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US Craft Marketplace Makes Plans to Go Green by Offsetting Emissions

Online crafts retailer Etsy Inc will go green by offsetting planet-warming carbon emissions from its shipping activities, the U.S. company said Wednesday, joining a host of companies making public moves to battle climate change.

Etsy will buy clean energy certificates supporting tree conservation in the United States, wind and solar power in India and clean automotive technology, it said.

The online marketplace for buying and selling handmade and vintage goods said its initiative is the first time a global e-commerce company has made such a move.

“Fast, free shipping ultimately comes at a cost to our planet,” wrote Josh Silverman, chief executive officer of the New York-based company in a blog on the company’s website.

The certificates are a way for companies to offset the amount of carbon dioxide they produce by paying for projects that support clean development.

The 13-year-old Etsy said its greenhouse gas emissions from shipping in 2018 totaled about 135,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, similar to those of 29,000 cars in a year.

About 55,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent are released each day from the delivery of all packages ordered from online retailers in the United States alone, it said.

Budweiser, Amazon.com

Last month, at the U.S. Super Bowl championship game, giant beer maker Budweiser helped purchase clean energy certificates to offset greenhouse gas emissions linked to fans’ travel and the host city of Atlanta.

More than 100 U.S. companies have committed to setting emission-reduction targets that seek to limit rising temperature to 2 degrees Celsius as part of a United Nations-backed initiative, said Sabrina Helm, who heads the Consumers, Environment & Sustainability Initiative, a research group at the University of Arizona.

Online retailers have largely been absent from those efforts, and Etsy’s move sends a “very important signal,” she said.

“A lot of online retailers are not particularly transparent in what they do in terms of sustainability,” she told Reuters.

Last week, online retail giant Amazon.com Inc said it planned to make its carbon footprint public for the first time this year.

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WTO Rules China Over-Subsidized Farmers

The United States won a World Trade Organization ruling Thursday that China subsidized its wheat and rice producers too much in recent years.

The WTO in Geneva agreed with the U.S. position that Beijing paid its farmers excessive amounts for growing wheat, Indica rice and Japonica rice from 2012 to 2015, but said the dispute over a corn subsidy had already expired.

The ruling came in a U.S. complaint filed in 2016 during the final months of the last U.S. administration of former president Barack Obama.

The decision can be appealed, but current U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer praised the ruling.

“China’s excessive support limits opportunities for U.S. farmers to export their world-class products to China,” Lighthizer said in a statement. “We expect China to quickly come into compliance with its WTO obligations.”

The U.S. claimed that China paid its farmers nearly $100 billion more than WTO rules allow, creating an incentive to grow more wheat and rice, thus undercutting global prices for the grains.

The ruling could have ramifications for India, which has calculated its price supports in a similar way as China.

The WTO decision comes amid intense trade talks between Washington and Beijing, with President Donald Trump expressing optimism a deal can be reached.

During a news conference in Hanoi after the abrupt end of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump said, “I think we have a very good chance. Their (economic growth) numbers are down, but I don’t want that.  I want (China) to do great. But we’ve been losing anywhere from $300 to $500 billion dollars a year with China for many, many years. And again, like other things, many presidents should have done this before me. And nobody did. So, we’re doing it.”

The most recent U.S. statistics show China last year had a $382 billion trade surplus in deals with the United States through November. Trump is trying to alter trade terms between the two countries to end what the United States, Japan and European countries contend are China’s unfair trade practices, including state intervention in markets, subsidies of some industries and theft of foreign technology.

But Lighthizer on Wednesday told a congressional panel in Washington, a new deal is not close to being completed.

“Much still needs to be done before an agreement can be reached,” he said. “If we can complete this effort, and again I say if, and if we can reach a resolution on the issue of enforceability, we might have an agreement that enables us to turn the corner in our relationship with China.”

The United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies, have been negotiating for months on a new agreement, even as they have imposed hefty new tariffs on billions of dollars of each other’s exports.

Lighthizer said the countries’ negotiators, who have been meeting in Washington and Beijing, “are making real progress.”

Trump cited that progress on Sunday in postponing what would have been a sharp increase in U.S. duties on $200 billion in Chinese imports that would have taken effect Friday.

China has offered to increase its purchase of American farm products and energy as part of a new trade pact.

 

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Walmart Is Eliminating Greeters, Worrying Disabled Workers

As Walmart moves to phase out its familiar blue-vested “greeters” at 1,000 stores nationwide, disabled workers who fill many of those jobs say they’re being ill-treated by a chain that styles itself as community-minded and inclusive. 

 

Walmart told greeters around the country last week that their positions would be eliminated on April 26 in favor of an expanded, more physically demanding “customer host” role. To qualify, they will need to be able to lift 25-pound (11-kilogram) packages, climb ladders and stand for long periods. 

 

That came as a heavy blow to greeters with cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other physical disabilities. For them, a job at Walmart has provided needed income, served as a source of pride and offered a connection to the community.  

Customer backlash

 

Now Walmart, America’s largest private employer, is facing a backlash as customers rally around some of the chain’s most highly visible employees. 

 

Walmart says it is striving to place greeters in other jobs at the company, but workers with disabilities are worried.  

