hundreds of millions of informal workers, and dominated its financial press and political cartoons in recent days.

“The entire episode threatens to bring disrepute to India’s statistical services,” said an editorial in Mint, one of the country’s leading business newspapers, on Friday.

A joke widely circulated on WhatsApp said the government would soon be reinterpreting the last cricket World Cup, in which India crashed out in the semi-finals, to say the country won based on a new methodology.

COMPETING INTERESTS

Unlike many major economies, India lacks an independent statistical body.

An organization called the National Statistics Commission (NSC) was formed in 2005 with that intention, though it is yet to be recognized as the official body for generating statistics.

Last year the NSC set up a committee, chaired by economist Sudipto Mundle, to come up with a new set of historical GDP figures.

Its report, published in July, showed growth averaged 8.1 percent in the decade before the BJP took power.

After the figures were cheered by the Congress, the government issued a clarification saying the report “had not yet been finalised and various alternative methods are being explored”. Shortly after, the report was pulled from the government’s website.

“The whole thing has unfortunately become very political,” said Mundle, on the battle between the two parties. “It is very troubling.”

Attempts to formalize the NSC’s role have been successively stonewalled by both Congress and the BJP, said N R Bhanumurthy, who sat on the committee chaired by Mundle.

“They have not shown much interest in making it independent from our government,” he said.

The debate over India’s true level of growth is the latest to frustrate economists looking to measure the performance of the country of 1.3 billion people.

India has not published its official employment survey since 2015, while a smaller quarterly survey on companies employing more than 10 workers has not been released since March while the government comes up with new methodology.

India’s large informal sector made calculating employment “almost impossible”, Bhanumurthy said, leading to a vacuum that was filled with competing political interests.


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New North American Trade Pact Signed

The leaders of the United States, Mexico and Canada have signed a new North American trade deal, underpinning $1.2 trillion in annual commerce among the three countries.   

President Trump is calling the signing of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), following 15 months of frequently acrimonious negotiations, a “very historic day” for a “truly groundbreaking achievement.” 

The pact will lock in U.S. market access to Canada and Mexico, expand American exports and includes new measures to ensure fair competition, explained Trump as he stood alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

“The autoworkers are a tremendous beneficiary,” said Trump, adding that the USMCA will help stop automotive jobs from going overseas, and he predicted many such jobs will return to the United States. 

The agreement’s intellectual property protection will be “the envy of nations all around the world,” said Trump at the signing on the sidelines of the G-20 leaders’ summit in Buenos Aires on Friday morning.  

 

The USMCA replaces NAFTA, a pact Trump roundly criticized during his 2016 presidential campaign, terming it the worst trade deal in history and blaming it for the loss of American manufacturing jobs since it went into effect in 1994.

“We’ve taken a lot of barbs and a little abuse and we got there,” Trump said thanking Trudeau and Pena Nieto. “It’s great for all of our countries.”

It will be a while, however, before the agreement can take effect as lawmakers from all three countries must approve the USCMA. 

“It’s been so well-reviewed I don’t expect to have much of a problem” getting the pact through the U.S. Congress, Trump said at the signing ceremony. 

That could prove to be an overly optimistic assessment. 

“It’s going to be a very tough sell,” predicts Congressman Bill Pascrell of the state New Jersey, who is one of the top Democrats on the House subcommittee that oversees trade issues.

The opposition Democrats take control of the House in January. 

The National Association of Manufacturers is calling for swift approval by U.S. lawmakers.

“With 2 million American jobs dependent on exports to Canada and Mexico, Congress should move expeditiously to review the USMCA before the end of this year. We look forward to working with the administration and Congress to ensure the USMCA is implemented and enforced in a way that empowers manufacturers in America to continue investing in our people and our communities,” the powerful business group said in a statement released shortly after the signing ceremony.

Trump noted the signing in Argentina comes on the last day in office for the Mexican president, who is being succeeded by leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, elected five months ago.

“It is really an incredible way to end a presidency,” Trump said to Pena Nieto, promoting applause from the Mexican officials in the audience.  

The outgoing Mexican leader hailed the as providing “more and better opportunities to our people,” predicting that “North America will grow stronger and be more prosperous.”

Pena Nieto also said the new agreement provides improved protection of workers’ rights and the environment. 

The Canadian prime minister agreed that it will “protect jobs, strengthen the middle class and create new opportunities for businesses.”

Trudeau, speaking in French and English, did not refer to the agreement by the USMCA acronym, instead calling it “the new NAFTA.” He also said, “the task isn’t done, more hard work is ahead.” 

His government is officially calling the pact the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA). 

