UAE, Ukraine to Start Talks on Bilateral Trade Deal

The United Arab Emirates and Ukraine on Monday announced their intention to start negotiations on a bilateral trade deal, expected to conclude by the middle of next year, the UAE economy ministry said.

The UAE state has tried to remain neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war despite Western pressure on Gulf oil producers to help isolate Moscow, a fellow OPEC+ member.

The UAE’s minister of state for foreign trade, Thani Al Zeyoudi, and Ukraine’s economy minister, Yulia Svyrydenko, signed a joint statement on negotiations towards a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), the ministry said.

It would be the UAE’s first such deal with a European country, following more than $3 billion in trade and investment pledges made during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to the Gulf state in February 2021.

“For us, Ukraine is a key trade partner. The growth and investment potential was high before the whole geopolitical situation; we think it’s time to push things forward,” Thani Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of state for foreign trade, told Reuters.

UAE-Ukraine non-oil trade amounted to just over $900 million in 2021, up nearly 29% over the previous year, and 12% more than in 2019, according to the UAE ministry.

Talks will likely center on opportunities to expand trade in the services sector, and on food security where the UAE, a trade hub, is making a push. Ukraine is a major supplier of grain to the Middle East.

The ministry statement said a CEPA with Ukraine would open up access to new markets in Asia, Africa and the Middle East for Ukraine’s agricultural and industrial output.

“This is not only going to bring added value to the UAE but also to Ukraine as well,” Al Zeyoudi told Reuters.

The UAE has signed free trade deals with India, Israel and Indonesia this year, aiming to build its position as a global trade and logistics hub at a time of rising competition from Saudi Arabia.


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Growth in Arms Trade Stunted by Supply Issues: Report

Sales of arms and military services grew in 2021, researchers said Monday, but were limited by worldwide supply issues related to the pandemic, with the war in Ukraine increasing demand while worsening supply difficulties.   

The top 100 arms companies sold weapons and related services totaling $592 billion in 2021, 1.9% more than the year before, said the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). 

However, the growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues.   

“The lasting impact of the pandemic is really starting to show in arms companies,” Nan Tian, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told AFP.   

Disruptions from both labor shortages and difficulties in sourcing raw materials were “slowing down the companies’ ability to produce weapons systems and deliver them on time,” Tian said. “So what we see really is a potentially slower increase to what many would have expected in arms sales in 2021.”   

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also expected to worsen supply chain issues, in part “because Russia is a major supplier of raw materials used in arms production”, said the report’s authors.   

But the war has at the same time increased demand.   

“Definitely demand will increase in the coming years,” Tian said.   

By how much was at the same time harder to gauge, Tian said pointing to two factors that would impact demand. 

Firstly, countries that have sent weapons to Ukraine to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars will be looking to replenish stockpiles.   

Secondly, the worsening security environment means “countries are looking to procure more weapons.”   

With the supply crunch expected to worsen, it could hamper these efforts, the authors noted. 

Companies in the U.S. continue to dominate global arms production, accounting for over half, $299 billion, of global sales and 40 of the top companies.   

At the same time, the region was the only one to see a drop in sales: 0.9 percent down on the 2020 figures.   

Among the top five companies — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics — only Raytheon recorded an increase in sales.   

Meanwhile, sales from the eight largest Chinese arms companies rose 6.3% to $109 billion in 2021.   

European companies took 27 of the spots on the top 100, with combined sales of $123 billion, up 4.2% compared to 2020.   

The report also noted a trend of private equity firms buying up arms companies, something the authors said had become increasingly apparent over the last three or four years.   

This trend threatens to make the arms industry more opaque and therefore harder to track, Tian said, “because private equity firms will buy these companies and then essentially not produce any more financial records.” 


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EU Chief Says Bloc Must Act Over US Climate Plan ‘Distortions’

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday the bloc must act to address “distortions” created by Washington’s $430-billion plan to spur climate-friendly technologies in the United States.

The European Union must “take action to rebalance the playing field where the IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] or other measures create distortions,” von der Leyen said in a speech at the College of Europe in the Belgian city of Bruges.

EU countries have poured criticism on Washington’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act, seeing it as anti-competitive and a threat to European jobs, especially in the energy and auto sectors.

The act, designed to accelerate the U.S. transition to a low-carbon economy, contains around $370 billion in subsidies for green energy as well as tax cuts for U.S.-made electric cars and batteries.

Von der Leyen said the EU had to work with the U.S. “to address some of the most concerning aspects of the law.”

She said that Brussels must also “adjust” its own rules to facilitate public investment in the environmental transition and “reassess the need for further European funding of the transition.”

French President Emmanuel Macron seized an opportunity on a state visit to Washington for talks with U.S. President Joe Biden last week to air deep grievances over U.S.-EU trade.

The White House touts the IRA as a groundbreaking effort to reignite US manufacturing and promote renewable technologies.


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Sources: OPEC+ Agrees No Change to Oil Policy

OPEC+ agreed to stick to its oil output targets at a meeting on Sunday, two OPEC+ sources told Reuters.

The decision comes two days after the Group of Seven (G-7) nations agreed a price cap on Russian oil.