 

Donny Fagnano, 56, who has worked at Walmart for more than 21 years, said he cried when a manager at the store in Lewisburg, Pa., called him into the office last week and told him his job was going away.  

 

“I like working,” he said. “It’s better than sitting at home.” 

 

Fagnano, who has spina bifida, said he was offered a severance package. He hopes to stay on at Walmart and clean bathrooms instead. 

 

Walmart greeters have been around for decades, allowing the retail giant to put a friendly face at the front of its stores. Then, in 2016, Walmart began replacing greeters with hosts, adding responsibilities that include helping with returns, checking receipts to deter shoplifters and keeping the front of the store clean. Walmart and other chains have been redefining roles at stores as they compete with Amazon.  

The effect of the greeter phase-out on disabled and elderly employees — who have traditionally gravitated toward the role as one they were well-suited to doing — largely escaped public notice until last week, when Walmart launched a second round of cuts. 

 

As word spread, first on social media and then in local and national news outlets, outraged customers began calling Walmart to complain. Tens of thousands of people signed petitions. Facebook groups sprang up with names like “Team Adam” and “Save Lesley.” A second-grade class in California wrote letters to Walmart’s CEO on behalf of Adam Catlin, a disabled greeter in Pennsylvania whose mother had written an impassioned Facebook post about his plight. Walmart said it has offered another job to Catlin. 

 

In Galena, Ill., hundreds of customers plan to attend an “appreciation parade” for Ashley Powell on her last day of work as a greeter. 

 

“I love it, and I think I’ve touched a lot of people,” said Powell, 34, who has an intellectual disability. 

‘What am I going to do?’

 

In Vancouver, Wash., John Combs, 42, who has cerebral palsy, was devastated and then angered by his impending job loss. It had taken his family five years to find him a job he could do, and he loved the work, coming up with nicknames for all his co-workers. 

“What am I going to do — just sit here on my butt all day in this house? That’s all I’m going to do?” Combs asked his sister and guardian, Rachel Wasser. “I do my job. I didn’t do anything wrong.” 

 

Wasser urged the retailer to “give these people a fair shake. … If you want to make your actions match your words, do it. Don’t be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” 

 

With the U.S. unemployment rate for disabled people more than twice that for workers without disabilities, Walmart has long been seen as a destination for people like Combs. Advocacy groups worry the company is backsliding.  

“It’s the messaging that concerns me,” said Gabrielle Sedor, chief operations officer at ANCOR, a trade group representing service providers. “Given that Walmart is such an international leader in the retail space, I’m concerned this decision might suggest to some people that the bottom line of the company is more important to the company than inclusive communities. We don’t think those two are mutually exclusive.” 

 

The greeter issue has already prompted at least three complaints to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as a federal lawsuit in Utah alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the federal law, employers must provide “reasonable” accommodations to workers with disabilities. 

 

Walmart did not disclose how many disabled greeters could lose their jobs. The company said that after it made the change at more than 1,000 stores in 2016, 80 percent to 85 percent of all affected greeters found other roles at Walmart. It did not reveal how many of them were disabled. 

 

This time, Walmart initially told greeters they would have 60 days to land other jobs at the company. Amid the uproar, the company has extended the deadline indefinitely for greeters with disabilities. 

 

“We recognize that our associates with physical disabilities face a unique situation,” Walmart spokesman Justin Rushing said in a statement. The extra time, he said, will give Walmart a chance to explore how to accommodate such employees. 

Offers made

 

Walmart said it has already made offers to some greeters, including those with physical disabilities, and expects to continue doing so in the coming weeks.  

 

But some workers say they have been tacitly discouraged from applying for other jobs. 

 

Mitchell Hartzell, 31, a full-time Walmart greeter in Hazel Green, Ala., said his manager told him “they pretty much didn’t have anything in that store for me to do” after his job winds down in April. He said he persisted, approaching several assistant managers to ask about openings, and found out about a vacant position at self-checkout. But it had already been promised to a greeter who doesn’t use a wheelchair, he said. 

 

“It seems like they don’t want us anymore,” said Hartzell, who has cerebral palsy. 

 

Jay Melton, 40, who has worked as a greeter in Marion, N.C., for nearly 17 years, loves church, Tar Heels basketball and Walmart. His sister-in-law, Jamie Melton, said the job is what gets him out of bed. 

 

“He doesn’t have a lot of things he does himself that bring him joy,” she said. Addressing Walmart, Melton added: “When you cut a huge population of people out, and you have written a policy that declares they are no longer capable of doing what they have been doing, that is discrimination.”  

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World Bank: Women Have Just 75 Percent of Men’s Legal Rights

Women around the world are granted only three-quarters of the legal rights enjoyed by men, often preventing them from getting jobs or opening businesses, the World Bank said in study published Wednesday. 

 

“If women have equal opportunities to reach their full potential, the world would not only be fairer, it would be more prosperous as well,” Kristalina Georgieva, the bank’s interim president, said in a statement. 

 

While reforms in many countries are a step in the right direction, “2.7 billion women are still legally barred from having the same choice of jobs as men,” the statement said. 

 

The study included an index measuring gender disparities that was derived from data collected over a decade from 187 countries and using eight indicators to evaluate the balance of rights afforded to men and women. 

