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Could Winning Super Bowl Play be Winning Marketing Ploy?

A company’s value is often tied to the message it portrays to customers. But what happens when other companies try to take advantage of your brand?

Take the Philadelphia Eagles, for instance. The American football team wants to exclusively own the phrase: “Philly Special.” That was the trick play that helped them win the Super Bowl, and the Philly Special is, by far, the most talked-about play of the Super Bowl.

Watch the play here:

It is a gutsy move. In football-speak, it is a direct-snap reverse pass to quarterback Nick Foles, who usually throws the ball. But the coach gives the OK, and Foles tells his teammates the plan in the huddle.

The team lines up, Foles runs up the field. Tight end Trey Burton throws the football, and Foles catches it in the end zone for a touchdown.

“Play of the century”

Now, the phrase, ‘Philly Special,’ has turned into a city-wide phenomena. Bakeries are making Philly Special pastries. Some people are getting the words or even a sketch of the play tattooed on themselves.

And stores, like Ashley Peel’s Philadelphia Independents, cannot keep enough Philly Special T-shirts in stock.

“It’s the ‘Nick Foles play of the century,’ as I’m dubbing it from the Super Bowl,” Peel said. “It has a layout of the [specifics] from the play. We just got it in and we’re almost already sold out of it. It’s definitely moving well.”

It’s moving well, even as several entrepreneurs are competing to be awarded a trademark — in other words, exclusive rights — to the phrase.  Many of the businesses filed their own trademark applications ahead of the Eagles.

“I do have a client that’s applied for the mark, ‘Philly Special,’” said Philadelphia-based lawyer Nancy Rubner Frandsen.

She filed a trademark application on behalf of a company called Whalehead Associates. She can’t comment too much about the application without violating attorney-client privilege, but admits the phrase goes beyond a football play.

“Obviously it brings everyone together, it was our Super Bowl championship that brought it all about,” she said. “It’s got the term ‘Philly’ in it — from the trademark standpoint, it would be deemed to be descriptive. But then you combine it with the term, ‘Special,’ and it could make a very unique trademark.”

Some of the other businesses that want to trademark the term include a sandwich maker, a gift shop manufacturer … and the Philadelphia Eagles. The team was actually the last to file a trademark application. Even so, experts say, it’s likely the rights will be awarded to the Eagles.

Newsjacking

“This particular term, ideally, should belong to the Eagles,” said Dr. Jay Sinha, an associate marketing professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

He added the phenomenon around ‘Philly Special’ is not the first time there’s been a rush to trademark a term after a big event, like the Super Bowl. And it’s even got a name: ‘newsjacking.’

“The term, newsjacking, means where a company rides or takes advantage of some event happening in current affairs and uses it for their own commercial purposes, especially for marketing in branding,” Sinha said.

For example, think of famous movie lines, like: ‘May the force be with you,’ from “Stars Wars.” When sequels are released, other companies often try to take advantage of the film’s popularity for marketing purposes, like an ice cream shop that posts a sign reading, ‘May the swirl be with you.’

“If there’s anything which is relevant in popular culture as well as the news, companies like to ride on it,” Sinah said.

In this case, it likely will be several months before the U.S. Patent Office announces who will be awarded the rights to the now famous phrase. By then, though, another Super Bowl will be approaching and the excitement of the Philly Special could be fading.

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Giant Retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods Ends Sales of Assault-Style Weapons

Dick’s Sporting Goods, one of the largest sports retailers in the U.S., will immediately end the sale of assault-style rifles in its stores and stop selling guns of any type to anyone under age 21.

The company made the announcement Wednesday, precisely two weeks after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“We deeply believe that this country’s most precious gift is our children. They are our future. We must keep them safe. Beginning today, DICK’S Sporting Goods is committed to the following: http://d.sg/RTC,” the company said in a post on Twitter.

“We need to make a statement,” chairman and CEO Edward Stack said in an interview Wednesday on CNN. “We don’t want to be part of this story any longer.”

Stack said the Florida shooting suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, legally purchased an AR-15 assault rifle from Dick’s in November, but it was not the one used to kill 14 students and 3 staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Stack, who said he remains a strong advocate of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, asserted the nation’s gun laws do not prevent dangerous people from buying guns and that lawmakers must act to strengthen those laws.

The executive called on elected officials to ban assault-style firearms, high-capacity magazines and “bump stocks,” which are devices that enable semi-automatic rifles to fire hundreds of rounds per minute. Stack also proposed raising the minimum age to buy guns to 21.

He said Dick’s, which also stopped selling high-capacity magazines, is prepared for any backlash but will not change its policies on gun sales. “We’re comfortable with our decision,” he said, adding that Dick’s will continue to sell an array of hunting and sport firearms.

The announcement is one of the strongest positions taken by a major U.S. corporation since the massacre, which has reignited the national gun debate and sparked a wave of gun-control rallies across the country.

More than a dozen U.S. corporations have ended partnerships with the National Rifle Association since the mass shooting, including Delta Airlines and United Continental Holdings, Inc., which owns United Airlines.

NRA ties

Other companies that have cut ties with the NRA include Avis, Best Western International, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Metlife, the Hertz Corporation, and Wyndham Worldwide Corporation.

The NRA is one of the country’s most powerful lobbying groups for gun rights and claims 5 million members. In the 2016 elections, the NRA gave $54 million in political donations, much of that during the presidential race.

It is not unusual for some members of Congress to have individually received hundreds of thousands of dollars — even millions — from the NRA. While some Democrats are also recipients of NRA financial support, the top benefactors are currently members of the Republican Party.

NRA reaction

Last week, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington that those advocating for stricter gun control were exploiting the Florida shooting.

Gun control advocates have noted that many teenagers in America can legally purchase assault rifles before they’re eligible to vote or drink alcohol. Twenty-eight of the 50 states have no minimum age requirement for owning a rifle.

