Factory Activity in China Grows for First Time in 6 Months

China’s factory activity in September recorded its first expansion in six months, an official survey said Saturday, providing another sign that the world’s second-largest economy is gradually improving after its post-pandemic malaise.

According to the government statistics bureau and an official industry group, the monthly purchasing managers’ index rose to 50.2 this month from 49.7 in August measured on a 100-point scale. Numbers above 50 indicate activity is increasing.

Measures of production, new orders and employment all rose from August, the National Bureau of Statistics and the China Federation of Logistics & Purchasing said. But the bureau’s senior statistician, Zhao Qinghe, said the manufacturing industry still faces some difficulties in its recovery and development.

Since China lifted its tough COVID-19 restrictions, its leaders have been trying to boost the economy with a series of measures and promising to support entrepreneurs who generate jobs and wealth.

Performances in some sectors have shown improvements, including in factory output and retail sales. But China’s property crisis is still dragging on its economic growth.

Official data says the index measuring nonmanufacturing commercial activities grew to 51.7 from August’s 51. The composite index rose to 52 from 51.3.

Zhao said the improvement indicated by the latest indexes suggests the level of economic activity is rebounding. As government policies take effect, positive economic factors are increasing, he said.

However, China’s economic rebound remained uneven. Real estate developers are struggling to repay heavy debts in a time of slack demand. Last month, investment in real estate fell 8.8% from the year before.

The heavily indebted Chinese property developer China Evergrande Group Investment suspended trading in its shares Thursday in Hong Kong. It said authorities had informed it that its chairman, Hui Ka Yan, was subjected to “mandatory measures in accordance with the law due to suspicion of illegal crimes.”

Observers are watching how other near-term data will play out, including those on consumer spending during the eight-day autumn holiday period that began Friday. The break — which covered the Mid-Autumn Festival Friday and includes National Day on Sunday — is the longest week of public holidays since COVID rules were eased in December.

China State Railway Group Co. recorded a record daily high of 20 million passenger rail trips Friday, official news agency Xinhua reported.

China’s economy grew at a 6.3% annual pace in the second quarter of 2023, much slower than the 7%-plus growth that analysts had forecast based on the anemic pace of activity the year before. Roughly 1 in 5 young workers is unemployed — a record high that adds to pressures on consumer spending.

On Brink of Government Shutdown, US Senate Tries to Approve Funding

The United States is on the brink of a federal government shutdown after hard-right Republicans in Congress rejected a longshot effort to keep offices open as they fight for steep spending cuts and strict border security measures that Democrats and the White House say are too extreme.

With no deal in place by midnight Saturday, federal workers will face furloughs, more than 2 million active-duty and reserve military troops will work without pay and programs and services that Americans rely on from coast to coast will begin to face shutdown disruptions.

The Senate will be in for a rare Saturday session to advance its own bipartisan package that is supported by Democrats and Republicans and would fund the government for the short-term, through November 17.

But even if the Senate can rush to wrap up its work this weekend to pass the bill, which also includes money for Ukraine aid and U.S. disaster assistance, it won’t prevent an almost certain shutdown amid the chaos in the House. On Friday, a massive hard-right revolt left Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s latest plan to collapse.

“Congress has only one option to avoid a shutdown — bipartisanship,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky echoed the sentiment, warning his own hard-right colleagues there is nothing to gain by shutting down the federal government.

“It heaps unnecessary hardships on the American people, as well as the brave men and women who keep us safe,” McConnell said.

The federal government is heading straight into a shutdown that poses grave uncertainty for federal workers in states all across America and the people who depend on them — from troops to border control agents to office workers, scientists and others.

Families that rely on Head Start for children, food benefits and countless other programs large and small are confronting potential interruptions or outright closures. At the airports, Transportation Security Administration officers and air traffic controllers are expected to work without pay, but travelers could face delays in updating their U.S. passports or other travel documents.

Congress has been unable to fund the federal agencies or pass a temporary bill in time to keep offices open for the start of the new budget year Sunday in large part because McCarthy, a Republican from California, has faced unsurmountable resistance from right-flank Republicans who are refusing to run government as usual.

McCarthy’s last-ditch plan to keep the federal government temporarily open collapsed in dramatic fashion Friday as a robust faction of 21 hard-right holdouts opposed the package, despite steep spending cuts of nearly 30% to many agencies and severe border security provisions, calling it insufficient.

The White House and Democrats rejected the Republican approach as too extreme. The Democrats voted against it.

The House bill’s failure a day before Saturday’s deadline to fund the government leaves few options to prevent a shutdown.

“It’s not the end yet; I’ve got other ideas,” McCarthy told reporters.

Later Friday, after a heated closed-door meeting of House Republicans that pushed into the evening, McCarthy said he was considering options — among them, a two-week stopgap funding measure similar to the effort from hard-right senators that would be certain to exclude any help for Ukraine in the war against Russia.