Noting this week’s announcement by top North American automaker General Motors to close several factories in Canada and the United States, Trudeau lamented the factory shutdowns “are a heavy blow.” 

“Make no mistake, we will stand up for our workers and fight for their families and communities,” added Trudeau. 

The signing of the so-called free trade agreement comes at a time when tens of billions of dollars of tariffs remain in place on goods traded among the three countries.   

“Tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum are entirely inconsistent with the overall goals of the USMCA,” according to a letter signed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and groups representing auto, chemical, grocery, retail and agricultural interests.

Retaliatory tariffs by Mexico have harmed U.S. dairy and pork farmers. 

Mexican negotiators reportedly desire modifications to limit future metal shipments to the United States to 80 percent of current levels, while Canada is resisting quotas in the face of inexpensive steel from China entering the American market.


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G-20 Prepares for Fiery Summit Amid Trade War, Security Tensions

World leaders are preparing for a potentially fiery G20 summit starting Friday in Buenos Aires. As Henry Ridgwell reports, the two-day meeting is being held against the backdrop of a spiraling trade war that has set the global economy on edge, plus a series of dangerous security flashpoints from Ukraine to the Middle East to the South China Sea.


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Rosenstein Calls for Tech Firms to Work With Law Enforcement

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called on social media companies and technology firms Thursday to work with law enforcement to protect the public from cybercriminals.  

 

Speaking at a symposium on online crime, Rosenstein said that “social media platforms provide unprecedented opportunities for the free exchange of ideas. But many users do not understand that the platforms allow malicious actors, including foreign government agents, to deceive them by launching vast influence operations.” 

 

He said it was up to the companies to “place security on the same footing as novelty and convenience, and design technology accordingly.”  

 

He warned that if the technology sector failed to do so, government would have to step in.  

 

“I think the companies now do understand if they do not take it upon themselves to self-regulate — which is essentially the theme of my talk today — they will face the potential of government regulation,” he said. 

Extortion scheme

 

Rosenstein’s remarks came a day after the Justice Department charged two Iranian hackers in connection with a multimillion-dollar cybercrime and extortion scheme that targeted government agencies, cities and businesses. 

 

Rosenstein said many tech companies are willing to work with law enforcement and to prevent the use of their platforms to spread disinformation. 

 

But he said that “some technology experts castigate colleagues who engage with law enforcement to address encryption and similar challenges. Just because people are quick to criticize you does not mean that you are doing the wrong thing.” 

 

U.S. law enforcement officials have long been pushing tech companies to make it easier for them to access information on private devices such as cellphones and social media accounts. But most firms have resisted, citing privacy of the users.  

 

Rosenstein said data encryption practices were a “significant detriment to public safety.”  

 

“Improvements in the ability to investigate crime and hold perpetrators accountable must match the pace at which technology is making crimes easier to commit and more destructive,” Rosenstein said. 


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Deutsche Bank Offices Raided in Money Laundering Probe

Police raided six Deutsche Bank offices in and around Frankfurt on Thursday over money laundering allegations linked to the “Panama Papers”, the public prosecutor’s office in Germany’s financial capital said.

Investigators are looking into the activities of two unnamed Deutsche Bank employees alleged to have helped clients set up offshore firms to launder money, the prosecutor’s office said.

Around 170 police officers, prosecutors and tax inspectors searched the offices where written and electronic business documents were seized.

“Of course, we will cooperate closely with the public prosecutor’s office in Frankfurt, as it is in our interest as well to clarify the facts,” Deutsche Bank said, adding it believed it had already provided all the relevant information related to the “Panama Papers”.

The news comes as Deutsche Bank tries to repair its tattered reputation after three years of losses and a drumbeat of financial and regulatory scandals.

Christian Sewing was appointed as chief executive in April to help the bank to rebuild. He trimmed U.S. operations and reshuffled the management board but revenue has continued to slip.

Deutsche Bank shares were down more than 3 percent by 1220 GMT and have lost almost half their value this year.

Offshore links

The investigation was triggered after investigators reviewed so-called “Offshore-Leaks” and “Panama Papers”, the prosecutor said.

The “Panama Papers”, which consist of millions of documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, were leaked to the media in April 2016.

Several banks, including Scandinavian lenders Nordea and Handelsbanken have already been fined by regulators for violating money laundering rules as a result of the papers.

The prosecutors said they are looking at whether Deutsche Bank may have assisted clients to set up offshore companies in tax havens so that funds transferred to accounts at Deutsche Bank could skirt anti-money laundering safeguards.

In 2016 alone, over 900 customers were served by a Deutsche Bank subsidiary registered on the British Virgin Islands, generating a volume of 311 million euros, the prosecutors said.

