Pence, Xi Sell Competing Views to Asian Regional Economies

The United States and China offered competing views to regional leaders at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Papua New Guinea, trading sharp words over trade, investment, and regional security.  Washington said it can provide a better option for regional allies under is “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy.  as VOA’s State Department correspondent Nike Ching reports, the APEC gathering ended without a formal leaders’ statement.

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Federal Reserve Policymakers See Rate Hikes Ahead, Note Worries

Federal Reserve policymakers on Friday signaled further interest rate  increases ahead, but raised relatively muted concerns over a potential global  slowdown that has markets betting heavily that the Fed’s rate hike cycle will soon peter out.

The widening chasm between market expectations and the rate path the Fed laid out just two months ago underscores the biggest question in front of U.S. central bankers: How much weight to give a growing number of potential red flags, even as U.S. economic growth continues to push down unemployment and create new jobs?

“We are at a point now where we really need to be especially data dependent,” Richard Clarida, the newly appointed vice chair of the Federal Reserve, said in a CNBC interview. “I think certainly where the economy is today, and the Fed’s projection of where it’s going, that being at neutral would make sense,” he added, defining “neutral” as interest rates somewhere between 2.5 percent and 3.5 percent.

But that range that implies anywhere from two more to six more rate hikes, and Clarida declined to say how many more increases he would prefer.

He did say he is optimistic that U.S. productivity is rising, a view that suggests he would not see faster economic or wage growth as necessarily feeding into higher inflation or, necessarily, requiring higher interest rates. But he also

sounded a mild warning.

“There is some evidence of global slowing,” Clarida said. “That’s something that is going to be relevant as I think about the outlook for the U.S. economy, because it impacts big parts of the economy through trade and through capital markets and the like.”

Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Robert Kaplan, in a separate interview with Fox Business, also said he is seeing a growth slowdown in Europe and China.

“It’s my own judgment that global growth is going to be a little bit of a headwind, and it may spill over to the United States,” Kaplan said. .

The Fed raised interest rates three times this year and is expected to raise its target again next month, to a range of 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent. As of September, Fed policymakers expected to need to increase rates three more times next year, a view they will update next month.

Over the last week, betting in contracts tied to the Fed’s policy suggests that even two rate hikes might be a stretch. The yield on fed fund futures maturing in January 2020, seen by some as an end-point for the Fed’s current rate-hike cycle, dropped sharply to just 2.76 percent over six trading days.

At the same time, long-term inflation expectations have been dropping quickly as well. The so-called breakeven inflation rate on Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS, has fallen sharply in the last month. The breakeven rate on five-year TIPS hit the lowest since late 2017 earlier this week.

Those market moves together suggest traders are taking the prospect of a slowdown seriously, limiting how far the Fed will end up raising rates.

But not all policymakers seemed that worried. Sitting with his back to a map of the world in a ballroom in Chicago’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Chicago Federal Reserve Bank President Charles Evans downplayed risks to his outlook, noting that the leveraged loans that some of his colleagues have raised concerns about are being taken out by “big boys and girls” who

understand the risks.

He told reporters he still believes rates should rise to about 3.25 percent so as to mildly restrain growth and bring unemployment, now at 3.7 percent, back up to a more sustainable level.

Asked about risks from the global slowdown, he said he hears more talk about it but that it is not really in the numbers yet.

But the next six months, he said, bear close watching.

“There’s not a great headline” about risks to the economy right now, Evans told reporters. “International is a little slower; Brexit — nobody’s asked me about that, thank you; [the slowing] housing market: I think all of those are in the mix for uncertainties that everybody’s facing,” he said.

“But at the moment, it’s not enough to upset or adjust the trajectory that I have in mind.”

Still, Evans added, the risks should not be counted out: “They could take on more life more easily because they are sort of more top of mind, if not in the forecast.”