Even though the House bill already cut routine Ukraine aid, an intensifying Republican resistance to the war effort means the Senate’s plan to attach $6 billion that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is seeking from the U.S. may have support from Democrats but not from most of McCarthy’s Republicans.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is working to stop that aid in the Senate package.

The White House has brushed aside McCarthy’s overtures to meet with President Joe Biden after the speaker walked away from the debt deal they brokered earlier this year that set budget levels.

Catering to his hard-right flank, McCarthy had returned to the spending limits the conservatives demanded back in January as part of the deal-making to help him become the House speaker.

The House package would not have cut the Defense, Veterans or Homeland Security departments but would have slashed almost all other agencies by up to 30% — steep hits to a vast array of programs, services and departments Americans routinely depend on.

It also added strict new border security provisions that would kickstart building a wall at the southern border with Mexico, among other measures. Additionally, the package would have set up a bipartisan debt commission to address the nation’s mounting debt load.

As soon as the floor debate began, McCarthy’s chief Republican critic, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, announced he would vote against the package, urging his colleagues to “not surrender.”

Gaetz said afterward that the speaker’s bill “went down in flames as I’ve told you all week it would.”

He and others rejecting the temporary measure want the House to keep pushing through the 12 individual spending bills needed to fund the government, typically a weekslong process, as they pursue their conservative priorities.

Republican leaders announced later Friday that the House would stay in session next week, rather than return home, to keep working on some of the 12 spending bills.

Some of the Republican holdouts, including Gaetz, are allies of former President Donald Trump, who is Biden’s chief rival in the 2024 race. Trump has been encouraging the Republicans to fight hard for their priorities and even to “shut it down.”

The hard right, led by Gaetz, has been threatening McCarthy’s ouster, with a looming vote to try to remove him from the speaker’s office unless he meets the conservative demands. Still, it’s unclear if any other Republican would have support from the House majority to lead the party.

Late Friday, Trump turned his ire to McConnell on social media, complaining the Republican leader and other GOP senators are “weak and ineffective” and making compromises with Democrats. He urged them, “Don’t do it!”

Food Prices Rising Due to Climate Change, El Nino, and Russia’s War

How do you cook a meal when a staple ingredient is unaffordable? 

This question is playing out in households around the world as they face shortages of essential foods like rice, cooking oil and onions. That is because countries have imposed restrictions on the food they export to protect their own supplies from the combined effect of the war in Ukraine, El Nino’s threat to food production and increasing damage from climate change. 

For Caroline Kyalo, a 28-year-old who works in a salon in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, it was a question of trying to figure out how to cook for her two children without onions. Restrictions on the export of the vegetable by neighboring Tanzania has led prices to triple. 

Kyalo initially tried to use spring onions instead, but those also got too expensive. As did the prices of other necessities, like cooking oil and corn flour. 

“I just decided to be cooking once a day,” she said. 

Despite the East African country’s fertile lands and large workforce, the high cost of growing and transporting produce and the worst drought in decades led to a drop in local production. Plus, people preferred red onions from Tanzania because they were cheaper and lasted longer. By 2014, Kenya was getting half of its onions from its neighbor, according to a U.N. Food Agriculture Organization report. 

At Nairobi’s major food market, Wakulima, the prices for onions from Tanzania were the highest in seven years, seller Timothy Kinyua said. 

Some traders have adjusted by getting produce from Ethiopia, and others have switched to selling other vegetables, but Kinyua is sticking to onions. 

“It’s something we can’t cook without,” he said. 

Tanzania’s onion limits this year are part of the “contagion” of food restrictions from countries spooked by supply shortages and increased demand for their produce, said Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. 

Globally, 41 food export restrictions from 19 countries are in effect, ranging from outright bans to taxes, according to the institute. 

India banned shipments of some rice earlier this year, resulting in a shortfall of roughly a fifth of global exports. Neighboring Myanmar, the world’s fifth-biggest rice supplier, responded by stopping some exports of the grain. 

India also restricted shipments of onions after erratic rainfall — fueled by climate change — damaged crops. This sent prices in neighboring Bangladesh soaring, and authorities are scrambling to find new sources for the vegetable. 

Elsewhere, a drought in Spain took its toll on olive oil production. As European buyers turned to Turkey, olive oil prices soared in the Mediterranean country, prompting authorities there to restrict exports. Morocco, also coping with a drought ahead of its recent deadly earthquake, stopped exporting onions, potatoes and tomatoes in February. 

This isn’t the first time food prices have been in a tumult. Prices for staples like rice and wheat more than doubled in 2007-2008, but the world had ample food stocks it could draw on and was able to replenish those in subsequent years. 

But that cushion has shrunk in the past two years, and climate change means food supplies could very quickly run short of demand and spike prices, said Glauber, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“I think increased volatility is certainly the new normal,” he said. 

Food prices worldwide, experts say, will be determined by the interplay of three factors: how El Nino plays out and how long it lasts, whether bad weather damages crops and prompts more export restrictions, and the future of Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

The warring nations are both major global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food, especially to developing nations where food prices have risen and people are going hungry. 

