Excitement Over Investing in Cryptocurrency Tinged With Fear of Big Slide

The price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has fallen dramatically in recent months. Still, many investors are excited about the future of digital currencies despite the risks. VOA’s Michelle Quinn reports from San Francisco. VOA footage by Matt Dibble and Michelle Quinn.

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China’s Factory Activity Contracts Unexpectedly in July as COVID Flares Up

China’s factory activity contracted unexpectedly in July after bouncing back from COVID-19 lockdowns the month before, as fresh virus flare-ups and a darkening global outlook weighed on demand, a survey showed on Sunday.

The official manufacturing purchasing managers’ Index (PMI) fell to 49.0 in July from 50.2 in June, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said, below the 50-point mark that separates contraction from growth and the lowest in three months.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected a reading of 50.4.

“The level of economic prosperity in China has fallen, the foundation for recovery still needs consolidation,” NBS senior statistician Zhao Qinghe said in a statement on the NBS website.

Continued contraction in the energy-intensive industries, such as petrol, coking coal and ferrous metals, contributed most to pulling down the July manufacturing PMI, he said.

Sub-indexes for output and new orders fell by 3 points and about 2 points in July, respectively, while the employment sub-index edged down by 0.1 point.

Weak demand has constrained recovery, Bruce Pang, chief economist and head of research at Jones Lang Lasalle Inc, said in a research note. “Q3 growth may face greater challenges than expected, as recovery is slow and fragile,” he added.

The official non-manufacturing PMI in July fell to 53.8 from 54.7 in June. The official composite PMI, which includes manufacturing and services, fell to 52.5 from 54.1.

China’s economy barely grew in the second quarter amid widespread lockdowns, and top leaders recently signaled their strict zero-COVID policy would remain a top priority.

Policymakers are prepared to miss their GDP growth target of “around 5.5%” for this year, state media reported after a high-level meeting of the ruling Communist Party.

Beijing’s decision to drop mention of the target has doused speculation that the authorities would roll out massive stimulus measures, as they often have in previous downturns.

Capital Economics says that policy restraint, along with the constant threat of more lockdowns and weak consumer confidence, is likely to make China’s economic recovery more drawn-out.

Faltering recovery

After a rebound in June, the recovery in the world’s second-biggest economy has faltered as COVID flare-ups led to tightening curbs on activity in some cities, while the once mighty property market lurches from crisis to crisis.

Chinese manufacturers continue to wrestle with high raw material prices, which are squeezing profit margins, as the export outlook remains clouded with fears of a global recession.

China’s southern megacity of Shenzhen has vowed to “mobilize all resources” to curb a slowly spreading COVID outbreak, ordering strict implementation of testing and temperature checks, and lockdowns for COVID-hit buildings.

The port city of Tianjin, home to factories linked to Boeing and Volkswagen, and other areas tightened curbs this month to fight new outbreaks.

According to World Economics, the lockdown measures had some impact on 41% of Chinese companies in July, though its index of manufacturing business confidence rose significantly from 50.2 in June to 51.7 in July.

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More Americans Struggling to Find Affordable Housing

Danira Ford is a lifelong resident of New Orleans, Louisiana. Like tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants, she has struggled to find an affordable place to live for her and her five children.

“Affordable housing would bring stability,” she said.

“My kids can’t play sports, be in band or get tutored on their homework because mommy needs to pick up extra shifts to cover rent,” Ford continued. “An affordable home would let them live more like normal children.”

A 2018 report by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated that 80% of New Orleans households pay more for housing than they can afford. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center recently estimated that 30,000 families in the city are languishing on a waitlist for an affordable housing voucher from the Housing Authority of New Orleans. By issuing a voucher, the city is agreeing to pay up to a certain amount of the voucher holder’s rent.

But the problem extends far beyond New Orleans. In a May 2022 news release on the Biden Administration’s housing supply action plan the White House said that while estimates vary, financial research company Moody’s Analytics estimates that the shortfall in the housing supply is more than 1.5 million homes nationwide.

In a 2021 white paper “Overcoming the Nation’s Daunting Housing Supply Shortage,” by Moody’s Analytics, co-authored by Jim Parrot, a nonresident fellow at Urban Institute, and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s, the U.S. has less housing available for rent or sale now than at any point in the last three decades.

As federal, state and local officials search for solutions, an ongoing affordable housing crisis is having real effects on residents.

Ford and her family, for example, have been waiting for an affordable housing voucher for more than a decade. Without it, she has cobbled together only enough money to live in the farther reaches of the metropolis, away from many of its amenities.

“It’s far from my work, it’s far from my kids’ schools, it’s far from grocery stores, it’s far from public transportation, it’s far from friends,” Ford said. “When it’s all you can afford, what choice do you have? But, also, what kind of life is it?”

Getting pushed out

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, potential homebuyers and renters across the U.S. have seen real estate prices skyrocket and the supply of available units plummet. According to a Pew Research Center study last year, 85% of Americans said availability of affordable housing was a problem in their community. Forty-nine percent of respondents indicated it was a major problem, up from 39% just three years earlier.

According to HUD, housing becomes a problem when a household spends more than 30% of its income on home-related costs. This is known as “cost burdened,” a designation that applies to nearly 1 in 3 Americans.

Exacerbating the problem, Real Estate brokerage company Redfin found rent has risen sharply over the past two years, as much as 40% in some metro areas, while according to data this year from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, real wages — or the amount workers earn relative to inflation — has actually fallen by 1.2% since the end of 2019.

Workers can no longer afford to purchase or rent homes in the neighborhoods they once could.

“The result is that thousands of residents — mostly people of color — get pushed farther and farther outside of desirable neighborhoods,” said Maxwell Ciardullo, director of policy and communications at the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.

