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US Sees Foreign Reliance on ‘Critical’ Minerals as Security Concern

The United States needs to encourage domestic production of a handful of minerals critical for the technology and defense industries, and stem reliance on China, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Tuesday.

Zinke made the remarks at the Interior Department as he unveiled a report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which detailed the extent to which the United States is dependent upon foreign competitors for its supply of certain minerals.

The report identified 23 out of 88 minerals that are priorities for U.S. national defense and the economy because they are components in products ranging from batteries to military equipment.

The report found that the United States was 100 percent net import reliant on 20 mineral commodities in 2016, including manganese, niobium, tantalum and others. In 1954, the U.S. was 100 percent import reliant for the supply of just eight nonfuel mineral commodities.

“We have the minerals here and likely we have enough to provide our needs and be a world trader in them, but we have to go forward and identify where they are at,” Zinke told reporters at an Interior Department briefing.

He also blamed previous administrations for allowing foreign competitors like China to dominate mineral production for minerals, such as rare earth elements, used in smartphones, computers and military equipment.

Zinke said the report is likely to shape Interior Department policy-making in 2018, as the agency looks to carry out its “Energy Dominance” strategy, expanding mining and resource extraction on federal lands.

The survey is the first update of a 1973 USGS report that catalogued the production of minerals worldwide. The update was started under the Obama administration in 2013.

Many of the commodities that are covered in the new volume were of minor importance when the original survey was done, since it pre-dated the global electronics boom.

The USGS and Interior Department said the report is meant to be used by national security experts, economists, private companies, the World Bank and resource managers.

It does not offer policy recommendations, but Zinke will rely on the findings as he prioritizes research into certain mineral deposit areas on federal land and plans policies to promote mining.

“We do expect that to lead to policy changes. The USGS is not involved in policy, but I suspect you will see some policy changes,” said Larry Meinert, lead author of the report.

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Greek Lawmakers Approve 2018 Budget Featuring More Austerity

Greece’s parliament on Tuesday approved the 2018 state budget, which includes further austerity measures beyond the official end of the country’s third international bailout next summer. 

 

All 153 lawmakers from the left-led governing coalition backed the budget measures in a late vote, while the 144 opposition lawmakers present rejected them. Three were absent from the vote.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras promised that the country would smoothly exit the eight-year crisis that has seen its economy shrink by a quarter and unemployment hit highs previously unseen during peacetime.

Tsipras argued that international money markets — on whose credit Greece will have to depend once its rescue loan program ends — are showing strong confidence in the country’s prospects, with the yield on Greek government bonds dropping to a pre-crisis low of less than 4 percent.

“The way to exit [the crisis] is for our borrowing costs to return to acceptable levels so the country can finance itself without the restrictive bailout framework,” Tsipras said.

The budget promises Greece’s international lenders continued belt-tightening measures and high primary budget surpluses — the budget balance before debt and interest payments are taken into account.

It sets the primary surplus at 2.44 percent for 2017 and 3.82 percent for 2018, higher than previously estimated. The economy is forecast to grow by 1.6 percent in 2017 and 2.5 percent next year, helped by a return to growth across Europe.

Debt to hold steady

With the Greek economy worth around 185 billion euros ($271 billion) in 2018, the national debt will remain at just under 180 percent of annual GDP, roughly unchanged from the previous year.

Greeks will see new tax hikes and pension cuts over the next two years. Bailout lenders had demanded additional guarantees the Greek economy will be stabilized before considering measures to improve the country’s debt repayment terms.

Opposition parties have criticized the budget, saying it will prolong the pain for Greeks. The main opposition conservative New Democracy party said the budget was “bleeding dry” the Greek people with 1.9 billion euros’ worth of new austerity measures.

Greece’s latest international bailout officially ends in August, more than eight years after the country began receiving emergency loans from the other European Union countries that use the euro currency, as well as from the International Monetary Fund.

In return for the funds, successive governments have had to impose repeated rounds of tax hikes and spending cuts, as well as structural changes aimed at reforming the country’s moribund economy and making it more competitive.

Tsipras first was elected in 2015 on promises to quickly end the painful austerity. But negotiations with bailout creditors soon went awry and, threatened with a disastrous euro exit, he signed on to more income cuts, increased taxation and further spending cuts.

