Hit by Sanctions, Asia’s Iran Crude Oil Imports Drop to 3-Year Low in 2018

Iranian crude oil imports by Asia’s top four buyers dropped to the lowest volume in three years in 2018 amid U.S. sanctions on Tehran, but China and India stepped up imports in December after getting waivers from Washington.

Asia’s top four buyers of Iranian crude — China, India, Japan and South Korea — imported a total 1.31 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2018, down 21 percent from the previous year, data from the countries showed.

That was the lowest since about 1 million bpd in 2015, when a previous round of sanctions on Iran led to a sharp drop in Asian imports, Reuters data showed.

The United States reimposed sanctions on Iran’s oil exports last November as it wants to negotiate a new nuclear deal with the country. U.S. officials have said they intend to reduce the Islamic Republic’s oil exports to zero.

On a monthly basis, Asia’s imports from Iran rebounded to a three-month high of 761,593 bpd in December as China and India stepped up purchases after Washington granted eight countries waivers from the Iranian sanctions for 180 days from the start of November.

“We expect Iranian exports to Asia to remain stable at around 800,000 barrels per day until May, when the waivers expire,” said Energy Aspects analyst Riccardo Fabiani.

In December, China’s imports climbed above 500,000 bpd for the first time in three months, while India’s imports rose above 302,000 bpd.

Japan and South Korea did not import any Iranian crude that month because they were still sorting out payment and shipping issues, but the countries have resumed oil lifting from Iran this month.

During the 180-day period, China can import up to 360,000 bpd of Iranian oil, while India’s imports are restricted to 300,000 bpd. South Korea can import up to 200,000 bpd of Iranian condensate.

“After May, it will all depend on the U.S. administration’s decisions, which at the moment remain completely obscure. On balance, they are likely to extend the current waivers, although rumors are that there could be a significant cut in waivered volumes,” Fabiani said.

As a precaution, Indian Oil Corp, the country’s top refiner, is looking for an annual deal to buy U.S. crude as it seeks to broaden its oil purchasing options, its chairman said Wednesday.

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Facebook Takes Down Vast Iran-Led Manipulation Campaign

Facebook said Thursday it took down hundreds of “inauthentic” accounts from Iran that were part of a vast manipulation campaign operating in more than 20 countries.

The world’s biggest social network said it removed 783 pages, groups and accounts “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior tied to Iran.”

The pages were part of a campaign to promote Iranian interests in various countries by creating fake identities as residents of those nations, according to a statement by Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook.

The announcement was the latest by Facebook as it seeks to stamp out efforts by state actors and others to manipulate the social network using fraudulent accounts.

“We are constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Gleicher said.

“We’re taking down these pages, groups and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they post. In this case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.”

The operators “typically represented themselves as locals, often using fake accounts, and posted news stories on current events,” including “commentary that repurposed Iranian state media’s reporting on topics like Israel-Palestine relations and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen,” Gleicher said.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our manual review linked these accounts to Iran.”

The operation dating back to as early as 2010 had 262 pages, 356 accounts, and three groups on Facebook, as well as 162 accounts on Instagram and were followed by about two million users.

Facebook said the fake accounts were part of an influence campaign that operated in Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, U.S., and Yemen.

Facebook began looking into these kinds of activities after revelations of Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 U.S. election, aimed at sowing discord.

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Ghirardelli, Russel Stover Fined over Chocolate Packaging

Ghirardelli and Russell Stover have agreed to pay $750,000 in fines after prosecutors in California said they offered a little chocolate in a lot of wrapping.

Prosecutors in Sacramento, San Joaquin, Shasta, Fresno, Santa Cruz and Yolo counties sued the candy makers, alleging they misled consumers by selling chocolate products in containers that were oversized or “predominantly empty.”

Prosecutors also alleged that Ghirardelli offered one chocolate product containing less cocoa than advertised.

The firms didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing but agreed to change their packaging under a settlement approved earlier this month. Some packages will shrink or will have a transparent window so consumers can look inside.

San Francisco-based Ghirardelli and Kansas City-based Russell Stover are owned by a Swiss company, Lindt & Sprungli.

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Apple Busts Facebook for Distributing Data-Sucking App

Apple says Facebook can no longer distribute an app that paid users, including teenagers, to extensively track their phone and web use.

In doing so, Apple closed off Facebook’s efforts to sidestep Apple’s app store and its tighter rules on privacy.

The tech blog TechCrunch reported late Tuesday that Facebook paid people about $20 a month to install and use the Facebook Research app. While Facebook says this was done with permission, the company has a history of defining “permission” loosely and obscuring what data it collects.

“I don’t think they make it very clear to users precisely what level of access they were granting when they gave permission,” mobile app security researcher Will Strafach said Wednesday. “There is simply no way the users understood this.”

