U.S. to Seek Comprehensive Agriculture Access in EU Trade Talks

The United States on Friday signaled it would not bow to the European Union’s request to keep agriculture out of planned U.S.-EU trade talks, publishing negotiating objectives that seek comprehensive EU access for American farm products.

The objectives, required by Congress under the “fast-track” trade negotiating authority law, seek to reduce or eliminate EU tariffs on U.S. farm products and break down non-tariff barriers, including on products developed through biotechnology, the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) office said.

Agricultural issues were among the major sticking points in past negotiations for a major U.S.-EU trade deal, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), before talks were shelved after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.

EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in Washington on Wednesday that the 28-country bloc could not negotiate on agriculture in a new, more limited set of negotiations expected to start this year.

“We have made very clear agriculture will not be included,” Malmstrom told reporters after meeting Lighthizer, adding that the two sides had not yet agreed on the scope of the talks.

Trump and EU president Jean-Claude Juncker agreed last July to re-launch negotiations to cut tariffs on industrial goods, including autos, and also discuss ways for Europe to buy more U.S. soybeans.

Trump told Juncker that he would refrain from levying threatened 25-percent tariffs on EU-produced cars and auto parts, which he is considering imposing worldwide on national security grounds.

Trump has long complained about Europe’s 10-percent import tariff on autos. The U.S. passenger car tariff is only 2.5 percent, although U.S. tariffs on pickup trucks and other commercial trucks are 25 percent.

The U.S. negotiating wish list does not specifically mention autos, but pledges to seek duty-free market access for U.S. industrial goods that eliminate non-tariff barriers such as “unnecessary differences in regulation.”

USTR’s decision to push for a full-fledged trade negotiation on agricultural goods follows a hearing in December at which U.S. farm, food and beverage groups argued for their products to be included.

Influential lawmakers such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa farmer, have warned they might not support an EU deal that did not include agriculture. Now that the U.S. objectives have been published, the USTR may be ready to formally launch negotiations in as little as 30 days.

But the EU’s own negotiating mandates on industrial goods and regulatory cooperation need to be cleared by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, and approved by member states, and it is unclear how long that process will take.

The United States had a $151 billion goods deficit with the EU in 2017, despite two-way annual trade of about $1.1 billion. USTR also said it will seek commitments by Europe not to impose duties on any digital downloads of U.S. software, movies, music and other products nor any rules that restrict cross-border data flows or require data localization, USTR said.

In an objective aimed at Europe’s efforts to tax products and services from U.S.-based internet giants, including Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook and Amazon.com, USTR said it would seek a “guarantee that these products will  not face government-sanctioned discrimination based on the nationality or territory in which the product is produced.”

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Uganda Not Worried China Will Seize Assets Over Rising Debt

Uganda’s growing debt is sustainable, and the country is not at risk of losing state assets to China, the country’s finance minister, Matia Kasaija, said this week.

Uganda’s auditor-general warned in a report released this month that public debt from June 2017 to 2018 had increased from $9.1 billion to $11.1 billion.

The report — without naming China — warned that conditions placed on major loans were a threat to Uganda’s sovereign assets. 

It said that in some loans, Uganda had agreed to waive sovereignty over properties if it defaults on the debt — a possibility that Kasaija rejected.

“China taking over assets? … in Uganda, I have told you, as long as some of us are still in charge, unless there is really a catastrophe, and which I don’t see at all, that will make this economy going behind. So, … I’m not worried about China taking assets. They can do it elsewhere, I don’t know. But here, I don’t think it will come,” he said.

China is one of Uganda’s biggest country-lenders, with about $3 billion in development projects through state-owned banks.

China’s Exim Bank has funded about 85 percent of two major Ugandan power projects — Karuma and Isimba dams. It also financed and built Kampala’s $476 million Entebbe Express Highway to the airport, which cuts driving time by more than half. China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation, France’s Total, and Britain’s Tullow Oil co-own Uganda’s western oil fields, set to be tapped by 2021.

