US, EU, Japan Slam Market Distortion in Swipe at China

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The United States, European Union and Japan vowed Tuesday to work together to fight market-distorting trade practices and policies that have fueled excess production capacity, naming several key features of China’s economic system.

In a joint statement that did not single out China or any other country, the three economic powers said they would work within the World Trade Organization and other multilateral groups to eliminate unfair competitive conditions caused by subsidies, state-owned enterprises, “forced” technology transfer and local content requirements.

The move was a rare show of solidarity with the United States at a World Trade Organization meeting dominated by differences over U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” trade agenda and U.S. efforts to stall the appointment of WTO judges.

It reflected growing frustration among industrial countries over China’s trade practices, along with concerns that other developing countries will follow Beijing’s lead.

The statement said protectionist practices “are serious concerns for the proper functioning of international trade, the creation of innovative technologies and the sustainable growth of the global economy.”

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said China’s industry subsidies, including for aluminum and steel, were flooding global markets and hurting European workers in a “very, very dramatic” way.

“There’s no secret that we think that China is a big sinner here, but there are other countries that are as well,” Malmstrom told reporters on the sidelines of a business forum.

In the opening session of the WTO ministerial conference in Buenos Aires on Monday, the United States and Japan criticized a lack of transparency in some WTO members’ trade practices, a thinly veiled swipe at Beijing.

China, meanwhile, appealed for members to “join hands” and uphold WTO rules to protect globalization in the face of rising protectionism.

The joint statement came after Japan approached the European Union and the United States about overcapacity, according to an EU source, with both Tokyo and Brussels concerned about the possibility the Trump administration could act unilaterally.

“There is a thought that if we bring them into the fold, and can work jointly with them, then it reduces the risk of them going alone,” the source said.

​’Playing by the rules’

Washington, Brussels and Tokyo have previously raised complaints about China’s excess production capacity in a number of industrial sectors that has pushed down world prices and caused layoffs elsewhere.

The United States recently sided with the EU in arguing that such distortions mean the WTO should not grant China market economy status, a move that would severely weaken their trade defenses.

“We have been … reaching out to China to tell them they really must start playing by the rules,” Malmstrom told reporters.

The EU’s and Japan’s willingness to cooperate with the Trump administration comes despite disagreements over the role of the WTO and the future of multilateral trade deals. 

Trump has expressed his preference for bilateral negotiations, and his trade rhetoric has cast a cloud over the WTO meeting.

Efforts on Tuesday to make progress on a ministerial statement from all 164 WTO members were unsuccessful, since one country could not agree on the language, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters, declining to name that country.

U.S. officials last month blocked WTO efforts to draft a statement of unity over the “centrality” of the global trading system and the need to aid development.

A spokeswoman for the office of the U.S. trade representative could not be immediately reached for comment.

The Trump administration is considering several unilateral tariff actions on steel, aluminum and China’s intellectual property practices that are likely to draw disputes from WTO members.

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Afreximbank Pledges Up to $1.5B to Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe

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The African Export and Import Bank has pledged up to $1.5 billion in new loans and financial guarantees to Zimbabwe in a major boost for new President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government, the bank’s president and chairman said Tuesday.

Mnangagwa, who took over last month after veteran autocrat Robert Mugabe quit following a de facto military coup, has vowed to focus on reviving the struggling economy and provide jobs in a nation with an unemployment rate exceeding 80 percent.

Afreximbank was the only international lender that stood by Zimbabwe throughout Mugabe’s repressive 37-year rule, but its quick announcement of a fresh package of loans and guarantees appeared to be a vote of confidence in the new government.

Cairo-based Afreximbank was a major funder of Zimbabwe while the country was cut off from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for having defaulted on its debt in 1999.

Bank president and chairman Okey Oramah told reporters after a meeting with Mnangagwa and senior government officials that Afreximbank would provide $150 million to local banks to help them pay for outstanding critical imports.

“We also discussed a number of other areas that involve additional investment from us for something that will be in the order of $1 billion to $1.5 billion that will include certain kinds of guarantees to encourage investors to come to Zimbabwe.

“We … want to make sure that we support the stabilization of the economy, that means providing liquidity to make sure that the situation where people are rushing every time to look for cash is dealt with,” Oramah said.

In August, before Mugabe’s ouster, Afreximbank provided $600 million to help Zimbabwe pay for imports and $300 million to allow it to print more “bond notes,” a quasi-currency that officially trades on par with the U.S. dollar.

Zimbabwe has a foreign debt of more than $7 billion and in September said it would not be able to pay $1.8 billion in arrears to the World Bank and African Development Bank until economic fundamentals improved.

The southern African nation, which dumped its hyperinflation-hit currency in 2009, is struggling with a severe dollar crunch that has seen banks fail to avail cash to customers while importers struggle to pay for imports.

Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa promised in a budget speech last week to re-engage with international lenders, curb spending and attract investors to revive the economy.