He said Facebook’s claim that users understood the scope of data collection was “muddying the waters.”

Facebook says fewer than 5 percent of the app’s users were teens and they had parental permission. Nonetheless, the revelation is yet another blemish on Facebook’s track record on privacy and could invite further regulatory scrutiny.

And it comes less than a week after court documents revealed that Facebook allowed children to rack up huge bills on digital games and that it had rejected recommendations for addressing it for fear of hurting revenue growth.

For now, the app appears to be available for Android phones, though not through Google’s main app store. Google had no comment Wednesday.

Apple said Facebook was distributing Facebook Research through an internal-distribution mechanism meant for company employees, not outsiders. Apple has revoked that capability.

TechCrunch reported separately Wednesday that Google was using the same privileged access to Apple’s mobile operating system for a market-research app, Screenwise Meter. Asked about it by The Associated Press, Google said it had disabled the app on Apple devices and apologized for its “mistake.”

The company said Google had always been “upfront with users” about how it used data collected by the app, which offered users points that could be accrued for gift cards. In contrast to the Facebook Research app, Google said its Screenwise Meter app never asked users to let the company circumvent network encryption, meaning it is far less intrusive.

Facebook is still permitted to distribute apps through Apple’s app store, though such apps are reviewed by Apple ahead of time. And Apple’s move Wednesday restricts Facebook’s ability to test those apps — including core apps such as Facebook and Instagram — before they are released through the app store.

Facebook previously pulled an app called Onavo Protect from Apple’s app store because of its stricter requirements. But Strafach, who dismantled the Facebook Research app on TechCrunch’s behalf, told the AP that it was mostly Onavo repackaged and rebranded, as the two apps shared about 98 percent of their code.

As of Wednesday, a disclosure form on Betabound, one of the services that distributed Facebook Research, informed prospective users that by installing Facebook Research, they are letting Facebook collect a range of data. This includes information on apps users have installed, when they use them and what they do on them. Information is also collected on how other people interact with users and their content within those apps, according to the disclosure.

Betabound warned that Facebook may collect information even when an app or web browser uses encryption.

Strafach said emails, social media activities, private messages and just about anything else could be intercepted. He said the only data absolutely safe from snooping are from services, such as Signal and Apple’s iMessages, that fully encrypt messages prior to transmission, a method known as end-to-end encryption.

Strafach, who is CEO of Guardian Mobile Firewall, said he was aghast to discover Facebook caught red-handed violating Apple’s trust.

He said such traffic-capturing tools are only supposed to be for trusted partners to use internally. Instead, he said Facebook was scooping up all incoming and outgoing data traffic from unwitting members of the public — in an app geared toward teenagers.

“This is very flagrantly not allowed,” Strafach said. “It’s mind-blowing how defiant Facebook was acting.”


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Trump Order Asks Federal Fund Recipients to Buy US Goods

President Donald Trump will sign an executive order Thursday pushing those who receive federal funds to “buy American.” The aim is to boost U.S. manufacturing.

Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council, told reporters during a telephone briefing the policies are helping workers who “are blue collar, Trump people.” Later he amended that, saying he “every American is a Trump person” because Trump’s economic policies affect everyone.


Navarro said the order would affect federal financial assistance, which includes everything from loans and grants to insurance and interest subsidies.


He says some 30 federal agencies award over $700 billion in such aid each year. Recipients working on projects like bridges and sewer systems will be encouraged to use American products.



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Survey: 2018 ‘Worst Year Ever’ for Smartphone Market

Global smartphone sales saw their worst contraction ever in 2018, and the outlook for 2019 isn’t much better, new surveys show.

Worldwide handset volumes declined 4.1 percent in 2018 to a total of 1.4 billion units shipped for the full year, according to research firm IDC, which sees a potential for further declines this year.

“Globally the smartphone market is a mess right now,” said IDC analyst Ryan Reith.

“Outside of a handful of high-growth markets like India, Indonesia, (South) Korea and Vietnam, we did not see a lot of positive activity in 2018.”

Reith said the market has been hit by consumers waiting longer to replace their phones, frustration around the high cost of premium devices, and political and economic uncertainty.

The Chinese market, which accounts for roughly 30 percent of smartphone sales, was especially hard hit with a 10 percent drop, according to IDC’s survey, which was released Wednesday.

IDC said the top five smartphone makers have become stronger and now account for 69 percent of worldwide sales, up from 63 percent a year ago.

Samsung remained the number one handset maker with a 20.8 percent share despite an eight percent sales slump for the year, IDC said.

Apple managed to recapture the number two position with a 14.9 percent market share, moving ahead of Huawei at 14.7 percent, the survey found.

IDC said fourth-quarter smartphone sales fell 4.9 percent – the fifth consecutive quarter of decline.