An El Nino is a natural phenomenon that shifts global weather patterns and can result in extreme weather, ranging from drought to flooding. While scientists believe climate change is making this El Nino stronger, its exact impact on food production is impossible to glean until after it’s occurred. 

The early signs are worrying. 

India experienced its driest August in a century, and Thailand is facing a drought that has sparked fears about the world’s sugar supplies. The two are the largest exporters of sugar after Brazil. 

Less rainfall in India also dashed food exporters’ hopes that the new rice harvest in October would end the trade restrictions and stabilize prices. 

“It doesn’t look like [rice] prices will be coming down anytime soon,” said Aman Julka, director of Wesderby India Private Limited. 

Most at risk are nations that rely heavily on food imports. The Philippines, for instance, imports 14% of its food, according to the World Bank, and storm damage to crops could mean further shortfalls. Rice prices surged 8.7% in August from a year earlier, more than doubling from 4.2% in July. 

Food store owners in the capital of Manila are losing money, with prices increasing rapidly since September 1 and customers who used to snap up supplies in bulk buying smaller quantities. 

“We cannot save money anymore. It is like we just work so that we can have food daily,” said Charina Em, 32, who owns a store in the Trabajo market. 

Cynthia Esguerra, 66, has had to choose between food or medicine for her high cholesterol, gallstones and urinary issues. Even then, she can only buy half a kilo of rice at a time — insufficient for her and her husband. 

“I just don’t worry about my sickness. I leave it up to God. I don’t buy medicines anymore, I just put it there to buy food, our loans,” she said. 

The climate risks aren’t limited to rice but apply to anything that needs stable rainfall to thrive, including livestock, said Elyssa Kaur Ludher, a food security researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Vegetables, fruit trees and chickens will all face heat stress, raising the risk that food will spoil, she said. 

This constricts food supplies further, and if grain exports from Ukraine aren’t resolved, there will be additional shortages in feed for livestock and fertilizer, Ludher said. 

Russia’s July withdrawal from a wartime agreement that ensured ships could safely transport Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea was a blow to global food security, largely leaving only expensive and divisive routes through Europe for the war-torn country’s exports. 

The conflict also has hurt Ukraine’s agricultural production, with analysts saying farmers aren’t planting nearly as much corn and wheat. 

“This will affect those who already feel food affordability stresses,” Ludher said. 

Kenya’s Rising Cost of Living Leaves Low-Income Earners Struggling

Low-income Kenyans have been hit hardest by high inflation, a new report says.

Low-income households experienced a challenging 2022 because of the increased cost of living, said Rose Ngugi, director of the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, or KIPPRA.

“When food inflation is going up, then everybody is affected, and more so the low-income households, who spend about 60% of their income on food,” Ngugi said. “So, anytime food prices go up, then the cost-of-living increases, and the low-income earners are hit or bear a heavy burden.”

KIPPRA recently released the Kenya Economic Report 2023, which said officials tried this year to reduce 2022’s inflation rate of 9.6% to a range of 2.5% to 7.5%, the targeted range of Kenya’s Central Bank.

The report said 77% of workers earned less than the minimum wage, which covers approximately half of living costs.

Kenyan Finance Minister Njuguna Ndung’u blamed companies’ appetite for monopoly and dominance, which reduces market competition.

“The new administration is concerned with the problems that have led many Kenyans to sink into abject poverty,” Ndung’u said. “One of the identified problems is the market capture, so that those at the bottom of the pyramid do not get returns for their sweat and investment.”

After years of borrowing to finance infrastructure projects such as roads and railways, Kenya now struggles to repay the debt. The current government under President William Ruto emphasizes the importance of robust revenue collection to service the country’s debt and economic development.

Samuel Nyandemo, an economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said the government needs to support citizens by reducing taxes on basic commodities.

“The president means well for this country,” Nyandemo said. “He needs to come out of the box and put away this appetite of borrowing with a view of raising revenue, removing subsidies gradually and, more importantly, reducing certain taxes — particularly taxes relating to increasing the cost of living.

“We need to see the gradual removal of subsidies on maize flour, on oil products, cooking oil and, more importantly, on fuel,” he said.

Kenya had record-high fuel prices in September, with gasoline reaching $1.42 per liter. That price heightened concerns among an already financially burdened population.

The government has asked its creditors, particularly China, for more time to restore economic stability after 10 years of borrowing.

Bangkok’s New Chinatown Offers Mixed Bag of Economic Changes

At sunset, Bangkok’s Huai Khwang district comes alive with Chinese-speaking pedestrians bustling to their favorite hot pot restaurants among the many lining Pracharat Bamphen Road.

The hungry parade is just one indication of how an influx of Chinese residents is transforming the 15-square-kilometer (5.8-square-mile) neighborhood in the city’s eastern reaches, with new arrivals restoring the pre-pandemic inflow.

With the Chinese Embassy in nearby Din Daeng exerting a magnet-like force for Huai Khwang, local Thais now call the area “New Chinatown.” Some refer to it as a special administration region of China, akin to Hong Kong or Macao, dubbing it the “Taiguo.”