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South Africa Cannabis Ruling Leads to Pot-Themed Products

Now that South Africa’s highest court has relaxed the nation’s laws on marijuana, local entrepreneurs are trying to cash in on the popular herb. Among the latest entries to the market: several highly popular cannabis-laced alcohol products, which deliver the unique taste, though without the signature high. Marijuana activists say this could just be the beginning and that the famous plant could do much more for the national economy. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

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Experts: Without Proof of Ownership, Land Laws Worthless

Land laws mean nothing unless communities can prove their ownership, researchers said Thursday, calling for better tools to map the land and stave off conflict over property.

From South Africa to the Amazon rainforest, battles over land and who owns it are unleashing unprecedented conflict and labyrinthine legal cases as governments and companies seek to exploit ever more of the world’s natural resources, from trees to minerals to rubber.

With an estimated 70 percent of the world unmapped, more than 5 billion people lack proof of ownership, according to the Lima-based Institute for Liberty and Democracy.

Laws no safeguard

Speaking at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual two-day Trust Conference, which focuses on a host of human rights issues, experts said the existence of laws in itself was no safeguard against abuse.

South Africa enshrines security of tenure in its constitution but the government rides roughshod over locals by promoting controversial mining deals, said Aninka Claassens, director of the University of Cape Town’s Land and Accountability Research Center.

More than two decades after the end of apartheid, whites still own most of the land in resource-rich South Africa and ownership remains a highly emotive subject ahead of next year’s national election.

“Our constitution means nothing unless people affected can prove their land rights, that’s why recorded rights are so important,” she said. “Mining is destroying livelihoods and land.”

Who owns what, where

Mapping property rights is crucial to understand “who owns what, where and how,” said Anne Girardin, land surveyor at the Cadasta Foundation, which develops digital tools to document and analyze land and resource rights information.

“That allows you to monitor changes in land resources, but also to better protect them,” she added.

More than 200 activists protecting their land and environment were killed in 2017, according to a survey of 22 countries by Global Witness, marking the deadliest year since the human rights group began collecting data.

Better and more coordinated information is needed to ward off more deadly conflicts, the experts said, citing satellite images and smartphones as tools that could document land.

Technology is plentiful but resources are scattered, Girardin said.

“It would take all the land surveyors we have 200-300 years to map the world’s undocumented land, so we need to be more pragmatic and work together,” she said.

Communities document land

Rampant deforestation means communities should rush to document their own land rather than wait for governments to act, said Nonette Royo, executive director of the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, which helps indigenous people.

“In the world, forest area the size of Belgium disappears every year,” she said.

For Claassens, land rights should be mapped and recorded in accordance with who uses land as well as who actually owns it.

“Who uses the land? Most often, it’s women,” she said, adding that women were often excluded from property records.

Women are key in the fight for land rights from Brazil to Cambodia, often deployed at the frontline to ward off development and protect family plots, fields and villages.

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‘Perfect Time,’ Ethical Businesses Say, to Drive Social Change

Ethically driven businesses are becoming increasingly popular and profitable but they can face threats for shaking up the existing order, entrepreneurs said on Social Enterprise Day.

When Meghan Markle wore a pair of “slave-free” jeans on a royal tour of Australia last month, she sparked a sales stampede and shone a spotlight on the growing number of companies aiming to meet public demand for ethical products.

“Right now is the perfect time to have this kind of business,” said James Bartle, founder of Australia-based Outland Denim, which made the $200 (150 pound) jeans. “There is awareness and people are prepared to spend on these kinds of products.”

Social Enterprise Day

Social Enterprise Day, which celebrates firms seeking to make profit while doing good, is being marked in 23 countries, including Australia, Nigeria, Romania and the Philippines, led by Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), which represents the sector.

Outland Denim is one such company, employing dozens of survivors of human trafficking and other vulnerable women in Cambodia to make its jeans, which all contain a written thank-you message from the seamstress on an internal pocket.

Bartle said he wanted to create a sustainable model that gives people power to change their future through employment.

More companies are striving to clean up their supply chains and stamp their goods as environmentally friendly and ethical, with women and millennials, people born between 1982 and 2000, driving the shift to products that seek to improve the world.