Economist Fred Muhumuza says China’s foot in Uganda’s oil could be one way it decides to take back what is owed. 

“They might determine the price, as part of recovering their loan,” he said. “By having a foot in there they will say fine, we are going to pay you for oil. But instead of giving you $60 a barrel, you owe us. We’ll give you $55. The $5 you are paying the old debt. But we are reaching a level where you don’t see this oil being an answer to the current debt problem.”

China’s reach

Uganda’s worries about China seizing national assets are not the first in Africa.

A leaked December report in Kenya showed China was promised parts of Mombasa Port as collateral for financing a $3 billion railway it built from the port to Nairobi. Both Chinese and Kenyan officials have denied that the port’s ownership is at risk.

Reports in September that China was taking over Zambia’s state power company over unpaid debt rippled across Africa, despite government denials.

But the fear of a Chinese takeover of a sovereign state’s assets over debt is not completely without merit. Struggling to pay back loans to state-owned Chinese firms, Sri Lanka in 2017 handed over a strategic port.

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Despite Volatility in Retail Stocks, US Officials Predict Continued Growth

Despite the U.S. stock market recovery, Macy’s and American Airlines’ revised revenue forecasts for 2018 have sent their stock prices spiraling. Other retail stocks fell, too, including J.C. Penney, Nordstrom and Kohl’s. The reports come amid news of another iconic department store, Sears, fighting for survival. But U.S. trade and financial officials say the U.S. economy is on solid ground and will continue to grow for years to come. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Government Shutdown Hurts Small Businesses

The 800,000 federal workers who are not being paid or are working without pay during the partial government shutdown were the first to feel its impact. But as Anna Kook reports, other segments of the economy are also being hurt, especially in Washington, home to the largest number of federal workers in the country.

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Protectionism, Dysfunction Could Hurt US Businesses, Warns Chamber of Commerce

Rising global authoritarianism, trade protectionism and the weakening of global institutions threaten U.S. businesses, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned Thursday.

In his annual address, Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue said for now the U.S. economy is strong and business owners are consistently optimistic, crediting “deregulation and tax reform.”

But Donohue also defended the system of alliances and multilateral institutions set up by the United States after World War II – an implicit criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies.

“The U.S. and our allies spent the last 70 years working to expand democracy and freedom,” Donohue said. “Today, we face the task of rebuilding domestic consensus for supporting democracy abroad.”

Donohue also warned against domestic political dysfunction, including the inability of U.S. lawmakers to pass immigration reform.

The comments come amid a prolonged partial government shutdown related to President Donald Trump’s demand for Congress to provide funds to build a wall on the southern U.S. border.

Building the wall would fulfill a key campaign promise for Trump, who regularly portrays immigrants as a threat. Though he didn’t criticize Trump directly, Donohue said immigrants are crucial to the U.S. economy.

“Employers don’t have the workers they need at every skill level in key industries such as health, agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation,” Donohue said. “Our nation must continue to attract and welcome industrious and innovative people from all over the world.”

U.S. lawmakers, he said, should reach a compromise that would provide legal protection for the so-called Dreamers, who came to the U.S. illegally as children. He also called for Congress to approve the “resources necessary to secure the border.”

Donohue also slammed Trump’s trade policies, saying tariffs on China and other countries are “taxes paid by American families and American businesses, not by foreigners.”

“Instead of undermining our own economy, let’s work with our allies to apply pressure on China and use the tools provided by the U.S. trade and international laws that we helped create,” he said.

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Jaguar Land Rover to Cut 4,500 Jobs, Starting in Britain

Jaguar Land Rover said Thursday it will cut 4,500 jobs as the carmaker addresses slowing demand in China and growing uncertainty about the U.K.’s departure from the European Union.