And although Thailand celebrates the new year, or Songkran, on April 13, Huai Khwang district officials held a Lunar New Year celebration on January 19 this year to recognize the changing demographics.

The changes are coming with challenges, analysts say. Rising rents and prices for residential and commercial properties reflect the arrival of Chinese emigrants who are willing, and able, to pay more than local Thais, many of whom now face a housing affordability crunch.

Patcharee Pabua, a 42-year-old employee of a nonprofit organization, has lived and worked in Huai Khwang for more than seven years. She has seen the neighborhood change in real time — before, during and after the pandemic — as the area transformed from a Thai neighborhood to a Chinese enclave.

“When COVID-19 initially hit, many Chinese individuals returned to China, and Chinese-owned businesses closed down,” she said. “However, they returned once the COVID situation improved. Now, it’s difficult to spot Thai restaurants along Pracharat Bamphen street. It’s predominantly Chinese restaurants.”

The arrival of so many Chinese businesses, almost every one of them with a Thai partner to meet restrictions on foreign ownership, has driven up land rental prices.

Unable to compete with deep-pocketed Chinese expats, many Thai business owners who can’t afford the higher rents go out of business. Only local Thais who operate food stalls that don’t require rented land are surviving, according to longtime Huai Khwang residents.

Pabua said that the rising prices are centered on condominium costs. Lower-tier apartments are still relatively affordable for Thais, with monthly rents ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 baht, she said, or about $82 to $273.

This price range suits many Thais, whose average monthly income is around $382, according to the Department of Employment’s statistics. Those prices also attract Chinese nationals, who make up roughly 50% of the residents in her apartment complex, Pabua estimated.

Bangkok condo rents, which decreased during the pandemic, have now surged to new highs. Data from The List, a real estate site, from February 2020, show a median monthly rent in Huai Khwang of $409. As of May 1, 2023, the rental prices for all condominiums in Huai Khwang averaged around $622, according to property aggregator Dotproperty.

Former real estate agent Chitipat Inna, who specializes in representing properties in Huai Khwang and nearby areas, said that most of his rental clients are Chinese, often seeking short-term leases of three to six months.

Chinese buyers appear undeterred by the rising prices.

Pabua, whose apartment in Huai Kwang costs $136 per month, said, “It’s no surprise that most condo renters are Chinese, as they often have a larger accommodation budget. Many Thais simply can’t afford such rents.”

New Trade Initiative Offers India Major Gains in Middle East

New Delhi’s bid to expand its economic and diplomatic clout beyond Asia received a major boost with the announcement at this month’s G20 summit of ambitious plans to develop a new trade route running from India through the Middle East to Europe.

The so-called India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, or IMEC, is backed by the United States and is widely seen as a challenge to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has already developed major infrastructure projects in some of the same countries.

But the proposal, involving a network of new shipping and rail lines, stands to shake up the existing order in other ways as well, not least by establishing new direct trade routes between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

For India, analysts say, the program offers a capstone to a yearslong effort by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to boost trade and forge ties with the Gulf states, the source of much of its oil and gas, and home to a large Indian diaspora.

This “concerted effort has gained momentum over the past several years,” said John Calabrese, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“India’s vigorous efforts to strengthen economic cooperation with the Middle East have been met with open arms and reciprocation,” Calabrese added in an interview. “The Gulf states, in particular, view India as a rising power with great market and human capital potential.”

Trade already growing

Trade between India and the Arab world has seen sustained growth, already surpassing $240 billion a year. Bilateral trade between India and the United Arab Emirates alone amounted to $84 billion as of the end of March 2023, while trade with Saudi Arabia topped $53 billion. The region supplies approximately 60% of India’s total crude oil imports.

Calabrese sees the IMEC project as having strategic as well as economic value for India, carrying its strategic rivalry with China into new territory while offering countries in the Middle East an alternative to relying on China or the United States.

“India’s importance to the Gulf countries has risen as they chart a course for diversifying and balancing their relations with the world’s major powers,” he said.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, agreed that India can make significant diplomatic gains if it can navigate the hurdles posed in the Middle East by regional conflicts, historical animosities and competition from other global powers.

India has already strengthened its ties with some of the most significant players in the region, from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Israel, he told VOA.

“What’s also notable is that while India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel have really taken off, New Delhi’s ties with their respective longstanding rivals, Iran and the Palestinians, have not become fraught, even though they’ve become less robust,” he said.

‘Nothing short of historic’

India can also expect to establish closer links in Europe, where officials are enthusiastic about IMEC, which would establish new shipping routes between India and the United Arab Emirates, alongside a freight rail system traversing the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. From there, goods could be transported to European countries.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed the venture as “nothing short of historic,” emphasizing that it would slash transit time between India and Europe by 40%. She underlined that IMEC represents the most direct link thus far connecting India, the Gulf and Europe.