“For-profits create the mess, and then the not-for-profits clean it up,” said Andrew O’Brien, director of external affairs at SEUK, which estimates that 2 million British workers are employed by a social enterprise. “We are an existential threat to that system, by coming through the middle and forcing businesses to change the way they do business.”

Risky business 

Britain has the world’s largest social enterprise sector, according to the U.K. government. About 100,000 firms contribute 60 billion pounds ($76 billion) to the world’s fifth largest economy, SEUK says.

Elsewhere in the world, it can be a risky business.

“I get threats,” said Farhad Wajdi who runs Ebtakar Inspiring Entrepreneurs of Afghanistan, which helps women enter the workforce by training and providing seed money for them to operate food carts in the war-torn country. “I can’t go to the provinces.”

His work has met resistance in parts of Afghanistan, a conservative society where women rarely work outside the home.

“A social enterprise can lead to sustainable change in those communities,” Wajdi said on the sidelines of the Trust Conference in London. “It can propagate gender equality and create friction for social change at a grassroots level.”

Niche? Window dressing?

There is, however, a danger that social enterprise will remain a niche form of business or become window-dressing for firms that just want to improve their public image.

“I don’t want social enterprise to become the next (corporate social responsibility), another (public relations) move,” said Melissa Kim, the founder of Costa Rican-based Uplift Worldwide, which supports social enterprises.

“To me this is just good business, and good sustainable business is not just about the environment and human rights … if you care about your relationships internally and externally you will stay in business.”

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China Woos Pacific Islands With Loans, Showcase Projects

As world leaders land in Papua New Guinea for a Pacific Rim summit, the welcome mat is especially big for China’s president.

A huge sign in the capital, Port Moresby, welcomes Xi Jinping, picturing him gazing beneficently at Papua New Guinea’s leader, and his hotel is decked out with red Chinese lanterns. China’s footprint is everywhere, from a showpiece boulevard and international convention center built with Chinese help to bus stop shelters that announce their origins with “China Aid” plaques. 

On the eve of Xi’s arrival for a state visit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, newspapers in the country ran a full-page statement from the Chinese leader. It exhorted Pacific island nations to “set sail on a new voyage” of relations with China, which in the space of a generation has transformed from the world’s most populous backwater into a major economic power. 

With both actions and words, Xi has a compelling message for the South Pacific’s fragile island states, long both propped up and pushed around by U.S. ally Australia: they now have a choice of benefactors. With the exception of Papua New Guinea, those island nations are not part of APEC, but the leaders of many of them have traveled to Port Moresby and will meet with Xi.

The APEC meeting, meanwhile, is Xi’s to dominate. Headline-hogging leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump are not attending. Trump’s stand-in, Vice President Mike Pence, is staying in Cairns in Australia’s north and flying into Papua New Guinea each day. Australia’s new prime minister, Scott Morrison, the country’s fifth leader in five years, is barely known abroad.

“President Xi Jinping is a good friend of Papua New Guinea,” its prime minister, Peter O’Neill, told reporters. “He has had a lot of engagement with Papua New Guinea and I’ve visited China 12 times in the last seven years.”

Pacific island nations, mostly tiny, remote and poor, rarely figure prominently on the world stage but have for several years been diligently courted by Beijing as part of its global effort to finance infrastructure that advances its economic and diplomatic interests. Papua New Guinea with about 8 million people is by far the most populous, and with its extensive tropical forests and oil and gas reserves is an obvious target for economic exploitation.

Six of the 16 Pacific island states still have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a sizeable bloc within the rapidly dwindling number of nations that recognize the island regarded as a renegade province by Beijing. Chinese aid and loans could flip those six into its camp. A military foothold in the region would be an important geostrategic boost for China, though its purported desire for a base has so far been thwarted. 

Beijing’s assistance comes without the oversight and conditions that Western nations and organizations such as the World Bank or International Monetary Fund impose. It is promising $4 billion of finance to build the first national road network in Papua New Guinea, which could be transformative for the mountainous nation. But experts warn there could also be big costs later on: unsustainable debt, white elephant showpieces and social tensions from a growing Chinese diaspora.