“The challenging holiday quarter closes out the worst year ever for smartphone shipments,” IDC said in its report.

A separate report by Counterpoint Research showed similar findings, estimating a seven percent drop in the fourth quarter and four percent drop for the full year.

“The collective smartphone shipment growth of emerging markets such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Russia and others was not enough to offset the decline in China,” said Counterpoint associate director Tarun Pathak.


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Need for Speed: Carts on Rails Help Manila’s Commuters Dodge Gridlock

Thousands of commuters flock to Manila’s railway tracks every day, but rather than boarding the trains, they climb on to wooden carts pushed along the tracks, to avoid the Philippine capital’s infamous traffic gridlock.

The trolleys, as the carts are known, most of them fitted with colorful umbrellas for shade from the sun, can seat up to 10 people each, who pay as little as 20 U.S. cents per ride, cheaper than most train rides.

“I do this because it gives us money that’s easy to earn,” said Reynaldo Diaz, 40, who is one of more than 100 operators, also known as “trolley boys,” who push the carts along the 28-km (17-mile) track, most wearing flimsy flip-flops on their feet.

“It’s better than stealing from others,” said Diaz, adding that he earned around $10 a day, just enough for his family to get by. A trolley boy since he was 17, he lives in a makeshift shelter beside the track with his two sons.

Diaz said the trolley boys were just “borrowing” the track from the Philippine National Railways, but the state-owned train company has moved to halt the trolley service after the media drew attention to its dangers recently.

The risk arises because those pushing and riding the trolleys have to watch out for the trains to avoid collisions.

“Of course we get scared of the trains,” said Jun Albeza, 32, who has been a trolley boy for four years after he was laid off from plumbing and construction jobs.

“That’s why, whenever we’re pushing these trolleys, we always look back, so we can see if there’s a train coming. Those in front of us will give us a heads-up too.”

When a train approaches, the trolley boys quickly grab the lightweight carts off the track and jump out of the way along with their riders.

Still, there have been no fatal accidents since the makeshift service started decades ago, some of the trolley boys told Reuters.

A Manila police officer confirmed that records showed no casualties related to the trolley boys.

“It is really dangerous and should not be allowed, But we understand that it’s their livelihood,” said the officer, Bryan Silvan. “They’re like mushrooms that just popped up along the tracks and they even have their own association.”

When the Philippine National Railways began operation in the 1960s, its network of more than 100 stations extended to provinces outside Manila.

But neglect and natural disasters have since caused it to cut back operations by two-thirds, even as the capital’s population has ballooned to about 13 million.

For office workers and students, the minutes shaved off daily commutes justify the risks of trolley rides.

“The distance to our workplaces is actually shorter through this route,” said one office worker, Charlette Magtrayo.

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Lawmakers Attempt to Rein in President’s Tariff Power

U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday introduced legislation to limit the president’s power to levy import tariffs for national security reasons. The bills face an uncertain future but underscore bipartisan concerns on Capitol Hill over the rising costs of the Trump administration’s trade policies.

The United States in 2018 slapped duties on aluminum and steel from other countries, drawing criticism from lawmakers who support free trade and complaints of rising supply chain costs across business sectors.

Two bipartisan groups of lawmakers Wednesday introduced legislation known as the Bicameral Congressional Trade Authority Act in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The bills would require Trump to have congressional approval before taking trade actions like tariffs and quotas under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. The law currently allows the president to impose such tariffs without approval from Capitol Hill.

“The imposition of these taxes, under the false pretense of national security (Section 232), is weakening our economy, threatening American jobs, and eroding our credibility with other nations,” said Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, co-sponsor of the Senate bill.

Toomey led a similar push last year that did not go to a vote.

It is unclear that Congress would consider taking up such legislation now. Still, the bills underscore mounting pressure from lawmakers to address concerns over tariffs, especially those on Canada and Mexico as lawmakers prepare to vote on a new North American trade deal agreed to late last year.

​Republican Chuck Grassley from Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, earlier pressed the Trump administration to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico before Congress begins considering legislation to implement the new pact.

Numerous business and agricultural groups have come out in support of the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, but have said its benefits will be limited so long as the U.S. tariffs and retaliatory tariffs from Canada and Mexico remain in place.

Companies are able to request exemptions from the steel and aluminum tariffs, but the process has been plagued by delays and uncertainty.

“Virginia consumers and industries like craft beer and agriculture are hurting because of the president’s steel and aluminum tariffs,” said Democratic Senator Mark Warner, co-sponsor of the Senate legislation. “This bill would roll them back.”

Republicans Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Darin LaHood of Illinois and Democrats Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Jimmy Panetta of California introduced the House legislation.

