‘Now Hiring’: US Employers Struggle to Find Enough Workers

Salespeople, food servers, postal workers — “Help Wanted” ads are proliferating across the United States, as companies struggle to deal with a worker shortage caused by the pandemic, a rash of early retirements and restrictive immigration laws.

More than 10 million openings went unfilled in June, according to government data, while fewer than 6 million people were seeking work, even as employers desperately try to boost hiring amid a frenzy of consumer spending.

“We have a lot of jobs, but not enough workers to fill them,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents American companies, said in a statement.

Many of those who stopped working as COVID-19 first ravaged the U.S. economy in early 2020 have never returned.

“There would be 3.4 million more workers today if labor force participation” — the percentage of the working-age population currently employed or actively seeking work — was at the pre-pandemic rate, the Chamber calculated. It has slipped from 63.4% to 62.1%.

And where have all these people gone? Many simply took early retirement.

“Part of that is just the US population continues to age,” Nick Bunker, a labor-market specialist with jobs website Indeed, told AFP.

Too few immigrants

The huge cohort of baby boomers had already begun leaving the labor market, but there has been an “acceleration in retirements” since the pandemic struck, Diane Swonk, chief economist at KPMG, told AFP.

Millions of people opted for early retirement, concerned for their health and with sufficient assets — thanks to a then-buoyant stock market and high real-estate prices — to leave the workplace.

In the short term, Bunker said, “We’re unlikely to get back to exactly the pre-pandemic level of labor-force participation because of the aging of the population.”

Adding to this, said Swonk, “We haven’t had immigration at the pace to replace the baby boomers.”

Restrictions imposed under President Donald Trump, plus the impact of COVID, steeply reduced the number of foreigners entering the country.

“It has rebounded a little bit, but still not at the levels we were seeing several years ago,” Bunker said.

The Chamber of Commerce also underscored the impact of generous government assistance during the pandemic, which “bolstered people’s economic stability — allowing them to continue sitting out of the labor force.”

Long COVID

Large numbers of women quit their jobs in 2020, in part because extended school closings required many to stay home to care for children.

Those who wanted to place children in day care were often frustrated, as labor shortages hit the day care sector as well.

Swonk noted that not only COVID infections but also the debilitating effects of long COVID have had a serious impact.

It’s “really one of the most underestimated and misunderstood issues” keeping workers sidelined, she said.

To lure workers back, many employers have boosted pay and benefits.

And if Americans’ buying frenzy slows, analysts say, companies will need fewer workers.

The labor shortage is expected to ease a bit as the Federal Reserve continues aggressively raising interest rates in its effort to combat inflation.

In the meantime, wage earners have profited. Over the past year, millions have changed jobs, often lured elsewhere by higher wages and better working conditions.

This “Great Resignation” has resulted in higher hourly wages. The private sector average is now $32.27, up 5.2% in a year, adding to inflationary pressures.

The US labor market showed new signs of vitality in July.

The 22 million jobs lost due to COVID-19 have returned, and the unemployment rate is a historically low 3.5%.


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US Gas Prices Lowest in 5 Months

Gasoline prices have dipped to their lowest in more than five months — good news for consumers who are struggling with high prices for many other essentials.

AAA said the national average for a liter of regular was $1.05 on Thursday, down from the mid-June record of $1.37. However, that’s still about 21 cents higher than the average a year ago.

Energy is a key factor in the cost of many goods and services, and falling prices for gas, airline tickets and clothes are giving consumers a bit of relief, although inflation is still close to a four-decade high.

Glen Smith, a for-hire driver, sized up the price — $1.01 a liter — while waiting between rides at a gas station in Kenner, Louisiana.

“I’m not tickled pink, but I’m happier it’s less than what it was,” Smith said. “There for a while, every two days I put $50 of gas in my car. It’s $12 to run from the airport to drop off in the city — $12 a trip!”

Oil prices began rising in mid-2020 as economies recovered from the initial shock of the pandemic. They rose again when the U.S. and allies announced sanctions against Russian oil over the country’s war against Ukraine.

Recently, however, oil prices have dropped on concern about slowing economic growth around the world. U.S. benchmark crude oil has recently dipped close to $90 a barrel from over $120 a barrel in June.

It is unclear whether gasoline prices got so high that consumers cut back on their driving. Some experts believe that is true, although they acknowledge that the evidence is largely anecdotal.

“I don’t know that $5 ($1.32 per liter) was the magic amount. I think it was the amount of increase in a short period of time,” said Peter Schwarz, an expert on energy pricing and an economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “People were starting to watch their driving.”

Schwarz expects oil prices to remain relatively stable at least for the next month or so, particularly after OPEC and partners including Russia agreed to only a small oil production increase in September, which won’t be enough to drive prices lower.

Christian vom Lehn, an economics professor at Brigham Young University, said the price of oil is the key factor for gasoline, but that seasonal trends could also keep prices from surging again.

“We are coming to the end of summer, and summer is a peak travel season, so demand is naturally going to fall,” he said. “That is certainly contributing to the most recent decline” in gas prices.

The average gas price has dropped 58 straight days, but that streak will end soon, predicted Tom Kloza, head of energy analysis at the Oil Price Information Service. He said the industry will face challenges to meet gasoline demand for the rest of the year.

Kloza noted that it’s still early in the hurricane season, which in the past has shut down some of the nation’s biggest refineries that sit in hurricane-prone areas of the Gulf Coast; the Gulf of Mexico is speckled with oil-producing platforms. Also, he said, “refinery runs will come down because of a lot of delayed maintenance that can’t be delayed indefinitely.”

Prices at the pump are likely to be a major issue heading into the mid-term elections in November.

Republicans blame President Joe Biden for the high gasoline prices, seizing on his decisions to cancel a permit for a major pipeline and suspend new oil and gas leases on federal lands.

Biden has previously targeted the oil companies, accusing them of not producing as much energy as they could while posting huge profits. “Exxon made more money than God this year,” he said in June.

Exxon said it has increased oil production. The CEO of Chevron said Biden was trying to vilify his industry.

Biden has also ordered the release of oil from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve this year. While not large enough to account for the drop in gasoline prices, the extra supply from reserves might have helped stem the rise in pump prices, according to analysts.

The nationwide average for gas hasn’t been under $1.05 per liter since early March. Prices topped out at $1.32 per liter on June 14, according to AAA. They declined slowly the rest of June, then began dropping more rapidly. The shopping app GasBuddy reported that the national average dropped under $1.05 per liter on Tuesday.

Motorists in California and Hawaii are still paying above $1.32 per liter, and other states in the West are paying close to that. The cheapest gas is in Texas and several other states in the South and Midwest.

A year ago, the nationwide average price was just under 84 cents per liter, according to AAA. After a long climb, that price has dropped steadily this summer, falling 4 cents per liter in the past week and 18 cents in the last month.

“If you talk to people who are not economists, gas prices always go up faster than they come down,” said Schwarz, the energy-pricing expert. “These are still high gas prices.” 


