Economic Fears Grip Turkey

Turkey’s currency this month has suffered heavy falls triggered by U.S.-Turkish tensions over the ongoing detention of an American pastor. Washington’s threat to impose new economic sanctions sparked another steep currency drop Friday. Dorian Jones reports on the economic fall out for people in Istanbul.

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Tesla Stock Drops; Musk Under Fire

Tesla shares dropped nearly 9 percent in value Friday, amid reports of CEO and co-founder Elon Musk meeting with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Musk wrote on Twitter last week of his plans to take the company private for a price of $420 per share, writing that he had “funding secured.” On Monday, in a blog post, Musk admitted that was not true, as he was still waiting on a finalized deal with his investors, a Saudi Arabian foreign investment fund.

“I continue to have discussions with the Saudi fund, and I also am having discussions with a number of other investors, which is something that I always planned to do since I would like for Tesla to continue to have a broad investor base,” Musk wrote.

Since Musk’s original tweet, the company’s shares have dropped 12 percent overall, and reports of subpoenas being issued by the SEC have sent the company into turmoil.

In a New York Times interview Thursday, Musk said, “This past year has been the most difficult and painful year of my career.” The Times also reported that members of Tesla’s board are concerned with Musk’s drug use, notably his use of the sleep aid Ambien, which some believe have contributed to Musk’s controversial Twitter statements.

Last month, Musk came under fire for calling one of the cave divers who rescued 12 Thai soccer players and their coach a pedophile, citing no evidence. He later apologized for that remark.

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Stocks Jump as Hopes Rise for Progress on China Trade Talks

Stocks rose late in the day Friday as investors welcomed signs of progress in resolving the trade dispute between the U.S. and China. The Wall Street Journal reported that the countries hope to have a resolution by November.

Industrial, health care and basic materials companies made some of the biggest gains. The report came a day after China said it will send an envoy to Washington for the first talks between the countries since early June.

Marina Severinovsky, an investment strategist at Schroders, said stocks could jump if the U.S. and China make real progress toward a trade agreement. But stocks in emerging markets might make even bigger gains.

“The rally that could come, if there is a better outcome, would be in emerging markets,” she said. “China has suffered pretty greatly … the U.S. has held up pretty well.”

The late gains came in spite of weak results for several chipmakers. Electric car maker Tesla took its biggest drop in two years on reports of a wider government investigation into the company and concerns about CEO Elon Musk’s health.

The S&P 500 index rose 9.44 points, or 0.3 percent, at 2,850.13. The Dow Jones Industrial Average added 110.59 points, or 0.4 percent, to 25,669.32. The Nasdaq composite edged up 9.81 points, or 0.1 percent, to 7,816.33. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks gained 7.19 points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,692.95.

The Wall Street Journal cited officials in both the U.S. and China as it said negotiators want to end the trade war before U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at multilateral events in November.

Industrial companies made some of the biggest gains after agricultural equipment maker Deere posted stronger than expected sales. Its stock rose 2.4 percent to $140.59.

Construction equipment maker Caterpillar rose 2.3 percent to $139.34 and engine maker Paccar added 2.3 percent to $67.16.

Chipmakers fell after two companies gave weaker forecasts for the third quarter. Nvidia said it no longer expects much revenue from products used in mining digital currencies, and its stock fell 4.9 percent to $244.82. Applied Materials slumped 7.7 percent to $43.77.

While big names like Netflix, Facebook and Amazon slipped, Apple led technology companies slightly higher overall. Apple stock rose 2 percent to $217.58.

Nordstrom jumped 13.2 percent to $59.18 after raising its annual profit and sales forecasts and posting better earnings and sales than analysts expected. It’s been a mostly difficult week for department stores as Macy’s and J.C. Penney both plunged after issuing their quarterly reports.

The S&P 500 finished this week with a solid gain of 0.6 percent, but it took a difficult path to get there. Stocks fell early this week due to worries about Turkey’s currency crisis, and later investors fretted about China’s economic growth.

The recovery started Thursday as investors hoped the upcoming talks between the U.S. and China will help end the impasse that has resulted in higher tariffs from both countries.

The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong has fallen 13 percent since early June as the dispute has dragged on, and other emerging market indexes have also taken a hit. The S&P 500 has risen over that time.

Tesla was hit with a series of reports that concerned shareholders. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Securities and Exchange Commission started investigating the electric car maker last year to determine if it made false statements about production of its Model 3 sedan.