Saudi Arabia’s Investment Minister Khalid Al-Falih went further in his endorsement, likening IMEC to the “Silk Route and Spice Road.” The initiative is projected to incorporate essential infrastructure elements such as electricity cables and pipelines for clean hydrogen.

“The goal is, of course, to strengthen India’s economy by facilitating more trade in more markets,” Kugelman said. “But also about deepening important partnerships and scaling up Indian investment in a region that New Delhi views as highly strategic — because of its location, its large Indian diaspora and high energy trade with India.”

Kugelman sees the initiative as a natural extension of the growing strategic relationship between the United States and India, marked by new alliances, including the Quad, which also draws in Japan and Australia.

“Their interests in the [Middle East] align, in terms of support for connectivity and commercial projects. And so, India’s engagement there allows the U.S. and India to cooperate in a region outside the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “I do think that India’s deepening footprint in the Middle East will introduce a new phase of great power competition.”

Meanwhile, the Middle East could become a new battleground for India-China competition, Kugelman said.

“Beijing has become a bigger player in the region in recent years, as seen by its strategic agreement with Iran and its brokering of the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement deal,” he said. “India, working with the U.S. and its European partners, will want to push back against all that.”

Zimbabwean President’s Growing Economy Claims Met With Doubt, Anger

Some Zimbabweans living in abject poverty are reacting angrily to claims by President Emmerson Mnangagwa that the country’s economy is the fastest growing in the southern African region. Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare, where some economists and members of the main opposition say the president is being misinformed or does not understand basic economics. Camera —  Blessing Chigwenhembe.

Tourism Another Casualty of Morocco’s Earthquake

The earthquake that killed nearly 3,000 people in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains this month also took a toll on the region’s flourishing tourist industry — a key source of jobs and income. The raft of tourist cancellations adds to the many challenges facing impoverished mountain communities as they begin the difficult task of rebuilding. Lisa Bryant reports for VOA from the Moroccan town of Amizmiz.

Bank of England Joins US Fed in Avoiding Another Interest Rate Hike After Inflation Declines

The Bank of England has paused nearly two years of interest rate increases after a surprising fall in U.K. inflation eased concerns about the pace of price rises.

In a development Thursday that few predicted just two days ago, the central bank kept its main interest rate unchanged at a 15-year high of 5.25%. It comes to the relief of millions of homeowners who are facing higher mortgage rates. 

The decision was split, with four of the nine members of the Monetary Policy Committee voting for a hike.

Central banks worldwide appear to be near the end of an aggressive rate-hiking cycle meant to curb an outburst of inflation triggered by the bounceback from the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine. The U.S. Federal Reserve left rates unchanged Wednesday.

Clearly influencing the bank’s decision was news Wednesday that inflation unexpectedly fell to 6.7% in August, its lowest level since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Inflation, however, is still way above the bank’s target rate of 2% and higher than in any other Group of Seven major economy.

Higher interest rates, which cool the economy by making it more expensive to borrow, have contributed to bringing down inflation worldwide.

But for many homeowners, the pain has yet to hit. Unlike in the U.S., for example, most homeowners in Britain lock in mortgage rates for only a few years, so those whose deals expire soon know that they face much higher borrowing costs in light of the sharp rise in interest rates over the past couple of years.

Like other central banks around the world, the Bank of England has raised interest rates aggressively from near zero as it sought to counter price rises first stoked by supply chain issues during the coronavirus pandemic and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which pushed up food and energy costs. U.K. inflation hit a peak of 11.1% in October 2022.

As inflation has eased, the hiking cycle looks to be nearing an end.

The Swiss National Bank joined the Fed in holding rates steady on Thursday, but in a busy day for central bank action in Europe, Sweden’s and Norway’s central banks pushed ahead with quarter-point hikes.

The European Central Bank, which sets interest rates for the 20 European Union countries that use the euro currency, last week hinted that its 10th straight hike could be its last. 

Fed Keeps Rates Unchanged, Signals Another Hike Later This Year

The Federal Reserve left its key interest rate unchanged Wednesday for the second time in its past three meetings, a sign that it’s moderating its fight against inflation as price pressures have eased. But Fed officials also signaled that they expect to raise rates once more this year.

Consumer inflation has dropped from a year-over-year peak of 9.1% in June 2022 to 3.7%. Yet it’s still well above the Fed’s 2% target, and its policymakers made clear Wednesday that they aren’t close to declaring victory over the worst bout of inflation in 40 years. The Fed’s latest decision left its benchmark rate at about 5.4%, the result of 11 rate hikes it unleashed beginning in March 2022.

The Fed’s hikes have significantly raised the costs of consumer and business loans. In fine-tuning its rate policies, the central bank is trying to guide the U.S. economy toward a tricky “soft landing” of cooling inflation without triggering a deep recession.

The Fed’s decisions Wednesday underscored that even while its policymakers approach a peak in their benchmark rate, they intend to keep it at or near its high for a prolonged period. Besides forecasting another hike by year’s end, Fed officials now envision keeping rates high deep into 2024.