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COVID-19 Wreaks Havoc on Youth Employment

The International Labor Organization says the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the youth labor market. The ILO’s just released “Global Employment Trends for 2022” report finds job prospects for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are lagging behind other age groups.

Latest data estimate the total global number of unemployed youths will reach 73 million this year. While that is a slight improvement from 2021 levels, the ILO says the number of young people without jobs is still six million above the pre-pandemic level of 2019.

ILO Deputy Director-General Martha Newton says the COVID-19 crisis has exposed shortcomings in the way the needs of young people are being addressed. She says those least able to gain a foothold in the labor market include first-time jobseekers, school dropouts, inexperienced fresh graduates, and those who remain inactive not by choice.

“Following the arrival of the pandemic in 2020, the share of young people who are neither in employment, education, or training– and we refer to them as NEETS—rose to 23.3 percent, reaching the highest level…We saw the youth NEET rate jump to its highest level in 15 years,” Newton said.

The ILO says young people have faced multi-dimensional crises throughout the pandemic. It says interruptions in their education and training have robbed them of the skills needed to get a job. That, it says, threatens to damage their long-term employment, education and earning prospects.

Newton says job opportunities are narrowing for many young people. She adds young women are worse off than young men in finding employment. She says the ILO projects 27.4 percent of young women globally are likely to be employed in 2022, compared to 40.3 percent of young men.

“The impact of the pandemic has a feminine face. And we also know from our data that women are not coming back into the labor force at the same rates as the men in many countries around the world,” Newton said. “This is partly tied to the care responsibilities of women.”

The report finds recovery in youth unemployment is likely to be more successful in high-income countries than in low-and-middle-income countries. It projects the youth unemployment rate in North America to be below world average levels, at 8.3 percent compared to an unemployment rate of 20.5 percent in Latin America this year.

While youth unemployment stands at 12.7 percent in Africa, the report says that figure masks the fact that many young people in Africa have chosen to withdraw from the labor market.

The ILO cites the Arab states as the region with the highest and fastest growing youth unemployment rate in the world. It says the situation for women is particularly bad. The report notes the 42.5 percent unemployment rate for young women in the region is nearly three times higher than the global average for young women.


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At 75, India Seeks Way Forward in Big but Job-Scarce Economy

As India’s economy grew, the hum of factories turned the sleepy, dusty village of Manesar into a booming industrial hub, cranking out everything from cars and sinks to smartphones and tablets. But jobs have run scarce over the years, prompting more and more workers to line up along the road for work, desperate to earn money.

Every day, Sugna, a young woman in her early 20s who goes by her first name, comes with her husband and two children to the city’s labor chowk — a bazaar at the junction of four roads where hundreds of workers gather daily at daybreak to plead for work. It’s been days since she or her husband got work and she has only 5 rupees (6 cents) in hand.

Scenes like this are an everyday reality for millions of Indians, the most visible signs of economic distress in a country where raging unemployment is worsening insecurity and inequality between the rich and poor. It’s perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biggest challenge as the country marks 75 years of independence from British rule on Monday.

“We get work only once or twice a week,” said Sugna, who says she earned barely 2,000 rupees ($25) in the past five months. “What should I do with a life like this? If I live like this, how will my children live any better?” Entire families leave their homes in India’s vast rural hinterlands to camp at such bazaars, found in nearly every city. Out of the many gathered in Manesar recently, only a lucky few got work for the day — digging roads, laying bricks and sweeping up trash for meager pay — about 80% of Indian workers toil in informal jobs including many who are self-employed.

India’s phenomenal transformation from an impoverished nation in 1947 into an emerging global power whose $3 trillion economy is Asia’s third largest has turned it into a major exporter of things like software and vaccines. Millions have escaped poverty into a growing, aspirational middle class as its high-skilled sectors have soared.

“It’s extraordinary — a poor country like India wasn’t expected to succeed in such sectors,” said Nimish Adhia, an economics professor at Manhattanville College. 

This year, the economy is forecast to expand at a 7.4% annual pace, according to the International Monetary Fund, making it one of the world’s fastest growing.

But even as India’s economy swells, so has joblessness. The unemployment rate remains at 7% to 8% in recent months. Only 40% of working age Indians are employed, down from 46% five years ago, the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) says.

“If you look at a poor person in 1947 and a poor person now, they are far more privileged today. However, if you look at it between the haves and the have nots, that chasm has grown,” said Gayathri Vasudevan, chairperson of LabourNet, a social enterprise.

“While India continues to grow well, that growth is not generating enough jobs — crucially, it is not creating enough good quality jobs,” said Mahesh Vyas, chief executive at CMIE. Only 20% of jobs in India are in the formal sector, with regular wages and security, while most others are precarious and low-quality with few to no benefits.

That’s partly because agriculture remains the mainstay, with about 40% of workers engaged in farming.

As workers lost jobs in cities during the pandemic, many flocked back to farms, pushing up the numbers. “This didn’t necessarily improve productivity — but you’re employed as a farmer. It’s disguised unemployment,” Vyas said.

With independence from Britain in 1947, the country’s leaders faced a formidable task: GDP was a mere 3% of the world’s total, literacy rates stood at 14% and the average life expectancy was 32 years, said Adhia.

By the most recent measures, literacy stands at 74% and life expectancy at 70 years. Dramatic progress came with historic reforms in the 1990s that swept away decades of socialist control over the economy and spurred remarkable growth.

The past few decades inspired comparisons to China as foreign investment poured in, exports thrived and new industries — like information technology — were born. But India, a latecomer to offshoring by Western multinationals, is struggling to create mass employment through manufacturing. And it faces new challenges in plotting a way forward.

Financing has tended to flow into profitable, capital intensive sectors like petrol, metal and chemicals. Industries employing large numbers of workers, like textiles and leather work, have faltered. This trend continued through the pandemic: despite Modi’s 2014 ‘Make in India’ pitch to turn the country into another factory floor for the world, manufacturing now employs around 30 million. In 2017, it employed 50 million, according to CMIE data.

As factory and private sector employment shrink, young jobseekers increasingly are targeting government jobs, coveted for their security, prestige and benefits.

Some, like 21-year-old Sahil Rajput, view such work as a way out of poverty. Rajput has been fervently preparing for a job in the army, working in a low-paid data-entry job to afford private coaching to become a soldier and support his unemployed parents.

But in June, the government overhauled military recruitment to cut costs and modernize, changing long-term postings into four-year contracts after which only 25% of recruits will be retained. That move triggered weeks of protests, with young people setting vehicles on fire.

Rajput knows he might not be able to get a permanent army job. “But I have no other options,” he said. “How can I dream of a future when my present is in tatters?”

The government is banking on technology, a rare bright spot, to create new jobs and opportunities. Two decades ago, India became an outsourcing powerhouse as companies and call centers boomed. An explosion of start-ups and digital innovation aims to recreate that success — “India is now home to 75,000 startups in the 75th year of independence and this is only the beginning,” Minister of Commerce, Piyush Goyal, tweeted recently. More than 740,000 jobs have been created via start-ups, a 110% jump over the last six years, his ministry said.