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Trump Organization to Use E-Verify for Worker Status Checks

The Trump Organization, responding to claims that some of its workers were in the U.S. illegally, said on Wednesday that it will use the E-Verify electronic system at all of its properties to check employees’ documentation.

A lawyer for a dozen immigrant workers at the Trump National Golf Club in New York’s Westchester County said recently that they were fired on Jan. 18. He said many had worked there for a dozen or more years. Workers at another Trump club in Bedminster, New Jersey, came forward last month to allege managers there had hired them knowing they were in the country illegally.

“We are actively engaged in uniforming this process across our properties and will institute E-verify at any property not currently utilizing this system,” Eric Trump, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, said in a statement provided to The Associated Press. “As a company we take this obligation very seriously and when faced with a situation in which an employee has presented false and fraudulent documentation, we will take appropriate action.”

“I must say, for me personally, this whole thing is truly heartbreaking,” he added. “Our employees are like family but when presented with fake documents, an employer has little choice.”

Launched in 1996, the E-Verify system allows employers to check documentation submitted by job applicants with records at the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration to see whether they are authorized to work. 

During his presidential campaign, Republican Donald Trump called for all employers to use the federal government online E-Verify system. He told MSNBC in 2016 that he uses it at his properties, and that there should be a “huge financial penalty” for companies that hire workers who are in the country illegally.

Several of those workers from Trump’s properties paid visits to Congressional offices this week in hopes of raising support for their fight against possible deportation. One Democrat, New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, confirmed Wednesday that she had invited a maid who had cleaned President Trump’s rooms at Bedminster as her guest at his State of the Union speech.

The maid, Victorina Morales, was featured in a New York Times story last month titled “Making President Trump’s Bed: A Housekeeper Without Papers.” She has said that managers there knew she was living in the country illegally, helped her obtain false documentation and that she was physically abused by a supervisor.

Morales’ lawyer, Anibal Romero, said that Morales had accepted the invitation.

The Trump Organization has said it does not tolerate employing workers who are living in the U.S. without legal permission, and any problems with hiring is not unique to the company.

“It demonstrates that our immigration system is severely broken and needs to be fixed immediately,” Eric Trump said in his statement. “It is my greatest hope that our ‘lawmakers’ return to work and actually do their jobs.”

President Trump has repeatedly cast the millions of immigrants in the country illegally as a scourge on the health of the economy, taking jobs from American citizens. He has said they also bring drugs and crime over the border.

He turned over day-to-day management of his business to Eric and his other adult son, Donald Jr., when he took the oath of office two years ago. The Trump Organization owns or manages 17 golf clubs around the world.

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Brazil’s Fight Against Urban Slavery Getting Harder

A surge in cases of urban slavery in Brazil brings new challenges for prosecutors and labor inspectors, top government officials said on Wednesday.

Last year 523 workers were found in slavery-like conditions during labor inspections in Brazilian cities, about 225 more than in 2017, government data released Friday shows.

“We found that there is fragmentation happening. Instead of one big sweatshop with 20, or 30 people, we now have many, with four of five, usually family owned,” said  Maurício Krepsky, head of the Division for Inspection and Eradication of Slave Labor.

The change makes detection harder, Krepsky said. Last year 42 workers were rescued from slavery-like conditions in sweatshops in São Paulo.

Urban slavery on the move

The country has the world’s fourth-largest garment production industry, with 1.5 million direct employees.

In Brazil, the textile industry is fragmented and informal, with thousands of immigrant subcontractors from Bolivia and Paraguay sewing clothes in small shops — some of them sweatshops — for well-known national retailers.

“Working conditions in Bolivia manage to be worse than those in Brazil, so they are very easily groomed (by traffickers),” said labor prosecutor-general Ronaldo Fleury.

Rural enslavement is still more common — 1,200 people were found in slavery-like conditions in rural areas last year — but there are added complexities for cases in cities.

Victims in rural areas usually stay in one place, while urban victims can be moved around quickly, or may even be mobile themselves, as investigators found in 2018.

“To me that is the single-most challenging aspect of it (urban slavery). In a sweatshop you pull up a truck and you can move the sweatshop in a few hours, while a farm stays put,” said Fleury.

Dairy workers rescued

Urban slavery isn’t confined to sweatshops. More dairy workers were rescued last year than those making textiles.

In 2018 inspectors found 52 people trafficked from Brazil’s poor northern states to São Paulo, where they were put in debt bondage and made to work at the bottom of the dairy supply chain, as door to door salesmen.

The numbers last year were high, Krepsky said, which indicates the necessity of continuing to work in urban areas.

“In urban areas we identify more frequently than in rural ones signs of slave labor happening in a more covert way … like a false formalization of the activity, as to hide the true employer.”