Evidence of the trend isn’t hard to find in New Orleans. Just east of the city’s famed French Quarter, the Bywater neighborhood was once considered a dangerous area, a perception that helped keep rents low. Over the past 20 years, however, helped in large part by its faring better than most during Hurricane Katrina, the Bywater has seen one of the area’s most rapid increases in home and rental prices.

“And that’s resulting in a demographic shift,” Ciardullo told VOA. “In the year 2000, the census tract that encompasses most of the Bywater had 74% Black residents. Just 20 years later, that was down to 37%.”

Multifaceted problem

A crisis of this magnitude stems from many causes.

The white paper blames the shortage of affordable housing primarily on the 2008 financial crisis. In the years that followed, a shortage of land, lending, labor and building materials drove up the cost of building new homes. This cut into contractors’ profit margins and reduced their incentive to build.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem as more Americans sought larger homes where they could telework and live comfortably during lockdowns.

“In New Orleans, we were certainly experiencing these issues,” Ciardullo said, “but we also had some unique challenges, such as an aged housing stock and a lot of gentrification.”

“You used to be able to buy a home for really cheap,” said Alton Osborne, co-owner of the Bywater Bakery. In the 1990s, he bought a home in the neighborhood that he still owns today.

“They were blighted, but at least they were affordable,” Osborne said. “Nowadays, you have a lot of people who moved here from out of town and bought those homes, rehabilitated them, and now they’re worth a lot more. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? It’s complicated, but what’s certain is a lot of people don’t have enough money to live in this neighborhood anymore.”

Short-term rentals

One of the most high-profile reasons for New Orleans’ lack of affordable housing is the prevalence of short-term rentals, through Airbnb and other services, popular with the throngs of tourists who visit the city.

“In the Bywater, you’ve got entire blocks now taken over by Airbnb,” Osborne said.

According to the Inside Airbnb website, which looks at the rental service’s impact on communities, the city has more than 5,500 short-term rental units on Airbnb alone — dwellings that could otherwise go to local tenants. Renting to tourists at high prices also tends to drive up the rents on other types of units.

It’s simple math, according to Bywater Neighborhood Association President John Guarnieri.

“A landlord can make a ton more money renting short term on something like Airbnb than they can by renting to locals with a long-term lease,” he said. “It’s not even close.”

New Orleans City Council has worked in recent years to combat the problem by passing laws regulating how much of each property can be used as a short-term rental, as well as limiting the number of guests allowed per unit. Additionally, fees from each booking are used to contribute to a citywide affordable housing fund.

“It’s a good and important step,” said Ciardullo, “but enforcement has been severely lacking so far.”

In addition to attempting to regulate short-term rentals, lawmakers across the U.S. have sought to address the affordable housing crisis with proposals as varied as raising the minimum wage, mandating rent control, subsidizing affordable housing and pursuing partnerships with developers.

In New Orleans, the City Council passed a zoning ordinance that allows the construction of larger buildings if a percentage of those units are made available at affordable prices.

Policies like these can take years to bring about tangible results, but several large projects in the Bywater are said to be close to breaking ground. But forcing change in a neighborhood can trigger resistance from existing residents.

“As neighbors, we’ve learned to fight back against so much development,” said Julie Jones, president of the Neighbors First for Bywater organization. “It’s just too much for one neighborhood to be expected to take. We like our Bywater as it feels now.”

Jones is far from alone. As each housing project is announced, more residents seem to worry about its effect.

For example, a plot of land awaiting development into a 90-unit mixed income residential building currently serves as a de facto park for the community. As the project’s groundbreaking nears, neighbors bemoan the eventual loss of this greenspace.

New Orleanian Danira Ford just shakes her head.

“I understand they enjoy that space,” she said, “but for families like mine, affordable housing like this would change our lives. We’re not talking about a park. We’re talking about a home and a new and better life.”

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Pakistan Army Chief Reportedly Seeking US Help in Securing Crucial IMF Loan

Pakistan’s military chief has reportedly sought help from the United Sates in securing the early disbursement of an International Monetary Fund loan as the high price of energy imports pushes the cash-strapped South Asian nation to the brink of a payment crisis.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa spoke by phone to Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman earlier this week and raised the issue, government sources told VOA late Friday on condition of anonymity.

Pakistan last week reached a staff-level agreement with the IMF for the revival of a multibillion-dollar bailout package. However, the deal is subject to approval by the lender’s board, which is due to meet in late August. Islamabad is expected to get about $4.2 billion under the loan program, starting with an initial tranche of about $1.2 billion.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Asim Iftikhar Ahmad has confirmed the phone contact between Bajwa and Sherman but did not share details.

“Well, I understand conversation has taken place, but at this stage, I am not in direct knowledge of the content of this discussion,” Ahmad told a weekly news conference in Islamabad.

A State Department spokesperson in Washington would not directly confirm whether the conversion had taken place.

“U.S. officials talk to Pakistani officials regularly on a range of issues. As standard practice, we don’t comment on the specifics of private diplomatic conversations,” the spokesperson told VOA.

Nikkei Asia first reported Friday on the Bajwa-Sherman contact, saying the Pakistani military chief asked for the White House and Treasury Department to use their leverage to help speed up the release of the loan. The United States is the largest shareholder in the IMF.

“Yes,” the sources in Islamabad said when asked whether the two officials had spoken on the matter involving the IMF loan disbursement. The outcome of Bajwa’s appeal was not known immediately, however.

Critics attributed the delay in the release of the loan to Pakistan’s track record of not living up to commitments to undertake crucial economic reforms.

Late on Friday, Bajwa also spoke by phone to General Michael Erik Kurilla, the commander of the U.S. CENTCOM.

The army’s media wing in a statement quoted its chief as telling Kurilla that Pakistan “values its relations with (the) U.S. and we earnestly look forward to enhance mutually beneficial multi-domain relations based on common interests.”