 

The report showed progress over the past 10 years, with the index rising to 75 from 70, out of a possible 100, as 131 countries have agreed to enact 274 reforms, adopting laws or regulations allowing greater inclusion of women. 

 

Among the improvements, 35 countries have proposed laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, granting protections to an additional 2 billion women, while 22 nations have abolished restrictions that kept women out of certain industrial sectors. 

 

Six perfect scores

Six nations — Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden — scored a 100, “meaning they give women and men equal legal rights in the measured areas,” the World Bank said. 

 

A decade ago, no economy had achieved a perfect score. 

 

On the other hand, too many women still face discriminatory laws or regulations at every stage of their professional lives: 56 nations made no improvement over the last decade. 

 

South Asia saw the greatest progress, although it still achieved a relatively low score of 58.36. It was followed by Southeast Asia and the Pacific, at 70.73 and 64.80, respectively.  

 

Latin America and the Caribbean recorded the second-highest scores among emerging and developing economies at 79.09. 

 

Conversely, the Middle East and North Africa posted the lowest score for gender equality at 47.37. The World Bank nevertheless pointed to encouraging changes, such as the introduction of laws against domestic violence, in particular in Algeria and Lebanon.

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Fed to Stop Shrinking Portfolio This Year, Powell Says 

The Federal Reserve will stop shrinking its $4 trillion balance sheet later this year, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said on Wednesday, ending a process that investors say works at cross-purposes with the Fed’s current pause on interest rate hikes. 

“We’ve worked out, I think, the framework of a plan that we hope to be able to announce soon that will light the way all the way to the end of balance sheet normalization,” Powell told members of the House Financial Services Committee in what were his most detailed remarks to date on the subject. 

“We’re going to be in a position … to stop runoff later this year,” he said, adding that doing so would leave the balance sheet at about 16 percent or 17 percent of GDP, up from about 6 percent before the financial crisis about a decade ago. 

The U.S. gross domestic product is currently about $20 trillion, suggesting the Fed’s balance sheet would be between $3.2 trillion and $3.4 trillion. 

The Fed has been trimming its balance sheet — bulked up by trillions of dollars of bond-buying during the post-crisis years to help keep interest rates low and bolster the economy — by as much as $50 billion a month since October 2017. As recently as a few months ago it had expected to keep shrinking its portfolio for another couple of years. 

New tack

But in a series of meetings that began in November, the Fed has been devising a new approach. With rising demand for currency around the world, and from U.S. banks for reserves held at the central bank, Fed policymakers now believe a big balance sheet is necessary just to ensure it has proper control over the short-term interest rates it sets to manage the economy. 

In addition, Fed policymakers now say balance sheet policy should take financial and economic conditions into account. 

Questions about the plan remain, including whether the Fed will adjust the maturities of its Treasury portfolio, and how it will go about shedding the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) it accumulated during its asset-buying days. 

Powell said the Fed still has a bunch of decisions ahead of it. 

“The one on MBS sales is really closer to the back of the line — really, we have to decide about the maturity composition, things like that, and we’ll be working through that in a very careful way,” Powell said.  “Markets are sensitive to this.” 

Powell’s remarks on the balance sheet came toward the end of more than two hours of testimony before the Democrat-led House panel that includes several new members, including New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

But the Green New Deal advocate and Bronx populist asked no questions during the debate, and much of what Powell said on Wednesday repeated comments made Tuesday to the Republican-controlled Senate Banking Committee, including that the economy is on solid ground and the Fed would be patient on raising rates. 

Inflation goal unchanged

Powell was asked, as he was in the Senate, about the Fed’s plan to rethink its policy framework this year. He assured lawmakers that the Fed is merely trying to refine its approach so it can meet its current 2 percent inflation goal. 

“We are not looking at a higher inflation target, full stop,” he said. 

Powell also repeated his warnings against a failure by Congress to raise the debt ceiling, saying there would be “bad consequences” should the United States default on its debt payments. 

Powell by law appears two times a year before Congress to brief members of the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee on monetary policy and the state of the economy. 

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Boeing Unveils Unmanned Combat Jet Developed in Australia

Boeing on Wednesday unveiled an unmanned, fighter-like jet developed in Australia and designed to fly alongside crewed aircraft in combat for a fraction of the cost.

The U.S. manufacturer hopes to sell the multi-role aircraft, which is 38 feet long (11.6 meters) and has a 2,000 nautical mile (3,704-kilometer) range, to customers around the world, modifying it as requested.

It is Australia’s first domestically developed combat aircraft in decades and Boeing’s biggest investment in unmanned systems outside the United States, although the company declined to specify the dollar amount.

Defense contractors are investing increasingly in autonomous technology as militaries around the world look for a cheaper and safer way to maximize their resources.

Boeing rivals like Lockheed Martin and Kratos Defense and Security Solutions are also investing in such aircraft.

Four to six of the new aircraft, called the Boeing Airpower Teaming System, can fly alongside a F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, said Shane Arnott, director of Boeing research and prototype arm Phantom Works International.

“To bring that extra component and the advantage of unmanned capability, you can accept a higher level of risk,” he said.

The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in the United States said last year that the U.S. Air Force should explore pairing crewed and uncrewed aircraft to expand its fleet and complement a limited number of “exquisite, expensive, but highly potent fifth-generation aircraft” like the F-35.