OPEC+, which comprises the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and allies including Russia, angered the United States and other Western nations in October when it agreed to cut output by 2 million barrels per day, about 2% of world demand, from November until the end of 2023.

Washington accused the group and one of its leaders, Saudi Arabia, of siding with Russia despite Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

OPEC+ argued it had cut output because of a weaker economic outlook. Oil prices have declined since October due to slower Chinese and global growth and higher interest rates.

On Friday, G-7 nations and Australia agreed a $60 per barrel price cap on Russian seaborne crude oil in a move to deprive President Vladimir Putin of revenue while keeping Russian oil flowing to global markets.

Moscow said it would not sell its oil under the cap and was analyzing how to respond.


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Biden Signs Bill to Block US Railroad Strike

President Joe Biden signed legislation Friday to block a national U.S. railroad strike that could have devastated the American economy.

The U.S. Senate voted 80 to 15 on Thursday to impose a tentative contract deal reached in September on a dozen unions representing 115,000 workers, who could have gone on strike on December 9. But the Senate failed to approve a measure that would have provided paid sick days to railroad workers.

Eight of 12 unions had ratified the deal. But some labor leaders have criticized Biden, a self-described friend of labor, for asking Congress to impose a contract that workers in four unions have rejected over its lack of paid sick leave.

Railroads have slashed labor and other costs to bolster profits in recent years, and they have been fiercely opposed to adding paid sick time that would require them to hire more staff.

A rail strike could have frozen almost 30% of U.S. cargo shipments by weight, stoked already surging inflation, cost the American economy as much as $2 billion a day, and stranded millions of rail passengers.

There are no paid short-term sick days under the tentative deal after unions asked for 15 and railroads settled on one personal day.

Teamsters President Sean O’Brien harshly criticized the Senate vote on sick leave. “Rail carriers make record profits. Rail workers get zero paid sick days. Is this OK? Paid sick leave is a basic human right. This system is failing,” O’Brien wrote on Twitter.

Congress invoked its sweeping powers to block strikes involving transportation – authority it does not have in other labor disputes.

The contract that will take effect with Biden’s signature includes a 24% compounded pay increase over five years and five annual $1,000 lump-sum payments.

American Association of Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies said that “none of the parties achieved everything they advocated for” but added, “without a doubt, there is more to be done to further address our employees’ work-life balance concerns.”

Without the legislation, rail workers could have gone out next week, but the impacts would be felt as soon as this weekend as railroads stopped accepting hazardous materials shipments and commuter railroads began canceling passenger service.

The contracts cover workers at carriers including Union Pacific, Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s BNSF, CSX , Norfolk Southern Corp and Kansas City Southern.


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US Job Growth Beats Expectations; Unemployment Rate Steady At 3.7%

U.S. employers hired more workers than expected in November and raised wages despite mounting worries of a recession, which could complicate the Federal Reserve’s intention to start slowing the pace of its interest rate hikes this month.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 263,000 jobs last month, the Labor Department said in its closely watched employment report on Friday. Data for October was revised higher to show payrolls rising 284,000 instead of 261,000 as previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast payrolls increasing 200,000. Estimates ranged from 133,000 to 270,000.

Hiring remains strong despite technology companies, including Twitter, Amazon AMZN.O and Meta META.O, the parent of Facebook, announcing thousands of jobs cuts.

Economists said these companies were right-sizing after over-hiring during the COVID-19 pandemic. They noted that small firms remained desperate for workers.

There were 10.3 million job openings at the end of October, many of them in the leisure and hospitality as well as healthcare and social assistance industries.

The unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.7%.

Average hourly earnings increased 0.6% after advancing 0.5% in October. That raised the annual increase in wages to 5.1% from 4.9% in October. Wages peaked at 5.6% in March.

The report followed on the heels of news on Thursday of a slowdown in inflation in October. But the labor market remains tight, with 1.7 job openings for every unemployed person in October, keeping the Fed on its monetary tightening path at least through the first half of 2023.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said on Wednesday the U.S. central bank could scale back the pace of its rate increases “as soon as December.” Fed officials meet on Dec. 13 and 14. The Fed has raised its policy rate by 375 basis points this year from near zero to a 3.75%-4.00% range in the fastest rate-hiking cycle since the 1980s as it battles high inflation.

Labor market strength is also one of the reasons economists believe an anticipated recession next year would be short and shallow, with data on Thursday showing a surge in consumer spending in October. Business spending is also holding up, though sentiment has weakened.


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US Central Bank Hints at Less Severe Interest Rate Hikes

The U.S. central bank could scale back the pace of its interest rate hikes “as soon as December,” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said on Wednesday, while warning that the fight against inflation was far from over and key questions remain unanswered, including how high rates will ultimately need to rise and for how long.

“It makes sense to moderate the pace of our rate increases as we approach the level of restraint that will be sufficient to bring inflation down. The time for moderating the pace of rate increases may come as soon as the December meeting,” Powell said in a speech to the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

But, in remarks emphasizing the work left to be done in controlling inflation, Powell said that issue was “far less significant than the questions of how much further we will need to raise rates to control inflation, and the length of time it will be necessary to hold policy at a restrictive level.”

