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Facebook Profit Soars, No Sign of Impact from Russia Issue

Facebook reported better-than-expected quarterly profit and revenue on Wednesday as it pushed further into video advertising, showing no sign of financial damage from the controversy over how Russia used the social network in an attempt to sway voters in the 2016 U.S. election.

The company’s shares, which hit a record earlier in the day, initially rose in after-hours trading, but later fell into negative territory. They have gained almost 60 percent this year.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg condemned Russia’s attempts to influence last year’s election through Facebook posts designed to sow division, and repeated his pledge to ramp up spending significantly to increase the social network’s security, something he said on Wednesday would affect profits.

“What they did is wrong, and we are not going to stand for it,” Zuckerberg said of the Russians, on a conference call with analysts.

Facebook is at the center of a political storm in the United States for the ways it handles paid political ads and allows the spread of false news stories. U.S. lawmakers have threatened tougher regulation and fired questions at Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch in hearings this week.

Facebook, in a series of disclosures over two months, has said that people in Russia bought at least 3,000 U.S. political ads and published another 80,000 Facebook posts that were seen by as many as 126 million Americans over two years. Russia denies any meddling.

Facebook’s total advertising revenue rose 49 percent in the third quarter to $10.14 billion, about 88 percent of which came from mobile ads.

Analysts on average had expected total ad revenue of $9.71 billion, according to data and analytics firm FactSet.

Facebook in the third quarter gave advertisers for the first time the ability to run ads in standalone videos, outside the Facebook News Feed, and the company is seeing good early results, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told analysts on a conference call.

“Video is exploding, and mobile video advertising is a big opportunity,” Sandberg said.

More than 70 percent of ad breaks up to 15 seconds long were viewed to completion, most with the sound on, she said.

The 49 percent increase in total ad sales in the latest quarter compares with a 47 percent rise in the prior quarter and a 51 percent jump in the first quarter.

Facebook has been warning for more than a year about reaching a limit in “ad load”, or the number of ads the company can feature in users’ pages before crowding their News Feed.

Advertisers seem unfazed, though, spending heavily as the social network continues to attract users.

The nearly 50 percent jump in ad revenue “is phenomenal, especially when for the past few quarters they’ve been trying to bring that expectation way, way down. Yet it keeps going up,” Tigress Financial Partners analyst Ivan Feinseth said.

Of the Russia scandal enveloping Facebook publicly, Feinseth said: “In the bigger picture, I don’t think it’s a really big factor.”

The company’s performance was strong in comparison with smaller social media firms Snap Inc and Twitter, Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter said.

“Facebook grew revenues by $3.3 billion year-over-year for the quarter. This is more than Twitter and Snapchat generate combined for the full year,” he said.

Facebook said about 2.07 billion people were using its service monthly as of Sept. 30, up 16 percent from a year earlier.

Analysts on average had expected 2.06 billion monthly active users, according to FactSet.

Net income rose to $4.71 billion, or $1.59 per share, from $2.63 billion, or 90 cents per share.

Analysts on an average were expecting the company to earn $1.28, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Total revenue increased 47.3 percent to $10.33 billion beating analysts estimate of $9.84 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Various U.S. investigations into how Russia may have tried to sway American voters in the months before and after last year’s elections are hanging over Facebook and its competitors.

There is also proposed U.S. legislation that would extend rules governing political ads on television, radio and satellite to also cover digital advertising.

“We expect more scrutiny about Facebook’s ad system ahead,” analyst Debra Aho Williamson of research firm eMarketer said in a note. “We’re also monitoring for any signs that this investigation will have a material impact on ad revenue.”

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Trump Expected to Name Powell As New Fed Chief

President Donald Trump is expected to name Jerome Powell as the new head of the U.S. central bank.

Trump is scheduled to formally announce the pick Thursday in the White House Rose Garden.

“I think you will be extremely impressed by this person!” he teased in a Twitter post.

 

WATCH: Who Will Be the Next Fed Chief?

Sucessor to Yellen

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, reported late Wednesday that White House officials have notified Powell that he will replace Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen when her term expires early next year. Other media outlets also said Powell is Trump’s choice.

Powell is one of the Federal Reserve’s governors. Analysts say he is a Republican centrist who appears inclined to continue the Fed’s strategy of gradually raising interest rates. The Journal story cautioned that Trump, who has praised Yellen recently, might still change his mind.

Powell would be a middle-ground pick for Trump, who is also considering current Fed Chair Yellen as well as Stanford University economist John Taylor and former Fed Governor Kevin Warsh.

Powell may relax rules

While Powell is expected to continue Yellen’s cautious approach to raising interest rates, economists say he might relax some of the financial rules designed to prevent another financial crisis like the one that caused chaos in the markets during the 2007-2008 recession. Trump has complained that those rules hurt banks and economic growth. Yellen, who was selected as Fed chair by President Barack Obama, has been an outspoken advocate for the stricter financial regulations that took effect in 2010.