There’s still a long way to go, in educating and training a labor force qualified for such work. Another worry is the steady retreat of working women in India — from a high of nearly 27% in 2005 to just over 20% in 2021, according to World Bank data.

Meanwhile, the stopgap of farming appears increasingly precarious as climate change brings extreme temperatures, scorching crops.

Sajan Arora, a 28-year-old farmer in India’s breadbasket state of Punjab, can no longer depend on ancestral farmland his family has relied on to survive. He, his wife and seven-month-old daughter, plan to join family in Britain and find work there after selling some land.

“Agriculture has no way forward,” said Arora, saying he will do whatever work he can get, driving a taxi, working in a store or on a construction site.

He’s sad to leave his parents and childhood home behind, but believes the uncertainty of change offers “better prospects” than his current reality.

“If everything was right and well, why would we go? If we want a better life, we will have to leave,” he said.


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In Solomon Islands, Some Wary of Beijing-backed Construction

On the main street of Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, the Chinese presence is noticeable — some people on the street, some characters on the signs and at almost every cashier’s counter.

Locals say almost all of the grocery stores and convenience shops selling everything from snacks to electronics are owned by ethnic Chinese. In the city’s Chinatown, where three people died during riots in November that many blamed on Chinese ties, the Chinese presence is almost inescapable.

These days, some local residents are expressing dissatisfaction at what they see as China’s takeover of the Solomon Islands’ construction industry.

“A lot of Chinese firms, construction firms, have come into the country and there’s no way we can compete with them in terms of pricing,” Ricky Fuo’o, chairman of Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told VOA Mandarin.

“Just the sheer size of these companies. … They are huge. So that’s one of the industries that we’ve seen that’s slowly being penetrated and taken over,” Fuo’o said.

In October 2019, the small but strategically important South Pacific island nation cut ties with Taiwan, established diplomatic relations with China, and signed agreements with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure project that is planned to stretch from Asia to Europe.

In return, China promised $730 million for financial aid, and has taken over multiple infrastructure projects in the country. Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOE) such as China Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC), China Railway Construction Company (CRCC) and China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC), are building most of these projects in the Solomon Islands.

The stadium project for the 2023 Pacific Games is one example. China’s state-owned company CCECC has won five of the seven infrastructure projects for the stadium in Honiara that includes facilities to accommodate many sports. At the same time, CCECC is building half of the main road in Honiara. There’s only one road, and aJapanese company is building the other half.

Bob Pollard, managing director of the local firm, Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands, which makes coconut oil-based personal care products, told VOA Mandarin he thinks it is unfair because local companies cannot compete with these Chinese state-owned enterprises.

“I think it’s a real concern. … I don’t think it’s a level playing field,” Pollard said. “Who knows how much subsidy they receive from the Chinese government.”

Others think China is just helping the island develop its economy. The Solomon Islands consist of six major islands and more than 900 smaller islands in Oceania, covering a land area of about 28,400 square kilometers. The country achieved independence from Britain in 1978.

“I think China is not taking over Solomon Islands. … China is developing [the] Solomon Islands and they build public facilities and so forth,” Walton Naezon, former minister for Commerce, Industries and Employment, told VOA. Naezon is now the director at Gold Ridge Mining, an open-pit mining operation about 30 kilometers outside Honiara.

“That’s a good thing for the country. I’m happy that most of the Chinese investments here are in terms of public property. They are not loans, they are grant money,” he said.

A report from the Council on Foreign Relations pointed out China’s interest in the region.

“The Chinese government views the Pacific Island region as an important component of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” the report said. “Specifically, it sees the region as a critical air freight hub in its so-called Air Silk Road, which connects Asia with Central and South America.”

Although all can see China’s influence here in Honiara, few know how these Chinese companies operate.

Michelle Lam, a consultant, is an ethnic Chinese born in the Solomon Islands to Hong Kong immigrants who came to teach English in the 1960s.

“They (ethnic Chinese) are everywhere. They run the shops, they have businesses, they move around. But you can’t call them Chinese presence. I guess this is just people doing their work,” Lam told VOA. “When people talk about Chinese presence, I guess they mean the (Chinese) SOEs (state-owned enterprises) who are here to do certain work,” in the construction industry on infrastructure projects.

Lam, who previously worked at China Harbor Engineering Company, said this has to do with how the Chinese SOEs operate.

“According to them, they’re just here to do their construction work. They don’t mingle at all,” she told VOA.

“When I was with China Harbor, the camp was very tight. They bring people in to work. They (the workers) basically work, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep. They (the company) have zero tolerance for socialization,” she added.

VOA approached staff from China Harbor and China Civil Engineering Company for interviews, but both rejected offering comments on their current projects.

Liu Ze, the secretary of the Solomon Islands Chinese Business Council, told VOA Mandarin that Chinese workers arrived more than a century ago when the nation was a British protectorate.

Five people arrived from Guangdong Province, brought in to work as cooks to work as carpenters, according to Liu. By 1914, one, Kwong Cheong, had a trading business at Tulagi, the colonial capital, according to the Solomon Encyclopedia, which states that between 1920 and 1933, the Chinese population increased from 55 to 193.

“Most of them are from China’s Guangdong Province. They came over 100 years ago with the British and expanded their businesses here in Honiara,” he said. Britain had declared a protectorate over the island mainly to forestall a threat of annexation by France.

After World War II, the Chinese community increased and in the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s began to integrate into colonial society, took out British citizenship and came to control much of the Protectorate’s retail trade and became dominant in Honiara and the main provincial towns, according to the Solomon Encyclopedia. 


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US Inflation Slips From 40-Year Peak but Remains High 8.5% 

Falling gas prices gave Americans a slight break from the pain of high inflation last month, though the surge in overall prices slowed only modestly from the four-decade high it reached in June. 

Consumer prices jumped 8.5% in July compared with a year earlier, the government said Wednesday, down from a 9.1% year-over-year jump in June. On a monthly basis, prices were unchanged from June to July, the smallest such rise more than two years. 

Still, prices have risen across a wide range of goods and services, leaving most Americans worse off. Average paychecks are rising faster than they have in decades — but not fast enough to keep up with accelerating costs for such items as food, rent, autos and medical services. 

Last month, excluding the volatile food and energy categories, so-called core prices rose just 0.3% from June, the smallest month-to-month increase since April. And compared with a year ago, core prices rose 5.9% in July, the same year-over-year increase as in June. 

President Joe Biden has pointed to declining gas prices as a sign that his policies — including large releases of oil from the nation’s strategic reserve — are helping lessen the higher costs that have strained Americans’ finances, particularly for lower-income Americans and Black and Hispanic households. 

Yet Republicans are stressing the persistence of high inflation as a top issue in the midterm congressional elections, with polls showing that elevated prices have driven Biden’s approval ratings down sharply. 