They also said Deutsche Bank employees are alleged to have breached their duties by neglecting to report money laundering suspicions about clients and offshore companies involved in tax evasion schemes.

The investigation is separate from another money laundering scandal surrounding Danish lender Danske Bank, where Deutsche Bank is involved.

Danske is under investigation for suspicious payments totaling 200 billion euros from 2007 onwards and a source with direct knowledge of the case has told Reuters Deutsche Bank helped to process the bulk of the payments.

A Deutsche Bank executive director has said the lender played only a secondary role as a so-called correspondent bank to Danske Bank, limiting what it needed to know about the people behind the transactions.

Under scrutiny

Weaknesses in Deutsche Bank’s controls that aim to prevent money laundering have caught the attention of regulators on both sides of the Atlantic. The bank has publicly said that it agreed it needed to improve its processes to properly identify clients.

In September, Germany’s financial watchdog – BaFin – ordered Deutsche Bank to do more to prevent money laundering and “terrorist financing,” and appointed KPMG as third party to assess progress.

In August, Reuters reported that Deutsche Bank had uncovered further shortcomings in its ability to fully identify clients and the source of their wealth.

Last year, Deutsche Bank was fined nearly $700 million for allowing money laundering through artificial trades between Moscow, London and New York. An investigation by the U.S.

Department of Justice is still ongoing.

Deutsche Bank has been under pressure after annual losses, and it agreed to pay a $7.2 billion settlement with U.S. authorities last year over its sale of toxic mortgage securities in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

 


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Trump Studying New Auto Tariffs After GM Restructuring

U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that new auto tariffs were “being studied now,” asserting they could prevent job cuts such as the U.S. layoffs and plant closures that General Motors Co. announced this week. 

 

Trump said on Twitter that the 25 percent tariff placed on imported pickup trucks and commercial vans from markets outside North America in the 1960s had long boosted U.S. vehicle production. 

 

“If we did that with cars coming in, many more cars would be built here,” Trump said, “and G.M. would not be closing their plants in Ohio, Michigan & Maryland.” 

 

The United States has a 2.5 percent tariff on imported cars and sport utility vehicles from markets outside North America and South Korea. The new North American trade deal exempts the first 2.6 million SUVs and passenger cars built in Mexico and Canada from new tariffs. 

 

Several automakers said privately on Wednesday that they feared GM’s action could prompt Trump to act faster than expected on new tariffs. 

 

GM did not directly comment on Trump’s tweets but reiterated that it was committed to investing in the United States. On Monday, the company said it would shutter five North American plants, stop building six low-selling passenger cars in North America and cut up to 15,000 jobs. The company has no plans to shift production of those vehicles to other markets. 

 

The administration has for months been considering imposing dramatic new tariffs on imported vehicles. 

 

The U.S. Commerce Department has circulated draft recommendations to the White House on its investigation into whether to impose tariffs of up to 25 percent on imported cars and parts on national security grounds, Reuters reported earlier this month. 

 

“The President has great power on this issue – Because of the G.M. event, it is being studied now!” Trump said. 

 

Shock to industry

The prospect of tariffs of 25 percent on imported autos and parts has sent shock waves through the auto industry, with both U.S. and foreign-brand producers lobbying against it and warning that national security tariffs on EU and Japanese vehicles could dramatically raise the price of many vehicles. 

 

Trump has also harshly criticized GM for building cars in China. The United States slapped an additional 25 percent tariff on Chinese-made vehicles earlier this year, prompting China to retaliate. 

 

China currently imposes a 40 percent tariff on U.S. automobiles, while the United States has a 27.5 percent tariff on Chinese vehicles. 

 

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said in a statement on Wednesday that he “will examine all available tools to equalize the tariffs applied to automobiles.” 

 

Additional tariffs on Chinese-made vehicles and parts would have a limited impact, said Kristin Dziczek, an economist at the Center for Automotive Research. She noted only a small number of vehicles were exported from China to the United States annually. 

 

The White House previously pledged not to move forward with imposing national security tariffs on the European Union or Japan while it was making constructive progress in trade talks. 

 

Trump wants the EU and Japan to buy more American-made vehicles. He wants the EU and Japan to make trade concessions, including lowering the EU’s 10 percent tariff on imported vehicles and cutting nontariff barriers. 

 

The White House in recent weeks has reached out to the chief executives of German automakers, including Daimler AG, MW AG and Volkswagen AG about meeting to discuss the status of auto trade.  