While the Fed chief did not indicate his estimated “terminal rate,” Powell said it is likely to be “somewhat higher” than the 4.6% indicated by policymakers in their September projections. He said curing inflation “will require holding policy at a restrictive level for some time,” a comment that appeared to lean against market expectations the U.S. central bank could begin cutting rates next year as the economy slows.

“We will stay the course until the job is done,” Powell said, noting that even though some data points to inflation slowing next year, “we have a long way to go in restoring price stability … Despite the tighter policy and slower growth over the past year, we have not seen clear progress on slowing inflation.”

The Fed’s response to the fastest outbreak of U.S. inflation in 40 years has been a similarly abrupt increase in interest rates. With a half-percentage-point increase expected at its Dec. 13-14 meeting, the central bank will have lifted its overnight policy rate from near zero as of March to the 4.25%-4.50% range, the swiftest change in rates since former Fed Chair Paul Volcker was battling an even worse rise in prices decades ago.

That has made home mortgages and other forms of credit more expensive for consumers and businesses.

It has not, however, caused any appreciable impact on the U.S. job market, where the current 3.7% unemployment rate has led some policymakers to argue they are free to tighten rates further without much risk.

But it has also had no convincing impact yet on inflation, a fact that has left open just how much further the Fed may need to raise rates into what it refers to as “restrictive” territory designed to slow the economy.

Powell said Fed estimates of inflation in October showed its preferred measure still rising at about triple the central bank’s 2% target.

‘Long way to go’

Powell’s remarks ignited a robust rally in equity and bond markets, which have taken a pounding this year on the back of the Fed’s aggressive rate hikes.

The benchmark S&P 500 index .SPX shot into positive territory and was last up by about 1.5% on the day, and bond yields, which move in the opposite direction to their prices, all tumbled. The yield on the 2-year Treasury note US2YT=RR, the maturity most sensitive to Fed rate expectations, dropped to about 4.47% from 4.52%. The dollar .DXY weakened against a basket of major trading partners’ currencies.

In rate futures markets, traders added to the prevailing bets that the Fed would slow its pace of rate hikes at its meeting in two weeks.

“You can’t keep raising rates as quickly as they were doing it,” said Rick Meckler at Cherry Lane Investments in New Vernon, New Jersey. “That said, investors always like the comfort of hearing it directly from the (Fed) chair.” 

Powell noted that the cost of housing is likely to continue to rise into next year, while key price measures for services remain high and the labor market is tight.

“Despite some promising developments, we have a long way to go in restoring price stability,” he said.


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Cyber Monday Deals Lure In US Consumers amid High Inflation 

Days after flocking to stores on Black Friday, consumers are turning online for Cyber Monday to score more discounts on gifts and other items that have ballooned in price because of high inflation.

Cyber Monday is expected to remain the year’s biggest online shopping day and rake in up to $11.6 billion in sales, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracks transactions at over 85 of the top 100 U.S. online stores. That forecast represents a jump from the $10.7 billion consumers spent last year.

Adobe’s numbers are not adjusted for inflation, but the company says demand is growing even when inflation is factored in. Some analysts have said top line numbers will be boosted by higher prices and the amount of items consumers purchase could remain unchanged — or even fall — compared to prior years. Profit margins are also expected to be tight for retailers offering deeper discounts to attract budget-conscious consumers and clear out their bloated inventories. 

Shoppers spent a record $9.12 billion online on Black Friday, up 2.3% from last year, according to Adobe. E-commerce activity continued to be strong over the weekend, with $9.55 billion in online sales.

Salesforce, which also tracks spending, said their estimates showed online sales in the U.S. hit $15 billion on Friday and $17.2 billion over the weekend, with an average discount rate of 30% on products. Electronics, active wear, toys and health and beauty items were among those that provided a big boost, the two groups said.

Meanwhile, consumers who feared leaving their homes and embraced e-commerce during the pandemic are heading back to physical stores in greater numbers this year as normalcy returns. The National Retail Federation said its recent survey showed a 3% uptick in the number of Black Friday shoppers planning to go to stores. It expects 63.9 million consumers to shop online during Cyber Monday, compared to 77 million last year.

Consumers are spending cautiously

Mastercard SpendingPulse, which tracks spending across all types of payments including cash and credit card, said that overall sales on Black Friday rose 12% from the year-ago. Sales at physical stores rose 12%, while online sales were up 14%.

RetailNext, which captures sales and traffic via sensors, reported that store traffic rose 7% on Black Friday, while sales at physical stores improved 0.1% from a year ago. However, spending per customer dropped nearly 7% as cautious shoppers did more browsing than buying. Another company that tracks store traffic — Sensormatic Solutions — said store traffic was up 2.9% on Black Friday compared to a year ago.

“Shoppers are being more thoughtful, but they are going to more than a few retailers to be able to make a determination of what they are going to buy this year,” said Brian Field, Sensormatic’s global leader of retail consulting and analytics.

Overall, online spending has remained resilient in the past few weeks as eager shoppers buy more items on credit and embrace “buy now, pay later” services that lack interest charges but carry late fees.