The statement quoted U.S. commander as pledging “to play his role for further improvement in cooperation with Pakistan at all levels.”

The approval of the IMF program is key to Pakistan’s access to other avenues of finances for the country, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Pakistan’s central bank foreign exchange reserves have dwindled to just about $8.5 billion, barely enough to cover a few weeks of imports, and its currency has fallen to historic lows against the U.S. dollar in recent days, with inflation at its highest in more than a decade.

Shortly after negotiating the deal with the IMF, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government said it would “very soon” receive the first tranche of $1.17 billion.

But Sharif is under increasing pressure from ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is demanding the government step down and hold snap general elections in Pakistan.

Khan criticized Bajwa for reaching out to Washington, saying “it is not the job of an army chief to talk to the U.S. on financial matters.” The deposed prime minister told local ARY television channel in an interview the army chief’s move had demonstrated that neither the IMF nor foreign governments trust the Shehbaz administration.

Analysts noted, however, that both civilian and military leaders in Pakistan have traditionally conducted economic dealings with Washington, citing the army’s role in  Pakistani politics and foreign policy matters.

Khan alleges Shehbaz conspired with Washington to orchestrate his government’s ouster in a parliamentary vote of confidence in April, triggered in part by rising inflation. The U.S. rejects the charges.

The former prime minister indirectly also has accused the military chief of playing a role in his removal from office, charges the army rejects as politically motivated.

Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party are campaigning hard to stage a comeback in the next election widely expected to be held by October. The opposition leader has organized and addressed massive anti-government public rallies across Pakistan since his ouster.

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US, Japan to Set Up Research Center for Next Semiconductors

The United States and Japan launched a new high-level economic dialogue Friday aimed at pushing back against China and countering the disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The two longtime allies agreed to establish a new joint research center for next-generation semiconductors during the so-called economic “two-plus-two” ministerial meeting in Washington, Japanese Trade Minister Koichi Hagiuda said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Hagiuda also discussed energy and food security, the officials said in a news briefing.

“As the world’s first- and third-largest economies, it is critical that we work together to defend the rules-based economic order, one in which all countries can participate, compete and prosper,” Blinken told the opening session.

Hagiuda said “Japan will quickly move to action” on next-generation semiconductor research and said Washington and Tokyo had agreed to launch a “new R&D organization” to establish a secure source of the vital components.

The research hub would be open for other “like-minded” countries to participate in, he said.

The two countries did not immediately release additional details of the plan, but Japan’s Nikkei Shimbun newspaper earlier said it would be set up in Japan by the end of this year to research 2-nanometer semiconductor chips. It will include a prototype production line and should begin producing semiconductors by 2025, the newspaper said.

“As we discussed today, semiconductors are the linchpin of our economic and national security,” said Raimondo, adding that the officials had discussed collaboration on semiconductors, “especially with respect to advanced semiconductors.”

Taiwan now makes the vast majority of semiconductors under 10 nanometers, which are used in products such as smart phones, and there is concern about the stability of supply should trouble arise involving Taiwan and China, which views the island as part of its territory.

The United States and Japan said in a joint statement they would work together “to foster supply chain resilience in strategic sectors, including, in particular, semiconductors, batteries, and critical minerals.” They vowed to “build a strong battery supply chain to lead collaboration between like-minded countries.”

On ties with Russia, Hagiuda said he gained U.S. understanding about Japan’s intention to keep its stake in the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas project despite sanctions against Moscow by Washington, Tokyo and others following the Ukraine invasion.

“There are voices calling for withdrawal. But it would mean our stake goes to a third country and Russia earns an enormous profit. We explained how keeping our stake is in line with sanctions, and I believe we gained U.S. understanding,” he said.

Japanese trading houses Mitsui & Co and Mitsubishi Corp hold a combined 22.5% stake in the project.

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Record EU Inflation Expected; Economy Continues to Grow

The European Union’s statistical office, Eurostat, on Friday estimated inflation is expected to reach a record 8.9% in July, while the Eurozone and EU economy overall continued to grow during the first quarter of 2022.

In its report, Eurostat indicated inflation in July was driven largely by the energy sector with 39.7% growth, down from 42% in June. The food, alcohol and tobacco sector follows, with a rise of 9.8%, compared with 8.9% in June. The non-energy industrial goods sector grew 4.5% compared with 4.3% in June, and the services sector grew 3.7%, compared with 3.4% in June.

For months, inflation has been running at its highest levels since 1997, when record-keeping for the euro began, leading the European Central Bank to raise interest rates last week for the first time in 11 years and signal another boost in September.

Meanwhile, Eurostat also reported Friday the eurozone’s seasonally adjusted GDP increased by 0.7% and by 0.6% in the EU overall, compared with the previous quarter. In the first quarter of 2022, GDP had grown by 0.5% in the euro area and 0.6% throughout the EU.

The positive numbers come despite stagnant growth in Germany, Europe’s largest economy. France showed modest 0.5% growth, while Italy and Spain exceeded expectations with 1 and 1.1% economic expansions, respectively.

Eurostat says the numbers for both GDP growth and inflation are preliminary flash estimates based on data that are incomplete and subject to further revision.

The Associated Press, citing regional economic analysts, reports a rebound in tourism following the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive economic growth. The analysts caution, however, that inflation, rising interest rates and the worsening energy crisis are expected to push the region into recession later this year.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press.

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Congress OKs Bill to Aid Computer Chip Firms, Counter China 

The House on Thursday passed a $280 billion package to boost the semiconductor industry and scientific research in a bid to create more high-tech jobs in the United States and help it better compete with international rivals, namely China. 