His governing Syriza party is trailing New Democracy in the polls. But Tsipras insisted Tuesday that the government would see out its mandate, which ends in 2019.

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Study: Shop Early, Shop Often to Avoid Christmas Impulse Buying

Parceling out holiday shopping in small amounts and completing it in a realistic schedule helps people maintain the self-control needed to avoid being swept away in impulse purchases that can wreck budgets, a study to be published in January said.

The study from Texas A&M University researchers looked at how well people complied with maintaining self-control for tasks such as making purchases and found that people should pace themselves if they want to accomplish larger goals.

“Try to conserve your energy. Don’t try to make it too hard on yourself because it is going to backfire,” said Marco Palma, director of the Human Behavior Laboratory at Texas A&M and co-author of the study called “Self-control: Knowledge or perishable resource?” It will be published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Palma recommended making a list and dividing it into sub-goals of small purchases. Shopping online and shopping early in the day can help conserve energy, which can also help people exercise self-control.

“Committing to a shopping list will help you stay on budget,” he said in an interview this week.

The worst shopping scenario in terms of self-control is waiting until the last minute to make the bulk of holiday purchases, he said.

The study used biometric data including eye tracking and brain scanning to measure how well people complied with easy and difficult tasks that required self-control.

It found that an initial moderate self-control act enhances subsequent self-control ability by increasing confidence and motivation, but exerting too much self-control drains subsequent self-control ability.

But humans are humans and even when they are nice, they can be a little bit naughty. A person who completes a holiday shopping list as planned may splurge with a little reward for themselves, Palma said.

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Bitcoin Futures Begin Trading on CME, Price Declines

Another security based on the price of bitcoin, the digital currency that has soared in value and volatility this year, began trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Sunday.

The CME Group, which owns the exchange, opened up bitcoin futures for trading at 6 p.m. EST on Sunday. The futures contract that expires in January opened higher at $20,650, then declined steadily. The futures were trading at $18,775 at 9:00 p.m. EST, down $725.

The CME futures, like the ones that CME competitor the Cboe started trading last week, do not involve actual bitcoin. The CME’s futures will track an index of bitcoin prices pulled from several private exchanges. The Cboe’s futures track the price of bitcoin prices on the particular private exchange known as Gemini.

Each contract sold on the CME will be for five bitcoin.

As bitcoin’s price has skyrocketed on private exchanges this year, largely under its own momentum, interest on Wall Street has grown. The virtual currency was trading below $1,000 at the beginning of the year, and rose to more than $19,000 on some exchanges in the days leading up to its debut on the Cboe and CME. Bitcoin was trading at $18,417 Sunday evening on Coinbase.

But the growing interest in bitcoin has raised questions on whether its value has gotten too frothy. The Securities and Exchange Commission put out a statement last week warning investors to be careful with any investment in bitcoin or other digital currencies. Further, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission has proposed regulating bitcoin like a commodity, not unlike gold, silver, platinum or oil.

Futures are a type of contract where a buyer and seller agree on a price on a particular item to be delivered on a certain date in the future, hence the name. Futures are available for nearly every type of security out there, but are most familiarly used in commodities, like oil wheat, soy and gold.

Bitcoin is the world’s most popular virtual currency. Such currencies are not tied to a bank or government and allow users to spend money anonymously. They are basically lines of computer code that are digitally signed each time they are traded.

A debate is raging on the merits of such currencies. Some say they serve merely to facilitate money laundering and illicit, anonymous payments. Others say they can be helpful methods of payment, such as in crisis situations where national currencies have collapsed.

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Stake in Vietnam’s Top Brewer for Sale, But Bids Few

Vietnam is set to auction up to a $5 billion stake in top brewer Sabeco on Monday, with Thai Beverage the only potential bidder to have expressed interest in a majority stake.

The keenly anticipated sale of the state-owned maker of Bia Saigon gained momentum in recent months after being hampered for years by political resistance, fickle policy-making and complications over valuations.

The government has set a minimum sale price of 320,000 dong or $14.10 a share for Saigon Beer Alcohol Beverage Corp (Sabeco), whose shares have nearly trebled to 309,200 dong since its listing a year ago.

Thai Beverage, through a partly owned Vietnam unit, is the only company that has expressed interest in owning more than 25 percent of the company, which has roughly 40 percent of the beer-loving Vietnamese market.

So far no formal bid had been made.