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Stocks Leap as Fed Chief Hints Interest Rate Increases May Taper Off

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell boosted U.S. stock markets on Wednesday when he said interest rates were “just below” estimates of a level that neither brakes nor boosts a healthy economy. Many took his comments as a signal that the Fed’s three-year tightening cycle is ending. 

The S&P 500 and Dow posted their biggest percentage gains in eight months, while the Nasdaq saw its largest advance in just over a month following Powell’s speech to the Economic Club of New York. 

Powell said that while “there was a great deal to like” about U.S. prospects, “our gradual pace of raising interest rates has been an exercise in balancing risks.” 

Earlier in the day, in its first-ever financial stability report, the Fed cautioned that trade tensions, Brexit and troubled emerging markets could rock a U.S. financial system where asset prices are “elevated.” 

‘Close to neutral’

“[Powell is] now acknowledging he’s close to neutral, which suggests maybe not quite as many rate hikes in the future as investors believed,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Wealth Advisors in Chicago. “It’s certainly a change of language and welcome news to investors.” 

The U.S. Commerce Department affirmed that U.S. GDP grew in the third quarter at a 3.5 percent annual rate, but the goods trade deficit widened, consumer spending was revised lower and sales of new homes tumbled, suggesting clouds are gathering over what is now the second-longest economic expansion on record. 

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 617.7 points, or 2.5 percent, to 25,366.43, the S&P 500 gained 61.61 points, or 2.30 percent, to 2,743.78 and the Nasdaq Composite added 208.89 points, or 2.95 percent, to 7,291.59. 

Of the 11 major sectors in the S&P 500, all but utilities were positive. Technology and consumer discretionary were the biggest percentage gainers, each up more than 3 percent. 

The S&P 500 Automobile & Components index was up 1.4 percent after President Donald Trump said he was studying new auto tariffs in the wake of General Motors Co.’s announcement that it would close plants and cut its workforce. 

Humana cuts forecast

Health insurer Humana Inc. cut its 2019 forecast for Medicare drug plan enrollment but upped its estimated enrollment in the company’s Medicare Advantage plan. Its stock ended the session up 6.2 percent. 

Salesforce.com Inc. beat analysts’ earnings estimates and forecast better-than-expected 2020 revenue, sending its shares up 10.3 percent. Other cloud software makers rose on the news, with the ISE Cloud Index gaining 3.5 percent. 

Microsoft Corp briefly surpassed Apple Inc. in market cap but Apple took back its lead by closing. Nevertheless, Microsoft closed 4.0 percent higher as it benefited from optimism regarding demand for cloud computing services. 

Among losers, Tiffany & Co. shares dropped 11.8 percent after the luxury retailer missed quarterly sales estimates on slowing Chinese demand. 

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 3.95-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 3.58-to-1 ratio favored advancers. 

The S&P 500 posted 17 new 52-week highs and six new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 37 new highs and 129 new lows. 

Volume on U.S. exchanges was 8.04 billion shares, compared with the 7.82 billion-share average over the last 20 trading days. 


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Trump: US Tariffs on More Foreign Vehicles Would Have Prevented GM Plant Closures

U.S. President Donald Trump touted the use of U.S. tariffs on foreign small trucks Wednesday, saying their placement on other foreign vehicles would have prevented the closure of several General Motors plants and the loss of thousands of coveted manufacturing jobs.

Trump noted on Twitter that brisk U.S. small truck sales in the country are due to a 25-percent tariff on small truck imports.

The president reiterated on Twitter that “countries that send us cars have taken advantage of the U.S. for decades.” Trump added he has “great power on this issue,” which he said “is being studied now.”

Trump has threatened to eliminate all federal subsidies to GM in response to the company’s planned closure of five plants and the elimination of 14,000 jobs in North America. Questions remain, though, about whether Trump has the authority to act against the automaker without congressional approval.

Federal tax credits of up to $7,500 are available to those who buy GM electric vehicles. Killing the subsidies may have little financial impact on GM because it is on the cusp of reaching its subsidy limit.

Many of the jobs would be eliminated in Midwestern U.S. states, a region where Trump has long promised a manufacturing rebirth.

GM, which said it has invested more than $22 billion in U.S. operations since it came out of bankruptcy in 2009, has tried to appease the Trump administration while justifying its decisions.

“We appreciate the actions this administration has taken on behalf of industry to improve the overall competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing,” GM said in a statement Tuesday.

Before GM can shutter factories next year in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario, Canada, it must reach agreement with the United Auto Workers union. The union has vowed to fight the closures legally and in collective bargaining.

GM’s restructuring reflects changes in buying trends in North America, prompting vehicle manufacturers to shift away from cars and toward SUVs and trucks.