The House approved the bill by a solid margin of 243-187, sending the measure to President Joe Biden to be signed into law and providing the White House with a major domestic policy victory. Twenty-four Republicans voted for the legislation. The Senate passed the bill Wednesday, 64-33.

“Today, the House passed a bill that will make cars cheaper, appliances cheaper and computers cheaper,” Biden said. “It will lower the costs of everyday goods. And it will create high-paying manufacturing jobs across the country and strengthen U.S. leadership in the industries of the future at the same time.” 

As the vote was taking place, Biden was discussing the economy with CEOs at the White House. During the event, he was handed a note informing him it was clear the bill would pass — a development that produced a round of applause before the tally was final. 

Most Republicans argued that the government should not spend billions to subsidize the semiconductor industry. GOP leadership in the House recommended a vote against the bill, telling members the plan would provide enormous subsidies and tax credits “to a specific industry that does not need additional government handouts.” 


Taxes, regulations

Representative Guy Reschenthaler, a Pennsylvania Republican, said the way to help the industry would be through tax cuts and easing federal regulations, “not by picking winners and losers” with subsidies — an approach that Representative Joseph Morelle, a New York Democrat, said was too narrow. 

“This affects every industry in the United States,” Morelle said. “Take, for example, General Motors announcing they have 95,000 automobiles awaiting chips. So, you want to increase the supply of goods to people and help bring down inflation? This is about increasing the supply of goods all over the United States in every single industry.” 

Some Republicans viewed passing the legislation as important for national security. 

Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was critical to protect semiconductor capacity in the U.S. and that the country was too reliant on Taiwan for the most advanced chips. That could prove to be a major vulnerability should China try to take over the self-governing island that Beijing views as a breakaway province 

“I’ve got a unique insight in this. I get the classified briefing. Not all these members do,” McCaul said. “This is vitally important for our national security.” 

The bill provides more than $52 billion in grants and other incentives for the semiconductor industry as well as a 25% tax credit for those companies that invest in chip plants in the U.S. It calls for increased spending on various research programs that would total about $200 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. 

The CBO also projected that the bill would increase deficits by about $79 billion over the coming decade. 

Senate health, climate package

A late development in the Senate — progress announced Wednesday night by Democrats on a $739 billion health and climate change package — threatened to make it harder for supporters to get the semiconductor bill over the finish line, based on concerns about government spending that GOP lawmakers said would fuel inflation. 

Representative Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, said he was “disgusted” by the turn of events. 

Despite bipartisan support for the research initiatives, “regrettably, and it’s more regrettably than you can possibly imagine, I will not be casting my vote for the CHIPS and Science Act today,” Lucas said. 

Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, likened the bill’s spending to “corporate welfare to be handed out to whoever President Biden wants.” 

Leading into the vote, it was unclear whether any House Democrats would join with Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, in voting against the bill; in the end, none did. 

Democrats urged to step up

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo talked to several of the most progressive members of the Democratic caucus in a meeting before the vote, emphasizing that the proposal was a critical part of the president’s agenda and that Democrats needed to step up for him at this important moment. 

Some Republicans criticized the bill as not tough enough on China, and GOP leaders emphasized that point in recommending a “no” vote. Their guidance acknowledged the threat China poses to supply chains in the U.S. but said the package “will not effectively address that important challenge.” 

But, as McCaul pointed out, China opposed the measure and worked against it. The bill includes a provision that prohibits any semiconductor company receiving financial help through the bill from supporting the manufacture of advanced chips in China. 

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, commenting before the House vote, said the U.S. “should not put in place obstacles for normal science, technology and people-to-people exchanges and cooperation” and “still less should it take away or undermine China’s legitimate rights to development.”

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US Probes Cyber Breach of Federal Court Records System

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating a cyber breach involving the federal court records management system, the department’s top national security attorney told lawmakers Thursday.

Matt Olsen, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, alluded to the threat of cyberattacks by foreign nations as he told the U.S. House of Representative Judiciary Committee that the incident was a “significant concern.”

Olsen made the remarks in response to questions from Representative Jerrold Nadler, the panel’s Democratic chairman, who said that “three hostile foreign actors” had attacked the courts’ document filing system.

Nadler said the committee learned only in March of the “startling breadth and scope” of the breach. Olsen said the Justice Department was working closely with the federal judiciary around the country to address the issue.

“While I can’t speak directly to the nature of the ongoing investigation of the type of threats that you’ve mentioned regarding the effort to compromise public judicial dockets, this is of course a significant concern for us given the nature of the information that’s often held by the courts,” Olsen said.

Olsen did not comment on who was behind the attack, but he noted that his division was focused generally on the risk of cyberattacks by foreign nations including China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in January 2021 said it was adding new security procedures to protect confidential or sealed records following an apparent compromise of its electronic case management and filing system.

The Administrative Office, the judiciary’s administrative arm, in a statement on Thursday called cybersecurity a high priority and said it has been taking “significant actions to protect our systems and the sensitive information they contain.”

Further details could not be immediately determined. A Justice Department spokesman said the department as a general policy does not confirm or deny the existence of specific investigations.

The federal judiciary has been working to modernize its electronic case management and filing system and the related online portal known as PACER, which is used to access records, citing the risk of cyberattacks on the aging electronic system.

“We are vulnerable,” U.S. Circuit Judge Amy St. Eve testified at a House committee hearing in May on the judiciary’s budget request. 

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Biden Administration Rejects Recession Label for Economy

The U.S. president and members of his administration are avoiding the “R word” – recession – despite the assertion by opposition party politicians and some economists that the country’s economy now meets that definition.

Speaking in the White House State Dining Room on Thursday, President Joe Biden said Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, as well as “many of the significant banking personnel and economists, say we’re not in recession.”

He then outlined the job growth and high-tech investment during his administration, concluding “that doesn’t sound like a recession to me.”