The SEC is also reportedly looking into CEO Elon Musk’s comment on Twitter about possibly taking the company private.

Tesla stock rose from about $345 a share to about $380 following Musk’s tweet last week, which said Tesla could go private for $420 a share. On Friday it dropped 8.9 percent to $305.50.

Musk also gave an emotional interview to the New York Times, published Friday, about the stress he’s experienced as the company tries to ramp up production. He said this year has been “excruciating” and described working up 120 hours a week, raising concerns about his health.

Bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.86 percent from 2.87 percent.

U.S. crude picked up 0.7 percent to $65.91 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, the standard for international oil prices, added 0.6 percent to $71.83 per barrel in London.

Wholesale gasoline dipped 0.3 percent to $1.98 a gallon. Heating oil inched up 0.1 percent to $2.10 a gallon. Natural gas rose 1.3 percent to $2.95 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Gold was little changed at $1,184.20 an ounce. Silver fell 0.6 percent to $14.63 an ounce. Copper added 0.5 percent to $2.63 a pound.

The dollar dipped to 110.60 yen from 110.88 yen. The euro rose to $1.1443 from $1.1365.

The German DAX lost 0.2 percent and France’s CAC 40 fell 0.1 percent. The FTSE 100 in Britain was little changed.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 index added 0.4 percent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng gained 0.4 percent. In South Korea, the Kospi gained 0.3 percent.

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Benjamin Smith New CEO of Air France-KLM; Unions Concerned

Unions at Air France-KLM voiced concern after the company appointed Benjamin Smith as the new CEO with the support of the French state.

The company said Thursday that Smith, who is 46 and was previously Air Canada’s chief operating officer, will fill the role by Sept. 30.

Vincent Salles, unionist at CGT-Air France union, said on France Info radio that unions fear Smith’s mission is to implement plans that would “deteriorate working conditions and wages.”

The previous CEO, Jean-Marc Janaillac, resigned in May after Air France employees held 13 days of strike over pay and rejected the company’s wage proposal, considered too low.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire welcomed an “opportunity” for Air France-KLM and expressed his confidence in Smith’s ability to “re-establish social dialogue.”

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Trump Asks SEC to Review Practicality of Quarterly Corporate Reports

President Donald Trump says he’s asking federal regulators to look into the effectiveness of the quarterly financial reports that publicly traded companies are required to file.

In a tweet early Friday, Trump said that after speaking with “some of the world’s top business leaders,” he’s asked the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to determine whether shifting to a six-month reporting regimen would make more sense.

The SEC requires such companies to share profit, revenue and other figures publicly every three months.

Some believe executives are making decisions based on short-term thinking to satisfy the market at the expense of the long-term viability of their companies.

There are also tremendous expenses tied to preparing quarterly and annual reports.

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Asian Currencies Slip on Trade Fears as Authorities Try to Avert Crisis

Many of Asia’s currencies are losing value against the U.S. dollar this year as China and the United States fight over trade, but analysts say policymakers are handling the dip better now than during past down cycles.

China, India, Indonesia and Myanmar, to name just a few, have seen their currencies lose value since the start of 2018. The Indian rupee hit an all-time low in June, and the Chinese yuan lost 3.2 percent over the year through June.

Economists point to a range of problems, including possible contagion from financial woes in Turkey and concerns about investing in Asia due to the Sino-U.S. trade war expected to hit China next week with tariffs on goods worth $16 billion.

“It’s just basically that everything we’ve worried about now and then sort of converged together,” said Song Seng Wun, an economist in the private banking unit of CIMB in Singapore.

But monetary authorities in Asia have learned from currency dips in 2013, 2015 and 2016, economists believe.

​Causes for decline

No single cause is pushing currency prices lower around Asia, analysts say. Rising oil prices have knocked back the rupee as Indians pay more to import it, media in the country say. Domestic media in Myanmar blame a surge in imports into the fast-growing Southeast Asian country, plus people’s hoarding of U.S. dollars.

In Vietnam, the brokerage Bao Viet Securities blames a 1.3 percent dip in the dong currency due to pressure from similar slips elsewhere in Asia, including the Chinese yuan’s devaluation and a 7 percent fall in the Indonesian rupiah as of June.