Another giant U.S. retail seller of guns, Walmart, Inc., stopped selling AR-15 rifles and other semi-automatic weapons in 2015.

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Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods Crack Down on Gun Sales  

Two major U.S. retailers changed their gun sales policies Wednesday in the fallout over a Florida high school massacre.

Walmart, the country’s biggest retailer, announced it is raising the age restriction for buying guns and ammunition to 21.

“We take seriously our obligation to be a responsible seller,” it said in a statement. 

Walmart is also dropping toys and other items that resemble assault-style weapons from its website. The retail giant stopped selling assault-style guns in 2015 and does not sell handguns except for its stores in Alaska.

Earlier Wednesday, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would no longer sell assault-style rifles or any gun to anyone younger than 21.

The chain went one step further and urged Congress to ban assault-style weapons and raise the minimum age.

The alleged Parkland high school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, used an AR-15.

Dick’s says Cruz had bought a shotgun at one of its stores after going though all the proper procedures, but stressed it was not the exact weapon or the type allegedly used in the Feb. 14 massacre. 

Both Walmart and Dick’s say they are committed to serving sportsmen, hunters, and the majority of gun owners whom they call law-abiding citizens.

WATCH: Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO: ‘We Don’t Want to be a Part of This Story’

 

The mass shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has had an impact on the corporate world, which is seemingly taking a close look at nationwide polls that overwhelmingly favor tighter gun laws.

More than a dozen major companies are ending discounts for members of the National Rifle Association (NRA). They include Delta Airlines, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, MetLife Insurance and Best Western Hotels. 

President Donald Trump, who has been a huge supporter of the NRA and whose campaign was a recipient of millions of dollars in NRA funds, said earlier this week that sometimes you just have to fight the NRA.

At a discussion on gun safety with U.S. lawmakers Wednesday, he also accused Republican politicians who have given tepid support for stronger gun laws of being “afraid” of the powerful pro-gun lobby group.

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White House: Senior US, Chinese Officials to Meet This Week on Trade

Three of President Donald Trump’s senior economic aides are expected to meet this week with a top Chinese economic official to discuss trade disputes between the United States and China.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Reuters that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Trump’s economic adviser, Gary Cohn, are expected to meet Chinese economic adviser Liu He in Washington.

The talks are likely to cover a range of differences including intellectual property and steel.

Trump has long called for a more balanced trade relationship with China and threatened to impose a big “fine” against China to protect American intellectual property. U.S. officials said Trump has been discussing imposing a global tariff on imports of steel from China, the world’s largest steel producer, and other countries.

The talks with Liu may help determine the trajectory of the U.S.-Chinese trade relationship, which Trump believes is heavily tilted in favor of China.

A senior U.S. official said there was skepticism on the U.S. side that a trade breakthrough could be achieved any time soon.

“We’re trying to treat this with an open mind. But the Chinese don’t really want to make a deal. They like the status quo,” the official said.

There was no plan for Trump himself to meet Liu, but officials did not rule it out if progress was being made.

Liu, a Harvard-trained economist and trusted confidant of Chinese President Xi Jinping, has emerged as the front-runner to be the next governor of China’s central bank, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Liu is the top adviser to Xi on economic policy and is also expected to become vice premier overseeing the Chinese economy.

Steel

A source close to the White House said Trump had expressed interest in imposing a tariff on steel imports of at least 24 percent. The White House said no final decision had been made.

The Commerce Department on Feb. 16 recommended that Trump impose stiff curbs on steel imports from China and other countries and offered the president several options ranging from global and country-specific tariffs to broad import quotas.

A blanket tariff on steel would cover every steel and aluminum product entering the American market from China.

China has expressed concerns over excessive protectionism in the U.S. steel sector and urged restraint. It has also said it will oppose any “unfair and unreasonable” trade measures by countries such as the United States.

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WTO Chief Reacts Coolly to Trump’s Criticism of Trade Judges

The head of the World Trade Organization diplomatically took issue with U.S. President Donald Trump’s description of the WTO as a catastrophe on Tuesday, pointing out that the United States actually had a better deal than other countries in the club.

“World Trade Organization — a catastrophe,” Trump said on Monday at a meeting with U.S. governors, according to a White House transcript.

“The World Trade Organization makes it almost impossible for us to do good business. We lose the cases, we don’t have the judges. We have a minority of judges. It’s almost as bad as the 9th Circuit,” Trump said.

Asked about Trump’s remarks, WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo, a former Brazilian trade negotiator, told reporters in Sofia that it was not news that the United States had concerns about the work of the WTO. 

“Just one clarification,” he said.

“No member has more than one judge at the WTO. The members of the Appellate Body, they are seven, and they come from different regions, so no country has a majority there. The United States, in fact, has always had one of the Appellate Body members with U.S. nationality, which is very unusual, but it is the situation.”

Since last year, the United States has been vetoing the appointment of new judges to the WTO’s Appellate Body, in effect the supreme court of world trade.

The lack of judges has slowed down the handling of trade disputes and could halt the appeals process altogether after the next judge retires in September.

Trump has said he thinks the United States does not get a fair deal, but trade negotiators from other countries say he has not yet set any conditions for resuming judicial appointments, making it impossible to meet U.S. demands.

“This is a very serious situation that we are trying to discuss with members, to see how we can overcome this,” Azevedo said.

Former WTO chief Pascal Lamy said last week that Trump’s view of trade was “medieval,” and the U.S. win/lose rate in WTO disputes was similar to that of other countries.

“The question is whether the U.S. problem is trying to fix a number of issues or whether the U.S. strategy is trying to wreck the system,” Lamy said.

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Venezuela Says US Sanctions Hampering Debt Renegotiation

Venezuela’s foreign minister said Tuesday that U.S. sanctions against the ailing oil nation were making foreign debt renegotiation more difficult and causing “panic” at global banks.