Vietnam’s young population and booming economy should make Sabeco an attractive asset for global brewers hoping to expand in Southeast Asia, but a high minimum bid price and foreign ownership limits appear to have turned off potential buyers.

Sabeco’s foreign ownership is capped at 49 percent. With 10 percent already in foreign hands, that leaves only 39 percent on the table for overseas buyers at Monday’s auction. Local bidders can bid for a majority stake of up to 54 percent. Heinken holds a 5 percent stake.

“There’s a disconnect between what the government wants to achieve and how international brewers view this auction,” said one person familiar with the matter. “In a normal auction, bidders are fully aware of what stake they’ll end up owning and bid for it accordingly,” said the person, who was not authorized to speak to the media.

Unlike similar sales in developed markets, where investors are whittled down over several rounds and offers can be adjusted, Sabeco bidders need to submit a single offer for a specific number of shares in a sealed envelope in one round.

Thai Bev, controlled by tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, was keen to acquire Sabeco as part of a strategy to expand outside its home market, sources told Reuters. The company had lined up bank guarantees to support the bid by its Vietnam unit, sources said.

There was no immediate response from Thai Bev to a query from Reuters.

Reuters previously reported that the auction was drawing the interest of brewing groups such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Kirin Holdings, Asahi Group Holdings and San Miguel, but there is no clear sign of whether they have participated in the auction so far.

The government’s minimum price for the 54 percent stake on offer valued Sabeco at about 36 times core earnings, more than double the trading multiples of around 15 for some global peers, according to Reuters data.

Vietnam’s trade ministry is expected to announce the bidding result Monday afternoon.

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Trump Sells Republican Tax Bill to Job Seekers, Middle Class

U.S. President Donald Trump continued to tout the Republican tax bill Saturday, saying “everybody’s going to benefit” if it is signed into law.

“But I think the greatest benefit is going to be for jobs and for the middle class, middle income,” Trump said to reporters on the White House South Lawn before departing for the presidential Camp David retreat in Maryland.

Republican Senate and House negotiators finalized a final version Friday of their compromise $1.5 trillion tax bill, after appeasing Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who demanded an expansion of the child tax credit that provides benefits for low-income families.

Republican lawmakers hammered out differences Wednesday between the House and Senate versions, and both chambers of Congress plan to vote on the final bill early next week, with the intent of submitting it to President Donald Trump for his signature before Christmas.  

Rubio said late Friday he would vote for the bill after saying one day earlier he would not support it unless it includes a more generous child tax credit, which has been  beneficial to lower-income families by partially offsetting the expenses of raising children.

The bill doubles the current child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000 per child and allows parents to get a refund of up to $1,400 if the credit is greater than their federal income tax liability.

No Democratic support

No Democrats have publicly expressed their support for the legislation, which they have attacked as a giveaway to corporations and the wealthiest of taxpayers, including Trump, a billionaire.

The measure would cut taxes by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, heavily weighted toward lower corporate taxation, and perhaps add $1 trillion or more to the country’s long-term $20 trillion debt obligations to investors and foreign governments such as China – the largest owner of U.S. debt.

When asked about the debt, Trump responded by saying a new tax law will encourage inflows of overseas money. “This is going to bring money in. As an example, we think four trillion dollars will come flowing back into the country. That’s money that’s overseas, that’s stuck there for years and years.”

Trump administration officials say millions of individual taxpayers, but not everyone, would see their annual tax obligation to the government cut, in many cases by a few hundred dollars, or in the case of wealthy taxpayers, by thousands of dollars.

In  the final compromise bill, the individual tax rate for the highest income earners would be cut from 39.6 percent to 37 percent.

The country’s corporate tax rate, now at 35 percent and among the highest in the industrialized world, would be cut substantially to 21 percent.

With Democrat Doug Jones winning a special Senate election Tuesday in Alabama, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer has asked that the final tax vote be delayed until January after Jones is sworn in. But Republicans appear intent on voting before then while they have one more Republican vote in the Senate.

An original version of the Senate bill was approved 51-49 with Rubio’s support. So if Rubio votes against the bill, it could still pass, though with a narrower margin.

If approved and signed into law, the tax legislation would be the first major legislative achievement of Trump’s nearly 11-month presidency after he and Republicans failed earlier this year dismantle national health care policies championed by former president Barack Obama.