In the first three weeks of November, online sales were essentially flat compared with last year, according to Adobe. It said the modest uptick shows consumers have a strong appetite for holiday shopping amid uncertainty about the economy.

Still, some major retailers are feeling a shift. Target, Macy’s and Kohl’s said this month they’ve seen a slowdown in consumer spending in the past few weeks. The exception was Walmart, which reported higher sales in its third quarter and raised its earnings outlook.

“We’re seeing that inflation is starting to really hit the wallet and that consumers are starting to amass more debt at this point,” said Guru Hariharan, founder and CEO of retail e-commerce management firm CommerceIQ, adding there’s more pressure on consumers to purchase cheaper alternatives.

Shifting demand

This year’s Cyber Monday also comes amid a wider e-commerce slowdown affecting online retailers that saw a boom in sales during most of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amazon, for example, raked in record revenue but much of the demand has waned as the worst of the pandemic eased and consumers felt more comfortable shopping in stores.

To deal with the change, the company has been scaling back its warehouse expansion plans and is cutting costs by axing some of its projects. It’s also following in the steps of other tech companies and implementing mass layoffs in its corporate ranks. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said the company will continue to cut jobs until early next year.

Shopify, a company which helps businesses set up e-commerce websites and also offers offline software, laid off 10% of its staff this summer.

The company said Monday that its merchants have surpassed $5.1 billion in global sales since the start of Black Friday in New Zealand. And spending per U.S. customer went up $5 compared to last year, said Shopify President Harley Finkelstein.

Despite the bump, Finkelstein said shoppers were more intentional about their spending this year and waiting for discounts before making a purchase.


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US Black Friday Online Sales Hit $9 Billion Despite Inflation

U.S. shoppers spent a record $9.12 billion online on Black Friday, a report showed Saturday, as consumers weathered the squeeze from high inflation and grabbed steep discounts on everything from smartphones to toys.

Online spending rose 2.3% on Black Friday, Adobe Inc’s data and insights arm Adobe Analytics said, thanks to consumers holding out for discounts until the traditionally big shopping days, despite deals starting as early as October.

Adobe Analytics, which measures e-commerce by analyzing transactions at websites, has access to data covering purchases at 85% of the top 100 internet retailers in the United States.

It had forecast Black Friday sales to rise a modest 1%.

Adobe expects Cyber Monday to be the season’s biggest online shopping day again, driving $11.2 billion in spending.

Consumers were expected to flock to stores after the pandemic put a dampener on in-store shopping over the past two years, but Black Friday morning saw stores draw less traffic than usual with sporadic rain in some parts of the country.

Americans turned to smartphones to make their holiday purchases, with data from Adobe showing mobile shopping represented 48% of all Black Friday digital sales.


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World Economic Outlook for 2023 Increasingly Gloomy

The outlook for the global economy headed into 2023 has soured, according to a number of recent analyses, as the ongoing war in Ukraine continues to strain trade, particularly in Europe, and as markets await a fuller reopening of the Chinese economy following months of disruptive COVID-19 lockdowns.

In the United States, signs of a tightening job market and a slowdown in business activity fueled fears of a recession. Globally, inflation grew and business activity, especially in the eurozone and the United Kingdom, continued to shrink.

In an analysis released Thursday, the Institute of International Finance predicted a global economic growth rate of just 1.2% in 2023, a level on par with 2009, when the world was only beginning its emergence from the financial crisis.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) agrees with the pessimistic forecast. In a report issued this week, the organization’s interim Chief Economist Alvaro Santos Pereira wrote, “We are currently facing a very difficult economic outlook. Our central scenario is not a global recession, but a significant growth slowdown for the world economy in 2023, as well as still high, albeit declining, inflation in many countries.”

U.S. interest rates

In the U.S., inflation and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to combat it have been the dominant factors in most analyses of the current and future states of the economy.

The U.S has been experiencing its highest levels of inflation in 40 years, with prices beginning to jump significantly in mid-2021. By the beginning of 2022, annualized rates were over 6%, and while fluctuating a bit, touched a high of 6.6% in October.

Beginning in March, the central bank’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which sets base interest rates, has engaged in a dramatic series of increases, raising the benchmark rate from between 0.0% and 0.25% to between 3.75% and 4.0% today.

The idea behind the Fed’s moves is to change consumers’ incentives. By making the interest rates on savings more appealing, and the rates on borrowing less so, the central bank is working to reduce demand and thereby slow the rate of price increases.

In general, the Fed believes that an annual 2% rate of inflation is healthy and considers that its long-term target.

Avoiding a recession

The Fed’s goal is to get inflation under control without plunging the economy into a damaging recession. And while a number of economic signs indicate that efforts to slow demand might be working, the threat of a recession still looms.

Evidence released this week showed that business activity in the U.S. contracted for a fifth consecutive month as companies reacted to decreased consumer demand. Although the economy has continued to add jobs in recent months, applications for unemployment benefits are on the rise, suggesting a potential softening in the labor market.

The Federal Reserve this week released the minutes from the early November meeting of the FOMC. The minutes revealed a pessimistic view among the central bank’s staff economists about the U.S. economy in the coming year.