“Human performance factors are a major driver behind current aerial combat practices,” the policy paper said. “Humans can only pull a certain number of Gs, fly for a certain number of hours, or process a certain amount of information at a given time.”

In addition to performing like a fighter jet, other roles for the Boeing system early warning, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance alongside aircraft like the P-8 Poseidon and E-7 Wedgetail, said Kristin Robertson, vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems.

​”It is operationally very flexible, modular, multi-mission,” she said. “It is a very disruptive price point. Fighter-like capability at a fraction of the cost.”

Robertson declined to comment on the cost, saying that it would depend on the configuration chosen by individual customers.

The jet is powered by a derivative of a commercially available engine, uses standard runways for take-off and landing, and can be modified for carrier operations at sea, Robertson said. She declined to specify whether it could reach supersonic speeds, common for modern fighter aircraft.

Its first flight is expected in 2020, with Boeing and the Australian government producing a concept demonstrator to pave the way for full production.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, is home to Boeing’s largest footprint outside the United States and has vast airspace with relatively low traffic for flight testing. 

The Boeing Airpower Teaming System will be manufactured in

Australia, but production lines could be set up in other countries depending on sales, Arnott said.

The United States, which has the world’s biggest military budget, would be among the natural customers for the product.

The U.S. Air Force 2030 project foresees the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter working together with stealthy combat drones, called the “Loyal Wingman” concept, said Derrick Maple, principal analyst for unmanned systems at IHS Markit.

“The U.S. has more specific plans for the wingman concept, but Western Europe will likely develop their requirements in parallel, to abate the capabilities of China and the Russian Federation and other potential threats,” he said.

Robertson declined to name potential customers and would not comment on potential stealth properties, but said the aircraft had the potential to sell globally.

“We didn’t design this as a point solution but a very flexible solution that we could outfit with payloads, sensors, different mission sets to complement whatever their fleet is,” she said. “Don’t think of it as a specific product that is tailored to do only one mission.”

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Brazil’s Senate Confirms Campos Neto as Central Bank Chief

Brazil’s Senate confirmed Roberto Campos Neto as central bank governor on Tuesday, after he stressed that controlling inflation and reining in public spending were critical to supporting economic growth.

Much work must still be done to secure Brazil’s economic recovery, Campos Neto told the Senate’s economic committee at his confirmation hearing.

He indicated there would be little change, if any, to monetary policy, echoing the central bank’s current stance that decisions are based on “caution, serenity and perseverance.”

The Senate approved Campos Neto by a vote of 55 in favor to six opposed, following unanimous confirmation by the economic committee.

He will officially assume the role with the signature of President Jair Bolsonaro, likely later this week.

Campos Neto is a former senior executive at Banco Santander Brasil SA. A University of California-trained economist, he has spent his career in banking and market trading and is acutely aware of the impact central bank policy decisions and communications have on markets, analysts say.

In his testimony Tuesday, Campos Neto said the country must keep opening up capital markets to foreign and domestic investors, while avoiding inflationary stimulus or state intervention.

His rhetoric largely mirrored that of several advisers to President Jair Bolsonaro, most of whom are pushing for an overhaul of the nation’s costly public pension system and a broad series of privatizations.

Campos Neto predicted Brazil’s economy would perform better this year than last, thanks in part to reforms the government is promoting.

Brazilian interest rates have been held at a record low 6.50 percent but economic growth has slowed in recent months, weakening what was already a sluggish recovery from the 2015-16 recession.

“While his market knowledge could make him adopt a more forceful stance at some point, the need to build credibility, particularly at the beginning of his tenure, would favor prudence,” said a U.S.-based source with first-hand experience of Brazilian markets.

Campos Neto refused to discuss whether Brazil should sell any of its $375 billion reserves, saying it was something that would require more analysis.

International FX reserves serve as an insurance policy in times of crisis, he said.

“The price of that insurance is much lower now,” he said, noting the narrowing of the spread between U.S. and Brazilian interest rates to less than 400 basis points from over 1,200 bps a couple of years ago.

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Fed’s Powell: ‘No Rush’ to Hike Rates in ‘Solid’ But Slowing Economy

The Federal Reserve is in “no rush to make a judgment” about further changes to interest rates, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday as he spelled out the central bank’s approach to an economy that is likely slowing.

In two hours of testimony to the Senate Banking Committee, Powell elaborated on the “conflicting signals” the Fed has tried to decipher in recent weeks, including disappointing data on retail sales and other aspects of the economy that contrast with steady hiring, wage growth, and ongoing low unemployment.

“The baseline outlook is a good one,” Powell said, but slower growth overseas is a drag on the U.S. economy that “we may feel more of” in the coming months.

“We have the makings of a good outlook and our (rate-setting) committee is really monitoring the crosscurrents, the risks, and for now we are going to be patient with our policy and allow things to take time to clarify.”

If anything, Powell’s comments solidified a Fed policy shift last month in which it indicated it would pause a three-year cycle of rate hikes, which had been projected to run well into 2020, until the inflation or growth dynamics change.

The flow of new workers into the labor force, for example, has surprised the central bank and means “there is more room to grow,” Powell said.