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Britain Seeks ‘Bespoke’ EU Trade Deal, Pact With China

British Finance Minister Philip Hammond said Saturday it is likely Britain will want to negotiate a bespoke arrangement for a future trade deal with the European Union, rather than copying existing arrangements like the Canada-EU deal.

The European Union agreed Friday to move Brexit talks onto trade and a transition pact, but some leaders cautioned that the final year of divorce negotiations before Britain’s exit could be fraught with peril.

Summit chairman Donald Tusk said the world’s biggest trading bloc would begin “exploratory contacts” with Britain on what London wants in a future trade relationship, as well as starting discussion on the immediate post-Brexit transition.

No off-the-shelf deal

Speaking in Beijing, Hammond it was probably not helpful to think in terms of off-the-shelf models like the Canada-EU deal.

“We have a level of trade and commercial integration with the EU 27 which is unlike the situation of any trade partner that the EU has ever done a trade deal with before,” he told reporters.

“And therefore it is likely that we will want to negotiate specific arrangements, bespoke arrangements,” Hammond added.

“So I expect that we will develop something that is neither the Canada model nor an EEA model, but something which draws on the strength of our existing relationship.”

The Brexit negotiations have been a vexed issue for the global economy as markets feared prolonged uncertainty would hit global trade and growth.

A transition period is now seen as crucial for investors and businesses who worry that a “cliff-edge” Brexit would disrupt trade flows and sow chaos through financial markets.

China visit

Hammond’s China visit is the latest installment in long-running economic talks between the two states, but it has now taken on new importance for Britain as it looks to re-invent itself as a global trading nation after leaving the EU in 2019.

China is one of the countries Britain hopes to sign a free trade agreement with once it leaves the EU, and London and Beijing have been keen to show that Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc will not affect ties.

Hammond sought to offer reassurance to Chinese firms post-March 2019 when Britain formally leaves the EU.

“We won’t technically or legally be in the customs union or in the single market, but we’re committed as a result of the agreement we’ve made this week to creating an environment which will effectively replicate the current status quo,” he said.

Addressing the press after Hammond had spoken, Chinese Vice Finance Minister Shi Yaobin said China hopes Britain and the EU can reach a win-win agreement.

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Huge Tax Bill Heads for Passage as GOP Senators Fall in Line

After weeks of quarrels and qualms and then 11th-hour horse-trading, Republicans revealed their huge national tax rewrite late Friday, along with announcements of support that all but guarantee approval next week.

The legislation would slash tax rates for big business and lower levies on the richest Americans in a massive $1.5 trillion bill that the GOP plans to pass through Congress before the year-end break. Benefits for most other taxpayers would be smaller.

“This is happening. Tax reform under Republican control of Washington is happening,” House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin told rank-and-file members in a conference call. “Most critics out there didn’t think it could happen. … And now we’re on the doorstep of something truly historic.”

According to the 1,097-page bill, today’s 35 percent rate on corporations would fall to 21 percent, the crown jewel of the measure for many Republicans. Trump and GOP leaders had set 20 percent as their goal, but added a point to free money for other tax cuts that won over wavering lawmakers in final talks.

Party’s first achievement of 2017

The legislation represents the first major legislative achievement for the GOP after nearly a full year in control of Congress and the White House. It’s the widest-ranging reshaping of the tax code in three decades and is expected to add to the nation’s $20 trillion debt. The debt is expected to soar by at least $1 trillion more than it would without the tax measure, according to projections.

Support is now expected from all Senate Republicans, ensuring narrow approval. Democrats are expected to oppose the legislation unanimously.

“Under this bill, the working class, middle class and upper middle class get skewered while the rich and wealthy corporations make out like bandits,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “It is just the opposite of what America needs, and Republicans will rue the day they pass this.”

The bill would drop today’s 39.6 percent top rate on individuals to 37 percent. The standard deduction, used by about two-thirds of households, would be nearly doubled.

Those who itemize their taxes face mixed results. The $1,000-per-child tax deduction would grow to $2,000. The bill makes a smaller amount — $1,400 — available to families even if they owe no income tax. The money would come in the form of a tax refund, which is why it’s called a “refundable” tax credit. In an earlier verison of the bill, the amount was $1,000.

But the deduction that millions use in connection with state and local income, property and sales taxes would be capped at $10,000. Deductions for medical expenses that lawmakers once considered eliminating would be retained.