Among their findings was that they “viewed the possibility that the economy would enter a recession sometime over the next year as almost as likely as the baseline.”

A “substantial majority” of the voting members of the committee indicated that they believe it is time to slow the rate of interest rate increases, suggesting that the FOMC will retreat from its recent 0.75% increases when it meets in December, perhaps raising rates by just 0.5%.

Global struggle

Internationally, governments are facing a difficult challenge: supporting their citizens during a time when prices are rising dramatically, particularly for necessities like food and fuel, which have been deeply affected by the war in Ukraine.

In a report this week, the International Monetary Fund pointed to the difficult balancing act governments must manage, saying, “With many people still struggling, governments should continue to prioritize helping the most vulnerable to cope with soaring food and energy bills and cover other costs — but governments should also avoid adding to aggregate demand that risks dialing up inflation. In many advanced and emerging economies, fiscal restraint can lower inflation while reducing debt.”

According to the Institute of International Finance (IIF), while global growth will be low but net positive in 2023, specific areas will face declines. Chief among them is Europe, where the IIF forecasts a 2.0% decline in cumulative GDP.

Bright spots

To the extent that there are bright spots in the global economy in 2023, they are in areas such as Latin America and China.

Many countries of Latin America, where the export of raw materials, including timber, ore, and other major economic inputs drives many economies, global inflation has proved beneficial insofar as the prices for those goods have risen. The IIF report projects a 1.2% expansion in GDP across the region, even as much of the remainder of the world sees economic contraction.

China has suffered economically as a result of President Xi Jinping’s “zero-COVID” strategy, which has forced massive lockdowns of whole cities and regions, with serious disruption to economic activity. The IFF and other organizations expect significant loosening in China’s policy in the coming year, which will lead to economic growth of as much as 2.0% as the Chinese economy attempts to revive itself.

U.K. to suffer

With the exception of Russia, which is still laboring under crushing sanctions related to its invasion of Ukraine, the United Kingdom faces the gloomiest outlook for the coming year of any of the world’s largest economies.

With inflation running significantly ahead of other countries, annualized price increases are expected to touch 10% by the end of the year, before slowly moderating in 2023.

Among the G-7 countries, the U.K. is the only one in which economic output has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and it is forecast to shrink further. The OECD projects that the British economy will decline in size by 0.3% in 2023 and will grow at only 0.2% in 2024.


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Inflation Clouds ‘Black Friday’ Shopping Bonanza

Retailers braced for their biggest test of the year: Will U.S. consumers open their wallets wide for the Black Friday sales that kick off the holiday shopping season?

Consumer confidence is precarious, rattled by soaring inflation in the world’s biggest economy, casting uncertainty on this festive shopping season that starts the day after Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday.

A year ago, retailers faced product shortfalls in the wake of shipping backlogs and COVID-19-related factory closures. To avert a repeat, the industry front-loaded its holiday imports this year, leaving it vulnerable to oversupply at a time when consumers are cutting back.

“Supply shortages was yesterday’s problem,” said Neil Saunders, managing director for GlobalData Retail, a consultancy. “Today’s problem is having too much stuff.”

Saunders said retailers have made progress in recent months in reducing excess inventories, but that oversupply created banner conditions for bargain-hunters in many categories, including electronics, home improvement and apparel.

Juameelah Henderson always checks for sales, “but more so now,” she said while exiting an Old Navy store in New York with four bags of items.

The clothing chain’s prices were “pretty good,” she said. “If it’s not on sale, I really don’t need it.”

Higher costs for gasoline and household staples like meat and cereal are an economy-wide issue but do not burden everyone equally.

“The lower incomes are definitely hit worst by the higher inflation,” said Claire Li, a senior analyst at Moody’s. “People have to spend on the essential items.”

Leading forecasts from Deloitte and the National Retail Federation project a single-digit percentage increase, but it likely won’t exceed the inflation rate.

The consumer price index has been up about 8% on an annual basis, which means that a similar size increase in holiday sales would equate with lower volumes.

European countries including Britain and France have been marking Black Friday for a few years now, too, and are also enduring sky-high inflation. So merchants there face a similar dilemma.

“Retailers are desperate for some spending cheer, but the worry is that it could turn out to be more of a Bleak Friday,” said Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said in London.

Diminishing savings

U.S. shoppers have remained resilient throughout the myriad stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, often spending more than expected, even when consumer sentiment surveys suggest they are in a gloomy mood.

Part of the reason has been the unusually robust state of savings, with many households banking government pandemic aid payments at a time of reduced consumption due to COVID-19 restrictions.

But that cushion is starting to whittle away. After hitting $2.5 trillion in excess savings in mid-2021, the benchmark fell to $1.7 trillion in the second quarter, according to Moody’s.

Consumers with incomes below $35,000 were affected the most, with their excess savings falling nearly 39% between the fourth quarter of 2021 and mid-2022, according to Moody’s.

Accompanying this drop has been a rise in credit card debt visible in Federal Reserve data and anecdotally described by chains that also report more purchases made with food stamps.