Powell, who has led the Fed for just over a year, faced virtually no pushback from Republicans on the Senate panel, as former Fed chief Janet Yellen had in the past, that the central bank was courting inflation or financial risks by leaving rates too low.

After raising rates four times in 2018, and anticipating further hikes in 2019, the Fed in January switched to a “patient” stance as concerns about the global economy took root, and markets voiced doubts about the U.S. economic recovery.

The Fed’s benchmark overnight lending rate currently is within a range of 2.25 percent to 2.50 percent.

There was also little said by lawmakers about the Fed’s evolving plan to maintain a balance sheet of perhaps $3.5 trillion, which would be lower than the current $4 trillion but still massive by historical standards. Republican lawmakers generally have pushed the central bank to reduce a financial footprint inflated by crisis-era programs many in the party considered risky.

Financial markets were largely unmoved by Powell’s testimony, which was the first of his two hearings this week in Congress. He is due to appear before the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee on Wednesday.

U.S. Treasury yields were lower in afternoon trading while major U.S. stock indexes were slightly higher. The dollar was weaker against a basket of currencies.

Political Shift

Powell told lawmakers that the Fed expected the U.S. economy to grow solidly but at a slower pace this year than the estimated 3 percent growth for 2018, an outlook that was built into the central bank’s policy statement in January.

The “patient” approach to rate hikes has been a staple of Fed commentary since early last month.

“As long as we have steady growth with no inflation, that should keep the Fed at bay,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Wealth Advisors in Chicago.

But Tuesday’s hearing did offer a preview of issues the central bank may confront as the 2020 presidential campaign takes shape, and Democrats use their recently-won control of the House to press new economic and political ideas.

Amid a growing debate over whether the U.S. government may have far more room to expand its debt than conventional economics might recommend, or whether the Fed’s own balance sheet might help finance a “Green New Deal” of economic and environmental programs, Powell made clear he was among the traditionalists.

“The idea that deficits don’t matter for countries that can borrow in their own currency I think is just wrong. I think that U.S. debt is fairly high as a level of (gross domestic product) and, much more importantly than that, it’s growing faster than GDP,” Powell said. “To the extent that people are talking about the Fed – our role is not to provide support for particular policies” on environmental, social or other related issues.

Indeed, asked about the upcoming need to boost the U.S. debt ceiling, he said he considered the prospect of a U.S. government default on its obligations “a bright line, and I hope we never do pass it.”

Powell’s appearances on Capitol Hill this week, part of his semi-annual testimony to Congress, are his first since Democrats won control of the House in the November elections. They also follow the kickoff of a number of 2020 presidential campaigns.

Along with questions that ranged from the sources of rural poverty to the impact of climate change on banks, Senate committee members pressed points likely to figure into the Democratic primary battle.

“The Fed works for big rich banks that want to get bigger and richer,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat running for president. She questioned whether Powell would be adequately aggressive in reviewing a proposed megamerger between U.S. regional lender BB&T and rival SunTrust Banks.

Powell pledged an “open and transparent” review of the deal.

When asked whether there had been any “direct or indirect” communication from the White House about interest rates, Powell deferred, saying he would not comment on private conversations with other officials.

President Donald Trump has castigated the Fed for raising rates, arguing that the monetary tightening was undercutting his administration’s efforts to boost economic growth.

On Tuesday, Powell repeated his oft-heard pledge that the Fed will make policy decisions “in a way that is not political.”

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Erdogan’s War on Turkey’s Rising Food Prices Leaves Casualties

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared war on food inflation. With food prices rising nearly 30 percent and looming critical local elections next month Erdogan is turning to unconventional methods to rein in costs.

Subsidized food is being sold at distribution centers in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, along with several provincial cities. The centers are part of Erdogan’s war on inflation.

In the pouring rain in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district people patiently line up to take advantage of reduced prices. With staples like onions and potatoes tripling in price, the distribution centers appear welcome by people seeking relief from soaring price tags.

“The food prices are high. Sometimes you go to the street market and go back home without buying anything,” said Sule who works at a nearby university. “Why? Because the produce is so expensive. You go near the leeks, and you see it is 6, 7 lira. Spinach prices rose up to 10 liras. Ok, I can afford some, but larger families cannot buy at these prices.”

Last year’s currency collapse unleashed an inflationary wave, driving up costs of food production.

The inflation surge comes at an inopportune time for Erdogan’s AKP, with critical local elections for control of Turkey’s main cities scheduled in March.

Erdogan, already campaigning hard, is seeking to blame food wholesalers and supermarkets, accusing them of price gouging and even labeling them food terrorists.

“In recent days they began playing a game on Turkey. Prices of eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, and cucumbers began to escalate. It was a terrorist attack,” said Erdogan.

“We will not allow those to launch this terror” he added. “I promise you we will deal with these terrorists who are behind these rising prices like we have dealt with other terrorists that threaten our country.”

Police are raiding supermarkets and wholesalers suspected of price gouging and hoarding. The Turkish Trade Ministry has created a computer app allowing customers to compare prices in shops and report those suspected of overcharging.

Major supermarkets, seeking to avoid Erdogan’s wrath, are slashing prices. Shop signs claim products are now being sold below cost, along with rationing on what can be bought.