On Tuesday, Chinamasa described Afreximbank as a “pillar of strength” and said the economy was “in for some very good times.”

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Filipino Houses From Debris, Californian Fruit Pickers’ Homes Win Major Award

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A project in the Philippines that used debris to rebuild typhoon-ravaged houses and Californian homes providing year-round housing for migrant workers won one of the world’s most prestigious housing awards on Tuesday.

The development charity CARE used innovative techniques, such as teaching building skills to residents and using wreckage from destroyed homes, to rehouse more than 15,000 Filipino families devastated in 2013 by Typhoon Haiyan.

“This is the first time self-recovery has been used on such a large scale,” said David Ireland, director of British charity World Habitat, which co-hosts the World Habitat Awards together with the United Nations (U.N.) settlement program, UN-Habitat.

“It has helped more people, more quickly, than traditional disaster recovery programs. The potential of this approach to be used elsewhere is absolutely huge.”

The winners of the competition, which was established in 1985, received 10,000 pounds and opportunities to share their ideas around the world.

The second winner was Mutual Housing, a not-for-profit affordable housing developer in Yolo County in northern California, which built the first permanent year-round homes for seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers.

Tens of thousands of workers are brought in from Central America at harvest time to do low-wage jobs, often living in sub-standard houses in government-funded migrant centers.

“It has been a complete 180 degree turn since we’ve been living here,” said Saul Menses, who moved into one of Mutual Housing’s 62 apartments and houses in Spring Lake, some 60 miles (97 km) northeast of San Francisco, in 2015.

“For five years, we lived in an apartment there that was very cold and in poor condition. My wife had to board the windows up with tape and unclog the sink daily.”

The Spring Lake houses are the United States’ first certified zero-energy rental homes, meaning they consume less energy than they produce, using solar power, efficient lights and drought-resistant landscaping.

Seasonal work also disrupts family life for the estimated 6,000 migrants who come to Yolo County for the harvest, making it difficult for children to stay in one school. The new houses are less than 1 km from a secondary school and other services.

“Seasonal agricultural laborers are one of the most marginalized groups in the USA,” said World Habitat’s Ireland. “Mutual Housing California have managed to help a group not normally reached and proven that you don’t have to be a homeowner or on a high income to embrace green lifestyles.”

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Waiting for Congress, Mnuchin Makes 2nd Emergency Debt Move

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Monday he is making a second emergency move to keep the government from going above the debt limit while awaiting congressional action to raise the threshold.

 

In a letter to congressional leaders, Mnuchin said he will not be able to fully invest in a large civil service retirement and disability fund. Skipped investments will be restored once the debt limit has been raised, he said.

 

In September, Congress agreed to suspend the debt limit, allowing the government to borrow as much as it needed. But that suspension ended Friday.

 

The government said the debt subject to limit stood at $20.46 trillion on Friday. Mnuchin has said he will employ various “extraordinary measures” to buy time until Congress raises the limit.

 

The Congressional Budget Office estimated in a recent report that Mnuchin has enough maneuvering room to stay under the limit until late March or early April.

 

If Congress has not acted before Mnuchin has exhausted his bookkeeping maneuvers, the government would be unable to borrow the money it needs to meet its day-to-day obligations, including sending out Social Security and other benefit checks and making interest payments on the national debt.

 

In August 2011, a standoff between Congress and the Obama administration over raising the borrowing limit came down to the wire and prompted the Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency to impose the first-ever downgrade of the government’s credit rating.

 

Raising the debt limit is a separate issue from the need for Congress to pass a spending bill to cover government operations. A failure to pass a spending bill triggers a partial government shutdown but does not carry the potential catastrophic market disruptions that a failure to raise the debt limit poses.

 

In his new letter, Mnuchin said, “I respectfully urge Congress to protect the full faith and credit of the United States by acting to increase the statutory debt limit as soon as possible.”

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US High Court Turns Away Dispute Over Gay Worker Protections

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal by a Georgia security guard who said she was harassed and forced from her job because she is a lesbian, avoiding an opportunity to decide whether a federal law that bans gender-based bias also outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The justices left in place a lower court ruling against Jameka Evans, who had argued that workplace sexual orientation discrimination violates Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Workplace protections are a major source of concern for advocates of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Gregory Nevins, an attorney at Lambda Legal, an LGBT legal advocacy group representing Evans, said it was unfortunate the court turned away the case. Lambda Legal had cited language in the Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide to support their argument.

“The vast majority of Americans believe that LGBT people should be treated equally in the workplace,” Nevins said.

The case hinged on an argument currently being litigated in different parts of the United States: whether Title VII, which bans employment discrimination based on sex, also outlaws bias based on sexual orientation. Title VII also bars employment discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin.