Venezuela is undergoing a major economic crisis, with millions dealing with food and medicine shortages, and President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government is late in paying interest of $1.9 billion on its debt.

The U.S. government imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela in August, prohibiting dealing in new debt from the Venezuelan government or state oil company PDVSA, in an effort to halt financing that Washington said fuels a “dictatorship.”

Venezuela has repeatedly said Washington is trying to force a default.

“The renegotiation of external debt is underway, but it has been made more difficult by U.S. sanctions,” Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told reporters in Geneva. “It’s incredible how global banks have reacted with panic. If a bank somewhere in the world works with Venezuela, they feel they are going to be sanctioned.”

According to Arreaza, global banks have opted to close accounts belonging to the government, business people and embassies. He added that some U.S. companies were unable to pay for Venezuelan oil.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the specter of sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry. The OPEC nation obtains 95 percent of its export revenue from oil, though production is down significantly in recent months.

“If the international financial system blocks Venezuela, we are working with Russia, China and Turkey to find new mechanisms,” said Arreaza.

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Cuban Cigar Sales Hit Record as China Demand Surges

A surge in sales of Cuba’s legendary cigars in China helped manufacturer Habanos S.A.’s global revenue rise 12 percent to hit a record of around $500 million last year, the company said on Monday at the start of Cuba’s annual cigar festival.

Habanos S.A., a 50-50 joint venture between the Cuban state and Britain’s Imperial Brands Plc, said sales in China, its third export market after Spain and France, jumped 33 percent in value in 2017.

“Without doubt, there is potential for China to become the biggest market at a global level,” Habanos Vice President of Development Jose María Lopez told Reuters after the company’s annual news conference, while puffing on a smoke.

The Cuban monopoly cigar company’s hand-rolled cigars, which include brands such as Cohiba, Montecristo and Partagas, are considered by many as the best in the world, and the festival attracts wealthy tobacco aficionados and retailers from all over for a week of extravagant parties and tours of plantations and factories.

Lopez said that growth in global sales of Cuban cigars last year outpaced the luxury goods market, which expanded 5 percent, according to consultancy Bain & Co. He put sales growth down to several good tobacco harvests and new products.

The Habanos executive said the outlook was also positive, given solid demand and “excellent” climatic conditions.

Hurricane Irma, which wrought havoc throughout much of Cuba last year, left the western, prime tobacco-growing state of Pinar del Rio mostly unscathed.

Cigars are one of the top exports for the Cuban economy, which is otherwise struggling with decreasing aid from key ally Venezuela, a cash crunch and a push back against market reforms.

However, the Caribbean island cannot sell its signature export to the biggest market worldwide for cigars, the United States, due to the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

Improved U.S.-Cuba relations under former U.S. President Barack Obama stoked a boom in international travel to Cuba and boosted cigar sales on the island, with American visitors able to take home as many cigars as they wanted.

Lopez said U.S. President Donald Trump’s more hostile policy toward Cuba, including tighter restrictions on U.S. travel, did not appear to have impacted sales so far. Domestic revenue rose around 15 percent last year.

“We trust that despite Trump’s measures the Cuban market will continue to grow in 2018,” he said.

Cigars have been Cuba’s signature product ever since Christopher Columbus saw natives smoking rolled up tobacco leaves when he first sailed to the Caribbean island in 1492.

Late revolutionary leader Fidel Castro was often seen puffing on his favored kind, the long and thin ‘lancero’ until he quit in 1985.

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Denver Weighs Olympics Bid Years After Withdrawing as Host

It promised ample snow and sunny weather on a normally bare, rocky peak easily accessible by “super highway,” thousands more hotel rooms than existed, and a cross-country ski course that looked good on paper but would have cut through some people’s backyards.

The airbrushed pitch worked, but after Denver won a bid to host the 1976 Winter Olympics, its plan unraveled amid questions about the environmental impact, ballooning costs and logistics of hosting such a big event in a quickly growing state.

Now, over four decades after Denver became the only city to withdraw as an Olympic host after winning a bid, it is exploring whether to try again after many cities have decided it’s just not worth it.

The city is again growing, with low unemployment and a booming economy, and this time has a bigger airport, light rail, more hotels, seven professional sports teams and multiple stadiums. But the highway touted in ’76 — Interstate 70, which connects Denver to the Rockies — has essentially remained the same. As the population of outdoor-loving Colorado has grown, the largely four-lane route is often gridlocked on weekends.

Meanwhile, the city also is trying to lure Amazon to open its second headquarters in the metro area, which already has many worried about growth, tax breaks and the rising cost of living.

The Olympic exploratory committee convened by Mayor Michael Hancock — which includes leaders of companies like Vail Resorts and Liberty Global, along with former Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and ex-Denver Nugget Chauncey Billups — is mulling a privately funded games, estimated to cost $2 billion, without any mega projects. Organizers say the strategy could even leave the state with a surplus to fund I-70 improvements or other work.

Denver already faces stiff competition from Salt Lake City, which became the first U.S. city to announce its plans to bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics this month. Salt Lake said it could host without losing money thanks to existing venues and its expertise in putting on the 2002 Olympics. Reno, Nevada, is also considering a bid.

While some worry the Olympics will distract Denver from urgent problems like affordable housing and transportation, committee members stress that the games won’t take money from those priorities and could potentially net $100 million to $200 million thanks to proceeds from ticket sales, sponsorships and merchandise.

The panel had been in a rush to decide in March whether to pursue the 2026 or 2030 games but is now focused on 2030. The U.S. Olympic Committee announced in Pyeongchang that it will not pursue a 2026 bid unless the International Olympic Committee decides to award bids for both years at once. Denver’s group now plans to make a recommendation to the mayor and governor by late April or early May, although chairman Rob Cohen said the exploratory committee would readjust its timeline if a dual bid becomes a possibility.