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Three US States Win Settlement for Oil Spills

U.S.-based Sunoco Pipelines has agreed to pay hefty fines and make procedural changes after it was found in violation of state and federal environmental laws in connection to oil spills in three states. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma said Sunoco Pipelines and its Louisiana partner Mid-Valley Pipeline Company have agreed to make amends for the spills that occurred in 2013, 2014 and 2015. 

Sunoco has also agreed to take additional steps to prevent and detect corrosion in its pipeline segments, including in the ones no longer in use by the company. 

“This excellent result shows how a strong federal and state partnership can bring about effective environmental enforcement to protect local communities in these states,” said Jeffrey Bossert Clark of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

The fines of more than $5 million will be used to restore waterway shorelines when disasters strike, including other oil spills. 

“Our nation relies on the oil and gas sector to meet our energy needs, and we also expect companies to do so while protecting our vital water resources,” said EPA Regional Administrator Ann Idsal. “Companies who violate this responsibility must face consequences and assure their future compliance.”

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Rising-Star Philippine Economy Slips, 2019 Seen as Pivotal

The Philippines ranked among Asia’s 10 fastest growing economies in 2017. Consumer power, remittances from overseas workers and an influx of call centers had given it that status, raising hopes for easing rampant poverty. Then GDP expansion wobbled in 2018 because of rising prices and lack of new direct investment.

Now state spending on new infrastructure and local tourism are expected to decide whether the Philippines can get back on track this year.

The Philippine economy grew 6.2 percent last year, down from 6.7 percent in 2017 and 6.9 percent a year earlier. Inflation dented consumption in late 2018, while factory investors stayed away for lack of infrastructure compared to what’s available elsewhere in Asia. Storm damage to crops, another economic backbone, and the six-month shutdown of the tourist hotspot Boracay Island ate away further at growth.

“I think it’s a combination of factors,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. “One would be inflation, because that would slow down consumption. Infrastructure is always a constraint. The economy is growing, but the bottlenecks are not yet fixed.”

Slumps in farming, consumption

A spike in consumer prices in the Philippines in late 2018 angered many, testing the popularity of President Rodrigo Duterte in his third year in office. August inflation set a nine-year record at 6.4 percent, then the highest in Southeast Asia.

World oil price hikes were felt at the pump, while reports of rice scarcity raised prices in some parts of the country. More than 70 percent of the $313 billion Philippine economy comes from consumption, and people – especially the poor – mind their spending when prices are up.

The GDP struggled to grow also after deadly typhoon Mangkhut caused $509 million in agricultural damage in September and three months later tropical storm Usman caused another $19 million in farm losses.

The Western Pacific archipelago gets typhoons every year but still lacks infrastructure to withstand them, said Song Seng Wun, regional economist with the private banking unit of CIMB in Singapore.

Tourism was robust overall last year, but the closure of Boracay Island hurt the country’s prime tourism spot. Duterte declared a state of calamity from April through October to clean up the island, which had brought in more than $1 billion in tourism receipts in 2017.

Quest for investors

But the lack of capital investment weighs particularly hard on economic policymakers this year. The country, known for cheap, skilled labor, is still missing the ports, railways and power generation capacity that business people expect before opening shop. Investment would create jobs, in turn easing poverty.

“In terms of the whole ease of doing business, the Philippines ranks very low, but one of those reasons is poor infrastructure,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit.

To attract more capital, the government is building $171 billion worth of infrastructure by 2022, one of Duterte’s priorities in office. By the same year, the government aims to cut poverty from 22 percent to 14 percent of the population.

Officials are sighting for this year new roads and a railway system on the impoverished island of Mindanao, flood control work around Manila and the first phase of a Metro Manila subway project, Budget and Management Secretary Benjamin Diokno said on his department’s website.

Progress on infrastructure would also show that the Philippines can overcome political fights that include open spats between Duterte and his detractors in Congress or the mass media, economists believe.

“Investors like clarity,” Song said. “So when you have leaders or opinion makers who can be very abrasive as well, would you want to be putting in millions of millions of investments given that environment?”

The budget department flagged manufacturing growth as an “area of concern.” In a statement on the 2018 economy, the department urged more transport infrastructure and asked Congress to amend the Foreign Investments Act, which deters foreign investors by limiting how much they can invest in certain local industries.

Bright spots

Some analysts already point to bright spots in the 2019 economy. Tourism on the heavily populated island Cebu stands to help real estate there, Biswas said, while tourism and investment are booming near the former U.S. airbase at Clark Field.

The Asian Development Bank expects 6.7 percent growth this year.

“If you look at it from a perspective that the Philippines is actually working on its infrastructure to attract investors, you have a government commitment to keep on spending, and you have a country whose growth is actually moving away from the key cities but into other areas, that will support above 6 percent growth,” said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in Metro Manila.