Lower courts are divided over the issue, making it likely the Supreme Court eventually will hear a similar case. In April, a Chicago-based federal appeals court found that Title VII does forbid job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an independent federal agency that enforces Title VII, had argued since 2012, during Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration, that bias against gay workers violates that law.

In July, Republican President Donald Trump’s administration argued the opposite in a separate case before a New York federal appeals court.

Evans in 2015 sued Georgia Regional Hospital at Savannah, a psychiatric facility, and several of its officials.

She alleged that while she worked there from 2012 to 2013, her supervisor tried to force her to quit because she wore a male uniform and did not conform to female gender stereotypes.

She said the supervisor asked questions about her relationships, promoted a junior employee above her, and slammed a door into her body.

In March, the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the hospital, saying only the Supreme Court can declare that Title VII’s protections cover gay workers.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for Georgia’s attorney general, whose office represented the defendants, had no immediate comment.

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EU-Mercosur Talks Hit Snags, Announcement Could Be Delayed

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Free-trade talks between the European Union and South American trade bloc Mercosur still face hurdles over beef and ethanol, and an expected deal announcement this week might not happen, officials involved in negotiations said on Monday.

Mercosur diplomats involved in the talks on the sidelines of the World Trade Organization minister’s meeting in Buenos Aires said EU officials had not presented improved offers on EU tariff-free imports of South American beef and ethanol as promised.

“Basically, they want us to show our cards before they show theirs,” a senior diplomat from a Mercosur country told Reuters, asking not to be named due to the sensitive stage of the negotiations.

Resistance by some EU member states to agricultural imports, such as Ireland and France, has delayed negotiation of the free trade agreement with Mercosur that seeks to liberalize trade and investment, services and access to public procurement.

Brazilian President Michel Temer, speaking to reporters after attending the opening of the WTO meeting on Sunday, said an announcement of the framework political agreement for the

EU-Mercosur deal might have to wait until Dec. 21, when the bloc’s presidents meet in Brasilia.

A spokeswoman for the Argentine Foreign Ministry said agreement on the conclusion of the negotiations that have gone on for almost two decades could still be reached by Wednesday in Buenos Aires or, if not, next week in Brazil.

Besides disagreement over the tonnage of beef that EU countries would allow in each year free of tariffs, EU diplomats have said rules of origin still have to be included in the provisional political accord.

Brazil has said that can be worked out in the coming months before a final agreement is signed sometime in mid-2018. Brazil’s foreign ministry played down the hurdles to a deal.

“There is very little left to negotiate and they are not fundamental issues,” said an official, who requested anonymity. “There will be a deal and it will be announced when it is struck, here or in Brasilia.”

Mercosur members Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay are pushing for an improvement on the EU offer of tariff-free imports for 70,000 tons a year of beef and 600,000 tons of ethanol a year.

They complain that it is lower than the 100,000-tons beef offer the EU made in 2004, though EU negotiators say Europeans eat less meat today.

The Irish Farmers Association has called the deal “toxic” and opposes any increase.

 

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US: WTO Losing Trade Focus, Too Easy on Some Developing Nations

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade chief said on Monday that the World Trade Organization (WTO) is losing its focus on trade negotiations in favor of litigation, and was going too easy on wealthier developing countries such as China.

With Trump’s “America First” trade agenda casting a cloud over the WTO’s 11th ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires, representatives of other major members criticized protectionism and advocated a stronger multilateral trading system, while acknowledging the WTO’s shortcomings.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who has said he does not want major agreements out of the meeting, voiced concern that the WTO was becoming a litigation-centered organization.

“Too often members seem to believe they can gain concessions through lawsuits that they could never get at the negotiating table,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves whether this is good for the institution and whether the current litigation structure makes sense.”

Too many countries were not following WTO rules, he complained, and too many wealthier members had been given unfair exemptions as developing countries.

“We need to clarify our understanding of development within the WTO. We cannot sustain a situation in which new rules can only apply to a few and that others will be given a pass in the name of self-proclaimed development status,” Lighthizer told the conference’s opening session.

He said five of the six richest countries claim developing country status at the WTO, without providing evidence to back up the assertion. Of the countries with the six largest economies by Gross Domestic Product, according to the World Bank, only China claims developing market status.

Ahead of the meeting, the United States blocked efforts to draft a joint statement emphasizing the “centrality” of the global trade system and the need to aid development. Its opposition has raised concerns that the WTO will not be able to accomplish even modest goals, such as addressing fishing and agricultural subsidies, at the conference.

“We need to have a clear objective in mind,” European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said. “For the European Union, this is clear: to preserve and to strengthen the rules-based multilateral trading system.”

Swipes at China

Trump has indicated his preference for bilateral deals over the multilateral system embodied by the WTO. The United States has vetoed new judges for trade disputes, pushing the organization into a crisis.

On Monday, Lighthizer said it was impossible to negotiate new rules when many of the current ones were not being followed, and added that too many members viewed exemptions from WTO rules as a path to faster growth.