They expect to cut interest rates just twice next year, fewer than the four rate cuts they had predicted in June. They predict that their key short-term rate will still be 5.1% at the end of 2024 — higher than it was from the 2008-2009 Great Recession until May of this year.

The policymakers’ inclination to keep rates high for an extended period suggests that they remain concerned that inflation might not be falling fast enough toward their 2% target. The job market and the economy have remained resilient, confounding expectations that the Fed’s series of hikes would cause widespread layoffs and a recession.

“The process of getting inflation sustainably down to 2% has a long way to go,” Chair Jerome Powell said at a news conference. “We’ve seen progress, and we welcome that, but we need to see more progress” before concluding that it’s appropriate to end the rate hikes.

At the same time, Powell said he feels confident that the end of the rate-hiking cycle is near: “We’re fairly close, we think, to where we need to get.”

Treasury yields moved sharply higher Wednesday after the Fed issued a statement after its latest policy meeting and updated its economic projections. The yield on the two-year Treasury note, which tends to track expectations of future Fed actions, rose from 5.04% to 5.11%.

In their new quarterly projections, the policymakers estimate that the economy will grow faster this year and next year than they had previously envisioned. They now foresee growth reaching 2.1% this year, up from a 1% forecast in June, and 1.5% next year, up from their previous 1.1% forecast.

Core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices and is considered a good predictor of future trends, is now expected to fall to 3.7% by year’s end, better than the 3.9% forecast in June. Core inflation, under the Fed’s preferred measure, is now 4.2%.

The approach to rate increases the Fed is now taking reflects an awareness among the officials that the risks to the economy of raising rates too high is growing. Previously, they had focused more on the risks of not doing enough to slow inflation.

In generating sharply higher interest rates throughout the economy, the Fed has sought to slow borrowing — for houses, cars, home renovations, business investment and the like — to help ease spending, moderate the pace of growth and curb inflation.

Though clear progress on inflation has been achieved, gas prices have lurched higher again, reaching a national average of $3.88 a gallon as of Tuesday. Oil prices have surged more than 12% in just the past month.

And the economy is still expanding at a solid pace as Americans, buoyed by steady job growth and pay raises, have kept spending. Both trends could keep inflation and the Fed’s interest rates high enough and long enough to weaken household and corporate spending and the economy as a whole.

While overall inflation has declined, the costs of some services — from auto insurance and car repairs to veterinary services and hair salons — are still climbing faster than they were before the pandemic. Still, most recent data is pointing in the direction the Fed wants to see: Inflation in June and July, excluding volatile food and energy prices, posted its two lowest monthly readings in nearly two years.

China Eases Visa Requirements to Revive Tourism

After a strict COVID-19 lockdown that shattered its tourism industry between 2020 and 2022, China is trying to revive the market by making it easier for foreigners to visit the country.

Under a new set of visa application requirements announced this week, applicants only must report one year of travel history instead of five years, as previously required.

“The improvement involves seven major items and 15 sub-items, concerning mainly the applicants’ educational background, family information and previous travel history,” said Mao Ning, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, at a press briefing on Wednesday.

In addition, until now, visa applicants had to report their entire educational background.  The new guidelines require only the highest degree achieved.

The changes are expected to shorten the time it takes to fill out and process visa applications.

“The foreign ministry will continue to facilitate people-to-people exchange between China and other countries and serve high-quality development and high-level opening up,” Mao said.

More than 65 million international visitors traveled to China in 2019, yielding the country nearly $900 billion in revenue, according to China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

There has been no official data about foreign travelers visiting China from 2020 to 2022, when the country enforced a strict COVID-19 quarantine regime and shut all domestic and foreign travel.

Tourism revenue has reportedly dropped by more than 60% in the past three years.

Unlike other countries that top the list of most visited places in the world such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France, China does not allow visa-free entry to visitors from most countries.

Meanwhile, more Chinese are travelling abroad for leisure and education.

In 2019, China was reportedly the world’s largest outbound tourism market with Chinese visitors spending $127.5 billion on foreign travels.

Between January and May this year, 1 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, where officials expect to welcome more than 5 million Chinese visitors this year, Reuters reported.

The number of Chinese visiting the United States dropped from 2.8 million in 2019 to 192,000 in 2021 during the height of COVID-19 restrictions. The number of Chinese visitors to the United States is expected to increase from 850,000 this year to nearly 1.4 million in 2024, according to the U.S. National Travel & Tourism Office.

Some material for this report was obtained from Reuters. 

MCC Awards Kenya $60 Million to Help Improve Urban Transport  

Kenyan President William Ruto has signed a $60 million dollar grant agreement with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York. The grant will help improve urban transport in Nairobi by concentrating on four projects, making the Kenya program the largest of its kind within MCC’s portfolio.

Kenyan President William Ruto lauded the new agreement with the U.S. foreign aid agency MCC, at the signing in New York City Tuesday evening where he is also attending the 78th session of this year’s U.N. General Assembly.