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Brazil’s Vale Eyed Dam Design Changes in 2009

Brazilian miner Vale SA identified concerns around its tailings dams in 2009 and studied but did not implement several steps that could have prevented or lessened the damage from last week’s deadly disaster, according to a corporate presentation seen by Reuters.


A tailings dam, used to store the muddy detritus of the mining process, collapsed on Friday, killing at least 65 in one of Brazil’s largest industrial accidents on record.            


The Brumadinho disaster, coming just over three years after a similar incident at another mine partially controlled by Vale, has fueled calls for a management overhaul and erased more than 70 billion reais ($18.61 billion) in Vale’s market value.      

But a decade ago, the world’s largest iron ore miner was considering ways to use fewer tailings dams, including alternative uses for the waste rock, according to the 73-page presentation.

The presentation pointed to the rising volume of tailings produced at the company’s mines, with some locations producing hundreds of thousands of tons of tailings daily.


The report suggested Vale make building materials from tailings, including bricks, a step that would give the company another revenue source and lessen the volume needing to be stored using dams.


The 2009 Vale report had recommended the company undertake a project to be called “Zero Dams” that would have involved drying out tailings, among other steps. It was not known whether the report reached the top levels of Vale management nor why it was not implemented.


Vale declined to comment. The report’s author, Paulo Ricardo Behrens da Franca, left Vale a year after submitting it and now works as an industry consultant. Reached by Reuters, he did not comment.


‘Inherently Dangerous Structures’

Vale’s Brumadinho facility was built using the cheapest and least-stable type of tailings dam design, a commonly used structure in mining known as “upstream construction.”


Chile, Peru and other earthquake-prone countries ban the design, in which tailings are used to progressively construct dam walls the more a mine is excavated. Brazil is not as earthquake-prone as its western neighbors, but even small seismic activity has been shown to affect tailings dams.

Because these types of tailings dams are waterlogged, they are easily susceptible to cracks and other damage that can cause bursts like the one that occurred last week near Brumadinho.

“A tailings dam may look safe, but it’s still retaining a lot of moisture behind it,” said Dermot Ross-Brown, a mining industry engineer who teaches at the Colorado School of Mines. “They’re inherently dangerous structures.”


Tailings dams tend to be shorter in height than conventional water dams, but often are far wider in span.


The disaster’s cause remains unknown. Vale said the dam had not received tailings for about two and a half years and was in the process of decommissioning, a step that should have lessened risk, engineers said.


“It’s really puzzling to me this happened as the (dam) was closing,” said Cameron Scott of SRK Consulting, a mining engineering firm. “This disaster will make future mine permitting harder.”


The dam had passed a September 2018 inspection by the German firm TUEV SUED AG and Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said equipment had shown the dam was stable on Jan.



On Tuesday, Brazilian state prosecutors arrested three Vale employees and two TUEV SUED employees.                



Brazil has nearly 4,000 dams that are classified as having “high damage potential” or being at high risk, with 205 of those dams containing mineral waste, the country’s Regional Development Minister Gustavo Canuto said.             

Analysts and engineers said that the Brumadinho disaster will hopefully push the industry to stop storing wet tailings and instead move toward the more-expensive-but-safer process of storing dry tailings.

That process requires drying the tailings and storing them on-site, abrogating the risk of a dam burst. The approach is becoming more popular in Canada and other countries with stricter mining regulations.    

“The industry doesn’t yet fully realize the risk its taking on with those type of wet tailings dams,” said Matt Fuller of Tierra Group International Ltd, a tailings engineering consulting firm.


Officials in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, where the disaster occurred, say they are now going to push for legislation requiring dry mining and forcing miners to tear down tailings dams when they are located above communities.

A similar proposal failed last summer, with its defeat attributed by the bill’s sponsor to lobbying pressure from mining companies.


Brazil is still reeling from the 2015 collapse of a larger dam, owned by the Samarco Mineracao SA joint venture between Vale and BHP, that killed 19 people.


After Samarco, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) issued updated guidelines for its members to try to safeguard tailings dams used to store waste left over from mining operations.


The ICCM said on Saturday that the mining industry still has “lessons to learn” from Samarco and similar events.            

Mining companies typically hire engineering firms that specialize in tailings dams to build the structures, not necessarily dam contractors themselves, a step that some industry observers hope changes soon.     

“The mining companies are not placing dam safety at the forefront of their preoccupations,” said Emmanuel Grenier, a spokesman for the International Coalition of Large Dams (ICOLD), a non-governmental organization focused on dam engineering.

The group “is recommending that dams, especially large dams, be built by dam professionals, but it is too rarely the case for tailing dams,” Grenier said.