In a thinly veiled swipe at China’s trade practices, Lighthizer said the United States was leading negotiations to “correct the sad performance of many members in notification and transparency.”

The United States is backing the EU in its resistance to recognizing China as a market economy, arguing the government unfairly intervenes in the economy. The case, currently before the WTO, could lead to dramatically lower tariffs on imports of Chinese goods.

Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan said on Monday that while trade protection was rising, no country would be able to succeed in isolation and that WTO rules were critical to protecting globalization.

“Let us join hands and take real action to uphold the authority and efficacy of the WTO,” Zhong said.

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Russia Urges India to Back China’s Belt and Road Initiative

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Russia threw its weight behind China’s massive Belt and Road plan to build trade and transport links across Asia and beyond, suggesting to India on Monday that it find a way to work with Beijing on the signature project.

India is strongly opposed to an economic corridor that China is building in Pakistan that runs through disputed Kashmir as part of the Belt and Road initiative.

India was the only country that stayed away from a May summit hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping to promote the plan to build railways, ports and power grids in a modern-day recreation of the Silk Road.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said New Delhi should not let political problems deter it from joining the project, involving billions of dollars of investment, and benefiting from it.

Lavrov was speaking in the Indian capital after a three-way meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj at which, he said, India’s reservations over the Chinese project were discussed.

“I know India has problems, we discussed it today, with the concept of One Belt and One Road, but the specific problem in this regard should not make everything else conditional to resolving political issues,” he said.

Russia, all the countries in central Asia, and European nations had signed up to the Chinese project to boost economic cooperation, he said.

“Those are the facts,” he said. “India, I am 100 percent convinced, has enough very smart diplomats and politicians to find a way which would allow you to benefit from this process.”

The comments by Russia, India’s former Cold War ally, reflected the differences within the trilateral grouping formed 15 years ago to challenge U.S.-led dominance of global affairs.

But substantial differences between India and China, mainly over long-standing border disputes, have snuffed out prospects of any real cooperation among the three.

India, in addition, has drawn closer to the United States in recent years, buying weapons worth billions of dollars to replace its largely Soviet-origin military.

Swaraj said the three countries had very productive talks on economic issues and the fight against terrorism.

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Will Misconduct Scandals Make Men Wary of Women at Work?

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Some women, and men, worry the same climate that’s emboldening women to speak up about sexual misconduct could backfire by making some men wary of female colleagues.

Forget private meetings and get-to-know-you dinners. Beware of banter. Think twice before a high-ranking man mentors a young female staffer.

“I have already heard the rumblings of a backlash: ‘This is why you shouldn’t hire women,’” Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a recent post .

“So much good is happening to fix workplaces right now. Let’s make sure it does not have the unintended consequence of holding women back,” said Sandberg, author of the working women’s manifesto “Lean In.”

Ana Quincoces, a Miami-based attorney and entrepreneur who owns her own food line, says her business and its success involves working mostly with men, and sales and other activities are often concluded over lunch or drinks. Those opportunities, she says, are dwindling, because many of the men she knows through her business “are terrified.”

“There’s a feeling of this wall that wasn’t there that is suddenly up because they don’t know what’s appropriate anymore — it’s disconcerting,” Quincoces said. “I feel that they’re more careful, more formal in their relationships with co-workers. And I can’t say I blame them, because what’s happened is pervasive. Every day there’s a new accusation.”

She said many of the men she knows are now avoiding one-on-one social occasions that were normal in the past.

“This is going to trickle down into all industries. … It’s going to become the new normal,” Quincoces said. “It’s a good thing because women are not afraid anymore, but on the other side, it’s a slippery slope.”

Americans were already edgy about male-female encounters at work: A New York Times/Morning Consult poll of 5,300 men and women last spring found almost two-thirds thought workers should be extra careful around opposite-sex colleagues, and around a quarter thought private work meetings between men and women were inappropriate.

But in a season of outcry over sexual misconduct, some men are suddenly wondering whether they can compliment a female colleague or ask about her weekend. Even a now-former female adviser to the head of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party suggested on Facebook that men would stop talking to women altogether because of what she portrayed as overblown sexual misconduct claims.

Certain managers are considering whether to make sure they’re never alone with a staffer, despite the complications of adding a third person in situations like performance reviews, says Philippe Weiss, who runs the Chicago-based consultancy Seyfarth Shaw at Work.

Philadelphia employment lawyer Jonathan Segal says some men are declaring they’ll just shut people out of their offices, rather than risk exchanges that could be misconstrued.

“The avoidance issue is my biggest concern, because the marginalization of women in the business world is at least as big a problem as harassment,” Segal says. A recent report involving 222 North American companies found the percentage of women drops from 47 percent at the entry level to 20 percent in the C suite.