A particularly severe fall in Turkey’s lira along with inflation and loan defaults — all threatening to drag down other economies — is weighing on Asian currency rates, Song said.

Economists and media in the countries affected usually point to spillover from the Sino-U.S. import-export war as a chief cause. That dispute began unfolding in early 2018 as U.S. President Donald Trump said Beijing was trading unfairly.

In India, the trade war has dissuaded investors from taking positions in domestic assets, media reports there say. And in Vietnam, China’s devaluing of the yuan in June, possibly because of U.S. trade tension, cramps Vietnamese exports. A lower yuan helps Chinese exporters earn more on goods shipped to the United States.

“I think there’s a number of reasons why it could be going down,” said Maxfield Brown, speaking to the currency in Vietnam where he’s senior associate with the business consultancy Dezan Shira & Associates.

“I think [Vietnamese officials] are watching what’s going on between China and the United States, and it is a fact that the Chinese government has devalued its currency and that impacts the ability of Vietnam to export products. I think everyone’s watching the situation.”

​Coping strategies

Asian monetary authorities have gotten a grip on this year’s devaluations compared to what happened in 2013 as capital left Asia due to the tapering of economic stimulus in the United States, said Marie Diron, managing director with Moody’s Investors Service in Singapore.

Economic stimulus after the global financial crisis had inspired investors to buy assets in Asia where they grew relatively fast, tracking the region’s economic strength.

To shore up the rupiah, Indonesia’s monetary authority has raised interest rates four times in three months. Monetary authorities in India and the Philippines have raised rates this year, as well. Rate hikes generally raise the value of currencies compared to countries that keep rates down.

Asian countries are keeping more foreign currency in reserve and better controlling any budget deficits, as well, Diron said.

“Central banks have built up their foreign exchange reserve buffer, so they do have more ammunition, if you want, to at least smooth some of the currency volatility,” she said.

In Vietnam, mismanagement of currency in the past has taught leaders how to react, and they’re aiming for a “measured response” now, Brown said.

China is likely to nudge its currency back up along with budgetary stimulus for the economy, easing worries in other markets, the French investment bank Natixis said in a research note Friday.

Asian currency drops are unlikely to reach crisis levels, economists say. They’re not weak enough even to pose that threat yet, Song said.

In some cases, he said, trade-reliant nations such as many in Southeast Asia may fare better with weaker currencies because exporters would earn more money when converting their U.S. dollar earnings into local units.

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Indonesia Pins Great Economic Hopes on Asian Games

Indonesia has spent more than $3 billion on preparations for the Asian Games, with the government projecting that it will produce immediate and long-term benefits for the country. While investments have been made in infrastructure development and in addressing the notorious traffic issues in the capital of Jakarta, some observers say it is a missed opportunity to tackle fundamental problems and improve livability in the city of 10 million people.

Ahead of the opening ceremony this weekend, roughly 15,000 athletes and officials from 45 nations in Asia and the Middle East will arrive in Jakarta and its co-host city of Palembang in South Sumatra.

Following the recent bombings in the East Java city of Surabaya in May — the worst terrorist attacks in a decade — some 100,000 security personnel will be present. Ambient air pollution also remains a major concern, with Greenpeace Indonesia highlighting that Jakarta has recently had the worst air quality in the world.

Indonesia’s National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) projected in May that the total direct economic impact of hosting the Games will be $3.1 billion.

Preparations in Jakarta and Palembang reflect the policy agenda of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration, which has prioritized improving the quality of infrastructure and transport across the vast, resource-rich archipelago of more than 13,000 islands.

“Indonesia must use the Asian Games and Asian Para Games to show to the world the Indonesian nation is a good host, a nation of excellence, and a nation of champions that upholds fair play,” the president said in an annual speech Thursday to mark the country’s independence. “We are showing that Indonesia is ready to be a leader in lifting Asia’s position in the world.”

The Fairmont Hotel, near the main Gelora Bung Karno stadium, has seen “quite a significant increase” in the number of guests due to the Games, primarily members of the foreign delegations, said spokesperson Felicia Setiawan.

Hosting the event demonstrates to an international audience that “traveling to Jakarta in particular and Indonesia in general is safe, infrastructure is also there. I think in the long run it will bring quite positive impacts to tourism in the country overall,” Setiawan said, also noting that Jakarta remains primarily a business destination.