 

 

 

 

 


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Powell: Fed’s Gradual Rate Hikes Balance Against Risks

U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said on Wednesday that while there was “a great deal to like” about U.S. prospects, the Fed’s gradual interest rate hikes are meant to balance risks as it tries to keep the economy on track.

“We know that things often turn out to be quite different from even the most careful forecasts,” Powell said in a speech that comes in the wake of last week’s volatile market selloff. “Our gradual pace of raising interest rates has been an exercise in balancing risks.”

Powell offered few clues on how much longer the U.S. central bank would raise interest rates in the face of a slowdown overseas and market volatility at home. Instead he highlighted a new financial stability report the Fed published earlier on Wednesday.

“My own assessment is that, while risks are above normal in some areas and below normal in others, overall financial stability vulnerabilities are at a moderate level,” he said at an Economic Club of New York luncheon.


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With An Eye on Past Problems, Facebook Expands Local Feature

Facebook is cautiously expanding a feature that shows people local news and information, including missing-person alerts, road closures, crime reports and school announcements.

Called “Today In,” the service shows people information from their towns and cities from such sources as news outlets, government entities and community groups. Facebook launched the service in January with six cities and expanded that to 25, then more. On Wednesday, “Today In” is expanding to 400 cities in the U.S. — and a few others in Australia.

The move comes as Facebook tries to shake off its reputation as a hotbed for misinformation and elections-meddling and rather a place for communities and people to come together and stay informed.

Here are some things to know about this effort, and why it matters:

The big picture

It’s something users have asked for, the company says. Think of it as an evolution of a “trending” feature the company dropped earlier this year. That feature, which showed news articles that were popular among users, but was rife with such problems as fake news and accusations of bias.

Anthea Watson Strong, product manager for local news and community information, said her team learned from the problems with that feature.

“We feel deeply the mistakes of our foremothers and forefathers,” she said.

This time around, Facebook employees went to some of the cities they were launching in and met with users. They tried to predict problems by doing “pre-mortem” assessments, she said. That is, instead of a “post-mortem” where engineers dissect what went wrong after the fact, they tried to anticipate how people might misuse a feature — for financial gain, for example.

Facebook isn’t saying how long it has been taking this “pre-mortem” approach, though the practice isn’t unique to the company. Nonetheless, it’s a significant step given that many of Facebook’s current problems stem from its failure to foresee how bad actors might co-opt the service.

Facebook also hopes the feature’s slow rollout will prevent problems.

How it works

To find out if “Today In” is available in your city or town, tap the “menu” icon with the three horizontal lines. Then scroll down until you see it. If you want, you can choose to see the local updates directly in your news feed.

For now, the company is offering this only in small and mid-sized cities such as Conroe, Texas, Morgantown, West Virginia, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Large cities such as New York or Los Angeles have added challenges, such as an abundance of news and information, and may need to be broken up into smaller neighborhoods.

The posts in “Today In” are curated by artificial intelligence; there is no human involvement. The service aggregates posts from the Facebook pages for news organizations, government agencies and community groups like dog shelters. For this reason, a kid couldn’t declare a snow day, because “Today In” relies on the school’s official page. Discussion posts from local Facebook groups may also be included.

For now, the information is tailored only by geography, but this might change. A person with no kids, for example, might not want to see updates from schools.

Safeguards?

Facebook uses software filters to weed out objectionable content, just as it does on people’s regular news feed. But the filters are turned up for “Today In.” If a good friend posts something a bit objectionable, you are still likely to see it because Facebook takes your friendship into account. But “Today In” posts aren’t coming from your friends, so Facebook is more likely to keep it out.

 

 


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Porsche Shows off New Edition of Mainstay 911 Sports Car

Porsche says its future is in electric cars but for now it is rolling out a more powerful version of its internal combustion mainstay, the sleek 911 sports car.

Stuttgart-based Porsche, part of Volkswagen, is to show off the eighth version of its brand-defining model at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

 

The new 911 doesn’t look much different than earlier editions of the car. The new one has bigger wheel housings and a slightly wider body but the same long hood, sloping roof and prominent headlights that have marked successive versions since 1963.

 

The company said in a news release Wednesday that the new 911 Carrera S and 4S have flat six-cylinder turbocharged engines putting out 443 horsepower, 23 horsepower more than the predecessor. The Carrera S has a top speed of 191 mph and accelerates from zero to 60 mph (96.5 kph) in 3.5 seconds.

 

The rear-drive 2020 Carrera S has a base price of $113,200 and the 4S all-wheel drive version starts at $120,600, not including a $1,050 delivery fee. They can be ordered now and will reach dealers in summer 2019.