($1 = 3.7614 reais)

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Apple Opens New Chapter Amid Weakening iPhone Demand

Apple hoped to offset slowing demand for iPhones by raising the prices of its most important product, but that strategy seems to have backfired after sales sagged during the holiday shopping season.

Results released Tuesday revealed the magnitude of the iPhone slump – a 15 percent drop in revenue from the previous year. That decline in Apple’s most profitable product caused Apple’s total earnings for the October-December quarter to dip slightly to $20 billion.

Now, CEO Tim Cook is grappling with his toughest challenge since replacing co-founder Steve Jobs 7 years ago. Even as he tries to boost iPhone sales, Cook also must prove that Apple can still thrive even if demand doesn’t rebound. 

It figures to be an uphill battle, given Apple’s stock has lost one-third of its value in less than four months, erasing about $370 billion in shareholder wealth. 

Cook rattled Wall Street in early January by disclosing the company had missed its own revenue projections for the first time in 15 years. The last time that happened, the iPod was just beginning to transform Apple.

​”This is the defining moment for Cook,” said Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives. “He has lost some credibility on Wall Street, so now he will have to do some hand-holding as the company enters this next chapter.” 

The results for the October-December period were slightly above the expectations analysts lowered after Cook’s Jan. 2 warning. Besides the profit decline, Apple’s revenue fell 5 percent from the prior year to $84 billion.

It marked the first time in more than two years that Apple’s quarterly revenue has dropped from the past year. The erosion was caused by the decline of the iPhone, whose sales plunged to $52 billion, down by more than $9 billion from the previous year. 

The past quarter’s letdown intensified the focus on Apple’s forecast for the opening three months of the year as investors try to get a better grasp on iPhone sales until the next models are released in autumn.

Apple predicted its revenue for the January-March period will range from $55 billion to $59 billion. Analysts surveyed by FactSet had been anticipating revenue of about $59 billion.

Investors liked what they read and heard, helping Apple’s stock recoup some of their recent losses. The stock gained nearly 6 percent to $163.50 in extended trading after the report came out.

“We wouldn’t change our position with anyone’s,” Cook reassured analysts during a conference call reviewing the past quarter and the upcoming months.

The company didn’t forecast how many iPhones it will sell, something Apple has done since the product first hit the market in 2007 and transformed society, as well as technology.

Apple is no longer disclosing how many iPhones it shipped after the quarter is completed, a change that Cook announced in November. That unexpected move raised suspicions that Apple was trying to conceal a forthcoming slump in iPhone sales – fears that were realized during the holiday season.

Cook traces most of Apple’s iPhone problems to a weakening economy in China, the company’s second biggest market behind the U.S. The company is also facing tougher competition in China, where homegrown companies such as Huawei and Xiaomi have been winning over consumers in that country with smartphones that have many of the same features as iPhones at lower prices.

Although a trade war started by President Donald Trump last year has hurt China and potentially caused some consumers there to boycott U.S. products, many analysts believe the iPhone’s malaise stems from other issues too.

Among them are higher prices – Apple’s most expensive iPhone now costs $1,350 – for models that aren’t that much better than the previous generation, giving consumers little incentive to stop using the device they already own until it wears out. Apple also gave old iPhones new life last by offering to replace aging batteries for $29, a 70 percent discount.

​”The upgrade cycle has extended, there is no doubt about that,” Cook conceded.

Apple is banking that investors will realize the company can still reap huge profits by selling various services on the 1.4 billion devices running on its software.

That’s one reason why Cook has been touting the robust growth of Apple’s division that collects commissions from paid apps, processes payments, and sells hardware warranty plans and music streaming subscriptions. Apple Music now has more than 50 million subscribers, second to Spotify’s 87 million streaming subscribers through September.

Apple is also preparing to launch a video streaming service to compete against Netflix, though Cook said he wasn’t ready to provide details Tuesday.

The company’s services revenue in the past quarter climbed 19 percent from the prior year to $10.9 billion – more than any other category besides the iPhone.

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A Virtual Human Teaches Negotiating Skills

Whether it’s haggling for a better price or negotiating for a higher salary, there is a skill to getting the most of what you want. Researchers at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies are conducting research on how a virtual negotiator may be able to teach you the art of making a good deal. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has the details.

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Some Journalists Wonder If Their Profession Is Tweet-Crazy

If Twitter is the town square for journalists, some are ready to step away.

That’s happening this week at the online news site Insider — by order of the boss. Reporters have been told to take a week off from tweeting at work and to keep TweetDeck off their computer screens. The idea of disengaging is to kick away a crutch for the journalists and escape from the echo chamber, said Julie Zeveloff West, Insider’s editor-in-chief for the U.S.