Biden’s remarks came after the Commerce Department released data on Thursday showing the U.S. economy has contracted for a second straight quarter, a traditional benchmark for a recession.

The president and his administration’s chief financial officer, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, are to make remarks later in the afternoon about the nation’s economy.

The gross domestic product of the United States – the broad measure of goods and services produced in the country – shrank at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.9 percent in the April through June period, according to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. That follows a 1.6% decline in this year’s first quarter.

“Popularly we are in a recession, because most people think that a recession involves two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth, and we’ve got that,” Desmond Lachman, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA.

Consumer sentiment “now is close to record low levels, they’re struggling with high inflation, the wages are getting eroded, they’ve lost a lot of money on the stock exchange. So, consumers don’t feel good about the economy,” added Lachman.

Recessions in the United States are officially declared by the National Bureau of Economic Research, but such determinations are made in retrospect. Its definition of a recession is based on a significant decline in economic activity over numerous months, taking into consideration such factors as employment, output, retail sales, and household income.

“They [the BEA] only make that judgment, something like six months or a year after the numbers look like they’re indicating the recession. So, in short, it’s too early to say that we’re officially in a recession,” said Lachman.

In the meantime, economists outside the government and elected officials are free to spin the numbers to make their own declarations.

“The Biden White House can play word games and try and contort the English language as it sees fit in order to advance its radical and harmful agenda. What this administration cannot change is the fact that American consumer confidence continues to fall under Biden’s watch,” said Steve Moore, an economist with FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group. “Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the state of the Biden economy, and no wordplay over the definition of ‘recession’ can change that.”

Numerous Republican members of Congress quickly took to Twitter immediately after the data was released to declare the country is now in a recession.

“Democrats threw us into recession,” said Senator Ted Cruz, a member of the Senate’s joint economic committee.

“Biden and his army of woke journalists can obscure this all they want, but they cannot escape this fact: America is in a recession,” declared Carlos Gimenez, a congressman from Florida and member of the House transportation and infrastructure committee. “Hardworking American families deserve so much better than what this administration has put us through in the last year.”

“The U.S. is officially in a recession, thanks to the Democrats’ reckless spending. Americans are suffering because of Joe Biden’s America-last policies,” said Jeff Duncan, a congressman from South Carolina and a member of the House Energy and Commerce committee.

Inflation in the country hit a 40-year high of 9.1 percent last month. The country’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, hiked interest rates on Wednesday by three-quarters of a percent, its latest such increase to try to tame price hikes, but a move some economists warn could trigger a recession.

“The problem with the Federal Reserve is they do too little, too late,” according to Lachman. “By the time that they started raising interest rates at the beginning of this year, the inflation genie was well out of the bottle – we had multi-decade highs in the inflation rate. The same thing is now occurring this time around that the Fed keeps raising interest rates, even though there are rather clear signs that the economy is slowing.”

Lachman, a former official of the International Monetary Fund, noted that the actions by the Federal Reserve have put a lot of developing economies under pressure as capital that had flowed to those countries has returned to the United States, and a stronger dollar is making it difficult for those countries to fund their balance of payment deficits.

“Once the United States economy slows, it means that the export markets for the emerging market countries isn’t as robust as it was before. So, we could see difficulty for the emerging market, certainly the remainder of this year, but there might be relief next year, once the Fed stops this interest rate hiking cycle and begins cutting interest rates,” predicted Lachman.

“Our goal is to bring inflation down and have a so-called soft landing, by which I mean a landing that doesn’t require a significant increase in unemployment,” Powell told reporters on Wednesday. “We understand that’s going to be quite challenging. It’s gotten more challenging in recent months.”

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US Failure to Implement Global Minimum Tax Could Be Costly

A breakthrough agreement announced by Senate Democrats on Wednesday, which would dedicate hundreds of billions of dollars to addressing climate change and other Democratic priorities, is designed to raise federal revenues by increasing taxes on wealthy Americans and large corporations. But the agreement sidesteps an international tax agreement brokered by the Biden administration.

That agreement, which is meant to require large multinational companies to pay taxes in the countries where they do business and to pay a global minimum of 15% on profits worldwide, is opposed by Senator Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat who has withheld his vote on a number of the Biden administration’s priorities. Manchin said he is concerned that U.S. companies will be placed at a disadvantage if the U.S. implements the law and other countries do not.

The 15% global minimum tax is distinct from a 15% minimum tax on corporations that is reportedly in the deal that Manchin struck with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The agreement in the new proposed deal applies to “taxable income” and takes many deductions and adjustments into account. The international deal applies to “book income,” which corporations report on financial statements to shareholders and is typically a much larger figure. 

Ironically, the failure to implement the law could harm U.S. tax revenues while doing little to benefit companies based here. A provision in the agreement allows other countries to impose additional taxes on multinational corporations if their home countries do not tax their profits at a minimum rate of 15%. 

According to Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, if the U.S. were to adopt the agreement and implement that rule, the Internal Revenue Service would collect an additional $23 billion in 2023, and nearly $319 billion in the 10 years ending in 2032. The committee says failure to adopt the rule could mean those revenues flow to other countries’ treasuries. 

Adoption slow

The U.S. is not the only country slow in adopting the new rules. European Union negotiations over implementation recently hit a snag when Hungary declared itself unwilling to raise taxes on its domestic corporations. The United Kingdom and Japan have drafted implementation guidelines, but they are not yet official. 

The overwhelming majority of countries that signed on to the accord have still not taken steps to actually put it in place. 

“This entire process has been very uncertain and difficult to predict,” Will McBride, vice president of federal tax and economic policy at the Tax Foundation, told VOA. “It’s actually introduced a lot of uncertainty into international tax, although it was initially pitched, and continues to be pitched, as a way to create certainty for taxpayers.” 