“This has nothing to do with economics,” said economist Cengiz Aktar. “Turkey will dearly pay for these mistakes because these are gross economic mistakes. There will be huge price increases. People will have difficulties to buy food and the public finances will collapse one day.”

Rising costs and mounting state pressure on producers and retailers, has led to a new phenomenon in Turkey, “shrinkflation.”

“Shrinkflation has started, which is instead of rising prices, companies selling in smaller formats,” explains Atilla Yesilada, analysts for Global Source Partners.

“So a 100-gram chocolate bar is now being sold for the same price but it’s only 80 grams and it’s the same for toothpaste, etc. The plates are getting smaller in cheap restaurants, as people can’t afford full portions,” added Yesilada.

Istanbul’s “Sali Pazar,” is a traditional marketplace for bargains, drawing people from across the city.

However, the combination of subsidies and the state crackdown on prices is taking its toll on small traders. “It affected our sales by 50 percent. The customers come here and see the prices and don’t buy anything. They just walk off,” said Ali, looking at his unsold potatoes, which are selling at more than twice the price as at state distribution centers.

“Prices are very high (from wholesalers), he added. “You cannot compete with the state. How can we compete with the state? The state buys it for 3.5 liras and sells it to 2 liras.”

“My sales are not falling because I have not sold anything,” said tomato seller Hulusi, waving his hands in exasperation.

“How can sales go down when you don’t have any sales in the first place,” he added. “I have been screaming my heart out since morning and sold just 2 kilos to 2 customers.”

However, for Sali Markets customers eager for bargains, Erdogan’s price war is welcome.

 

“With the intervention of the president there has been some drop in the prices,” said Sule. “In the previous weeks they were quite high, and this makes the people content. Hopefully, this will keep going well.”

Driving down food prices and with it, public discontent, will be critical to Erdogan’s AKP maintaining control of key cities like Istanbul in next month’s local elections, analysts say.

“All the polls show the main concern for the voter will be the economy, and they will be going to vote to register their protests,” said Yesilada. “Nationwide, I expect AKP to suffer very large losses. I would not be too surprised if they lose Istanbul or Ankara.”

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Erdogan’s War on Rising Food Prices Leaves Casualties

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared war on inflation after food prices in the country soared by 30 percent after last year’s collapse of the Turkish currency. In a bid aimed at securing his political future, Erdogan is taking radical measures to curb price increases after accusing food sellers of excessively hiking food prices. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

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Shopping Street Rises From the Ashes of War in Libya’s Benghazi

The old center of Benghazi lies in ruins but one shopping street has sprung up in the war-ravaged Libyan city, with sportswear and fashion stores that would not be out of place in Dubai or Istanbul.

Foreign brands are tapping into residents’ desire to enjoy shopping again after a three-year city war when their minds were concentrated on getting fuel or moving to safer areas.

Imports were limited as fighting between Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army and his mostly Islamist opponents forced Benghazi’s port to close.

But with the end of conflict in 2017, shops have returned and Venice Street, with its trendy new stores and elegant cafes, has brought back a level of wealthy consumerism.

That contrasts with much of the city where some buildings still show bullet holes from World War II, when Benghazi changed hands between British and German troops.

Former leader Moammar Gadhafi neglected eastern Libya, where Benghazi is located, during his 42 years in power in punishment for political opposition there, and what is now Venice Street was mostly wasteland until his overthrow in 2011.

Residents have money in their bank accounts, as most work for the state, but not necessarily cash as there is a shortage of bank notes.

“It’s good that some traders started accepting checks,” said Mustafa Bazara, shopping with his sister for shirts. Checks are accepted in some shops at a premium as they can usually only be cashed on the black market for a fee.

Ahmed al-Orfy, who runs a new fashion store, said he had high hopes for Venice street: “We have security and the ambition to be on same level as the Champs-Elysees.”

($1 = 1.3849 Libyan dinars)

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Fed’s Powell Heads to US Congress Amid Shifting Landscape

Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell worked hard to strengthen ties with Congress during his first year as head of the U.S. central bank, doubling the pace of meetings with lawmakers over his predecessors and courting Democrats and Republicans alike.

The value of that effort will get a very public test this week when Powell heads to Capitol Hill for hearings in a political and economic environment that has shifted dramatically since he last appeared before Congress in July 2018.

Democrats won control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the November elections, and some new lawmakers are pushing programs like a “Green New Deal” that could have long-term implications for the Fed; two members of the Senate Banking Committee and at least one member of the House Financial Services Committee may run for president in 2020; and President Donald Trump’s public criticism of the Fed has raised questions about whether its independence has been compromised.

On top of that, what appeared to be a blue-sky economy in July has become clouded by a global growth slowdown, weak inflation, and bouts of volatility in U.S. bond and stock markets that some have blamed on policy and communications missteps by Powell himself.

In that context, Powell will have to explain the Fed’s recent decision to pause further interest rate increases even though Fed officials feel the U.S. economy remains strong, and convince lawmakers, particularly Democrats, that the decision was not the result of White House pressure for lower rates, said Peter Ireland, an economics professor at Boston College.

The Fed raised rates four times in 2018, but in a sharp pivot last month said it would be patient in deciding when to tighten policy again, if at all. Investors interpreted the move as indicating that the tightening cycle had ended.