The International Olympic Committee is encouraging fewer billion-dollar projects and more facilities already in place after the lavish 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The three venues that would need to be built for a Denver-based Olympics — for Nordic skiing, ski jumping, bobsledding, luge and skeleton — would be temporary structures, said Cohen, CEO of insurance and wealth management company IMA Financial Group. The events could be spread around the state or concentrated along the Front Range.

The exploratory committee has been criticized for its lack of grass-roots representation for meeting behind closed doors, but it recently invited community activists to serve on advisory groups and held online meetings with the public.

Traffic jams

Architect Michael Wenham pondered the prospect of a Denver Olympics recently while at a park near downtown, noting it could be interesting to come up with environmentally friendly ways to host the Olympics. But he reconsidered when he thought about I-70 traffic. He can’t remember the last time he headed to the mountains to snowboard on a weekend because of its traffic jams.

“High-speed buses with their own lane. That is the only way they’re going to be able to do it,” Wenham said.

Cohen said buses would be one possibility for moving people to the mountains quickly during the Olympics, as would giving truckers incentives to bypass I-70. He said some of the surplus could be used to improve the interstate or on another project that would benefit the state long-term, and noted the federal government helped pay to fix highways for Salt Lake City’s 2002 Games.

Glamour vs. mundane

In the years since Denver said no thanks, more cities have become wary of pursuing the Olympics in the face of public opposition and financial concerns.

Innsbruck, Austria, which hosted the 1976 Games after Denver backed out, decided against pursuing a 2026 bid when its promise to organize low-cost and sustainable games failed to convince residents. Other cities that have considered but dropped Olympic aspirations in recent years include St. Moritz and Davos, Switzerland, Krakow, Poland and Oslo, Norway.

Former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, whose political career took off after he helped fight the 1976 Olympics, is trying to keep an open mind about Denver’s latest go-around. The committee studying the issue includes savvy people with a track record of successful economic development projects, he said.

But even if Denver could pull it off, he’s not sure what’s in it for the city.

Lamm thinks officials tend to get seduced by the Olympics’ glamour when they could spend their attention on the mundane things that support the economy, such as finding money for education and roads. That takes more campaigning and alliance-making in Colorado because of its strict tax and spending limits, which require voters to approve any tax hikes.

“There’s many opportunities to make this a better state, and I don’t see how the Olympics fit into that,” he said.

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Likely Centrist Brazil Presidential Contender Says He Would Sell Petrobras

The governor of Sao Paulo and likely centrist presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin said on Monday that he would privatize Brazil’s state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA if he wins the elections in October.

Alckmin, who has single digit support in opinion polls, said during a television interview with Band TV that he favored private ownership of Petrobras, as Brazil’s biggest company is known, as long as the sale was conducted within a strict regulatory framework.

Once a taboo issue in Brazilian politics because of national sovereignty concerns, the privatization of Petrobras is set to become a campaign issue this year as Brazil struggles to bring an unsustainable budget deficit under control.

Brazil’s left fiercely rejects the sale of Petrobras, but the leftist leader leading early opinion polls, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, will likely be barred from running because of a corruption conviction and there are no obvious politicians who can fill his shoes.

It is not clear where the far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who is currently second in opinion polls, stands on relinquishing state control of Petrobras.

But his economic policy advisor Paulo Guedes told Valor newspaper in an interview published on Monday that he favored selling all state companies to raise 700 billion reais that would help pay off one fifth of Brazil’s public debt.

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Cryptocurrency Newcomers Cope With Wild Swings

After researching digital currencies for work last year, personal finance writer J.R.

Duren hopped on his own crypto-rollercoaster.

Duren bought $5 worth of litecoin in November, and eventually purchased $400 more, mostly with his credit card. In just a few months, he experienced a rally, a crash and a recovery, with the adrenaline highs and lows that come along.

“At first, I was freaking out,” Duren said about watching his portfolio plunge 40 percent at one point. “The precipitous drop came as a shock.”

The 39-year-old Floridian is part of the new class of crypto-investors who do not necessarily think bitcoin will replace the U.S. dollar, or that blockchain will revolutionize modern finance or that dentists should have their own currency.

Dubbed by longtime crypto-investors as “the noobs” — online lingo for “newbies” — they are ordinary investors hopping onto the latest trend, often with little understanding of how cryptocurrencies work or why they exist.

“There has been a big shift in the type of investors we have seen in crypto over the past year,” said Angela Walch, a fellow at the UCL Centre for Blockchain Technologies. “It’s shifted from a small group of techies to average Joes. I overhear conversations about cryptocurrencies everywhere, in coffee shops and airports.”

Walch and other experts cited parallels to the late-1990s, when retail investors jumped into stocks like Pets.com, a short-lived online seller of pet supplies, only to watch their wealth evaporate when the dot-com bubble burst.

Bitcoin is the best-known virtual currency but there are now more than 1,500 to choose from, according to market data website CoinMarketCap, ranging from popular coins like ether and ripple to obscure coins like dentacoin, the one intended for dentists.

Exactly how many “noobs” bought into the craze last year is unclear because each transaction is pseudonymous, meaning it is linked to a unique digital address, and few exchanges collect or share detailed information about their users.

A variety of consumer-friendly websites have made investing much easier, and online forums are now filled with posts from ordinary retail investors who were rarely spotted on the cryptocurrency pages of social news hub Reddit before.

Reuters interviewed eight people who recently made their first foray into digital currency investing. Many were motivated by a fear of missing out on profits during what seemed like a never-ending rally last year.

One bitcoin was worth almost $20,000 in December, up around 1,900 percent from the start of 2017. As of Friday afternoon it was worth about $10,000 after having fallen as much as 70 percent from its peak. Other coins made even bigger gains and experienced equally dizzying drops over that time frame.