 

Porsche boss Oliver Blume says that the 911 remains “the core of our brand, we are making it even more emotional.”

 

Blume says nonetheless by 2025 about half of all new Porsche cars and SUVs will have electric motors, whether they are all-electric or hybrids combining batteries with internal combustion engines.

 

He was quoted by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper as saying that the company would be ready for a world in which some cities and countries are talking about banning internal combustion cars in coming decades. “It’s clear, the future belongs to electric mobility,” he said.

 

The company is developing an all-electric sports car, the Taycan, that would compete with sports car offerings by Tesla, BMW and others.

 

 

 


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US Charges 2 Iranians in First Online Ransom Case

In the first case of its kind, the U.S. Justice Department announced charges Wednesday against two Iranian hackers for allegedly launching so-called ransomware on the computer networks of U.S. municipalities, hospitals and other public institutions and extorting millions of dollars.

Ransomware is a type of malware used by cybercriminals to lock down computers and extort money from their users in exchange for providing the keys to unlock them. Once used primarily against individuals, ransomware has been increasingly employed in cyberattacks on businesses.

Faramarz Shahi Savandi, 34, and Mohammad Mehdi Shah Mansouri, 27, are accused of creating the SamSam Ransomware in December 2015 and installing it on the computer networks of more than 230 public and private entities in the United States and Canada, according to a 26-page indictment unsealed Wednesday.

With the targeted computer users unable to access their data, Savandi and Mansouri, operating out of Iran, would then demand a ransom payment made in the form of the virtual currency bitcoin in exchange for decryption keys for the encrypted data.

According to the indictment, the two Iranians received more than $6 million in cryptocurrencies from their victims which they converted into Iranian currency, or rial, using Iran-based bitcoin exchanges. About half of the infiltrated entities refused to make a ransom payment and suffered over $30 million in lost data, according to the indictment.

The victims included the cities of Atlanta, Newark and San Diego, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the University of Calgary in Calgary, Canada, and six U.S. public health care-related entities.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the six-count indictment at a press conference in Washington.

“Every sector of our economy is a target of malicious cyberactivity,” Rosenstein said. “But the events described in this indictment highlight the urgent need for municipalities, public utilities, health care institutions, universities, and other public organizations to enhance their cybersecurity.”

The two indicted Iranians remain at large and have been placed on the FBI’s wanted list. They’re charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and two counts of intentional damage to a protected computer, among other related crimes.

The indictment marks the first time the Justice Department has brought charges against cybercriminals involved in a ransomware and extortion scheme, according to Rosenstein.  

Ransomware has grown in sophistication and distribution in recent years. According to a report by the cybersecurity firm Bitdefender, ransomware payments were expected to reach a record $2 billion in 2017.

‘Trend’ from Iran

The charges are also the latest in a string of indictments brought against Iranian hackers and cybercriminals in recent months. In March, prosecutors charged nine Iranian hackers with penetrating the computer networks of hundreds of American and foreign universities and other institutions to steal valuable research material. Unlike some of the previously indicted Iranian hackers, however, Savandi and Mansouri are not believed to have ties to Tehran.

“The actions highlighted today, which represent a continuing trend of cybercriminal activity emanating from Iran, were particularly threatening, as they targeted public safety institutions, including U.S. hospital systems and governmental entities,” said Amy Hess, executive assistant director of the FBI. “As cyberthreats evolve and cybercriminals develop more sophisticated techniques, so do we.”

The 35-month computer hacking scheme led by Savandi and Mansouri began in January 2016 with an attack on an unidentified business in Mercer County, New Jersey, and moved on to public entities such as the City of Newark and health care providers such as Kansas Heart Hospital in Wichita, Kansas. 

Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski said the Iranian hackers carefully chose their targets. A few days prior to attacking the network of Kansas Heart Hospital, for example, they “conducted online searches concerning the hospital and accessed its website,” he said.

Kimberly Goody, manager of cybercrime analysis at cybersecurity firm FireEye, said the hackers probably chose to target health care and government organizations because “they provide critical services and believed their likelihood of paying was higher as a result.”

The indictment does not name the entities that paid a ransom.

Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.


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Ikea Moving Into City Centers to Adapt to Consumer Changes

An airport worker drops by Warsaw’s newest Ikea store during her lunch break to finish up plans for a home refurbishment. Around her, people drift in and out of the shop, placing small houseware items in big yellow bags as cafe tables fill up with people just stopping in for lunch.

The store is not one of Ikea’s out-of-the-way, maze-like warehouses that require a car to visit, but a shop like any other in a city center shopping mall. The Swedish retailing giant plans to open 30 such smaller stores in major cities around the world as part of a broader transformation to adapt to changing consumer habits.