Infamous for ailing infrastructure and heavy traffic, the government of Jakarta has implemented a multitude of new measures, including restricting certain license plate numbers from entering the city center on certain days and adjusting school hours during the two-week event.

Time crunch

But the administration has also been the target of much criticism and mockery over “Band-Aid” solutions and bungled beautification efforts. Authorities sought to obscure the filthy Sentiong River, known as kali item (black river) and which weaves past the athlete’s village in South Jakarta, with a net, costing the city $40,500. Black-and-white concrete roadblocks were repainted in rainbow colors before authorities realized that broke the law.

Indonesia has had less time to prepare for the event because Vietnam, the original host of the 2018 Games, pulled out in 2014 due to costs. Friederike Trotier, a researcher focused on sport in Indonesia at University Passau, said this has meant that Jakarta and Palembang are primarily utilizing existing venues rather than developing large new sporting facilities.

“This is often more a problem for cities when they have the idea of building brand-new venues and they become white elephants,” she told VOA.

According to organizers, the apartments built for the athlete villages in both Jakarta and Palembang will be used as housing for families from low socioeconomic backgrounds after the Games. The Olympic Council of Asia’s honorary life vice-president, Wei Jizhong, was recently quoted in a news release as saying athletes were “very happy” with the facilities and that, “We support the government policy of benefits to the low-income people.”

Criticism, hope

But according to Elisa Sutanudjaja, executive director of the Rujak Center for Urban Studies, the preparations have been a “wasted opportunity” for Jakarta to become a better city.

“They only tried to fulfill the minimum requirements which is dealing with basic things like venues and the athlete village, the accommodation, but not necessarily on making the city better,” she said.

“We don’t see any drastic change, unlike any other host cities in the past like London or Sydney or Vancouver,” Sutanudjaja added. “Even when you compare with the past Winter Olympics in South Korea, I think they’re doing much better than us.”

In any case, Indonesia’s government is hoping it will boost the nation’s international profile.

“The Asian Games have a really important history for the continent,” Trotier said. “To have such an event could mean a great chance for Indonesia to be more visible in the Asian context.

“For a Southeast Asian country to host this event could actually mean to diverge this focus on East Asia … and for other regions to say, ‘Asia is more than just China, Japan and Korea.'”

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As Egypt’s Housing Crisis Intensifies, Dangers Mount

Egypt’s decades-long housing crisis continues to worsen, with activists and authorities alike expressing concern about a continuing explosion of illegal, unsafe construction that is one of the consequences. Photojournalist Hamada Elrasam provides a glimpse of conditions that have resulted from unmanaged growth.

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US Charges 22 Chinese Importers with Smuggling Counterfeit Goods into US

A federal court in New York has charged 22 Chinese importers with smuggling nearly half-a-billion dollars in counterfeit goods into the United States from China.

The fake products include such popular luxury items as Louis Vuitton bags, Michael Kors wallets, and Chanel perfume.

Twenty-one of the defendants were arrested Thursday.

U.S. attorneys say the suspects allegedly smuggled the China-made counterfeit goods in large shipping containers disguised as legitimate products and brought them into ports in New York and New Jersey.

The defendants apparently intended to sell the fake products across the United States with a street value of nearly $500 million.

Along with smuggling and trafficking in counterfeit goods, the suspects are also charged with money laundering and immigration fraud.

“The illegal smuggling of counterfeit goods poses a real threat to honest business,” assistant attorney general Brian Benczkowski said. “The Department of Justice is committed to holding accountable those who seek to exploit our borders by smuggling counterfeit goods for sale on the black market.”

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Russia Calls Latest US Sanctions on Companies in Russia, China, and Singapore ‘Useless’

Russia says the latest U.S. sanctions imposed on Russian, Chinese, and Singaporean companies are “destructive” and “useless.”  

The U.S. penalized the three companies Wednesday, accusing them of helping North Korea avoid international sanctions.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Thursday the new U.S. sanctions come when “joint international efforts” are needed toward a settlement in North Korea. Moscow said the sanctions could undermine denuclearization talks.

The U.S. has accused a Chinese trading company and its affiliate in Singapore of falsifying documents aimed at easing illegal shipments of alcohol and cigarettes into North Korea. The companies are said to have earned more than $1 billion.

A Russian company was also sanctioned for providing port services to North Korean-flagged ships engaged in illegal oil shipments.

The sanctions freeze any assets the companies may have in the United States and bars Americans from doing business with them.

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