On Friday, the House is poised to give final congressional approval to a revived tax-and-climate package pushed by Biden and Democratic lawmakers. Economists say the measure, which its proponents have titled the Inflation Reduction Act, will have only a minimal effect on inflation over the next several years. 

While there are signs that inflation may ease in the coming months, it will likely remain far above the Federal Reserve’s 2% annual target well into next year or even into 2024. Chair Jerome Powell has said the Fed needs to see a series of declining monthly core inflation readings before it would consider pausing its rate hikes. The Fed has raised its benchmark short-term rate at its past four rate-setting meetings, including a three-quarter point hike in both June and July — the first increases that large since 1994. 

A blockbuster jobs report for July that the government issued Friday — with 528,000 jobs added, rising wages and an unemployment rate that matched a half-century low of 3.5% — solidified expectations that the Fed will announce yet another three-quarter-point hike when it next meets in September. Robust hiring tends to fuel inflation because it gives Americans more collective spending power. 

One positive sign, though, is that Americans’ expectations for future inflation have fallen, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, likely reflecting the drop in gas prices that is highly visible to most consumers. 

Inflation expectations can be self-fulfilling: If people believe inflation will stay high or worsen, they’re likely to take steps — such as demanding higher pay — that can send prices higher in a self-perpetuating cycle. Companies then often raise prices to offset higher their higher labor costs. But the New York Fed survey found that Americans’ foresee lower inflation one, three and five years from now than they did a month ago. 

Supply chain snarls are also loosening, with fewer ships moored off Southern California ports and shipping costs declining. Prices for commodities like corn, wheat and copper have fallen steeply. 

Yet in categories where price changes are stickier, such as rents, costs are still surging. One-third of Americans rent their homes, and higher rental costs are leaving many of them with less money to spend on other items. 

Data from Bank of America, based on its customer accounts, shows that rent increases have fallen particularly hard on younger Americans. Average rent payments for so-called Generation Z renters (those born after 1996) jumped 16% in July from a year ago, while for baby boomers the increase was just 3%. 

Stubborn inflation isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. Prices have jumped in the United Kingdom, Europe and in less developed nations such as Argentina. 

In the U.K., inflation soared 9.4% in June from a year earlier, a four-decade high. In the 19 countries that use the euro currency, it reached 8.9% in June compared with a year earlier, the highest since record-keeping for the euro began. 


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US Senate Approves Inflation Reduction Act of 2022

The evenly split U.S. Senate has passed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. With Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote and all Democrats seemingly on board, lawmakers worked late Saturday into Sunday debating the measure. As VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports, Senate Republicans – unified in opposition – warn passage of the legislation will lead to reckless spending.


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US Senate Democrats Poised to Approve Climate, Tax Legislation 

U.S. Senate Democrats, over uniform Republican opposition, are poised Sunday to approve sweeping legislation to combat climate change, trim health care costs and raise taxes on highly profitable corporations.

The measure, a scaled-down version of President Joe Biden’s long-stalled economic legislative plan, calls for the biggest U.S. investment ever in attacking the effects of global warming, $370 billion to boost the use of clean energy, encourage Americans to buy electric vehicles and reduce plant-warming emissions 40% by 2030.

The legislation would also for the first time authorize the U.S. government to negotiate the cost of some drugs with pharmaceutical companies to potentially lower the cost of medicines for older Americans, extend health insurance subsidies for millions of people and impose a 15% minimum tax on billion-dollar companies that now pay nothing. The bill would also add 87,000 more federal tax agents to further scrutinize individual and corporate tax returns to catch tax cheaters and cut the chronic U.S. budget debt by about $300 billion.

The measure narrowly survived a key test vote Saturday by a 51-50 margin, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote after all 50 Senate Democrats supported the legislation and the 50-member Republican caucus uniformly opposed it.

Democrats engaged in months of rancorous debate over what was originally a $2 trillion measure, what Biden called his Build Back Better plan. Now, with U.S. consumers worried about the sharpest increase in consumer prices in four decades — a 9.1% annualized surge in June — Democrats are calling the legislation the Inflation Reduction Act.

However, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office review of the legislation said the bill’s provisions would have a “negligible effect” on inflation during the remainder of 2022 and little effect next year either.

The entirety of the legislation appeared doomed until Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, with Biden’s approval, was recently able to reach agreement with two centrist Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, on tax and climate control provisions in the proposal that they would accept.

As debate opened Saturday, before lawmakers from both parties offered an array of amendments that were rejected, Schumer said, “This historic bill will reduce inflation, lower costs, fight climate change, and it’s time to move this nation forward.”

Senate debate on the measure was continuing Sunday but Democrats are hoping to approve the legislation later in the day, almost certainly on the same 51-50 party-line margin requiring Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote as she did on the opening vote to begin debate. If the Senate approves it, the House of Representatives is expected to pass it Friday and send it to the White House for Biden’s signature.

The debate also played out on Sunday television talk shows.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who supports the legislation, told CNN’s “State of the Union” show that its passage would give the tax-collecting Internal Revenue Service agency the greatly expanded staff it needs to “go after” tax cheats and “the biggest earners.”

He also noted that Americans “overwhelmingly want to cut the cost of their medicine,” a provision that could be achieved for some drugs prescribed for older Americans under the country’s Medicare health insurance program.

But Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina balked at Blumenthal’s analysis of the measure, saying that tax agents are “going after Uber drivers and nurses. They’re going after everyone.”

He said the legislation is “going to make everything worse. It’s not going to help [cut] inflation.”


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US Senate Preps for Landmark Climate Legislation

Congressional Democrats appear to be on the cusp of passing legislation that would dedicate $369 billion to combat climate change through a combination of grants, tax cuts, subsidies and other measures aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

In addition to its climate-related elements, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) makes it possible for Medicare, the government-sponsored health insurance program for older Americans, to negotiate certain drug prices with the pharmaceuticals industry, a move expected to lower drug costs for all Americans. It also creates a minimum tax on large corporations, raises taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and will reduce the federal deficit by an estimated $300 billion over 10 years.

In a statement issued Thursday, President Joe Biden praised the legislation and called on lawmakers to pass it quickly.

The bill, Biden said, “makes the largest investment in history in combating climate change and increasing energy security, creating jobs here in the U.S. and saving people money on their energy costs. I look forward to the Senate taking up this legislation and passing it as soon as possible.”

Key provisions

A major element of the bill is a package of rebates, tax credits, and grants to help individual American families reduce their reliance on fossil fuels by subsidizing energy efficient home improvement projects and the purchase of electric vehicles.

The bill would dedicate $60 billion to helping establish clean energy production in the U.S. That includes tax credits to support $30 billion in spending on the domestic production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and other critical clean energy components as well as $20 billion in low-cost loans to support the manufacture of electric vehicles.

Other elements of the bill aim to support a broad range of decarbonization efforts across the economy, including $30 billion in grants and loans to states and electric utilities to “accelerate the transition to clean energy.”