Compared with just a decade ago, shoppers are more likely to be living in urban areas and not have a car, and often want a nearby location to look at goods like furniture in person before ordering things online.

“I like the idea because you can come any time,” said 29-year-old Angelika Singh, the airport worker, as she finalized an order for a new kitchen. “Mostly when you go to Ikea you need to have a whole day free, or at least half a day free, because it’s far.”

Warsaw’s store is located on two floors covering nearly 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet), about one-fourth of a traditional big-box store. Similar stores have also opened in major cities like London and Madrid and more are expected, with one due next year in Paris, among other locations.

Shoppers can buy cushions, curtains and other home items. They can design the layout of bedrooms and kitchens at computer stations. But those hoping to buy a bookcase or bed will not find them stocked in a large warehouse, though they can order them at kiosks and have them delivered to their homes.

As such, it offers a very different shopping experience from the usual visit to one of the large warehouse stores.

“Ikea’s been doing pretty much the same for 70 years. It’s been a cash-and-carry company, and it still is for the majority of its sales,” said Andreas Flygare, the project manager for the Warsaw store. Now, he explained, the company must adapt to a consumer environment that has changed dramatically in the last 10 years.

“You have companies like Amazon and Uber that are raising the bar for what is expected. Because if you can have same-day delivery, or an Uber is two minutes away, it influences other companies, like Ikea,” he said in a recent interview in the store’s cafe. “It can be a quite tough environment. Everything is changing so fast.”

While Ikea is still profitable, its earnings have recently been growing more slowly than expected.

Thomas Slide, senior retail analyst at the market research firm Mintel, described it as a rational response to a “global trend towards urban living and a rebirth of the cities.”

“While Ikea used to be able to build its big blue warehouses on the edge of towns and cities and expect shoppers to come to them, now it has recognized it needs to be more flexible in its approach and take the Ikea experience to them, through digital channels and smaller stores closer to where people live and work,” Slide said.

Ikea isn’t the first to embrace such an approach. In the U.S., retailer Target has rolled out smaller stores to broaden its reach. French hardware store Leroy Merlin has done the same, as have Kingfisher-owned DIY store B&Q and sofa retailer DFS in Britain.

“While Ikea may not be on the cutting edge of this trend, it’s an important strategy to prepare the business for the future,” Slide said. “The challenge will be adding extra services through additional channels while also maintaining profitability.”

Chen Yu Ting, a 25-year-old from Taiwan who studies medicine in Warsaw, said it used to take him 40 minutes by bus to visit one of the large Ikea stores outside the city. But he is a short walk to the new store, and after an initial trip to buy pillows and bed sheets he now returns often for lunch, which is priced right for his budget.

“It’s more convenient, and now I just come here to eat,” he said.

His only complaint? The store doesn’t stock frozen meatballs.


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Seoul’s Telecom Outage Highlights Need for Redundancy in Connected World

Residents in Seoul discovered how fragile their telecommunications system was this past weekend when a fire disrupted service for millions. The government and the provider vowed to implement changes to avoid a repeat of the event, but the system failure demonstrated a need for greater redundancy and preparation for future natural and technological disasters.

The fire affected customers of KT, the nation’s second largest telecommunications company. They found themselves unable to make calls, access the internet, complete ATM or credit card transactions, and watch television. Local media also reported an elderly woman died when she fell ill and her husband wasn’t able to reach emergency services during the service outage.

Lee Manjong, chairman of the Korean Association for Terrorism Studies and professor of the department of Law & Police at Howon University, told VOA that while it is nearly impossible to prevent widespread system outages, certain steps can be taken to avoid catastrophic failures.

“It is necessary to split the public safety net (fire, medical, and police emergency services) and make system backups (redundancies) compulsory,” he said.

Following the blaze, South Korea’s minister of Science and ICT (Information, Communications, and Technology), You Young-min, spoke to the CEOs of South Korea’s three major communication companies (SK Telecom, KT, and LG U+) to discuss their backup plans.

You said the companies “need to swiftly change their contract clauses on compensation issues and also need to come up with plans that would reroute traffic if such accidents, which shouldn’t happen again, happen.”

When asked for specifics on what steps the government planned on taking to prevent a similar event in the future, the ministry declined to offer specifics, stating that responsible parties would prepare fire prevention measures this year and set up a task force to implement recommendations.

Local broadcaster MBC also reported that telecommunication companies and the government held a 20-minute virtual natural disaster drill in May to simulate a system outage, but the simulation proved to be ineffective in real-world situations.

Interconnected services

The Seoul fire and resulting system outage demonstrated how interconnected services are in the 21st century.