Vice President Mike Pence has long said he doesn’t have one-on-one meals with any woman except his wife and wants her by his side anywhere alcohol is served, as part of the couple’s commitment to prioritizing their marriage. The guidelines have “been a blessing to us,” the Republican told Christian Broadcasting Network News in an interview this month.

Employment attorneys caution that it can be problematic to curb interactions with workers because of their gender, if the practice curtails their professional opportunities. W. Brad Johnson, a co-author of a book encouraging male mentors for women, says limiting contact sends a troubling message.

“If I were unwilling to have an individual conversation with you because of your gender, I’m communicating ‘you’re unreliable; you’re a risk,’” says Johnson, a U.S. Naval Academy psychology professor.

Jessica Proud, a communications professional and Republican political consultant in New York City, said it would be wrong if this national “day of reckoning” over sexual misconduct resulted in some men deciding not to hire, mentor or work with women. She recalled a campaign she worked on where she was told she couldn’t travel with the candidate because of how it might look.

“I’m a professional, he’s a professional. Why should my career experience be limited?” she said. “That’s just as insulting in a lot of ways.”

 

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Traders Brace for Launch of Bitcoin Futures Market

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The newest way to bet on bitcoin, the cyptocurrency that has taken Wall Street by storm with its stratospheric price rise and wild daily gyrations, will arrive Sunday when bitcoin futures start trading.

The launch has given an extra kick to the cyptocurrency’s scorching run this year. It has nearly doubled in price since the start of December, but recent days saw sharp moves in both directions, with bitcoin losing almost a fifth of its value Friday after surging more than 40 percent in the previous 48 hours.

But while some market participants are excited about a regulated way to bet on or hedge against moves in bitcoin, others caution that risks remain for investors and possibly even the clearing organizations underpinning the trades.

The futures are cash-settled contracts based on the auction price of bitcoin in U.S. dollars on the Gemini Exchange, owned and operated by virtual currency entrepreneurs Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.

A regulated bitcoin product

“The pretty sharp rise we have seen in bitcoin in just the last couple of weeks has probably been driven by optimism ahead of the futures launch,” said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab in Austin.

Bitcoin fans appear excited about the prospect of an exchange-listed and regulated product and the ability to bet on its price swings without having to sign up for a digital wallet.

The futures are an alternative to a largely unregulated spot market underpinned by cryptocurrency exchanges that have been plagued by cybersecurity and fraud issues.

“You are going to open up the market to a whole lot of people who aren’t currently in bitcoin,” Frederick said.

Mixed reception in US

The futures launch has so far received a mixed reception from big U.S. banks and brokerages.

Interactive Brokers plans to offer its customers access to the first bitcoin futures when trading goes live, but bars clients from assuming short positions and has margin requirements of at least 50 percent.

Several online brokerages including Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade will not allow the trading of the newly launched futures.

Some of the big U.S. banks including JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, will not immediately clear bitcoin trades for clients, the Financial Times reported on Friday.

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Argentina Blocks Two Activists From Entry on Eve of WTO Meeting

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Argentina blocked two European activists from entering the country on the eve of the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires, the two told a local radio program Saturday.

Sally Burch, a British activist and journalist for the Latin American Information Agency, said Argentina had already revoked credentials given to her by the WTO to attend the meeting but thought she would be able to enter the country as a tourist.

“They found my name on a list and started asking questions … supposedly I was a false tourist,” Burch said on Radio 10.

“It’s not very democratic of Argentina’s government.”

Petter Titland, spokesman for the Norweigan NGO Attac Norge, said authorities denied him entry without explaining why.

Late last month, Argentina rescinded the credentials of 60 activists who had been accredited by the WTO to attend the meeting because it determined they would be “more disruptive than constructive.”

WTO meetings often attract protests by anti-globalization groups, but they have remained largely peaceful since riots broke out at the 1999 meeting in Seattle.

WTO’s spokesman, Keith Rockwell, reiterated on Saturday that it disagreed with Argentina’s decision to revoke activists’ credentials. “We didn’t have the same perspective but we’re now moving on,” Rockwell told journalists.

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri has promoted business-friendly policies since taking office in December 2015, and Argentina will host global events as chair of the G-20 group of major economies next year.

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Wind, Fire, Ash Destroy Much of California Avocado Crop

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The wildfire that roared through the orchards of California’s Ventura County destroyed much of the region’s avocado crop not just with flames, but also with fierce Santa Ana winds and a thick blanket of ash.

With the so-called Thomas Fire just 10 percent contained by Friday afternoon, after blackening more than 132,000 acres across Ventura County and destroying some 400 homes and other structures, it is too soon to know the extent of the damage to the upcoming avocado harvest.

But experts say even the mostly family-owned orchards spared by the epic conflagration may have suffered devastating losses to their crops from the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that blow out of the California desert, knocking avocados from the trees with gusts up to 80 miles per hour. (129 kilometers per hour)

The fruit cannot be sold for human consumption once it is on the ground because of food safety regulations.