The bill also earmarks tens of billions of dollars for “environmental justice” efforts meant to reduce the impact of climate change on disadvantaged communities and billions more toward increasing the climate resilience of farms and rural communities.

A catalyst for global action

“We could not be more excited about this huge breakthrough,” David Kieve, president of EDF Action, an arm of the Environmental Defense Fund, told VOA. “There’s been a shift in the attitudes of the American public in recent years towards an understanding that the jobs of the future are going to be in clean energy. And the only open question is, are they going to be here in the United States?”

Kieve said that in addition to creating those jobs in the U.S., he believes the investments in the bill will put the U.S. “on the fast track” to hitting the administration’s broader climate goals. He said he also expects it to catalyze action in other countries.

“What we’ve heard from other nations for quite some time, is that it’s nice that America has a president who’s saying the right thing about climate change, but do they really have the political will to execute on it?” he said. “When this bill is passed, and goes to President Biden’s desk, we will have answered that question definitively for the rest of the world and other nations will have no excuse but to get in line and follow our lead.”

Big promises

In an effort to push the bill across the finish line, Democrats in Congress have been touting its expected impact on the Biden administration’s pledge to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. While the $369 billion of climate-directed spending falls short of the $555 billion that the administration was seeking last year, many experts say that the IRA will have a major impact.

As negotiations were ongoing last week, Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from the state of Delaware who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works issued a statement that said, “In what would amount to the most ambitious climate bill ever enacted, this legislation would put our nation on track to nearly 40% emissions reduction by the end of the decade, unleash the potential of the American clean energy industry, and create good-paying jobs across the country.”

Experts and activists who have reviewed the legislation have broadly agreed that the bill lives up to the hype.

In a statement calling the legislation “transformative,” Sierra Club President Ramón Cruz said the bill “will be the single largest investment in our communities — including those that have long been disproportionately impacted by climate-fueled disasters — and a healthy and secure future for all of us.”

Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology, a non-partisan energy and climate policy think tank analyzed the legislation and issued a report that read, in part, “We find that the IRA is the most significant federal climate and clean energy legislation in U.S. history, and its provisions could cut greenhouse gas emissions 37-41% below 2005 levels.”

Criticism from the right

Not all analyses of the bill’s climate provisions were positive. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argued that the effort to move the country toward greater use of renewable energy is an infringement on Americans’ freedom.

“Energy impacts every aspect of our lives and every sector of the economy. By dictating how we produce and consume energy, this bill would dictate how we live our lives and limit the freedoms we enjoy,” the report argued. “It’s a pretext for control. And there is little to no regard for the high prices incurred by Americans and the costs that will arise for trying to achieve the left’s radical climate agenda. And what’s even worse, this is all pain for no gain.”

Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who represents West Virginia, a state that relies heavily on fossil fuel for both jobs and energy, also criticized the bill.

“It will hurt our industries in West Virginia, our hard working men and women in the oil and gas business or in the coal business,” she said. “That will also, I think, hamper our energy security in this country.”

Former EPA officials in support

A bipartisan group of former Environmental Protection Administration leaders released a statement Friday in support of the bill’s climate components.

“The legislation meets the moment of urgency that the climate crisis demands, and will position the U.S. to meet President Biden’s climate goals of reducing emissions 50-52% by 2030, while making unprecedented investments in clean energy solutions that will save families hundreds of dollars a year and create new, good paying union jobs across the country,” the former administrators said.

The group included Carol Browner, who ran the EPA under President Barack Obama, and Christine Todd Whitman, who ran the agency under President George W. Bush.

Complicated process

The bill is the product of months of negotiations among Senate Democrats, who had to make a number of concessions to appease centrist members of their party. Keeping all Democrats on board was essential because the Senate is currently divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast deciding votes in the instance of a tie. Republicans appear united in opposition to the bill.

Democrats are moving to pass the bill through a process called “budget reconciliation” that makes legislation immune to the filibuster, a rule that allows a minority of senators to block a piece of legislation unless it receives 60 votes in the 100-member body. Under budget reconciliation, the Democrats’ 50 votes, plus Harris’s tie-breaker, would be sufficient to pass the Inflation Reduction Act even if Republicans unanimously oppose it.

If the Senate passes the bill, which could happen within days, it would then go to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass and to be sent to Biden for his signature.


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US Employers Added 528,000 Jobs; Unemployment Falls to 3.5%

Defying anxiety about a possible recession and raging inflation, America’s employers added a stunning 528,000 jobs last month, restoring all the jobs lost in the coronavirus recession. Unemployment fell to 3.5%, lowest since the pandemic struck in early 2020.

July’s job creation was up from 398,000 in June and the most since February.

The red-hot jobs numbers from the Labor Department on Friday arrive amid a growing consensus that the U.S. economy is losing momentum. The U.S. economy shrank in the first two quarters of 2022 — an informal definition of recession. But most economists believe the strong jobs market has kept the economy from slipping into a downturn.

That surprisingly strong jobs numbers will undoubtedly intensify the debate over whether the U.S. is in a recession or not.

“Recession – what recession?” wrote Brian Coulton, chief economist at Fitch Ratings, wrote after the numbers came out. “The U.S. economy is creating new jobs at an annual rate of 6 million – that’s three times faster than what we normally see historically in a good year. ”

Economists had expected only 250,000 new jobs this month.

The Labor Department also revised May and June hiring, saying an extra 28,000 jobs were created in those months. Job growth was especially strong last month in the healthcare industry and at hotels and restaurants.

Hourly earnings posted a healthy 0.5% gain last month and are up 5.2% over the past year — still not enough to keep up with inflation.

The strong job numbers are likely to encourage the Federal Reserve to continue raising interest rates to cool the economy and combat resurgent inflation.

There are, of course, political implications in the numbers being released Friday: Voters have been worried about rising prices and the risk of recession ahead of November’s midterm elections as President Joe Biden’s Democrats seek to maintain control of Congress. The unexpectedly strong hiring number will be welcomed at the White House.

The economic backdrophas been troubling: Gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic output — fell in both the first and second quarters; consecutive GDP drops is one definition of a recession. And inflation is roaring at a 40-year high.

The resiliency of the current labor market, especially the low jobless rate — is the biggest reason most economists don’t believe a downturn has started yet, though they increasingly fear that one is on the way.

Recession is not an American problem alone.

In the United Kingdom, the Bank of England on Thursday projected that the world’s fifth-largest economy would slide into recession by the end of the year.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has darkened the outlook across Europe. The conflict has made energy supplies scarce and driven prices higher. European countries are bracing for the possibility that Moscow will keep reducing — and perhaps completely cut off — flows of natural gas, used to power factories, generate electricity and keep homes warm in winter.

If Europeans can’t store enough gas for the cold months, rationing may be required by industry.

Economies have been on a wild ride since COVID-19 hit in early 2020.