“There is a whole one million people who come in and out of Nairobi every day; that poses a very significant challenge on the transport infrastructure. Apart from the Matatu transport system, the mass bus transport system is a very important component,” he said.

Threshold grants help countries to reduce constraints to faster economic growth and increase transparency and accountability in the provision of public services.

Millennium Challenge Corporation CEO Alice Albright says this grant — the second one to Kenya since 2003 — will be the largest and most ambitious threshold agreement that MCC has signed in its 20-year history.

“We like to measure with all of our work, and in this case we estimate to about 4.3 million people could be helped by this threshold agreement,” she said.

James Gerard, MCC’s managing director for threshold programs, told VOA this program, which includes four projects, will help support the Kenyan government in improving transportation and land use planning in the capital, Nairobi.

“One, to help build the capacity of the Nairobi metropolitan area transport authority [NMATA] with their transportation planning needs,” he said. “Second project will focus on what we call, non-motorized transport, so helping citizens — particularly citizens of working class — who use non-motorized transport as well as informal forms of transport, such as Matatus.”

Matatus are privately owned public transport vehicles. Some are old and not in the best shape but often beautifully decorated with famous sayings and/or people. A vast majority of commuter trips in and out of Nairobi are taken using Matatus.

“The third project will focus on land use in and around certain areas of Nairobi trying to help urban planning around transportation hubs to better make use of that land. And finally, the fourth project is really to focus on helping finance future options around bus rapid transit in Nairobi and particularly looking at greener options to move citizens around the city perhaps using electric vehicles,” said Gerard.

Korir Sing’Oei, Kenya’s principal secretary for foreign affairs in the ministry of foreign and diaspora affairs, has been one of the lead negotiators for this grant. He told VOA it is exhilarating to finally get to this point.

“It’s a moment of pride for Kenya because eligibility for MCC programs financing is predicated on democratic governance, economic freedom and investment in people that is evident in a particular country. So, to have Kenya be eligible for this program under MCC represents an acknowledgement on the part of the U.S. that Kenya sits in a very big space in relations to these issues,” said Sing’Oei.

Additionally, he says this program will allow Kenya to build the necessary capacity to become eligible for a much bigger financing program under MCC known as the compact program, which could be worth around $800 million.

Report: Africa Steering Geopolitical Challenges with Resilience, Economic Opportunities

A leading global risk consultancy says that despite the impacts of the war in Ukraine, global inflation, climate and security challenges, Africa continues to find resilience. A new report by Control Risks and its economics consulting partner, Oxford Economics Africa, finds that as global tensions create disruptions, they are also providing many African governments significant political, economic, and security opportunities.

The research, released on Tuesday, examines how African countries, governments, and corporations navigate a world marked by global tension and competition for resources and alliances, particularly among China, Russia, and the United States.

Given the continent’s security measures and developing financial sector, the researchers focused on African states’ efforts to retain neutrality while under pressure to join with global geopolitical corporations.

Patricia Rodrigues, a Senior Analyst at Control Risks, a firm specializing in political, security, and integrity risks, said Africa is attracting investment from various countries vying for support and access to the continent’s economic opportunities.

“What we’ve seen from major geopolitical actors, be that the U.S., China, Russia, or the EU as a bloc, everybody’s increasingly viewing Africa as a place where they can entice to either align with them on key geopolitical or global affairs. And in doing so, there’s a lot of at least pledged investment that is being directed towards the continent. In addition to this, African governments are attempting to, I guess, play all sides, attempting to secure pledges of investment,” she said.

During the U.S.-Africa Summit in December, Washington committed to allocate $55 billion to Africa over the next three years, focusing on healthcare, trade, climate change, and women’s issues.

Recent reduced U.S. involvement in Africa has created opportunities for China, which has invested $10 billion in the continent from 2017 to 2022, and has also led to increased trade between Africa and Russia, growing from $9.9 billion in 2013 to $17.7 billion in 2021.

These three major global powers compete to secure access to Africa’s mineral resources, which are critical in advancing new technologies. Africa holds almost one-third of the world’s mineral reserves and eight and twelve percent of global gas and oil reserves.

Vincent Rouget is the head of Control Risks. He said the demand for African mineral wealth has also created the urge to industrialize in the continent.

“What we have seen in the last few months is more assertive moves by various countries to try to make sure that this surge in interest also benefits their economies. And we’re seeing what you could call a critical resource nationalism coming back in some economies, where we see an insistence on local processing, more stringent local content requirements and generally an attempt to integrate these critical mineral supply chains with a broader drive for industrialization,” he said.

In most African countries, natural capital accounts for between 30% to 50% of their overall wealth.

The continent loses $195 billion yearly of its natural capital due to illicit financial flows, illegal mining, logging, the illegal trade in wildlife, unregulated fishing and environmental damage.

Researchers say North African countries are positioning themselves as manufacturing destinations as Western countries are looking to disengage from China.

The head of Africa Macro at Oxford Economics Africa, Jacque Nel, said African economies will face challenges in an increasingly competitive global environment.