The luxury carmaker, owned by India’s Tata conglomerate, said the cuts will be in addition to 1,500 people who left the business in 2018. The cost-cutting program will begin with a voluntary reduction program in the U.K., where some 44,000 people are employed.

 

The latest job losses follow on from last year’s 2.5 billion-pound ($3.2 billion) turnaround plan that was designed to deal with many of the headwinds facing the company — Brexit, rising trade tensions between China and the U.S. and new European emissions standards combined to push Jaguar into the red in the three months to Sept. 30, compared with the same period the year before. The company also announced further investment in electrification.

 

“The next chapter in the story of the Jaguar and Land Rover brands will be the most exciting — and challenging — in our history,” CEO Ralf Speth said in a statement. “Revealing the iconic Defender, investing in cleaner, smarter, more desirable cars and electrifying our facilities to manufacture a future range of British-built electric vehicles will all form part of building a globally competitive and flourishing company.”

 

Christian Stadler, professor of strategic management at Warwick Business School, said Jaguar was facing a “perfect storm of challenges,” with the drop in Chinese sales being the most immediate problem.

 

“That is JLR’s biggest market, but car buyers there are reluctant to make expensive purchases as the economy is growing at its slowest rate for a decade and the country is locked in a trade war with the U.S.,” Stadler said. “At the same time Chinese dealers are demanding better terms, which JLR has resisted.”

 

The cuts will not just be bad news for the Jaguar staff, Stadler said. Thousands more workers in the U.K. are part of Jaguar supply chain to the carmaker — jobs that will now also be at risk.

 

“Brexit is another factor, with businesses increasingly concerned about the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which would mean tighter border controls,” he said. “That would cause massive disruption as the U.K. car manufacturing industry is so closely integrated with Europe.”

 

Also Thursday, Ford signaled “significant” cuts among its 50,000-strong workforce under plans to make it more competitive. The Dearborn Michigan-based company also said it would shift to more electric models.

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India Establishes Job Quotas for Poor Upper Caste Members

India’s Parliament on Wednesday approved a bill providing a 10 percent quota in government jobs for the poor members of upper castes who have been excluded from existing quotas for low-ranking castes.

The Congress party and other opposition parties supported the legislation, but criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for getting it approved just months before the national elections, in an effort the opposition claimed was aimed at winning votes.

The Modi government surprised the opposition by unexpectedly moving the bill in the lower house of Parliament on Tuesday and getting it approved. The upper house adopted it by sitting late into night on Wednesday during the final day of the current parliamentary session. The bill now only needs the approval of India’s president, a formality, to become law.

Discrimination under the caste system was outlawed soon after India’s independence from Britain in 1947. But the system’s influence remains strong and the government has sought to redress discrimination against those on the lower rungs by setting up quotas for government jobs and university spots.

Until now, 49.5 percent of government jobs and places in state-funded educational institutions were allocated to the lower castes.

The economically poor among higher castes have been clamoring for a similar quota to improve the quality of their lives.

Modi on Wednesday hailed the passage of the bill in Parliament in a tweet as a way for younger, economically disadvantaged Indians from higher castes “to showcase their prowess and contribute toward India’s transformation.”

Opposition lawmakers, including D. Raja of the Communist Party of India and Satish Mishra of the Bahujan Samaj Party, a party representing the lower castes, said the government provided the job quota to upper caste Indians to save embarrassment from its failure to create 2 millions jobs every year as promised after coming to power in 2014.

“Job quotas are being provided as a substitute for jobs,” said Ashish Nandy, a well-known political commentator.

The new law will face a test in India’s Supreme Court, which has put a 50 per cent cap on job quotas in the country based on social and educational backwardness.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the job quota for upper castes would not be affected by any court restrictions because it was introduced because of an economic need.

Critics have said the lower castes should be strengthened through education rather than quotas because many jobs and university spots that have been reserved for them remain empty.