The pandemic brought economic life to a near standstill as companies shut down and consumers stayed home. In March and April 2020, American employers slashed a staggering 22 million jobs and the economy plunged into a deep, two-month recession.

But massive government aid — and the Feds decision to slash interest rates and pour money into financial markets — fueled a surprisingly quick recovery. Caught off guard by the strength of the rebound, factories, shops, ports and freight yards were overwhelmed with orders and scrambled to bring back the workers they furloughed when COVID hit.

The result has been shortages of workers and supplies, delayed shipments — and rising prices. In the United States, inflation has been rising steadily for more than a year. In June, consumer prices jumped 9.1% from a year earlier — the biggest increase since 1981.

The Fed underestimated inflation’s resurgence, thinking prices were rising because of temporary supply chain bottlenecks. It has since acknowledged that the current spate of inflation is not, as it was once referred to, ” transitory.”

Now the central bank is responding aggressively. It has raised its benchmark short-term interest rate four times this year, and more rate hikes are ahead.

Higher borrowing costs are taking a toll. Rising mortgage rates, for instance, have cooled a red-hot housing market. Sales of previously occupied homes dropped in June for the fifth straight month.

Real estate companies — including lending firm loanDepot and online housing broker Redfin — have begun laying off workers.

The labor market is showing other signs of wobbliness.

The Labor Department reported Tuesday that employers posted 10.7 million job openings in June — a healthy number but the lowest since September.

And the four-week average number of Americans signing up for unemployment benefits — a proxy for layoffs that smooths out week-to-week swings — rose last week to the highest level since November, though the numbers may have been exaggerated by seasonal factors.


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Democrats Say They’ve Reached Agreement on US Economic Package

Senate Democrats have reached an accord on eleventh-hour changes to their top-priority economic legislation, they announced late Thursday, clearing their major hurdle to moving the measure through the chamber in coming days.

Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a centrist who was seen as the pivotal vote, said in a statement that she had agreed to changes in the measure’s tax and energy provisions and was ready to “move forward” on the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said lawmakers had achieved a compromise “that I believe will receive the support” of all Democrats in the chamber. His party needs unanimity to move the measure through the 50-50 Senate, along with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.

Schumer has said he hopes the Senate can begin voting on the energy, environment, health and tax measure on Saturday. Passage by the House, which Democrats control narrowly, could come next week.

Final congressional approval of the election-year measure would be a marquee achievement for President Joe Biden and his party, notching an accomplishment they could tout to voters as November approaches.

Sinema said Democrats had agreed to remove a provision raising taxes on “carried interest,” or profits that go to executives of private equity firms. That’s been a proposal she has long opposed, though it is a favorite of other Democrats, including conservative West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, an architect of the overall bill.

The carried interest provision was estimated to produce $13 billion for the government over the coming decade, a small portion of the measure’s $739 billion in total revenue.

It will be replaced by a new excise tax on stock buybacks, which will bring in more revenue than that, said one Democrat familiar with the agreement who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deal publicly.

The official provided no other details.

The Senate won’t be in session Friday as Democrats continue their talks. That pause will also provide time for the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, to decide if any of the bill’s provisions violate the chamber’s rules and should be removed.


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Biden Pushes Inflation Reduction Act, Amid Divided Opinion

The Biden administration on Thursday pushed Congress to pass its proposed $260 billion Inflation Reduction Act, which the White House says will “lower costs, reduce inflation, and address a range of critical and long-standing economic challenges.”

“My message to Congress is this: Listen to the American people,” Biden said during a virtual roundtable of U.S. business leaders. “This is the strongest bill you can pass to lower inflation, continue to cut the deficit, reduce health care costs, tackle the climate crisis and promote America’s energy security, all while reducing the burdens facing working-class and middle-class families.”

Economists, politicians and ordinary consumers alike agree that rising prices are a problem — U.S. inflation hit 9.1% in June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food price hikes are especially painful for many American families: In the past year those have risen, on average, by about 10%, the highest yearly increase in more than 40 years.

What few can agree on, however, is what needs to be done to bring it back down.

Biden’s supporters say the act will raise government revenues by $313 billion by imposing a 15 percent minimum corporate tax — a move that will affect some of the nation’s wealthiest companies, especially those that paid nothing in federal corporate income taxes on their profits in 2020.

It will also reform prescription drug pricing, which the administration estimates will save the federal government $288 billion a year. The act also invests more than $400 billion in energy security, climate change mitigation and health care.

The country’s largest union umbrella group, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, supports the act, its president said Thursday during the roundtable with Biden.

“I’m bringing the voice of our 57 unions, 12.5 million members, who believe this bill is going to help us reshape the future and deliver real help to working families by reducing rising energy and health care costs,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. “This is going to deliver fundamental economic change across America.”

But some economists are not so sure.

A study from the Penn Wharton Budget Model predicts the act would have little impact on inflation, forecasting prices would slightly increase for another two years and then fall.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget reached the opposite conclusion, saying that the act would “very modestly reduce inflationary pressures in the near term while lowering the risk of persistent inflation over time.”

Moody’s Analytics reached a similar conclusion, while the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would trim U.S. budget deficits by $102 billion over 10 years.

Economist Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University and founder and co-director of the university’s Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise, said Thursday that the act is “ill-conceived” and involves the one thing that people seem to dislike more than rising prices: taxes.

“The idea it’s going to do anything with inflation is ridiculous,” he said Thursday during a seminar with the Jewish Policy Center. “It will change the relative prices of different things — exactly how, I don’t know, because I haven’t gone through the 10,000-page thing. And it looks to me like it’s a tax increase bill.”

A Senate vote on the legislation in the next few days appeared more likely late Thursday. Democrats said they had reached an agreement on some changes to the bill, clearing a path for its consideration by the chamber.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat who was seen as the pivotal vote, said in a statement that she had agreed to changes in the measure’s tax and energy provisions. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he believed the compromise “will receive the support” of all Democrats in the chamber. The party needs unanimity to succeed in the 50-50 Senate, along with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote.

Schumer has said he hopes the Senate can begin voting on the bill Saturday. Passage by the House, which Democrats control, could come next week.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.


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As Food Prices Skyrocket, US Food Lines Get Longer

From Phoenix, Arizona, in the southwest United States, to Jackson, Mississippi, in the southeast U.S., people are waiting in long lines in their vehicles to receive food assistance from food banks and mobile pantries.

Soaring inflation in the U.S. is raising the price of everything from food to gas to rent. And that’s been making it hard for many people to buy the food they need.

“We’re seeing a lot more families who are struggling to make ends meet because the dollar isn’t going as far as it used to at the grocery store,” said Kellie O’Connell, CEO at Nourishing Hope, a food pantry in Chicago. “So now folks are needing to make difficult choices like paying for medicine or buying food.”

In Phoenix, “a lot of people on fixed incomes, especially in our senior community, go to the grocery store and see the skyrocketing prices, especially on necessities like milk, eggs and meat,” said Jerry Brown, director of media relations for St. Mary’s Food Bank. “And they may not be able to afford these items.”