“China’s engagement in infrastructure in PNG shouldn’t be discounted. It should be encouraged but it needs to be closely monitored by the PNG government to make sure it’s effective over the long term,” said Jonathan Pryke, a Papua New Guinea expert at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney.

“The benefits of these projects, because a lot of them are financed by loans, only come from enhanced economic output over a long time to be able to justify paying back these loans,” he said.

“The history of infrastructure investment in PNG shows that too often there is not enough maintenance going on,” Pryke said. “There’s a build, neglect, rebuild paradigm in PNG as opposed to build and maintain which is far more efficient.”

Some high-profile Chinese projects in Papua New Guinea have already run into problems. A promised fish cannery hasn’t materialized after several years and expansion of a port in Lae, the major commercial center, was botched and required significant rectification work. Two of the Chinese state companies working in the country, including the company responsible for the port expansion, were until recently blacklisted from World Bank-financed projects because of fraud or corruption.

Xi’s newspaper column asserted China is the biggest foreign investor in Papua New Guinea, a statement more aspirational than actual. Its involvement is currently dwarfed by the investment of a single company—ExxonMobil’s $19 billion natural gas extraction and processing facility.

Australia, the former colonial power in Papua New Guinea, remains its largest donor of conventional foreign aid. Its assistance, spread across the country and aimed at improving bare bones public services and the capacity of government, is less visible. 

But its approach is shifting in response to China’s moves. 

In September, the Australian government announced it would pay for what is typically a commercial venture — a high-speed undersea cable linking Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands that promises to make the internet and telecommunications in the two island countries faster, more reliable and less expensive.

Earlier this month, Australia announced more than $2 billion of funding for infrastructure and trade finance aimed at Pacific island nations and also agreed to joint development of a naval base in Papua New Guinea, heading off feared Chinese involvement. It is also boosting its diplomatic presence, opening more embassies to be represented in every Pacific island state.

“The APEC meeting is shaping up to be a faceoff between China and Australia for influence in the Pacific,” said Elaine Pearson, the Australia director of Human Rights Watch.

That might seem a positive development for the region, but Pearson cautioned that competition for Papua New Guinea’s vast natural resources has in the past had little positive impact on the lives of its people.

“Sadly exploitation of resources in PNG has fueled violent conflict, abuse and environmental devastation,” she said.

 

 

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Upset by Trump’s Iran Waivers, Saudis Push for Deep Oil Output Cut

When U.S. President Donald Trump asked Saudi Arabia this summer to raise oil production to compensate for lower crude exports from Iran, Riyadh swiftly told Washington it would do so.

But Saudi Arabia did not receive advance warning when Trump made a U-turn by offering generous waivers that are keeping more Iranian crude in the market instead of driving exports from Riyadh’s arch-rival down to zero, OPEC and industry sources say.

Angered by the U.S. move that has raised worries about over supply, Saudi Arabia is now considering cutting output with OPEC and its allies by about 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd) or 1.5 percent of global supply, sources told Reuters this week.

“The Saudis are very angry at Trump. They don’t trust him anymore and feel very strongly about a cut. They had no heads-up about the waivers,” said one senior source briefed on Saudi energy policies.

Washington has said the waivers are a temporary concession to allies that imported Iranian crude and might have struggled to find other supplies quickly when U.S. sanctions were imposed on November 4.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on November 5 that cutting Iranian exports “to zero immediately” would have shocked the market. “I don’t want to lift oil prices,” he said.

A U.S. source with knowledge of the matter said: “The Saudis were going to be angry either way with the waivers, pre-briefed or even after the announcement.”

A U.S. State Department official said: “We don’t discuss diplomatic communications.”

The U.S. shift towards offering waivers adds to tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia, as Washington pushes for Riyadh to shed full light on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

“The Saudis feel they were completely snookered by Trump. They did everything to raise supplies assuming Washington would push for very harsh Iranian sanctions. And they didn’t get any heads up from the U.S. that Iran will get softer sanctions,” said a second source briefed on Saudi oil thinking.

Saudi energy ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Since the summer, Riyadh has led the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and other producers to hike supplies by over 1 million bpd to keep a lid on prices as U.S. sanctions were imposed.