“There was that two-month period last year where all the virtual currencies kept going and up and I had a couple of friends that had invested and they had made five-figure returns,” said Michael Brown, a research analyst in New Jersey, who said he bought around $1,000 worth of ether in December.

“I got swept by the media frenzy,” he said. “You never hear stories of people losing money.”

In the weeks after Brown invested, his holdings soared as much as 75 percent and tumbled as much as 59 percent.

Buy and ‘Hodl’

Investors who got into bitcoin before its 2013 crash like to refer to themselves as “OGs,” short for “original gangsters.”

They tend to shrug off the recent downturn, arguing that cryptocurrencies will be worth much more in the future.

“As crashes go, this is one of the biggest,” said Xavier Levenfiche, who first invested in cryptocurrencies in 2011.

“But, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a hiccup on the road to greatness.”

Spooked by the sudden fall but not willing to book a loss, many investors are embracing a mantra known as “HODL.” The term stems from a misspelled post on an online forum during the cryptocurrency crash in 2013, when a user wrote he was “hodling” his bitcoin, instead of “holding.”

Mike Gnitecki, for instance, bought one bitcoin at around $18,000 in December and was sitting on a 43 percent decline as of Friday, waiting for a recovery.

“I view it as having been a fun side investment similar to a gamble,” said Gnitecki, a paramedic from Texas. “Clearly I lost some money on this particular gamble.”

Duren, the personal finance writer, is also holding onto his litecoin for now, though he regrets having spent $33 on credit card and exchange fees for a $405 investment.

Some retail investors who went big into cryptocurrencies for the first time during the rally last year remain positive.

Didi Taihuttu announced in October that he and his family had sold everything they owned — including their business, home, cars and toys — to move to a “digital nomad” camp in Thailand.

In an interview, Taihuttu said he has no regrets. The crypto-day-trader’s portfolio is in the black, and he predicts one bitcoin will be worth between $30,000 and $50,000 by year-end.

His backup plan is to write a book and perhaps make a movie about his family’s experience.

“We are not it in it to become bitcoin millionaires,” Taihuttu said.

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French Farmers Heckle Macron at Agricultural Fair

President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday faced heckles and whistles from French farmers angry with reforms to their sector, as he arrived for France’s annual agricultural fair.

For over 12 hours, Macron listened and responded to critics’ rebukes and questions — only to return home to the Elysee Palace with an adopted hen.

“I saw people 500 meters away, whistling at me,” Macron said, referring to a group of cereal growers protesting against a planned European Union free-trade pact with a South American bloc, and against the clampdown on weedkiller glyphosate.

“I broke with the plan and with the rules and headed straight to them, and they stopped whistling,” he told reporters.

“No one will be left without a solution,” he said.

Macron was seeking to appease farmers who believe they have no alternative to the widely used herbicide, which environmental activists say probably causes cancer.

Mercosur warning

He also wanted to calm fears after France’s biggest farm union warned Friday that more than 20,000 farms could go bankrupt if the deal with the Mercosur trade bloc (Brazil, which is the world’s top exporter of beef, plus Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) goes ahead.

Meanwhile, Macron was under pressure over a plan to allow the wolf population in the French countryside to grow, if only marginally.

“If you want me to commit to reinforce the means of protection … I will do that,” he responded.

And he called on farmers to accept a decision on minimum price rules for European farmers, “or else the market will decide for us.”

But it wasn’t all jeers and snarls for Macron at the fair.

He left the fairground with a red hen in his arms, a gift from a poultry farm owner.

“I’ll take it. We’ll just have to find a way to protect it from the dog,” he said, referring to his Labrador, Nemo.

It was a far cry from last year, when, as a presidential candidate not yet in office, Macron was hit on the head by an egg launched by a protester.

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Investor Warren Buffett: Good Deals Hard to Find on Wall Street

Investor Warren Buffett says Wall Street’s lust for deals has prompted CEOs to act like oversexed teenagers and overpay for acquisitions, so it has been hard to find deals for Berkshire Hathaway.

In his annual letter to shareholders Saturday, Buffett mixed investment advice with details of how Berkshire’s many businesses performed. Buffett blamed his recent acquisition drought on ambitious CEOs who have been encouraged to take on debt to finance pricey deals.

“If Wall Street analysts or board members urge that brand of CEO to consider possible acquisitions, it’s a bit like telling your ripening teenager to be sure to have a normal sex life,” Buffett said.

Berkshire is also facing more competition for acquisitions from private equity firms and other companies such as privately held Koch Industries.

Sticking with guideline

Buffett is sitting on $116 billion of cash and bonds because he’s struggled to find acquisitions at sensible prices. And Buffett is unwilling to load up on debt to finance deals at current prices.

“We will stick with our simple guideline: The less the prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we must conduct our own,” Buffett wrote.

He said the conglomerate recorded a $29 billion paper gain because of the tax reforms Congress passed late last year. That helped it generate $44.9 billion profit last year, up from $24.1 billion the previous year.

Investors left wanting

Buffett’s letter is always well-read in the business world because of his remarkable track record over more than five decades and his talent for explaining complicated subjects in plain language. But this year’s letter left some investors wanting more because he didn’t say much about Berkshire’s succession plan, some noteworthy investment moves or the company’s new partnership with Amazon and JP Morgan Chase to reduce health care costs.

Edward Jones analyst Jim Shanahan said he expected Buffett to devote more of the letter to explaining his decision to promote and name the top two candidates to eventually succeed him as Berkshire’s CEO. Buffett briefly mentioned that move in two paragraphs at the very end of his letter.

That surprised John Fox, chief investment officer at FAM Funds, which holds Berkshire stock.

“He didn’t say a lot about succession. I was expecting more,” Fox said.

Greg Abel and Ajit Jain joined Berkshire’s board in January and took on additional responsibilities. Jain will now oversee all of the conglomerate’s insurance businesses while Abel will oversee all of the conglomerate’s non-insurance business operations.