In Virginia, Maria Aguilar, who immigrated from El Salvador, works two jobs to stay afloat and take care of her three children.

“Going to the grocery store is a challenge because food is so expensive,” she told VOA. “Knowing I can get additional food makes a big difference,” she said, as she brought bread, fruit and other provisions to her car at Food for Others, a food bank in Fairfax, Viriginia, near Washington.

More food needed

The demand for food is continuing to grow.

“Last week, the number jumped to about 68% at our main locations in Phoenix — that’s 800 to 1,200 families a month,” Brown said.

“We are seeing much longer lines at food pantries and soup kitchens in Mississippi,” said Kelly Durrett, director of external affairs for the Mississippi Food Network.

The network’s 430 partners provide food to those in need in the state, the poorest in the U.S. Starting in June, Durrett said, the number of people coming to the network’s partners had increased between 10% and 20%.

“Our clientele is the working poor who have minimum wage jobs that keep them at the poverty level,” Durrett told VOA.

“Some people are arriving early at mobile food pantries, waiting for them to open,” she said. “With so much demand, some pantries quickly run out of food.”

The largest food bank in the U.S., in the city of Houston, Texas, feeds some 1 million people every year through schools, churches and other partners.

Brian Greene, president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, told VOA, “We’re not having to turn anyone away, but we can’t be as generous with food now as we would like. A family is probably not going to get as much food as they would have a year ago.”

Some are concerned that the food situation could become as serious as it was during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re inching closer every month,” said Meredith Knopp, president and CEO of the St. Louis Area Foodbank. “It is troubling to see so many people in line and needing assistance, many for the first time. We also have people who are coming and saying, ‘I’m only able to feed my kids, and I haven’t eaten in two days.'”

Lack of donations

Annie Turner, executive director of Food for Others, said that while the need for food has gone up, food donations have gone down.

“The number of families who came to our warehouse to get food nearly doubled from June 2021 to June 2022,” she said. At the same time, “we’ve seen a 42% decrease in food donations since the high cost of food is also affecting our donors.”

“We used to purchase about 9% of the food we distributed,” she added, “but now that’s grown to 32% during this past year.”

The story is similar at other food banks across the U.S.

“Our donations from grocery stores have decreased by about 33%, and so we have to supplement that by buying food,” said O’Connell in Chicago.

In Phoenix, “we will probably have to purchase about 200% more food in the coming year since we know we’re not going to receive it in donations,” Brown said.

Seeking help

“I’m hopeful that communities will rally to provide food aid like they did during the coronavirus pandemic.” O’Connell said.

“We’re telling local farmers that we’ll arrange for volunteers to pick fruit and vegetables that can be distributed to people in need,” Knopp said.

At Food for Others, William Gonzales said he was grateful for the food he had been given. “My family has been struggling, and this is helping make our lives so much easier.”

The network’s 430 partners provide food to those in need in the state, the poorest in the U.S. Starting in June, Durrett said, the number of people coming to the network’s partners had increased between 10% and 20%.


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Chinese Subsidiary of British Investment Bank Now Includes Communist Party Committee

British bank and financial services giant HSBC, a longtime presence in East Asia, has become the first foreign lender to install a Chinese Communist Party committee in its investment banking subsidiary in China.  

HSBC’s China investment bank, HSBC Qianhai Securities, established a CCP committee after the lender increased its stake in the joint venture from 51% to 90% in April.  

Some experts are concerned that the move might expose HSBC to increased influence from Beijing. But other analysts told VOA Mandarin that the development isn’t a big deal, saying there is little evidence that these party committees exert substantial influence in privately owned companies. 

“The establishment of a party committee at HSBC may be super important, or it may be entirely irrelevant and not worth the attention it’s getting,” Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told VOA Mandarin in an interview.  

“The vast majority, as far as I can tell, really don’t do anything. They haven’t affected the normal procedures for corporate governance,” he said. “But in Xi Jinping’s China, nothing is impossible.”

Founded during a growth phase

Founded as the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Ltd., HSBC was established in Hong Kong in March 1865, and opened its doors in Shanghai one month later. It launched at a time of burgeoning trade among China, India and Europe.  

China’s legal requirement that all companies with more than three party members must establish a party committee dates back to the 1993 PRC Company Law, according to Gabriel Wildau, a managing director at the consulting company Teneo. But before Xi became the CCP’s general secretary in 2012, this requirement was lightly enforced, especially for private and foreign companies.   

“Under Xi Jinping, enforcement has intensified, and the share of private companies with party cells has increased,” Wildau wrote in an email to VOA Mandarin, referring to China’s president since 2013. Xi has expanded the party’s influence over the economy in many ways, apparently based on his sense that both state-owned and private companies were often operating business models that undermined the party’s political, economic and social objectives, Wildau said. 

Seven international banks control investment banking operations in mainland China, including HSBC, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, UBS and Deutsche Bank, according to the Financial Times. So far, only HSBC has set up a CCP committee, according to the report.  

Dennis Kwok, a partner at Elliott, Kwok, Levine & Jaroslaw, a New York City law firm, thinks establishing a party committee risks exposing HSBC to increased party reach. 

“What China is doing is that it is opening its financial market to foreign firms, and you see a lot of investment banks and other financial institutions have shown great interest in going into the China market. But at the same time, China is also using these party cells to increase their control and influence of these financial institutions,” Kwok said in an interview with VOA Mandarin. 

After a lengthy period of political and economic isolation under Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping began opening China to foreign companies with the launch of his reform and opening policy in 1978. 

Following the establishment of this HSBC committee, foreign companies should reevaluate the risks associated with doing business in China, Kwok said. 

“This is the time to reassess your risk exposure. This is the time to do a stress test on your operations on the ground to see if you are managing the legal and political risk in the right way,” said Kwok. “And if things don’t go your way, can your international operation handle any political or legal crises that emerge from China?” 

The development also drew the attention of some high-level U.S. politicians.  

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, long known for his anti-Beijing stance, criticized the move. “Communist party committees are not just for show. They exist to influence, monitor, and ultimately control the company,” he said on July 21. “Investors need to be aware.”  

But multiple China analysts with whom VOA Mandarin spoke were less concerned.  

One reason is because these committees are relatively common in China, and they don’t appear to do much in practice, according to Teneo’s Wildau, a former Shanghai bureau chief for the Financial Times.  

“My sense from Chinese corporate executives and investors is that party organizations rarely intervene in substantive decision making and are often quite irrelevant in practice. Often they do little more than organize occasional ideological study sessions,” Wildau wrote.  

Still, he recognizes that foreign business leaders and investors are concerned that party cells may grow more assertive and influential. “But I don’t think we’re at that point yet,” Wildau said. 

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s request for comment. 

In a statement, HSBC told the Financial Times that “[e]mployees of private firms in China are able to form a Party branch. These branches are common and can be set up by as few as three employees. It is important to note that management has no role in establishing such groups, they do not influence the direction of the business, and have no formal role in the day-to-day activities of the business.”   