“We’re seeing continued pressure,” said Michael Witynski, chief executive of Dollar Tree, a discount retailer that has seen “shifts” in shoppers, “where they’re very consumable and needs-based focused to try and make that budget work and stretch it over the month.”

Mixed picture

Earnings reports from retailers in recent days have painted a mixed picture on consumer health.

Target stood on the downcast side of the ledger, pointing to a sharp decline in shopping activity in late October, potentially portending a weak holiday season.

The big-box chain expects a “very promotional” holiday season, said Chief Executive Brian Cornell.

“We’ve had a consumer who has been dealing with very stubborn inflation for quarter after quarter now,” Cornell said on a conference call with analysts.

“They’re shopping very carefully on a budget, and I think they’re looking at discretionary categories and saying, ‘All right, if I’m going to buy, I’m looking for a great deal and a great value.'”

But Lowe’s, another big U.S. chain specializing in home-improvement, offered a very different view, describing the same late-October period as “strong” and seeing no evidence of consumer deterioration.

“We are not seeing anything that feels or looks like a trade down or consumer pullback,” said Lowe’s Chief Executive Marvin Ellison.

Consumers like Charmaine Taylor, who checks airline websites frequently, are staying vigilant.

Taylor thus far has been thwarted in her travel aspirations due to high plane ticket prices. Taylor, who works in child care, isn’t sure how much she’ll be able to spend on family this year.

“I’m trying to give them some little gifts,” Taylor said at a park in Harlem earlier this week. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to. Inflation is hitting pretty hard.”


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Wildlife Summit to Vote on Shark Protections 

Delegates at a global summit on trade in endangered species were scheduled to decide Thursday whether to approve a proposal to protect sharks, a move that could drastically reduce the lucrative and often cruel shark fin trade.

The proposal would place dozens of species of the requiem shark and the hammerhead shark families on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The appendix lists species that may not yet be threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade in them is closely controlled.

If Thursday’s plenary meeting gives the green light, “it would be a historic decision,” Panamanian delegate Shirley Binder told AFP.

“For the first time, CITES would be handling a very large number of shark species, which would be approximately 90% of the market,” she said.

Spurring the trade is the insatiable Asian appetite for shark fins, which make their way onto dinner tables in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.

Despite being described as gelatinous and almost tasteless, shark fin soup is viewed as a delicacy and is enjoyed by the very wealthy, often at weddings and expensive banquets.

Shark fins, representing a market of about $500 million per year, can sell for about $1,000 a kilogram.

From villain to conservation darling

Sharks have long been seen as the villain of the seas they have occupied for more than 400 million years, terrifying people with their depiction in films such as “Jaws” and their occasional attacks on humans.

However, these ancient predators have undergone an image makeover in recent years as conservationists have highlighted the crucial role they play in regulating the ocean ecosystem.

According to the Pew Environment Group, between 63 million and 273 million sharks are killed every year, mainly for their fins and other parts.

With many shark species taking more than 10 years to reach sexual maturity, and having a low fertility rate, the constant hunting of the species has decimated their numbers.

In many parts of the world, fisherman lop the sharks’ fins off at sea, tossing the shark back into the ocean for a cruel death by suffocation or blood loss.

The efforts by conservationists led to a turning point in 2013, when CITES imposed the first trade restrictions on some shark species.

“We are in the middle of a very large shark extinction crisis,” Luke Warwick, director of shark protection for the nongovernmental organization Wildlife Conservation Society, told AFP at the beginning of the summit.

Heated debate

Thursday’s vote followed a fierce debate that lasted nearly three hours, with Japan and Peru seeking to reduce the number of shark species that would be protected.

Japan had proposed that the trade restriction be reduced to 19 species of requiem sharks, and Peru called for the blue shark to be removed from the list.

Both suggestions were rejected, however.

“We hope that nothing extraordinary happens and that these entire families of sharks are ratified for inclusion in Annex II,” Chilean delegate Ricardo Saez told AFP.

Several delegations, including host Panama, displayed stuffed toy sharks on their tables during the earlier Committee I debate.

The plenary was also scheduled to vote on ratifying a proposal to protect guitarfish, a species of ray.

The shark initiative was one of the most discussed at this year’s CITES summit in Panama, with the proposal co-sponsored by the European Union and 15 countries.

Participants at the summit considered 52 proposals to change species protection levels.

CITES, which came into force in 1975, has set international trade rules for more than 36,000 wild species. Its signatories include 183 countries and the European Union.


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US Supply Chain Under Threat as Unions, Railroads Clash

Railroad engineers accepted their deal with the railroads that will deliver 24% raises but conductors rejected theirs, threatening the health of the economy just before the holidays and casting more doubt on whether the industry will be able to resolve the labor dispute before next month’s deadline without the help of Congress. 

Even the threat of a work stoppage could tangle the nation’s supply chain as railroads will freeze shipments of chemicals and other goods that could create hazards if disrupted midway to their destination. 

A split vote Monday from the two biggest railroad unions follows the rejection by three other unions of their deals with the railroads that the Biden administration helped broker before the original strike deadline in September. Seven smaller unions have approved the five-year deal that, on top of the 24% raise, includes $5,000 in bonuses. 