135-country agreement

The global minimum tax is part of a larger international taxation framework developed under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the G-20 group of large economies. The deal brought together more than 135 countries in an effort to control “base erosion and profit shifting,” known by the acronym BEPS.  

BEPS refers to tax strategies employed by multinational corporations. The practice involves strategically placing operations in low-tax jurisdictions, thereby eroding the tax “base” of their home countries, and then “shifting” profits earned internationally so that they are paid in those low-tax jurisdictions.  

The OECD estimates that as much as $240 billion in global tax revenue is lost to BEPS every year.  

Two pillar

The agreement, finalized in 2021, has two pillars. The first includes a mechanism for allocating a share of large multinational corporations’ profits to the countries where their products and services are actually consumed, preventing those profits from being booked in tax haven countries. 

The second pillar includes a 15% minimum tax rate on those profits across all countries in the agreement. The pillar also contains a mechanism meant to prevent participating countries from reducing their tax rates in order to attract companies to their shores. If a country does not tax corporate profits earned within its borders at 15%, other countries have the ability to “top up” their tax assessments of those companies in order to bring its total tax rate up to 15%.  

The thinking behind the design is that it eliminates the benefits a corporation gets from moving to a low-tax country, while simultaneously encouraging governments around the world to adopt the 15% rule, because if they do not, other governments will collect the additional taxes anyway. 

“Under Pillar Two, it’s the country of residence that gets the first crack at taxing the foreign income of their multinationals,” Thornton Matheson, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, told VOA. “But if they don’t do that, then the countries in which they operate can effectively tax their subsidiaries as if they were subject to such a rule.” 

“If the European countries were all applying this, it could undermine U.S. revenues,” she said, adding that such a situation would create an incentive for the U.S. to put the agreement into force. 

Doubts about effectiveness

Some experts remain doubtful that the global minimum tax, even if it were adopted universally, would actually end the practice of countries using financial incentives to attract corporations to their jurisdictions. 

Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told VOA that even with a 15% minimum tax in place and strictly enforced, there are a multitude of ways that governments can deliver other benefits that offset that burden. 

As an example, he pointed to the legislation currently working its way through Congress that would provide billions in subsidies and tax credits to the semiconductor industry in order to spur growth in U.S.-based production. 

“If you have a minimum tax of 15%, and then give $50 billion plus $24 billion of tax credits to semiconductor companies, what does that tell you? To me as an economist, that’s a negative tax. And other countries will do the same for industries that they regard as critical to their security or livelihood, or whatever the rationale is,” he said.

McBride of the Washington-based Tax Foundation noted that the agreement has an explicit carve-out that prevents direct subsidies from being counted as an offset to a company’s tax burden. 

“It actually incentivizes countries … to go with direct subsidies as a way to attract companies,” he said. 

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US Economy Shrinks for Second Straight Quarter

The U.S. economy shrank for a second straight quarter from April to June, dropping at an annual pace of nine-tenths of a percentage point and by one common measurement pushing the world’s biggest economy into a recession.

The Commerce Department reported the decline in the gross domestic product – the broadest gauge of the American economy – on Thursday. It followed a 1.6% annual drop in the January-to-March period.

Some economists view two successive quarters of declining growth as an indication of a recession, but others say such a declaration is too simple. They are pointing to seemingly contradictory aspects of the U.S. economy – with hundreds of thousands of new jobs being added each month and the unemployment rate at a nearly 50-year low of 3.6%, even as inflation in consumer prices surges at the fastest pace in four decades.

Mark Hamrick, a senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com, said, “We now know that the economy has contracted for two consecutive quarters. It is not entirely clear whether a recession has begun given the continued strength of the job market.”

He said that eventually “the recession question will be answered by the National Bureau of Economic Research. This first attempt to capture economic output in the second quarter should be taken with more than the proverbial grain of salt since there will be revisions.”

The economic report came a day after the U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, boosted its benchmark interest rate by three-quarters of a percentage point in an ongoing effort to curb soaring consumer prices. Fed chairman Jerome Powell said “another unusually large increase could be appropriate” at the central bank’s September meeting.  

“Recent indicators of spending and production have softened,” the Fed said in announcing the rate increase. “Nonetheless, job gains have been robust in recent months.”

Powell said at a Wednesday news conference, “Our goal is to bring inflation down and have a so-called soft landing, by which I mean a landing that doesn’t require a significant increase in unemployment. We understand that’s going to be quite challenging. It’s gotten more challenging in recent months.”

The slowing U.S. economy, whether officially in a recession or not, also has crucial political implications. Ahead of the Commerce Department report, U.S. President Joe Biden said this week he does not believe the economy is in a recession or headed to one.

But opposition Republicans are certain to cast the economy as in a recession and blame Biden’s economic stewardship ahead of national congressional elections in November when Republicans are hoping to retake control of one or both houses of Congress from the president’s Democratic colleagues.

Thursday’s estimate of the gross domestic product for the April-June quarter is the first of three the government will release over the coming weeks. It marked a sharp weakening from the 5.7% growth the economy achieved last year when the economy rapidly recovered from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. That was the fastest yearly expansion since 1984.

The quarterly decline included pluses and minuses in the national economy.

Consumer spending, which covers 70% of the U.S. economy, rose 1% on an annualized basis, a marked slowdown from previous quarters. Home construction dropped 14%, while business construction fell 11.7% on an annualized basis and federal government spending declined by 3.2%.

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China to Aid Developers as Homebuyers Boycott Mortgages

Chinese authorities are promising to establish an initial rescue fund of $11.8 billion (80 billion yuan) to offset a looming crisis in the real estate sector, where homebuyers routinely purchase residences from developers’ plans and begin making mortgage payments before the dwellings are finished. 