What distinguishes this particular party committee from others is the fact that HSBC is such a significant stakeholder in HSBC Qianhai Securities, according to Wildau.  

Up until now, party committees have usually been in companies that are more equally Sino-foreign joint ventures, Wildau said. The fact that HSBC now owns a 90% stake in HSBC Qianhai Securities and still established a party committee makes it look “like a milestone,” he said. 

Hoping for ‘business as usual’

“Still, HSBC and foreign banks probably hope that establishing the committee will be a box-ticking exercise that doesn’t disrupt business as usual,” Wildau wrote. “That a party committee has been established tells us very little about what influence it will have, if any.” 

Victor Shih, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, agrees that some responses to the development have been “a bit of an over-reaction,” but says it’s still something people should be aware of. 

“Most of the time it is for show, but in an emergency situation, when the party would like to mobilize all resources, these committees potentially serve as the links between the party and resources in society,” Shih wrote in an email to VOA Mandarin. 

Political developments in Hong Kong, like the controversial 2020 National Security Law, also inform this move, Shih said, since HSBC makes almost all of its profit in that city.  

“The bank has had to walk a tight line in the run-up to the Hong Kong national security law and in the aftermath of its passage,” Shih wrote. “HSBC’s eagerness to announce the formation of a party committee might be related to its desire to score points with the Chinese government.” 


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America’s Biggest Warehouse Running Out of Room; It’s About to Get Worse 

America’s largest warehouse market is full as major U.S. retailers warn of slowing sales of the clothing, electronics, furniture and other goods that have packed the distribution centers east of Los Angeles.

The merchandise keeps flooding in from across the Pacific, and for one of the busiest U.S. warehouse complexes, things are about to get worse.

Experts have warned the U.S. supply chain would get hit by the “bullwhip effect” if companies panic-ordered goods to keep shelves full and got caught out by a downturn in demand while shipments were still arriving from Asia.

In the largest U.S. warehouse and distribution market — stretching east from Los Angeles to the area known as the “Inland Empire” — that moment appears to have arrived.

“We’re feeling the sting of the bullwhip,” said Alan Amling, a supply-chain professor at the University of Tennessee.

The sprawl of Inland Empire warehouses centered in Riverside and San Bernardino counties grew quickly in recent years to handle surging demand and goods imported from Asia.

That booming area, visible from space, anchors an industrial corridor encompassing 1.6 billion square feet of storage space that extends from the busiest U.S. seaport in Los Angeles to near the Arizona and Nevada borders. That much storage space is nearly 44 times larger than New York City’s Central Park and 160 times bigger than Tesla Inc’s TSLA.O new Gigafactory in Texas.

But a consumer spending pullback now threatens to swamp warehouses here and around the country with more goods than they can handle — worsening supply —  chain snarls that have stoked inflation. Retailers left holding unwanted goods are faced with the choice of paying more money to store them or denting profits by selling them at discount.

Inland Empire warehouse vacancies are among the lowest in the nation, running at a record 0.6% versus the national average of 3.1%, according to real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield. 

The market is poised to get even tighter as shoppers at Walmart WMT.N, Best Buy BBY.N and other retailers retreat from early COVID-era spending binges.

Binge to backlog

While U.S. consumer spending remains above pre-pandemic levels, retailers and suppliers are raising alarms about backlogs in categories that have fallen out of fashion as consumers catch up on travel and struggle with the highest inflation in 40 years.

Last week, Walmart said surging food and fuel prices left its lower-income customers with less cash to spend on goods, and Best Buy said shoppers were curbing spending on discretionary products like computers and televisions. Those cautionary signals followed Target Corp’s TGT.N alert that it was saddled with too many TVs, kitchen appliances, furniture and clothes.

Suppliers —  ranging from barbecue grill maker Weber Inc WEBR.N to Helen of Troy Ltd HELE.O, a consumer brands conglomerate that includes OXO kitchen tools — also have warned of slowing demand and an urgent need to clear inventories.

While the U.S. economy was downshifting, goods kept pouring in at near-record levels.

Imports to U.S. container ports that process retail goods from China and other countries jumped more than 26% in the first half of 2022 from pre-pandemic levels, according to Descartes Datamyne. Christmas shipments and the reopening of major Chinese factory hubs could goose volumes further.

Meanwhile, cargo keeps flooding in to the busiest U.S. seaport complex at Los Angeles/Long Beach. During the first half of this year, dockworkers there handled about 550,000 more 40-foot containers than before the pandemic started, according to port data.

Christmas toys and winter holiday decor landed on those docks in July, along with some patio furniture for Walmart and stretch pants, jeans and shoes for Target, said Steve Ferreira, CEO of Ocean Audit, which scrutinizes marine shipping invoices.

Retailers ordered most of those goods months ago and many are destined for the Inland Empire’s already jam-packed warehouses.

“It’s a domino effect. Now the inventory is going to really build up,” said Scott Weiss, a vice president at Performance Team, a Maersk MAERSKb.CO company with 22 warehouses in greater Los Angeles.

Demand for space in the Inland Empire is so intense that when 100,000 to 200,000 square feet of space frees up, it “gets gobbled up in a second,” said Weiss.

Sears and parking lots

Investors have almost 40 million square feet under construction in the Inland Empire — including Amazon.com Inc’s AMZN.O biggest-ever warehouse — and at least 38% is spoken for, said Dain Fedora, vice president of research for Southern California at Newmark, a commercial real estate advisory firm.

While Amazon’s 4.1 million square-foot facility rises on former dairy land in the city of Ontario, the online retailer has been shelving construction plans in other parts of the country.

Amazon is the biggest warehouse tenant in the Inland Empire and the nation. Its decision to scale back on building, coupled with rising interest rates and the slowing economy, is sidelining other would-be Inland Empire warehouse builders, area real estate brokers and economists told Reuters.

Meanwhile, the scramble for space continues.

Trucking company yards and spare lots around the region have already been converted to makeshift container storage, so entrepreneurs are marketing vacant stores as last-resort warehouses in waiting.

Brad Wright is CEO of Chunker, which bills itself as an AirBNB for warehouses, and works with everyone from state officials to the owners of vacated big-box stores to find new places to stash goods.

During a recent tour at the former Sears anchor store in San Bernardino’s Inland Center mall, Wright and a potential tenant strolled past collapsed ceiling tiles, sagging wall panels and idled escalators while working out how forklifts would navigate the abandoned space. Wright sees the empty stores as one answer to easing the log jams.

“There’s a lot of them sitting around, and they’re in good locations,” he said.


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West African Bakers Aim to Reduce Dependence on Imported Grains 

Commercial bakers from eight West Africa countries are doing what they can to reduce their dependence on foreign wheat and strengthen their nations’ food security by forming a trade association. For VOA Allison Fernandes reports from Dakar, Senegal. Carol Guensburg narrates her report.


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