After appearances in February and July in which the mood was largely congenial and the economy on an even keel, “all of these things are coming together to make Powell’s testimony particularly challenging,” he said.

The Fed chief by law appears before separate Senate and House committees twice a year.

Points of friction

In a companion report issued last week, the Fed described a U.S. economy that was doing well on many fronts, but facing weaker growth in the year to come and a number of intensifying risks.

Powell will elaborate on that document in written testimony and in answers to lawmakers’ questions, first before the Senate committee on Tuesday and on the following day before the House panel. The Senate hearing is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT).

The Fed chairman is no stranger to the key players: Over the last year he has had one-on-one meetings with a majority of the members of the Senate Banking Committee and about a third of the House Financial Services Committee, including sessions with Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel, and Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California who chairs the House panel.

Brown is exploring a possible run for president, as is his Democratic colleague on the Senate Banking Committee, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Last week, Warren teed up one point of pressure for Powell, repeating her call that the Fed use its regulatory powers to force out Wells Fargo & Co Chief Executive Officer Tim Sloan over the bank’s prior misconduct.

Tougher oversight of major banks and Wall Street is among the top issues of Warren’s presidential campaign. Aside from questions about Trump, there could be other points of friction.

The newest members of the House committee include first-year lawmakers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, who have proposed in broad outline a “Green New Deal” encompassing major changes in national environmental and economic policy. Some versions of that idea involve relying on the Fed to create the credit needed to pay for the program — a controversial proposition to mainstream central bankers.

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Afghanistan Begins Exports to India Through Iranian Port

Afghanistan has started shipping goods to India for the first time through a newly developed Iranian seaport in a bid to improve exports and reduce reliance on routes through its uneasy neighbor, Pakistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani traveled Sunday to the western border city of Zaranj to see off the inaugural convoy of 23 trucks loaded with 570 tons of cargo to the Chabahar port in neighboring Iran. The consignment is destined for the Indian port city of Mumbai. 

For decades, landlocked Afghanistan has mostly relied on Pakistani land and seaports for international trade. But mutual tensions have in recent years significantly reduced Afghan trade and transit activities through Pakistan. 

Addressing the nationally televised ceremony, Ghani credited a “healthy cooperation between India, Iran and Afghanistan” for achieving the milestone. He said the new export route will help improve economic growth in his war-shattered country, saying “Afghanistan is not landlocked anymore.”

New Delhi has financed and developed Iran’s Chabahar Port to enable Kabul get direct and easy sea trade access.

India took operational control of a portion of the Iranian port late last year for 18 months and plans to send cargo ships from its ports of Mumbai, Kandla and Mundra every two weeks, according Indian media reports. 

The United States last year waived certain anti-Iran sanctions to allow development of Chabahar to support efforts aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan. The waiver has enable India, Iran and Afghanistan to continue their work to establish a new transit and transport corridor linking the three countries to help improve Afghan economy and allow the war-ravaged country to import food and medicines.

India successfully shipped 1.1 million tons of wheat to Afghanistan through Chabahar Port in 2017. That year, New Delhi also launched an air corridor with Kabul for bilateral trade. 

Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Vinay Kumar, while addressing Sunday’s ceremony in Zaranj said the air corridor has since helped increased Afghan exports to his country by 40 percent. 

China also opened an air corridor with Afghanistan in November and has since imported thousands of tons of Afghan pine nuts, bringing much-need foreign exchange to Kabul. Afghanistan is the largest producer of pine nuts in the world, with an annual output of about 23,000 tons. The increase in exports to China has led to an unusual rise in in prices of pine nuts in Afghanistan, say local traders and consumers.

Pakistan allows Afghanistan to use its seaports for international trade under a bilateral trade and transit agreement. It also allows use of overland routes for Afghan exports to India. However, Islamabad wants improvement in ties with New Delhi before it will allow Indian exports via the same routes back to Afghanistan. 

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US-China Trade Talks Extended as March Deadline Approaches

The United States and China are discussing a meeting between their two leaders soon to finalize a trade agreement. To move things forward, the latest round of trade talks between senior officials is being extended into the weekend. As Nike Ching reports, experts say world’s two largest economies must bridge wide gaps as they seek common ground before new U.S. tariffs are set to start.

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US-China Trade Hopes Lift Stocks

Stocks rose in major markets around the world Friday on bets of progress in trade talks between China and the United States, while crude futures hit their highest level in more than three months supported by ongoing supply cuts. 

U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday that there was a very good chance the United States would strike a deal with China to end their trade war and that he was inclined to extend his March 1 deadline to reach an agreement. 

U.S. and Chinese negotiators meeting in Washington made progress and will extend this week’s round of negotiations by two days, he said.  

Main stock indexes on Wall Street rose as the optimistic trade talk more than offset signs of slower growth in both U.S. earnings and the economy, with the S&P 500 posting a fourth consecutive week of gains. 

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 181.18 points, or 0.7 percent, to 26,031.81; the S&P 500 gained 17.79 points, or 0.64 percent, to 2,792.67; and the Nasdaq Composite added 67.84 points, or 0.91 percent, to 7,527.55. The Dow rose for the ninth consecutive week.