Brent oil had surged above $86 a barrel in October on tight supply worries, but prices have since slid to $66 on concerns about oversupply.

Unexpected waivers

Trump had wanted lower oil prices before the U.S. midterm elections earlier this month. Washington gave waivers in November to eight buyers to purchase Iranian oil for 180 days.

This was more waivers than were initially expected. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a key Trump administration ally, wants prices at $80 or more for his economic reforms, sources familiar with Saudi thinking say.

“The waivers were totally unexpected, especially after calls to raise output. A few people are upset,” said a senior Gulf oil source familiar with the discussions among OPEC and its allies on output policy.

While the United States set a time limit for the waivers, it did not tell the eight recipients how much oil they could buy and has not eased payment restrictions, complicating purchases.

Iran’s oil exports are expected to drop sharply to about 1 million bpd in November from a peak of 2.8 million bpd earlier this year. Although output is expected to recover from December thanks to waivers, it is still not clear by how much.

Riyadh’s concern is to avoid the kind of oversupply in the market that led to a price collapse in 2014 to below $30.

But the lack of clarity about the level of Iran’s supplies makes it tough for Saudi Arabia to work out appropriate production levels, especially after Russia raised output steeply in recent months and has said it wanted to produce more in 2019.

Saudi Arabia would need to convince Russia to join in any move for new supply cuts.

“First the Saudis let oil prices rise to $86 per barrel and then flooded the market. Can they now cut back enough going into a seasonally weak time of the year? Without Russia it won’t be credible,” said Gary Ross, CEO of Black Gold investors.

Saudi Arabia must also contend with rising U.S. production that has hit record levels above 11 million bpd and is set to climb further next year. U.S. exports could surge from the second part of 2019 when new pipeline infrastructure opens.

Rapidan Energy Group said it saw a supply glut now lasting much more than just a few months in 2019.

“Now that the market has correctly priced weaker-than-anticipated Iran sanctions and much bigger inventory builds next year, we wish to emphasize that ‘OPEC plus’ officials face more than a single-year supply tsunami in 2019,” Rapidan said.

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US Envoy for Iran Warns EU Banks, Firms Against Non-Dollar Iran Trade

European banks and firms which engage in a special European Union initiative to protect trade with Iran will be at risk from newly reimposed U.S. sanctions, the U.S. special envoy for Iran warned on Thursday.

It is “no surprise” that EU efforts to establish a so-called Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for non-dollar trade with Iran were floundering over fear in EU capitals that hosting it would incur U.S. punishment, Special Representative Brian Hook said.

“European banks and European companies know that we will vigorously enforce sanctions against this brutal and violent regime,” he said in a telephone briefing with reporters.

“Any major European company will always choose the American market over the Iranian market.”

The SPV is seen as the lynchpin of European efforts to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran from which U.S. President Donald Trump, who took office after the deal was sealed, withdrew in May.

Iran has warned it could scrap the agreement, which curbed its disputed program in exchange for sanctions relief, if the EU fails to preserve the deal’s economic benefits.

The SPV was conceived as a clearing house that could be used to help match Iranian oil and gas exports against purchases of EU goods in an effective barter arrangement circumventing U.S. sanctions, based on global use of the dollar for oil sales.

Brussels had wanted to have the SPV set up by this month, but no country has offered to host it, six diplomats told Reuters this week.

Their reluctance arises from fears that SPV reliance on local banks to smooth trade with Iran may trigger U.S. penalties, severing the lenders’ access to U.S. financial markets, diplomats said.

Criticizing EU efforts to bypass sanctions, Hook reiterated a warning that such an EU effort sent “the wrong signal, at the wrong time.”

However, he added that waivers from sanctions granted to eight of Iran’s biggest oil importers were to ensure the U.S. measures did not harm allies or raise oil prices.

“We have looked at these on a case by case basis, taking into account the unique needs of friends and partners, and also ensuring that as we impose sanctions on Iran’s oil sector that we do not lift the price of oil,” Hook said.

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