Bet pays off for charity

Buffett, 87, has long had a succession plan in place for Berkshire to ensure the future of the conglomerate he built even though he has no plans to retire. Until January, he kept the names of Berkshire’s internal CEO candidates secret although investors who follow Berkshire had long included Jain and Abel on their short lists.

Shanahan said it also would have been nice to read Buffett’s thoughts on why he is selling off Berkshire’s IBM investment but maintaining big stakes in Wells Fargo and US Bancorp.

But Buffett did offer some sage investment advice based on his victory in a 10-year bet he made with a group of hedge funds. The S&P 500 index fund Buffett backed generated an 8.5 percent average annual gain and easily outpaced the hedge funds. One of Buffett’s favorite charities, Girls Inc. of Omaha, received $2.2 million as a result of the bet.

Buffett said it’s important for people to invest money regularly regardless of the market’s ups and downs, but watch out for investment fees, which will eat away at returns.

Succeeding in the stock market requires the discipline to act sensibly when markets do crazy things. Buffett said investors need “an ability to both disregard mob fears or enthusiasms and to focus on a few simple fundamentals. A willingness to look unimaginative for a sustained period — or even to look foolish — is also essential.”

Buffett said investors shouldn’t assume that bonds are less risky than stocks. At times, bonds are riskier than stocks.

Berkshire owns more than 90 subsidiaries, including clothing, furniture and jewelry firms. It also has major investments in such companies as Coca-Cola Co. and Wells Fargo & Co.

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Australia Failing to Curb Corruption, Global Survey Finds

Australia appears to be failing in its efforts to crack down on bribery, according to the latest survey conducted by Transparency International, a non-governmental organization based in Germany.

The group said developed countries – including Australia – appeared to be lagging in their efforts to combat corruption in the public sector.  It pointed to an inadequate regulation of foreign political donations in Australia, conflicts of interest in planning approvals, revolving doors and improper industry lobbying in large-scale mining projects.  

While Australia’s ranking is unchanged – it remains ranked 13th out of 180 countries – its corruption score has slipped eight points since the index started in its current form in 2012.

Concern about Australia’s ranking comes as debate continues about the need for a nationwide anti-corruption body similar to the Independent Commission Against Corruption in the state of New South Wales.  It was set up in 1989 and has scored many notable victories, including the jailing of corrupt state politicians.

Professor A.J. Brown, who leads a project called “Strengthening Australia’s National Integrity System” for Transparency International, says much more work needs to be done.

“We do not have a federal anti-corruption body amongst other things, so it is also about the fact that our track record in terms of government commitment to controlling foreign bribery or money laundering and some of the things that the private sector is also involved in internationally is not that strong.  We are moving but we have been moving very slow and very late, and not very comprehensively,” Brown said.

This year, New Zealand and Denmark were ranked highest in the Transparency International survey, the U.S. is ranked 16th, while South Sudan and Somalia were the lowest-ranked nations. The best performing region was Western Europe, while the most corrupt regions were Sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The survey found that more than 6 billion people live in countries that are corrupt. Transparency International said most countries failed to protect the independence of the media, which plays a crucial role in preventing corruption.

 

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AP Fact Check: Toughest Sanctions on North Korea Ever? Not likely

The heaviest, the largest, the most impactful —  those were the superlatives the Trump administration used to describe its latest sanctions against North Korea.

But were the Treasury Department designations of more than 50 companies and ships accused of illicit trading with the pariah nation really the toughest action yet by the U.S. and the wider world?

Probably not.

Here’s a look at how President Donald Trump and a top lieutenant described Friday’s sanctions to punish the North for its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — and how they stack up against past economic restrictions that have been piled on Kim Jong Un’s government in response to its illegal weapons tests.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin: “The Treasury Department is announcing the largest set of sanctions ever imposed in connection with North Korea.”

Trump: “I do want to say, because people have asked, North Korea — we imposed today the heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country before.”

As for Trump’s blanket assertion, in sheer dollar terms, the U.S. has actually imposed much costlier restrictions on countries such as Iran, a far richer economy than North Korea’s. Washington and its allies cut off tens of billions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil exports and shut the country’s central bank out of the international financial system, among other steps, before eliminating those restrictions under a 2015 nuclear deal.

Correct on number

In terms of the number of entities targeted Friday, Mnuchin is probably correct about the history of sanctions on North Korea.

The department blacklisted “one individual, 27 entities and 28 vessels” located, registered or flagged in North Korea, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Marshall Islands, Tanzania, Panama and Comoros. That appeared to be the most companies or individuals designated by the U.S. at a single time. According to Mnuchin, there are now more than 450 U.S. sanctions against North Korea, about half of them levied in the last year.

But in purely economic terms, both Mnuchin and Trump are well wide of the mark.

The latest designations are primarily intended to crack down on North Korea’s evasion of wider-ranging sanctions adopted by the U.N. Security Council and the United States that are more economically significant.

Over the past year, the council has adopted three sets of sanctions banning North Korean exports of coal, iron ore, textiles, seafood products and other goods. If those measures are properly implemented, that would reduce the North’s export revenues by 90 percent from 2016 levels, or by $2.3 billion annually. Those sanctions are also heavily restricting North Korean fuel supplies. They capped refined oil imports at 500,000 barrels a year. That’s a reduction from the 4.5 million barrels North Korea imported in 2016.

It’s because of those draconian restrictions that North Korea wants to conduct trade on the quiet with “ship-to-ship” transfers that the U.S. is determined to stop. With Friday’s measures, Mnuchin said, the U.S. has gone after “virtually all their ships that they’re using at this moment.”

That’s certainly a significant increase in pressure on North Korea as its foreign trade diminishes. But the Treasury Department did not give an overall figure for how much revenue the North would be deprived of because of the latest actions, other than to say that nine of the newly blacklisted foreign vessels “are capable of carrying over $5.5 million worth of coal at a time.”