But many union members have voted to reject the contracts because, they say, they fail to address demanding schedules and quality of life issues for employees. 

All 12 must approve the contracts to prevent a strike that could cripple supply chains and hamper a stressed U.S. economy still emerging from the pandemic. 

The Retail Industry Leaders Association said a rail strike “would cause enormous disruption to the flow of goods nationwide” although retail stores are well stocked for the crucial holiday shopping season. 

“Fortunately, this year’s holiday gifts have already landed on store shelves. But an interruption to rail transportation does pose a significant challenge to getting items like perishable food products and e-commerce shipments delivered on time, and it will undoubtedly add to the inflationary pressures already hitting the U.S. economy,” said Jess Dankert with the group that represents more than 200 major retailers. 

The unions that rejected their deals agreed to return to the bargaining table to try to hash out a new agreement before a new strike deadline early next month. But those talks have deadlocked because the railroads refuse to consider adding paid sick time to what was already offered. 

It appears increasingly likely that Congress will have to step in to settle the dispute. Lawmakers have the power to impose contract terms if both sides can’t reach an agreement. Hundreds of business groups have urged Congress and President Joe Biden to be ready to intervene if needed. 

Workers frustrated with the demanding schedules and deep job cuts in the industry pushed to reject these contracts because they don’t resolve workers’ key quality-of-life concerns. The deals for the engineers and conductors did include a promise to try to improve the scheduling of regular days off and negotiate the details of those schedules further at each railroad. The unions that represent engineers and conductors also received three unpaid days off a year to tend to medical needs as long they were scheduled at least 30 days in advance. 

The railroads also lost out on their bid to cut crew sizes down to one person as part of the negotiations. But the conductors in the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union still narrowly rejected the deal with roughly 51% voting against it. A smaller division of the SMART-TD union that represents about 1,300 yardmasters did approve the deal. 

“The ball is now in the railroads’ court. Let’s see what they do. They can settle this at the bargaining table,” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said. “But, the railroad executives who constantly complain about government interference and regularly bad-mouth regulators and Congress now want Congress to do the bargaining for them.” 

Paid sick time

The railroads maintain that the deals with the unions should closely follow the recommendations made this summer by a special panel of arbitrators Biden appointed. That’s part of the reason why they don’t want to offer paid sick time. Plus, the railroads say the unions have agreed over the years to forgo paid sick time in favor of higher pay and strong short-term disability benefits. 

The unions say it is long overdue for the railroads to offer paid sick time to workers, and the pandemic highlighted the need for it. 

The group that negotiates on behalf of the railroads said Monday that the unions that rejected their deals shouldn’t expect to receive more than the Presidential Emergency Board of arbitrators recommended. The National Carriers Conference Committee said businesses could start to be affected by the threat of a strike even before the deadline because railroads will start curtailing shipments of dangerous chemicals and perishable cargo days ahead of the deadline. 

“A national rail strike would severely impact the economy and the public. Now, the continued, near-term threat of one will require that freight railroads and passenger carriers soon begin to take responsible steps to safely secure the network in advance of any deadline,” the railroads said. 

Congress

It’s unclear what Congress might do given the deep political divisions in Washington and a single lawmaker could hold up a resolution. But the head of the Association of American Railroads trade group, Ian Jefferies, said, “If the remaining unions do not accept an agreement, Congress should be prepared to act and avoid a disastrous $2 billion a day hit to our economy.” 

Republicans may try to impose a deal that includes only what the Presidential Emergency Board recommended while Democrats who still narrowly hold control of both the House and Senate during this lame-duck period might be willing to force the railroads to make additional concessions. 

The unions that voted Monday represent more than half of the roughly 115,000 rail workers involved in the contract dispute with Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, BNSF, Kansas City Southern, CSX and other railroads. 

 


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Younger Workers Spurn Factory Jobs that Power China’s Economy

Growing up in a Chinese village, Julian Zhu saw his father only a few times a year when he returned for holidays from his exhausting job in a textile mill in southern Guangdong province. 
For his father’s generation, factory work was a lifeline out of rural poverty. For Zhu, and millions of other younger Chinese, the low pay, long hours of drudgery and the risk of injuries are no longer sacrifices worth making. 

“After a while, that work makes your mind numb,” said the 32-year-old, who quit the production lines some years ago and now makes a living selling milk formula and doing scooter deliveries for a supermarket in Shenzhen, China’s southern tech hub. “I couldn’t stand the repetition.” 

The rejection of grinding factory work by Zhu and other Chinese in their 20s and 30s is contributing to a deepening labor shortage that is frustrating manufacturers in China, which produces a third of the goods consumed globally. 

Factory bosses say they would produce more, and faster, with younger blood replacing their aging workforce. But offering the higher wages and better working conditions that younger Chinese want would risk eroding their competitive advantage.

And smaller manufacturers say large investments in automation technology are either unaffordable or imprudent when rising inflation and borrowing costs are curbing demand in China’s key export markets.

More than 80% of Chinese manufacturers faced labor shortages ranging from hundreds to thousands of workers this year, equivalent to 10% to 30% of their workforce, a survey by CIIC Consulting showed. China’s Ministry of Education forecasts a shortage of nearly 30 million manufacturing workers by 2025, larger than Australia’s population. 