“If a network is down, then it affects other networks such as finance, power, energy, and railway,” said Lee.

He said there are multiple ways the electronic infrastructure can be paralyzed. This includes physical damage, natural disasters, and cyber attacks. However, Lee notes disruptions caused by cyber incursions are more effective.

“Cyber attacks are more efficient as they can take place without access to the physical location of the target,” he said.

According to Lee, this is because the government is able to secure physical sites, so cyber-warriors choose “soft targets” connected through the Internet.

A distributed denial-of-service (DDos) attack could be launched from the Internet and attack telecommunication networks. This type of attack floods a computer network with incoming data packets and overwhelms the system, effectively shutting it down. Lee said such attacks on telecom systems could wreak havoc and paralyze communication.

He cautioned that a successful cyber attack on South Korea’s technological infrastructure could yield “unimaginable” damage because of the country’s reliance on networked services.

Fire and recovery

Saturday’s fire struck an underground facility of KT, destroying telephone lines and fiber optic cables, taking about 10 hours to suppress. 

Seoul authorities rate facilities on a scale from A to D. Buildings rated A, B, or C must have adequate fire prevention systems installed, while those receiving a D rating do not.

KT’s Ahyeon facility, where the fire took place, was one of 27 D-rated facilities belonging to the company. As such, fire scene investigators found there were no fire detectors or sprinkler system installed at the Ahyeon facility and only a single fire extinguisher present.

South Korea’s other telecommunication carriers utilize over 800 similar facilities throughout the country, none of which are required to have fire detection equipment or sprinklers installed.

Lee said government regulations must be altered to bridge the gaps to ensure that such facilities are required to have redundant services elsewhere in the event of a natural disaster or cyber attack.

Estimates are the blaze resulted in about $7 million in property damage. KT has announced it would compensate affected customers by awarding them a free month of service for their inconvenience. KB security expects that amount to total about $27.5 million.

In a text message to customers, KT said it was “deeply sorry for the inconvenience. We will adopt preventive measures such as safety inspections… to avoid a recurrence.”

Seoul officials told VOA the cause of the fire remains unknown and the investigation to determine its source could last a month.

Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.


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Ocean Shock: Building a Silicon Valley of the Sea

This is part of “Ocean Shock,” a Reuters series exploring climate change’s impact on sea creatures and the people who depend on them.

Norway has built the world’s biggest salmon-farming industry. But it wants to go bigger. With their lucrative oil fields now in decline, Norwegians have ambitious plans for aquaculture to power their economy far into the future.

Climate change could make those dreams harder to realize.

Salmon feed is based on fishmeal, produced by grinding up wild-caught fish. With warming waters and ocean acidification pushing underwater ecosystems to the breaking point, Big Aquaculture is seeking ways to feed fish that aren’t hostage to increasingly unpredictable seas.

“Feed has a couple of bottlenecks: We’re still using marine resources, for example fishmeal and fish oil, to then put into fish. This is not necessarily sustainable in the long term,” said Georg Baunach, co-founder of Hatch, an accelerator focused on supporting aquaculture startups. “And that’s why we need innovation in feed.”

Entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and scientists are racing to identify alternatives, turning the Norwegian cities of Bergen and Stavanger into a Silicon Valley of the Sea. Spending on research and development in Norway’s aquaculture sector increased by 30 percent to 2.3 billion kroner, or $275 million, between 2013 and 2015, according to official data quoted by Hatch, as startups and research institutes raced to develop disruptive new technologies.

The innovators aren’t short of ideas. At Norway’s biggest oil refinery, a startup called CO2Bio is harnessing greenhouse gases to culture algae that can then be harvested as a sustainable source of fish feed.

At the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, the Aquafly project is investigating whether black soldier flies fed on waste products from the food industry or the seaweed growing off Norway’s coast could be another viable feed ingredient.

“The insects are also part of this whole circular economy, where instead of throwing away things you would reuse and recycle and upcycle,” said Nina Liland, one of the Aquafly researchers. “Potentially you could use food waste from households to produce insects that could be used for fish feeds: That would be an optimal scenario.”

Various companies are working on projects to recycle more of the vast amounts of waste dumped into the sea by Norway’s aquaculture industry into products such as biogas or fertilizer.

Researchers are also looking for ways to combat the sea lice parasites that thrive in salmon cages, which are a major brake on the industry’s plans to expand.

Time may not be on the fish farmers’ side. With climate change projected to intensify in the coming decades, the challenge will be to turn promising new ideas into viable projects fast enough to shield their dreams of a prosperous future from the growing turmoil at sea.


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