Addiction to always-rolling Twitter feeds and the temptation to join in has led to soul-searching in newsrooms. Some of it is inspired by the reaction to the Jan. 19 demonstration in Washington involving students from a Covington, Kentucky, high school, which gained traction as a story primarily because of social media outrage only to become more complicated as different details and perspectives emerged.

Planning for Insider’s ban predated the Covington story, West said.

She often walks through her newsrooms to find reporters staring at TweetDeck. Her goal is to encourage reporters to find news in other ways, by picking up the telephone or meeting sources. An editor will make sure no news is being missed.

Twitter “isn’t the place where most people find us,” she said. “Reporters place this outsized importance on it.”

The Washington Post’s David Von Drehle called Twitter the “crystal meth of newsrooms.” He dates his moment of disillusionment to the Republican national convention in 2012. In the section reserved for reporters, he noticed many watching TweetDeck feeds instead of listening to speeches from the podium or stepping away to talk to delegates.

“Twitter offers an endless stream of faux events,” Von Drehle wrote in a column this past weekend. “Fleeting sensations, momentary outrages, ersatz insights and provocative distortions. ‘News’ nuggets roll by like the chocolates on Lucy’s conveyer belt.”

Since Twitter is irresistible to journalists who have the smart-aleck gene — probably the majority — a newsroom quip or instant observation is now writ large.

Knee-jerk reactions

The Covington story uniquely played to Twitter’s faults. Early video that depicted Covington student Nick Sandmann staring down Native American activist Nathan Phillips spread rapidly across social media and many people rushed to offer their takes. An event that may have otherwise gone unnoticed instantly became a story by virtue of its existence online.

Yet when a wider picture emerged of what happened, in some respects quite literally from the view of a wider camera lens, a story that seemed black and white became gray. Some of the early opinions became embarrassing and were quietly deleted. But since there’s no such thing as a quiet deletion when people are watching online, the incident became fodder for another outbreak of partisan warfare.

The episode led Farhad Manjoo, a columnist for The New York Times, to declare Twitter “the world’s most damaging social network.”

In a column, he said he plans to stifle the urge to quickly type his opinion on every news event and suggested others follow his lead. Between mistakes and overly provocative opinions, too much can go wrong for journalists on Twitter, he said in an interview.

“In order to be good on Twitter, you have to be authentic,” he said. “But authenticity is also dangerous. It leads people to make assumptions about you. It can go bad in different ways.”

‘Overboard on Twitter’

Perhaps it’s inevitable at a time that Twitter needs to be constantly monitored because it is one of the president of the United States’ favorite forms of communications, but Manjoo said too often reporters spend more time in the virtual world than the real one.

“The way the media works now, we’ve just gone overboard on Twitter,” he said.

Days after Covington, some news outlets proved his point by writing stories about NBC Today show host Savannah Guthrie’s interview with Sandmann that were nothing but collections of Twitter comments about how she did. Some tweeters thought Guthrie was too hard on him. Some thought she was too soft. Simply by nature of the forum, few who thought it was just right bothered posting.

Media experts wary of Twitter quitters said a distinction between the platform and how people use it should not be lost.

“I really don’t think it’s so hard to avoid commenting on a moving story when the facts are not clear,” said Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor.

Leaving Twitter means cutting off a valuable news source since many newsmakers use the venue to make announcements, he said. It’s also an equalizer in giving access to a virtual town square to people who might otherwise be overlooked, said news consultant Jeff Jarvis.

“Journalists should be looking for every possible means to listen better to the public,” Jarvis said. “If you cut yourself off, it’s ridiculous.”

New approach

Some have done that, or tried. Manjoo’s colleague at the Times, White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, wrote last July about how she was stepping back from Twitter after nearly nine years and 187,000 tweets.

“The viciousness, toxic partisan anger, intellectual dishonesty, motive-questioning and sexism are at all-time highs, with no end in sight,” she wrote. “It is a place where people who are unquestionably upset about any number of things go to feed their anger, where the underbelly of free speech is at its most bilious. Twitter is now an anger video game for many users.”

Haberman predicted she would eventually re-engage with Twitter but in a different way. She’s back; she tweeted five times and retweeted links six times by 10 a.m. Tuesday. She’s up to 194,000 tweets and has a following of more than a million people. She declined a request for an interview about how the experience changed her.

Kelly Evans was an early Twitter user at The Wall Street Journal and then at CNBC, where she’s a news anchor. She found it a valuable place to get ideas, and to connect with readers, viewers and fellow journalists.

But she realized in the summer of 2016 that it was taking up too much of her personal time with little contribution to her professional life. She publicly signed off and has kept to her pledge for the most part. She says now she doesn’t regret it.

Evans admits she may have missed some story tips, but questions the reliability of much that is on Twitter.

“I feel more healthy and I feel like I’m able to do my job better,” she said.

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