By having customers purchase homes “off plan,” builders can receive construction financing and shift risks — such as costly pandemic-related supply chain delays and bankrupt builders — to the middle-class homebuyers. 

For many buyers, the risks seemed worth it. But then China’s COVID-cooled economy strained many family budgets, and draconian lockdowns stalled work on residential projects. As home prices fell, some buyers found themselves paying mortgages on properties worth less than what they had agreed to pay. That was followed by the tightening policies in August 2020, when the central government realized real estate developers’ debt was getting out of control, and draconian lockdowns stalled work on residential projects. 

Amid all this, many homebuyers announced they would stop making mortgage payments to banks until work resumed on unfinished projects. 

Experts say the boycott is a byproduct of two decades of insufficient oversight over a red-hot real estate sector. One economist likened the situation to a Ponzi scheme, a type of fraud that pays existing investors with funds collected from new investors. 

Reuters describes the promised rescue fund as the first step in creating a “war chest” of as much as $44 billion (300 billion yuan). The state hopes the effort, announced Sunday, will not only help property developers resolve a debt crisis but also restore confidence in the real estate sector. 

A state bank official who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter told Reuters that the fund would initially be set at 80 billion yuan through People’s Bank of China and China Construction Bank. 

High risks, low supervision

Mr. Fang, a real estate developer in China and the United States who asked that VOA Mandarin not use his real name for fear of reprisal, said while U.S. banks supervise and control loans issued to off-plan property developers from groundbreaking to occupancy, Chinese banks offer less supervision. 

According to China’s presale housing regulation, funds received from sales of homes must be used to build them, a process supervised by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and banks.

In practice, however, poor supervision is common, according to Fang. 

In this environment, Chinese developers “want to take big risks,” Fang said. 

Instead of putting buyers’ mortgage payments toward construction of their homes, Fang said, Chinese developers buy more property. 

With the economy and housing market cooling off, it is “basically suicidal” to buy more land on the assumption that developing it will pay for finishing construction underway elsewhere, Fang said. 

‘A bit like a Ponzi scheme’

An economist in China, who requested anonymity due to fear of reprisal, told VOA Mandarin that real estate companies have never been regulated. 

“When the economy is good, with the continuous expansion, most of the properties can be delivered. But when the economy is not good, it becomes a bit like a Ponzi scheme. If there is no follow-up funding, they will not able to complete construction,” she said. 

A Chinese banking regulator said on July 21 that it will coordinate support to property developers in need of loans after homebuyers stopped making mortgage payments, usually putting the money into escrow accounts instead. 

At a press conference in Beijing last Thursday, Liu Zhongrui, director of the Statistical Information and Risk Monitoring Department of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), said that banks and other government departments will meet reasonable financing needs of real estate developers. But he did not give details. 

“We actively strengthen the coordination and cooperation with the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the People’s Bank of China and other departments, and support local governments to more effectively promote the work of ‘guaranteeing the delivery of buildings, protecting people’s livelihood, and maintaining stability,'” Liu said. 

The earliest “mortgage boycott notice” by more than 5,000 homebuyers appeared in April 2021 in Taiyuan, in the northern province of Shanxi, after a local developer’s project languished unfinished for more than two years. 

Letters to banks

Last month, homeowners in Jingdezhen, in northeastern Jiangxi province, sent a letter to their banks announcing they were suspending mortgage payments because of the delayed delivery of residential units purchased off plan. Since then, homeowners of more than 300 unfinished residential projects nationwide have sent similar public letters to banks. 

Last week, some 200 frustrated home buyers in Wuhan demonstrated outside a bank regulator’s office, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal. 

It’s unclear how many homebuyers are involved in the protests because Chinese censors are clamping down on news of mortgage boycotts, Reuters reported.

A study, the “2022 National Unfinished Building Research Report,” published July 18 by the Shanghai-based E-House China Research and Development Institution, a think tank that analyzes the real estate market, found that 54% of homeowners who issued mortgage suspension notices came from the central China province of Henan, home to a billion-dollar banking scandal.

According to the report, the value of mortgage loans involving unfinished buildings nationwide was $133.2 billion (900 billion yuan) in the first half of 2022, accounting for 1.7% of the national mortgage balance. 

“This industry is a mess, and no one used this kind of quantitative analysis to analyze it before,” Yan Yuejin, the report’s author and the think tank’s director of research, told VOA Mandarin. 

Although 1.7% does not sound high, it is already very high and poses a serious risk for banks, Yan said. “The banks’ tolerance rate for this [kind of] nonperforming loan … should not exceed 1%.”

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Twitter Accepts Oct. 17 Trial but Is Concerned Musk Will Try to Delay

 Twitter Inc. does not object to Elon Musk’s proposal to start a trial on October 17 over Musk’s bid to walk away from his $44 billion acquisition deal but the social media company wants a commitment to complete the trial in five days, Twitter said in a court filing on Wednesday. 

Musk has said he needs time to complete a thorough investigation of what he says is Twitter’s misrepresentation of fake accounts, which he said breached their deal terms. 

He originally sought a February trial, but on Tuesday proposed an October 17 trial after a judge ruled the proceeding was to start in three months. 

Twitter has called the fake accounts a distraction and pushed for the trial to hold Musk to the deal to start as soon as possible, arguing that delay damages its business. It said in its court filing that Musk had offered no assurance a trial would be completed in five days, as ordered by the judge, Kathaleen McCormick of the Delaware Court of Chancery. 

“Twitter sought that commitment because it believes Musk’s objective remains to delay trial, render impracticable the Court’s expedition order, and thus avoid adjudication of his contractual obligations,” said the Twitter filing. 

Attorneys for Musk, the world’s richest person and chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc, did not respond to requests for comment. 

Twitter also dismissed Musk’s claims that the company was dragging its feet in responding to his demands for documents. 