‘Underwhelming’ in scope

The conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation did not think much of the new steps.

“As impressive as the list is in length, it is underwhelming in its scope and fails to live up to the hype,” it said. “Like his predecessors, President Trump remains reluctant to go after Chinese financial entities aiding North Korea’s prohibited nuclear and missile programs.”

China is said to account for about 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade and be its main access point to the international financial system. Past U.S. sanctions that have targeted Chinese companies have probably had a much bigger impact on North Korea’s revenue streams.

In November, the Treasury Department blacklisted three Chinese companies that it said had “cumulatively exported approximately $650 million worth of goods to North Korea and cumulatively imported more than $100 million worth of goods from North Korea.”

An even bigger Chinese trading partner of the North was blacklisted in September 2016: Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. According to a report by the U.S.-based research group C4AD and South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Hongxiang carried out imports and exports worth a total of $532 million in 2011-15. It had also supplied aluminum oxide and other materials that can be used in processing nuclear bomb fuel.

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With Rates Still Low, Fed Officials Fret Over Next US Recession

Federal Reserve policymakers fretted on Friday that they could face the next U.S. recession with virtually the same arsenal of policies used in the last downturn and, with interest rates still relatively low, those will not pack the same punch.

In the midst of an unprecedented leadership transition, Fed officials are publicly debating whether to scrap their approach to inflation targeting, how much of its bond portfolio to retain, and how much longer they can raise interest rates in the face of an unexpectedly large boost from tax cuts and government spending.

After years of near-zero rates and $3.5 trillion in bond purchases all meant to stimulate the economy in the wake of the 2007-09 recession, the Fed has gradually tightened policy since late 2015. Its key rate is now in the range of 1.25 to 1.5 percent, and while the Fed plans to hike three more times this

year it has also forecast that it is about halfway to its goal.

That could leave little room to provide stimulus when the world’s largest economy, which is heating up, eventually turns around.

“We would be better off, rather than thinking about what we would do next time when we hit zero, making sure that we don’t get back there. We just don’t want to be there,” Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren told a conference of economists and the majority of his colleagues at the central bank.

Rosengren, one of only a few sitting policymakers who also served during the last downturn, said the expanding U.S. deficits could further erode the government’s ability to help curb any future recession. “With the deficits we are running up, it’s not likely [fiscal policy] will be helpful in the next

recession either,” he said.

Since mid-December, the Republican-controlled Congress and U.S. President Donald Trump aggressively cut taxes and boosted spending limits, two fiscal moves that are expected to push the annual budget deficit above $1 trillion next year and expand the $20 trillion national debt.

Overheating

That stimulus, combined with synchronized global growth, signs of U.S. inflation perking up, and unemployment near a 17-year low could set the stage for overheating that ends one of the longest economic expansions ever.

“We want more shock absorbers out there and really … the main shock absorber is the ability to reduce the fed funds rate, which means that you want to get to a higher inflation rate so that the pre-shock fed funds rate is 4 and not 2,” said Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor at City University of New York.

In a speech to the conference hosted by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Krugman said every recession since 1982 has been caused by “private sector over-reach” and not Fed tightening, as in decades past.

The conference’s main research paper argued the central bank should focus on cutting rates in the next recession and avoid relying on asset purchases that are less effective in stimulating investment and growth than previously thought.

In October the Fed began trimming some of its assets and it has yet to decide how far it will go. William Dudley, president of the New York Fed, told the conference that, to be sure, the ability to again purchase bonds if and when rates hit zero “seems like a good tool to have.”

The Fed’s approach to any economic slowdown would likely be to cut rates, pledge further stimulus, and only then buy bonds.

Rosengren and others dismissed the possibility of adopting negative interest rates, as some other central banks have done.

Yet five years of below-target inflation, combined with an aging population and slowdown in labor force growth, has sparked a debate over ditching a long-standing 2 percent price target.

Some see this month’s succession of Fed Chair Janet Yellen by Jerome Powell as ideal timing to consider new frameworks that could help drive inflation, and rates, higher. Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester, whom the White House is considering for Fed vice chair, told the conference the central bank could begin to reassess the framework later this year, though she added that the threshold for change should be high.

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EU Leaders Draw Up Battle Lines for Post-Brexit Budget

European Union leaders staked out opening positions Friday for a battle over EU budgets that many conceded they are unlikely to resolve before Britain leaves next year, blowing a hole in Brussels’ finances.

At a summit to launch discussion on the size and shape of a seven-year budget package to run from 2021, ex-communist states urged wealthier neighbors to plug a nearly 10 percent annual revenue gap being left by Britain, while the Dutch led a group of small, rich countries refusing to chip in any more to the EU.

Germany and France, the biggest economies and the bloc’s driving duo as Britain prepares to leave in March 2019, renewed offers to increase their own contributions, though both set out conditions for that, including new priorities and less waste.

Underlining that a divide between east and west runs deeper than money, French President Emmanuel Macron criticized what he said were poor countries abusing EU funds designed to narrow the gap in living standards after the Cold War to shore up their own popularity while ignoring EU values on civil rights or to undercut Western economies by slashing tax and labor rules.

Noting the history of EU “cohesion” and other funding for poor regions as a tool of economic “convergence,” Macron told reporters: “I will reject a European budget which is used to finance divergence, on tax, on labor or on values.”

Poland and Hungary, heavyweights among the ex-communist states which joined the EU this century, are run by right-wing governments at daggers drawn with Brussels over their efforts to influence courts, media and other independent institutions.

The European Commission, the executive which will propose a detailed budget in May, has said it will aim to satisfy calls for “conditionality” that will link getting some EU funding to meeting treaty commitments on democratic standards such as properly functioning courts able to settle economic disputes.