 

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Building Boom Turning to Bust as Turkey’s Economy Slows

Deep in a provincial region of northwestern Turkey, it looks like a mirage — hundreds of luxury houses built in neat rows, their pointed towers somewhere between French chateau and Disney castle.

Meant to provide luxurious accommodations for foreign buyers, the houses are however standing empty in what is anything but a fairy tale for their investors.

The ambitious development has been hit by regional turmoil as well as the slump in the Turkish construction industry — a key sector — as the country’s economy heads towards what could be a hard landing in an intensifying downturn.

After a long period of solid growth, Turkey’s economy contracted 1.1 percent in the third quarter, and many economists expect it will enter into recession this year.

The country has been hit by high inflation and a currency crisis in August. The lira lost 28 percent of its value against the dollar in 2018 and markets are still unconvinced by the readiness of the government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to tackle underlying economic issues.

The villas close to the town center of Mudurnu in the Bolu region are intended to resemble European architecture and are part of the Sarot Group’s Burj Al Babas project.

But the development of 732 villas and a shopping center — which began in 2014 — is now in limbo as Sarot Group has sought bankruptcy protection.

It is one of hundreds of Turkish companies that have done so as they seek cover from creditors and to restructure their debts.

Driving force 

Sarot Group filed for bankruptcy protection after some of their Gulf customers could not pay for the villas they had bought as part of the $200 million (175 million euros) project, Sarot’s deputy chairman, Mezher Yerdelen, said.

So far, $100 million has been spent on the project.

“Some of the sales had to be cancelled,” Yerdelen told AFP, after the company sold 351 villas to Arab investors.

The villas are worth between $400,000 and $500,000 each. They were designed with the Gulf buyers in mind, architect Yalcin Kocacalikoglu said.

While the drop in oil prices hurt its Gulf customers, Sarot Group was also hit by “the negative impact of the economic fluctuations on construction costs” in Turkey, Yerdelen said.

Despite a legal battle over its bankruptcy status, Yerdelen said the company can continue making sales and that he hopes the project will be inaugurated in October 2019.

Yet the Al Babas project is hardly alone. Unfinished and empty housing projects are strewn across the country, testimony to the trouble the construction sector, and the wider economy, now finds itself in. 

The construction sector has been a driving force of the Turkish economy under Erdogan, who has overseen growth consistently above the global average since he came to power in 2003.

But the sector contracted 5.3 percent on-year in the third quarter of 2018.

“Three out of four companies seeking bankruptcy protection or bankruptcy are construction companies,” said Alper Duman, associate professor at Izmir University of Economics.

Turkey’s ‘locomotive’

“Whether we call it a construction bubble or a housing bubble, there is a bubble in Turkey,” he said.

He pointed to unsold housing stock as the main indicator of this, with data showing in that over the past 16 years 10.5 million apartments have been built but only eight million have been approved for use. 

“There is a high risk this bubble will burst,” he said.

Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan said in mid-December that 846 companies had applied for bankruptcy protection since March 2018 but opposition daily Sozcu claimed in October the figure was more than 3,000.

Turkish Chamber of Civil Engineers head Cemal Gokce expressed pessimism, predicting “more bankruptcy protection applications, bankruptcies” among construction companies.

He said too many homes have been built in Turkey.

And most are not luxury villas like Burj Al Babas with its style reminiscent of the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disney theme parks, but simple apartments and homes for ordinary Turks.

The construction confidence index of the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) fell 2.1 percent in December to 55.4, after 56.6 in the previous month. Anything below 100 indicates a pessimistic outlook.

However, Kerim Alain Bertrand, who previously headed up a firm that provided and analyzed data on Turkey’s real estate market, said recently he was more optimistic, partly due to the country’s growing population.

“The construction sector is this country’s locomotive sector,” he said. 

While there will be a consolidation in the sector, it will “continue to be kept alive” by the young population, he added.

The median age of the population in Turkey was 31.7 in 2017, according to TurkStat, compared to 42.8 in the European Union.

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