Twitter said Musk is the one holding up the process by refusing to answer the company’s complaint, which it said would clarify the issues and any counterclaims he may assert. 

Shares of Twitter closed up 1.3% at $39.85 on Wednesday. 

Musk agreed to acquire the company for $54.20 a share. 

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Meta Posts First Revenue Drop as Inflation Throttles Ad Sales

Meta Platforms Inc. issued a gloomy forecast after recording its first ever quarterly drop in revenue Wednesday, with recession fears and competitive pressures weighing on its digital ads sales. 

Shares of the Menlo Park, California-based company were down about 4.6% in extended trading. 

The company said it expected third-quarter revenue to be in the range of $26 billion to $28.5 billion, which would be a second consecutive year-over-year drop. Analysts were expecting $30.52 billion, according to IBES data from Refinitiv. 

Total revenue, which consists almost entirely of ad sales, fell 1% to $28.8 billion in the second quarter ended June 30, from $29.1 billion last year. The figure slightly missed Wall Street’s projections of $28.9 billion, according to Refinitiv. 

The company, which operates the world’s largest social media platform, reported mixed results for user growth. 

Monthly active users on flagship social network Facebook came in slightly under analyst expectations at 2.93 billion in the second quarter, an increase of 1% year over year, while daily active users handily beat estimates at 1.97 billion. 

Like many global companies, Meta is facing some revenue pressure from the strong dollar, as sales in foreign currencies amount to less in dollar terms. Meta said it expected a 6% revenue growth headwind in the third quarter, based on current exchange rates. 

Still, the Meta results also suggest that fortunes in online ads sales may be diverging between search and social media players, with the latter affected more severely as ad buyers reel in spending. 

Alphabet Inc., the world’s largest digital ad platform, reported a rise in quarterly revenue on Tuesday, with sales from its biggest moneymaker, Google search, topping investor expectations. 

Snap Inc. and Twitter both missed sales expectations last week and warned of an ad market slowdown in the coming quarters, sparking a broad sell-off across the sector. 

On top of economic pressures, Meta’s core business is also experiencing unique strain as it competes with short video app TikTok for users’ time and adjusts its ads business to privacy controls rolled out by Apple Inc. last year. 

The company is simultaneously carrying out several expensive overhauls as a result, revamping its core apps and boosting its ad targeting with AI, while also investing heavily in a longer-term bet on “metaverse” hardware and software. 

Meta executives told investors they were making progress in replacing ad dollars lost as a result of the Apple changes but said it was being offset by the economic slowdown. 

They added that Reels, a short video product Meta is increasingly inserting into users’ feeds to compete with TikTok, was now generating over $1 billion annually in revenue. 

However, Reels cannibalizes more profitable content that users could otherwise see and will continue to be a headwind on profits through 2022 before eventually boosting income, executives told analysts on Wednesday. 

“They are being greatly affected by everything,” Bokeh Capital Partners’ Kim Forrest said, referring to the economic slowdown as well as competition from TikTok and Apple.  

“Meta has a problem because they’re chasing TikTok and if the Kardashians are talking about how they don’t like Instagram … Meta should really pay attention to that.” 

On Monday, two of Instagram’s biggest users, Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, shared a meme imploring the company to abandon its shift to TikTok-style content suggestions and “make Instagram Instagram again.” 

Not persuaded

CEO Mark Zuckerberg did not appear to be swayed, however. 

About 15% of content on Facebook and Instagram is currently recommended by AI from accounts users do not actively follow, and that percentage will double by the end of 2023, he told investors on the call. 

For now, at least, the metaverse part of Meta’s business remains largely theoretical. In the second quarter, Meta reported $218 million in non-ad revenue, which includes payments fees and sales of devices like its Quest virtual reality headsets, down from $497 million last year. 

Its Reality Labs unit, which is responsible for developing metaverse-oriented technology like the VR headsets, reported sales of $452 million, down from $695 million in the first quarter. 

Although Meta has recently slowed investments as cost pressures increased, executives reassured investors it was still on track to release a mixed-reality headset called Project Cambria later this year, focused on professionals. 

Meta broke out the Reality Labs segment in its results for the first time earlier this year, when it revealed the unit had lost $10.2 billion in 2021. 

Its second-quarter operating profit margin fell to 29% from 43% as costs rose sharply and revenue dipped. 

In November, Chief Financial Officer David Wehner will become Meta’s first chief strategy officer. Susan Li, Meta’s current vice president of finance, will become CFO.

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US Senate Advances Bill to Boost Microchip Production

The U.S. Senate has passed a $280 billion initiative that would boost domestic production of microchips and provide support for a key industry that competes with overseas countries including China. VOA’s Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson reports.

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US Central Bank Expected to Raise Interest Rates  

The U.S. Federal Reserve is expected to impose a second major interest rate increase Wednesday in an effort to combat soaring inflation.

Observers say the central bank will likely announce an interest rate hike of three-quarters of one percentage point. The expected rate hike would be similar to one last month — the biggest boost in nearly three decades as the U.S. inflation rate soared to an annual rate of 8.6%, the highest in 40 years.

The U.S. economy has seen rising demand for goods and services among consumers as the global COVID-19 pandemic has steadily waned. But that has also led to the rising cost of most commonly used items, such as gasoline, food and clothing, as well as major items like cars, appliances and furniture.

The decision by the Federal Reserve to increase the interest rate consumers pay to borrow money is aimed at lowering such demand, which could help lower prices and bring inflation back down to the central bank’s target rate of 2% per year — but without pushing too far and causing a recession, which could lead to job losses and more economic pain.

All three major U.S. stock indices closed lower Tuesday after giant retailer Walmart cut its profit outlook and warned that rising prices of food and gasoline were prompting consumers to cut back on buying higher priced goods like electronics and clothes.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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