“We continue to see progress. It wasn’t a short-term boost to access to financial services that we’ve seen. We continue to see the expansion and access to financial services improve across the continent, which is really important because, secondly, this is a catalyst for broader economic growth. Access to financial services is required and supports economic growth in most, if not all, other sectors of the economy,” said Nel.

According to researchers, wars on the continent are receiving little attention from the international community, although it is affecting the continent and attracting external actors, such as Wagner and terror organizations. 

American Visitors Help Post-Pandemic Recovery of Britain’s Tourism Industry

Tourism industry watchers say one of the top overseas destinations for US travelers this summer was Britain, where Americans helped the recovery of the British tourism industry after the crisis caused by the COVID pandemic. Marcus Harton narrates this report from Umberto Aguiar in London. (Camera and Produced by Umberto Aguiar)

Nigeria, South Africa Leaders Look to Advance Economic Cooperation

The leaders of Nigeria and South Africa held talks Monday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, with the goal of increasing cooperation, especially in mining and telecommunications.

Experts say more cooperation between Africa’s two largest economies in line with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement would boost growth and development across the continent.

A spokesperson for Nigerian President Bola Tinubu said Tinubu’s discussion with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was the first meeting the Nigerian leader is expected to hold with counterparts from around the world this week at the 78th U.N. General Assembly. His intent is to attract investments that will strengthen Nigeria’s economy.

On Monday, Tinubu and Ramaphosa discussed cooperation in the mining and telecom sectors — specifically about easing stringent business policies that discourage investment.

Tinubu said improving economic ties would create more jobs and benefit both countries. 

Nigerian economist Isaac Botti agreed, saying, “It’s expected that having a strong alliance with South Africa will also enhance our economic growth, particularly recognizing that South Africa is the second-largest economy in Africa.”

Botti also said that an agreement between the two nations would “enhance, within the U.N. system, opportunities for expanding investments, opportunities for improving sources of revenue.”

“For example,” he said, “if they could get into a concrete agreement on mining, it means that as a nation we will be able to diversify our economy.”

Political affairs analyst Rotimi Olawale said African nations need to work together if they are to improve health and living standards for the millions stuck in poverty.

“It’s high time to begin to see deeper collaborations between players on the continent,” Olawale said. “When push comes to shove, like we saw during Covid, every continent looked inward. European Union began to negotiate as a bloc for the purchase of vaccines. So it’s much more important for especially the big countries to lead the way in seeking closer ties and collaborations.”

During his campaign this year, Tinubu promised to boost Nigeria’s economy if elected president. Since assuming office in May, the president has embarked on the country’s boldest economic reforms in decades, including scrapping a popular but highly expensive fuel subsidy.

This week, Tinubu is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden and executives from Microsoft, Meta and Exxon Mobil.

Olawale said the president is likely to hold other such meetings designed to pave the way for foreign investment.

“I expect that we’d see many more of such meetings,” Olawale said. “Nigeria is in dire need of investments in many sectors — construction, telecoms, innovation, science and technology. I expect that many of these things will be at the top of the president’s agenda as he begins to discuss with many of these countries.”

Last week, Tinubu visited the United Arab Emirates and met with the country’s president. The visit led to the UAE lifting a visa ban on Nigerian travelers. Tinubu’s office said the UAE also promised to invest several billion dollars in the Nigerian economy across multiple sectors, including defense and agriculture.

US Auto Workers Remain on Strike, Demanding Better Pay

The United Auto Workers’ strike against the three biggest U.S. automakers reached into its third day on Sunday with no resolution in sight, although union negotiations with General Motors were set to resume.

About 12,700 UAW workers were on strike at three factories, one each owned by Ford, Stellantis, and GM, in the most significant U.S. industrial labor action in decades. It was the first time the UAW union had gone on strike simultaneously against all three automakers.

The union and the companies appear far apart in settling on a new pact, with the automakers offering raises of about 20% over a 4½-year contract proposal, including an immediate 10% raise. The unions are demanding a 40% increase.

UAW President Shawn Fain told MSNBC on Sunday that progress in the talks has been slow. Union talks with Stellantis and Ford were set to resume on Monday.

“I don’t really want to say we’re closer,” he said. “It’s a shame that the companies didn’t take our advice and get down to business from the beginning of bargaining back in mid-July.”

Asked in a subsequent appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” show whether workers would walk out at more plants this week, Fain said the union was “prepared to do whatever we have to do.”

U.S. President Joe Biden, who has signaled support for the union’s efforts, dispatched acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and economic adviser Gene Sperling to Detroit, the hub of the U.S. auto industry, to speak to the UAW and the automakers.

‘Boiling Planet’ Reducing Spain’s Olive Crop, Raising Olive Oil Prices

Farmers say extreme temperatures caused a huge drop in the output of olive oil in Spain, the world’s largest producer, triggering a big jump in world olive oil prices. Elizabeth Cherneff narrates this report from Alfonso Beato in Barcelona, who says Europe’s leadership is blaming climate change.