But its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned on Friday against deepening “the rift between east and west” and some in the poorer nations see complaints about authoritarian tendencies as a convenient excuse to avoid paying in more to Brussels.

At around 140 billion euros ($170 billion) a year, the EU budget represents about 1 percent of economic output in the bloc or some 2 percent of public spending, but for all that it remains one of the bloodiest subjects of debate for members.

Focus on payments

The Commission has suggested that the next package should be increased by about 10 percent, but there was little sign Friday that the governments with cash are willing to pay that.

“When the UK leaves the EU, then that part of the budget should drop out,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who leads a group of hawks including Sweden, Denmark and Austria.

“In any case, we do not want our contribution to rise and we want modernization,” he added, saying that meant reconsidering the EU’s major spending on agriculture and regional cohesion in order to do more in defense, research and controlling migration.

On the other side, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said his priorities were “sufficient financing of cohesion policy” a good deal for businesses from the EU’s agricultural subsidies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there had been broad agreement that new priorities such as in defense, migration and research should get new funding and she called for a “debureaucratization” of traditional EU spending programs.

Summit chair Donald Tusk praised the 27 leaders — Prime Minister Theresa May was not invited as Britain will have left before the new budget round starts — for approaching the issue “with open minds, rather than red lines.” But despite them all wanting to speed up the process, a deal this year was unlikely.

Quick deal unlikely

Although all agree it would be good to avoid a repeat of the 11th-hour wrangling ahead of the 2014-20 package, many sounded doubtful of a quick deal even early next year.

“It could go on for ages,” Rutte said. He added that it would be “nice” to finish by the May 2019 EU election: “But that’s very tight.”

Among the touchiest subjects will be accounting for the mass arrival of asylum-seekers in recent years. Aggrieved that some eastern states refuse to take in mainly Muslim migrants, some in the west have suggested penalizing them via the EU budget.

Merkel has proposed that regions which are taking in and trying to integrate refugees should have that rewarded in the allocation of EU funding — a less obviously penal approach but one which she had to defend on Friday against criticism in the east. It was not meant as a threat, the chancellor insisted.

In other business at a summit which reached no formal legal conclusions, leaders broadly agreed on some issues relating to next year’s elections to the European Parliament and to the accompanying appointment of a new Commission for five years.

They pushed back against efforts, notably from lawmakers, to limit their choice of nominee to succeed Juncker to a candidate who leads one of the pan-EU parties in the May 2019 vote. They approved Parliament’s plan to reallocate some British seats and to cut others altogether and also, barring Hungary, agreed to a Macron proposal to launch “consultations” with their citizens this year on what they want from the EU.

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Report: Trump, Officials to Discuss Changes to Biofuels Policy

U.S. President Donald Trump has called a meeting early next week with key senators and Cabinet officials to discuss potential changes to biofuels policy, which is coming under increasing pressure after a Pennsylvania refiner blamed the regulation for its bankruptcy, according to four sources familiar with the matter.

The meeting comes as the oil industry and corn lobby clash over the future of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a decade-old regulation that requires refiners to cover the cost of mixing biofuels such as corn-based ethanol into their fuel.

Trump’s engagement reflects the high political stakes of protecting jobs in a key electoral state. Oil refiner Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES), which employs more than 1,000 people in Philadelphia, declared bankruptcy last month and blamed the regulation for its demise.

Oil, farm state senators

The meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, will include Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa, along with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and potentially Energy Secretary Rick Perry, according to the four sources, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

One source said the meeting would focus on short-term solutions to help PES continue operating. PES is asking a bankruptcy judge to shed roughly $350 million of its current RFS compliance costs, owed to the EPA which administers the program, as part of its restructuring package.

The other sources said the meeting will consider whether to cap prices for biofuel credits, let higher-ethanol blends be sold all year, and efforts to get speculators out of the market.

Officials at the EPA, Agriculture Department, and Energy Department declined to comment. A White House official, Kelly Love, said she had no announcement on the matter at this time.

The offices of Cruz, Ernst and Grassley did not immediately return requests for comment.

The sources said the options moving forward would be constrained by political and legal realities that have derailed previous efforts at reform.

The Trump administration has considered changes to the RFS sought by refiners this year, including reducing the amount of biofuels required to be blended annually under the regulation or shifting the responsibility for blending to supply terminals, only to retreat in the face of opposition from corn-state lawmakers.

​Narrow options, broad resistance

The EPA is expected to weigh in officially in the coming weeks on request by PES to the bankruptcy judge to be released from its compliance obligations. But any such move would likely draw a backlash from other U.S. refiners, who have no hope of receiving a waiver.

Under the RFS, refiners must earn or purchase blending credits called RINs to prove they are complying with the regulation. As biofuels volume quotas have increased, so have prices for the credits, meaning refiners that invested in blending facilities have benefited while those that have not, such as PES, have had to pay up.

PES said its RFS compliance costs exceeded its payroll last year, and ranked only behind the cost of purchasing crude oil.

Other issues may have contributed to PES’ financial difficulties. Reuters reported that PES’ investor backers withdrew from the company more than $594 million in a series of dividend-style distributions since 2012, even as regional refining economics slumped.

Regulators and lawmakers have been considering how to cut the cost of the RFS to the oil industry.

In recent months, for example, the EPA has contemplated expanding its use of an exemption available to small refineries, a move that would likely push down RIN prices, but which both the oil and corn industries have said would be unfair.

Cruz last year proposed limiting the price of RINs to 10 cents, a fraction of their current value — an idea that was roundly rejected by the ethanol industry as a disincentive for new ethanol blending infrastructure investment.

Senator John Cornyn, also a Texas Republican, is preparing draft legislation to overhaul the RFS in Congress that would include the creation of a new specialized RIN credit intended to push down prices, but it too faces resistance from both the corn and oil lobbies.