“A lot of that fruit everybody was looking forward to harvesting next year is laying on the ground,” said John Krist, chief executive of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

​Vulnerable to the wind

Avocados are the rare produce trees planted in hillside groves because of their shallow roots, said Ben Faber, a University of California farm adviser in Ventura. The fruit, typically harvested in February or March, is full-sized and heavy by December, held by a long stem.

Those factors make avocados, already growing away from their natural environment in Central and South America, more vulnerable to the whipping winds than the lemon orchards dotting the flatlands of Ventura, Faber said.

Lemons are also a lighter fruit with a shorter, sturdier stem. Ventura County is California’s largest growing region for both lemons and avocados. The state produces about 90 percent of the nation’s avocado crop and 80 percent of its lemons.

Delayed impact

Some avocado trees that do not appear to have been scorched could also reveal damage later, collapsing from internal heat damage. Fruit that did not burn or get blown off the branches may be sunburned by the loss of canopy.

Both lemon and avocado crops are also likely to suffer further from the thick coating of ash left by the Thomas Fire, which interferes with the natural enemy insects that hunt the pests feeding on the fruit trees. Those enemy insects are known to growers as “bio-controls.”

“When you get all this ash, they can’t do their jobs,” Faber said of the enemy insects. “That’s going to cause a disruption to the bio controls that’s going to go on for a year or more. So the impact of the fires is not all immediate.”

Unlike grapes at wineries in California’s Napa Valley wine-growing region hit by wildfires in October, however, avocados and lemons will not be affected by smoke from the fires because of their thick skins.

Experts said at the time that the delicate grapes, if exposed to sustained heavy smoke, could be vulnerable to “smoke taint,” which can alter their taste and aroma.

Prices not likely to rise

Consumers are not expected to see an impact on avocado prices because Ventura County is only a small piece of the worldwide production chain dominated by Mexico and South America, the farm bureau’s Krist said.

Avocado prices have been higher in most U.S. markets during the second half of 2017, according to the Hass Avocado Board, in part because of a poor harvest last year in the United States and Mexico.

The wildfire news didn’t have a major effect on the stock price of the Limoneira Company, the nation’s largest avocado grower, as shares closed essentially unchanged on Friday.

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‘Worker Bee’ Round of NAFTA Talks to Focus on Easier Chapters

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NAFTA trade negotiators convene in Washington next week for a limited round of talks unlikely to move the needle on major sticking points, but aimed at demonstrating some progress toward closing easier chapters.

Last month’s round of negotiations to update the North American Free Trade Agreement in Mexico City failed to resolve major differences, as Canada and Mexico pushed back on what they saw as unreasonable U.S. demands on automotive content rules, dispute settlement and a five-year sunset clause.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said that the United States wanted to see “meaningful progress” before year’s end.

The “intersessional” meetings in a Washington hotel come with lower expectations and without trade ministers from the three countries, who are due to attend a World Trade Organization meeting in Buenos Aires.

Some lobbyists and trade experts said that chapters with the best chances of showing progress were among those that Canada and Mexico had agreed to create or update in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal: digital trade, food safety, state-owned enterprises and telecommunications.

NAFTA negotiators have not closed any chapters since completing talks on competition policy and small-medium enterprises in late September. Talks have since been dominated by U.S. demands, such as for half of all North American automotive content to be produced in the United States.

Less rhetoric, more substance

“The intersessional could be a chance to turn the temperature down,” said Max Baucus, a former U.S. senator who chairs Farmers for Free Trade, a coalition of U.S. farm sector groups. “This should be a round for the worker bees, with less rhetoric and more concrete negotiations.”

A senior Canadian government source said no progress would be made on the most contentious issues at the Washington talks.

Separately, Canada’s chief negotiator, Steve Verheul, said the U.S. “extreme proposals” were proving very hard to deal with.

“We will not accept U.S. proposals that would fundamentally weaken the benefits of NAFTA for Canada and undermine the competitiveness of the North American market in relation to the rest of the world,” Verheul told Canadian lawmakers this week.

The Washington meetings follow stepped-up lobbying efforts by NAFTA backers in the United States to warn against the dangers of withdrawing from the nearly 24-year-old trade pact.

Top Detroit auto executives met with Vice President Mike Pence, and pro-trade Republican senators met with President Donald Trump.

Moises Kalach, the head of Mexico’s CCE business lobby and a government consultant, said that the United States would need to back off from some of its “extreme” positions for compromises to be made.

“We’re ready to dance. The question is whether the American government is willing to do so,” Kalach told Reuters.

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Bangladesh Asks NY Fed to Help it Recover Stolen Millions

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Bangladesh’s central bank has asked the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to join a lawsuit it plans to file against a Philippines bank for its role in one of the world’s biggest cyber-heists, several sources said.