Only on Friday did Republicans cement support for the major overhaul, securing endorsements from wavering senators.

Rubio, Corker relent

Marco Rubio of Florida relented in his high-profile opposition after negotiators expanded the child tax credit, and he said he would vote for the measure next week.

Rubio had been holding out for a bigger child tax credit for low-income families. After he got it, he tweeted that the change was “a solid step toward broader reforms which are both Pro-Growth and Pro-Worker.”

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the only Republican to vote against the Senate version earlier this month, made the surprise announcement that he would back the legislation. Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has repeatedly warned that the nation’s growing debt is the most serious threat to national security.

Although he deemed the bill far from perfect, he said it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

“I realize this is a bet on our country’s enterprising spirit, and that is a bet I am willing to make,” Corker said.

Members of a House-Senate conference committee signed the final version of the legislation Friday, sending it to the two chambers for final passage next week. They have been working to blend the different versions passed by the two houses.

Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate, including two ailing senators who have missed votes this past week.

John McCain of Arizona, 81, is at a Washington-area military hospital being treated for the side effects of brain cancer treatment, and Thad Cochran, 80, of Mississippi had a non-melanoma lesion removed from his nose earlier this week. GOP leaders are hopeful they will be available next week.

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Powerful CEOs Demand DACA Fix

Two titans of U.S. business have come together to demand that Congress find an immediate solution for DACA recipients, whose legal immigration status will come to an end in March without intervention.

Charles Koch, chairman and chief executive of Koch Industries, and Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday in The Washington Post that “we strongly agree that Congress must act before the end of the year to bring certainty and security to the lives of dreamers. Delay is not an option. Too many people’s futures hang in the balance.”

Dreamers is another term for participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has protected undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and provided them with work permits.

President Donald Trump ended the DACA program in September although it will not begin to phase out until March, 2018.

His action put the ball in Congress’ court to find a long term solution for dreamers.

In their op-ed piece, the two CEOs note that both of their companies employ DACA recipients. “We know from experience that the success of our businesses depends on having employees with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It fuels creativity, broadens knowledge and helps drive innovation.”

Koch Industries encompass a variety of companies including manufacturing and refining of oil and chemicals. Forbes Magazine lists Koch as the second largest privately held company in the U.S. Apple is the world’s largest information technology company, producing such familiar products as the iPhone and the Mac computers.

‘Firmly aligned’ on DACA issue

Koch and Cook are as different politically as their companies. Deeply conservative, Charles Koch has made significant financial contributions to rightwing causes and mostly Republican candidates. Tim Cook has been more bipartisan in his donations but did host a fundraiser for Democrat Hillary Clinton when she was running for president.

“We are business leaders who sometimes differ on the issues of the day,” the two concede in their piece. “Yet, on a question as straightforward as this one, we are firmly aligned.”

Congress seems unlikely to provide a DACA solution by the end of the year.

While some Democrats have remained firm in linking the spending legislation to a measure that would allow nearly 800,000 DACA immigrants to continue to work and study in the United States, the effort seems to have lost momentum.

Speaking Wednesday to a group of DACA recipients, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois said he wished he could “tell you that we’re totally confident we can get it done. I can’t say that. I don’t want to mislead you.” Durbin is a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act which would protect DACA recipients.

Republican lawmakers have maintained that there is no reason to act on DACA in 2017.

“There is no emergency. The president has given us until March to address it,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Sunday on ABC’s This Week program. “I don’t think Democrats would be very smart to say they want to shut down the government over a nonemergency that we can address anytime between now and March.”

But that was said before a major Republican donor urged immediate action.

“We have no illusions about how difficult it can be to get things done in Washington, and we know that people of good faith disagree about aspects of immigration policy,“ Koch and Cook write.

“By acting now to ensure that dreamers can realize their potential by continuing to contribute to our country, Congress can reaffirm this essential American ideal.

“This is a political, economic and moral imperative.”

 

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Trump Touts Progress on Slashing Federal Regulations

U.S. President Donald Trump has touted progress on slashing federal regulations, which he says cost America trillions with no benefit. Speaking Thursday from the White House, the president said his administration had exceeded its goal of removing two federal regulations for every new one, by removing 22 for every new one. Opponents have criticized some of the deregulation, especially dismantling of the net neutrality rules that guarantee equal access to the internet. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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