On paper, labor is in no short supply: roughly 18% of Chinese ages 16-24 are unemployed. This year alone, a cohort of 10.8 million graduates entered a job market that, besides manufacturing, is very subdued. China’s economy, pummeled by COVID-19 restrictions, a property market downturn and regulatory crackdowns on tech and other private industries, faces its slowest growth in decades.

Klaus Zenkel, who chairs the European Chamber of Commerce in South China, moved to the region about two decades ago, when university graduates were less than one-tenth this year’s numbers and the economy as a whole was about 15 times smaller in current U.S. dollar terms. He runs a factory in Shenzhen with around 50 workers who make magnetically shielded rooms used by hospitals for MRI screenings and other procedures.

Zenkel said China’s breakneck economic growth in recent years had lifted the aspirations of younger generations, who now see his line of work as increasingly unattractive.

“If you are young, it’s much easier to do this job, climbing up the ladder, doing some machinery work, handle tools, and so on, but most of our installers are aged 50 to 60,” he said. “Sooner or later, we need to get more young people, but it’s very difficult. Applicants will have a quick look and say ‘no, thank you, that’s not for me.'”

The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s macroeconomic management agency, and the education and human resources ministries did not reply to requests for comment.

Modern times

Manufacturers say they have three main options to tackle the labor-market mismatch: sacrifice profit margins to increase wages; invest more in automation; or move to cheaper pastures such as Vietnam or India.

But all those choices are difficult to implement.

Liu, who runs a factory in the electric battery supply chain, has invested in more-advanced production equipment with better digital measurements. He said his older workers struggle to keep up with the faster gear or read the data on the screens.

Liu, who like other factory chiefs declined to give his full name so he could speak freely about China’s economic slowdown, said he tried luring younger workers with 5% higher wages but was given a cold shoulder.

Liu described his workers’ performance this way.

“It’s like with Charlie Chaplin,” he said, alluding to a scene in the 1936 movie “Modern Times,” about the anxieties of U.S. industrial workers during the Great Depression. The main character, Little Tramp, played by Chaplin, fails to keep up with tightening bolts on a conveyer belt.

Chinese policymakers have emphasized automation and industrial upgrading as a solution to an aging workforce.

The country of 1.4 billion people, on the brink of a demographic downturn, accounted for half of the robot installations in 2021, up 44% year-on-year, the International Federation of Robotics said.

But automation has its limits.

Dotty, a general manager at a stainless-steel treatment factory in the city of Foshan, has automated product packaging and work surface cleaning, but says a similar fix for other functions would be too costly. And young workers are vital to keep production moving.

“Our products are really heavy, and we need people to transfer them from one processing procedure to the next. It’s labor intensive in hot temperatures and we have difficulty hiring for these procedures,” she said.

Brett, a manager at a factory making video game controllers and keyboards in Dongguan, said orders have halved in recent months, and that many of his peers were moving to Vietnam and Thailand. 

He is “just thinking about how to survive this moment,” he said, adding he expected to lay off 15% of his 200 workers even as he still wanted younger muscles on his assembly lines.

Conflicting aspirations

The competitiveness of China’s export-oriented manufacturing sector has been built over several decades on state-subsidized investment in production capacity and low labor costs.

The preservation of that status quo is now clashing with the aspirations of a generation of better-educated Chinese for a more comfortable life than the sleep-work-sleep daily grind for tomorrow’s meal their parents endured.

Rather than settling for jobs below their education level, a record 4.6 million Chinese applied for postgraduate studies this year. There are 6,000 applications for each civil service job, state media reported this month.

Many young Chinese are also increasingly adopting a minimal lifestyle known as “lying flat,” doing just enough to get by and rejecting the rat race of China Inc.

Economists say market forces may compel both young Chinese and manufacturers to curb their aspirations.

“The unemployment situation for young people may have to be much worse before the mismatch could be corrected,” said Zhiwu Chen, professor of finance at the University of Hong Kong.

By 2025, he said, there may not be much of a worker shortfall “as the demand will for sure go down.”

‘You feel free’

Zhu’s first job was to screw fake diamonds into wristwatches. After that he worked in another factory, molding tin boxes for mooncakes, a traditional Chinese bakery product.

His colleagues shared gruesome stories about workplace injuries involving sharp metal sheets.

Realizing he could avoid reliving his father’s life, he quit.

Now doing sales and deliveries, he earns at least 10,000 yuan ($1,421.04) a month, depending on how many hours he puts in. That’s almost double what he would earn in a factory, though some of the difference pays for accommodation, as many factories have their own dorms.

“It’s hard work. It’s dangerous on the busy roads, in the wind and rain, but for younger people, it’s much better than factories,” Zhu said. “You feel free.”

Xiaojing, 27, now earns 5,000 to 6,000 yuan a month as a masseuse in an upscale area of Shenzhen after a three-year stint at a printer factory where she made 4,000 yuan a month.

“All my friends who are my age left the factory,” she said, adding that it would be a tall order to get her to return. 

“If they paid 8,000 before overtime, sure.” 


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