Overnight, shares in Asia were buoyed by a late rally in Chinese shares, with the main blue-chip index rising more than 2 percent to a near seven-month high. 

Emerging market stocks rose 0.73 percent after touching the highest level since August. MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan closed 0.7 percent higher, while Japan’s Nikkei lost 0.18 percent. 

Trade talks and a growing number of policy U-turns by global central banks have propped up equities in recent weeks, although this week saw the first outflows from emerging market debt and equity funds since October 2018, Bank of America Merrill Lynch strategists said, citing EPFR data. 

Crude rising 

Oil prices touched their highest level in more than three months, supported by OPEC supply cuts as well as the trade developments. New record U.S. oil supply, however, limited gains in post-settle trade. 

U.S. crude rose 0.37 percent to $57.17 per barrel and Brent was last at $67.00, down 0.1 percent on the day. 

In currencies, the U.S. dollar was little changed against a basket of peers. The dollar index fell 0.05 percent, with the euro down 0.03 percent to $1.1331. The Japanese yen strengthened 0.03 percent versus the greenback at 110.68 per dollar. Sterling was last trading at $1.3053, up 0.03 percent on the day. 

The Australian dollar recovered a day after falling more than 1 percent after Reuters reported the Chinese port of Dalian had barred imports of Australian coal indefinitely. China said Friday that imports would continue, but customs has stepped up checks on foreign cargoes. 

Separate comments by Reserve Bank of Australia Gov. Philip Lowe that a rate increase may be appropriate next year also helped to boost the Aussie dollar. 

The Aussie dollar recently gained 0.56 percent versus the greenback at 0.7128. 

Despite gains on risky assets, safe-haven U.S. Treasuries also gained in price. Benchmark 10-year notes last rose 10/32 in price to yield 2.6536 percent, from 2.688 percent late on Thursday. 

The 30-year bond last rose 18/32 in price to yield 3.0159 percent, from 3.045 percent late Thursday. 

Spot gold added 0.4 percent to $1,328.20 an ounce. U.S. gold futures gained 0.21 percent to $1,330.60 an ounce. 

Copper rose 1.52 percent to $6,477.00 a metric ton. 

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Trump Administration Denying, Delaying More Foreign Skilled-worker Requests

The Trump administration is denying and delaying more skilled-worker visa petitions than at any time since at least 2015, in keeping with its promise to increase scrutiny of foreign workers, according to data the government released on Friday.

U.S. officials say they have made reforms that prioritize American workers, cut down on fraud and streamline the immigration process. But lawyers who help employers apply for the visas say the agency is rejecting legitimate applications and tying up requests in bureaucratic red tape.

The data provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that adjudicates the visas, extends to the 2015 fiscal year, encompassing the last two years of the Obama administration and the first two years of the Trump administration.

New policies for H-1B visas

Republican President Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 on restricting immigration, and early in his presidency issued an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, to tighten its policies on H-1B visas. The visas are intended for foreign workers who generally have bachelor’s degrees or higher to work in the United States, often in the technology, healthcare and education sectors.

In the 2018 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, the government issued “initial denials” to over 61,000 H-1B applications. In that time, the government issued decisions on over 396,000 applications.

That is more than double the number of such denials over the prior year, even as the total number of applications the government completed dropped by about 2 percent between 2017 and 2018.

And denials look set to increase even further this year. In the first quarter of the 2019 fiscal year, the government issued initial denials to nearly 25,000 H-1B applications, a 50 percent increase over the same period last year.

Approval rate drops

The majority of petitions are still being approved, but the approval rate is dropping. In 2015, the approval rate was 96 percent, compared with 85 percent last year.

“USCIS has made a series of reforms designed to protect U.S. workers, increase our confidence in the eligibility of those who receive benefits, cut down on frivolous petitions, and improve the integrity and efficiency of the immigration petition process,” said Jessica Collins, a USCIS spokeswoman.

The government data also show that the administration is issuing far more “requests for evidence” in response to H-1B applications. Such requests, or RFEs as they are known, often challenge the basis of the original petitions and require employers and attorneys to submit additional paperwork.

Receiving an RFE from the government can add several months and thousands of dollars in legal fees to the cost of applying for a visa, attorneys say.

Screening questioned

The number of completed H-1B petitions that drew an RFE reached over 150,000 last year, compared with 86,000 in 2017, a 75 percent increase.

Ron Hira, a professor at Howard University and critic of the H-1B program, said the data suggests USCIS is giving employers a fair opportunity to justify their petitions through the RFE process.

“It also makes one question whether the Obama administration was doing an adequate job in ensuring the integrity and accountability of the H-1B program,” Hira wrote in an email. He also noted that large tech companies, such as Microsoft Corp, Amazon, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook Inc, enjoyed H-1B approval rates last year of 98 percent or 99 percent, according to USCIS, while firms that have been criticized for using H-1B workers to replace Americans saw their petitions approved at far lower rates.

But immigration attorneys say many of the denials and RFEs are violating the laws and regulations governing the program. Some companies are successfully challenging the denials in federal court. Entegris Professional Solutions, a Minnesota company, sued USCIS in December over the rejection of an H-1B application for one of its employees.

This month, USCIS reopened the case and granted the petition, said Matthew Webster, one of Entegris’ attorneys on the case.