The Fed has yet to respond formally, but there is no indication it would join the suit.

Unidentified hackers stole $81 million from Bangladesh Bank’s account at the New York Fed in February last year, using fraudulent orders on the SWIFT payments system. The money was sent to accounts at Manila-based Rizal Commercial Banking Corp and then disappeared into the casino industry in the Philippines.

Nearly two years later, there is no word on who was responsible, and Bangladesh Bank has been able to retrieve only about $15 million, mostly from a Manila junket operator.

​Legal action discussed

Officials from Bangladesh Bank and the New York Fed spoke about legal action against RCBC in a conference call last month that was also attended by two representatives from SWIFT, according to three sources in Dhaka who had direct knowledge of the conversations.

It was agreed that Bangladesh Bank would send a proposal on the suit to the New York Fed, they said.

“The aim is to file a case by March-April in New York,” said one of the sources. “Work is on. Bangladesh Bank is likely to send something to the Fed soon.”

The source said the idea was it would be a civil suit to recover the money, and that Bangladesh hoped the Fed and SWIFT would be joint petitioners.

Subhankar Saha, a spokesman for Bangladesh Bank, said he had no knowledge of any plans to sue RCBC but that “efforts are on to recover the entire stolen money.”

The New York Fed and SWIFT declined comment.

A source familiar with the New York Fed’s thinking confirmed that Bangladesh Bank’s external counsel raised the idea of filing a suit against RCBC in the call.

The New York Fed officials agreed to review any proposal Bangladesh Bank wrote up, but they did not formally agree to a joint effort, and have not since worked on it nor heard from Bangladesh Bank, the source said.

​Rogue employees

RCBC has blamed rogue employees, and Philippine prosecutors have filed money-laundering charges against a former RCBC bank manager and four people who owned the bank accounts where the funds were sent, but are not identifiable because the accounts were in fake names. They are the only people to be formally cited in association with the crime.

Bangladeshi officials have cited internal RCBC documents, also seen by Reuters, to assert that the Filipino bank ignored suspicions raised by some RCBC officials when the money was first remitted to the accounts on Feb. 5, 2016, and then delayed acting on requests from RCBC’s head office to freeze the funds on Feb. 9.

RCBC did not respond to requests for comment. But it has said in the past that it would not pay any compensation and that Bangladesh Bank bore responsibility for the theft since it was negligent.

RCBC was fined a record 1 billion Philippine pesos ($20 million) by the country’s central bank last year for its failure to prevent the movement of the stolen money through it.

Separately, a Bangladesh court has sent letters rogatory to the United States seeking the findings of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into the case, said the main police investigator in Dhaka. Letters rogatory are documents used to obtain judicial assistance from foreign courts.

“We have questions for the Federal Reserve Bank, we want to collect the FBI report, what their findings are,” Molla Nazrul Islam, a special superintendent of police in Bangladesh, told Reuters this week.

An FBI spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on ongoing cases.

A hacking group called Lazarus that is believed to have connections to North Korea has been linked to the Bangladesh cyberheist, and some U.S. officials said earlier this year that prosecutors were building a case against Pyongyang. But no case has yet been filed.

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7 Years in Prison for Former Top Volkswagen Manager  

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A federal judge in Michigan has sentenced a former high-level Volkswagen manager to seven years in prison for his part in the scheme to cheat emissions tests and defraud consumers.

Oliver Schmidt has also been fined $400,000. He pleaded guilty in August to charges that included defrauding the United States and violating the Clean Air Act.

“This sentence reflects how seriously we take environmental crime,” Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch said Wednesday. “Protecting national resources is a priority of this office. Corporations and individuals acting on behalf of corporations will be brought to justice for harming our environment.”

Schmidt was the general manager of Volkswagen’s U.S. Environment and Engineering office. He admitted knowing about and agreeing with engineers to carry out a scheme to install a device on certain VW diesel vehicles that would switch on for emissions tests, but switch off during normal driving.

Customers bought the cars believing they were environmentally friendly when in fact the cars were polluting as much as 30 times higher than U.S. standards.

Federal courts have ordered Volkswagen to spend more than $1 billion to buy back or repair the affected cars.

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China’s Ofo Joins Crowded Paris Bike-share Market

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China’s Ofo launched its dockless bicycles in Paris on Wednesday, becoming the fourth bike-sharing plan operator in a city set to banish all combustion-engine cars by 2030.

Ofo France general manager Laurent Kennel told Reuters the firm, one of two bike-sharing giants in China, had put just over 100 of its bright yellow bicycles on Paris roads on Wednesday and plans to ramp that up to 1,000 bikes by year-end.

Ofo comes hot on the wheels of Hong Kong-owned Gobee.bike, which launched in October and whose bright green bikes, estimated at a few thousand, can be seen on every Paris street.

A third Asian player, Singapore-owned oBike, has a few hundred bikes on Paris streets, and will also compete with the city’s long-established Velib plan.

Unlike the dockless Asian bikes, the Velib bikes must be parked in fixed docking stations of which there are some 1,800 in Paris, but which are often full in popular parts of the city.

“We want to be leader in free-floating bikes in Paris and France,” Kennel said.

He added that to cover Paris well, the firm plans to put several thousand bikes on the road, although there are no immediate plans to match Velib’s 24,000 bicycles.

Like Velib, the Ofo bikes have three gears – unlike the gearless Gobee and oBike bikes – but will be slightly more expensive at 0.50 euros ($0.6) per 20 minutes, compared to 0.50 euros for 30 minutes for the other two Asian operators.

Ofo’s bikes will be free for the first 40 minutes until the end of the year. Velib is free the first half hour for users with a subscription.

Kennel said Ofo operate more than 10 million bikes in 200 cities worldwide, the vast majority in China, and a few thousand in Europe, including in Milan, Madrid, Vienna, Prague, London and Cambridge.

Ofo, which has raised more than $1 billion from Chinese venture capitalists, including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., will cooperate with Paris city authorities, which have said they want to regulate the dockless bike plans to prevent chaos on Paris sidewalks.

The dockless bikes can be found and unlocked with a mobile phone app, and after use they can be left anywhere. So far there have been no pile-ups as have been seen on Chinese roads.

The new Asian bike share operators’ entry into the Paris market is well timed, as longtime Velib operator JCDecaux is replaced by the Smoovengo consortium, which won a 600-700 million euro ($700-$825 million) contract to run the Paris city bike-sharing system from 2018 to 2032.

Dozens of Velib docking stations have been out of order for weeks as Velib’s old docking stations are replaced with Smoovengo’s new stations.

The Paris city government is building more bike lanes as it tries to reduce automobile traffic in a bid to cut pollution.

($1 = 0.8486 euros)

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Climate ‘Refugees,’ Sidelined From Global Deal, Ask: ‘Where Is the Justice?’

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Vulnerable communities uprooted by climate change are being left out of a voluntary pact to deal with migration, campaigners said, after the United States pulled out of the global deal.

Although people within low-lying states are being forced to relocate because of worsening storms and rising seas, they will not be recognized in U.N. migration pact talks next year, putting lives at risk, campaigners said.

“Many of the situations we find ourselves in, here in the Pacific, are not caused by us. We continue to ask, ‘Where is the justice?’ Those of us who are least responsible, continue to bear the brunt,” said Emele Duituturaga, head of the Pacific Islands Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (PIANGO).

Hoping for acceptance

“We hope that there will be an openness and an acceptance that climate-induced migration is one that the world community has to be responsible for,” she said on the sidelines of a conference co-hosted by PIANGO in Fiji’s capital, Suva.

With a record 21.3 million refugees globally, the 193-member U.N. General Assembly adopted a political declaration in September 2016 in which it also agreed to spend two years negotiating a pact on safe, orderly and regular migration.

U.S. President Donald Trump this week withdrew from negotiations because the global approach to the issue was “simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres regretted the U.S. decision, his spokesman said, but expressed hope the United States might re-engage in the talks ahead of the start of formal negotiations in February.

Unique heritage

Climate displacement is already a reality for Telstar Jimmy, a student from the Bank Islands in northern Vanuatu.

Her family has relocated several times because of worsening cyclones and flooding, as rising seas slowly wash away ancestral homelands and burial sites.

“The foundations of our unique heritage were taken,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Relocation just meant safety and continuing to exist. But now the question is: Safe and existing for how much longer?”

Worldwide, sea levels have risen 26 centimeters (10 inches) since the late 19th century, driven up by melting ice and a natural expansion of water in the oceans as they warm, U.N. data show. Seas could rise by up to a meter by 2100.

‘It’s only going to get worse’

“With climate-induced displacement, we know that there are already people, communities and countries at risk,” said Danny Sriskandarajah, head of the rights group CIVICUS, co-hosting the Fiji conference. “It’s only going to get worse [and] we need to come up with ways to manage those flows.”

PIANGO and CIVICUS are among campaign groups drafting a declaration that calls on the United Nations to recognize climate change as a key driver of migration.

The 1951 Refugee Convention recognizes that people fleeing persecution, war and conflict have the right to protection, but not those forced out by climate change.

Trump also plans to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, which seeks to end the fossil fuel era this century with a radical shift to cleaner energies to curb heat waves, downpours, floods and rising sea levels.

The deal aims to hold the global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and try to limit the rise even further, to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The U.S. is the only country that is not part of the climate pact after Syria and Nicaragua joined this year.

“I’m a bit nervous because other countries may also pull out with the U.S., and that’s going to be a bigger issue for us, especially at a time when we’re trying to battle climate change,” said Vanuatu local Jimmy. “Whatever each country does will impact the lives of other people around the whole globe.”

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