Many conservative members of Congress had been pushing Trump to select Taylor, rather than Powell, for Fed chairman. Taylor, one of the country’s leading academics in the area of Fed policy, would likely embrace a more “hawkish’’ approach, more inclined to raise rates to fight inflation than to keep rates low to support the job market. Taylor is the author of a widely cited policy rule that provides a mathematical formula for guiding rate decisions. By one version of that rule, rates would be at least double what they are now.

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Exxon Promises Air Pollution Controls in Settlement with US Government

ExxonMobil has promised to upgrade pollution controls at eight of its manufacturing facilities along the U.S. Gulf Coast under an agreement it reached with federal authorities.

The petrochemical giant will spend about $300 million to install pollution controls at the plants to settle allegations that it violated U.S. environmental law by failing to properly monitor industrial flares at its petrochemical plants, resulting in illegal air pollution.

The U.S. Justice Department, in a statement, said the Exxon facilities — located in Louisiana and Texas — will operate new air pollution control and monitoring technology to reduce the harmful emissions.

“Once fully implemented, the pollution controls required by the settlement are estimated to reduce harmful air emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by more than 7,000 tons per year,” the DOJ said in a statement. “The settlement is also expected to reduce toxic air pollutants, including benzene, by more than 1,500 tons per year.”

The Justice Department describes VOCs as key components in the formation of smog, which can irritate lungs and inflame respiratory issues like asthma. Chronic exposure can lead to leukemia and adverse reproductive effects in women, the DOJ said.

Exxon also will be required to spend $1 million on a project to plant trees in Baytown, Texas, and purchase a $1.5 million mobile air quality monitoring vehicle for use by Louisiana’s environmental protection agency.

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Kushner Partner All But Kills Plan for Fifth Ave Skyscraper

The co-owner of a Fifth Avenue skyscraper controlled by the family of Jared Kushner says demolishing the tower to build luxury apartments is not practical and the building will likely remain as offices.

 

Vornado Realty Trust CEO Steven Roth told investors on Tuesday that the Kushner family’s plan to raise billions from investors to rebuild the tower is “not feasible.” He added that “it’s likely that the building will revert to an office building.”

The project drew criticism after media reports that the Kushner Cos. was negotiating with a Chinese insurer with ties to the ruling Communist Party, among other big foreign investors. Critics say such deals would raise conflicts of interest issues with Jared Kushner serving in the White House as an adviser to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.

 

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Eurozone Recovery Helps Unemployment Fall to Near 9-Year Low

Official figures show that the robust economic recovery across the 19-country eurozone persisted during the third quarter, helping unemployment fall to a near 9-year low.

 

Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, said Tuesday that the eurozone economy grew by 0.6 percent during the July to September period. Though that’s slightly down on the stellar 0.7 percent tick recorded in the second quarter, it’s modestly higher than expectations for a 0.5 percent rise.

 

Separately, Eurostat said unemployment fell to 8.9 percent in September from 9.0 percent the previous month. That’s the lowest rate since January 2009.

 

Elsewhere, Eurostat said annual inflation in the eurozone dipped to 1.4 percent in October from 1.5 percent as the core rate, which strips out volatile items, surprisingly fell to 0.9 percent from 1.1 percent.

 

 

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African Development Bank Calls Off Proposed Loans to Nigeria

The African Development Bank has called off a loan to Nigeria that would have helped fund the country’s budget, instead redirecting the money to specific projects, a vice president at the lender said on Monday.

The African Development Bank had been in talks with Nigeria for around a year to release the second, $400 million tranche of a $1 billion loan to shore up its budget for 2017, as the government tried to reinvigorate its stagnant economy with heavy spending.

But Nigeria refused to meet the terms of international lenders, which also included the World Bank, to enact various reforms, including allowing its currency, the naira, to float freely on the foreign exchange market.

Rather than loan Nigeria money to fund its budget, the African Development Bank is likely to take at least some of that money and “put it directly into projects,” Amadou Hott, African Development Bank vice president for power, energy, climate change and green growth, told Reuters in an interview during a Nordic-African business conference in Oslo.

Because prices for oil, on which Nigeria’s government relies for about two-thirds of its revenues, have risen and the naira-dollar exchange rate has improved, the country is relying less than expected on external borrowing, Hott said.

No one from the Nigerian finance ministry was immediately available to comment.

Nigeria’s 2017 budget, 7.44 trillion naira, is just one in a series of record budgets that the government has faced obstacles funding, pushing it to seek loans from overseas.

In late 2016, the AfDB agreed to lend Nigeria a first tranche of $600 million out of $1 billion. But negotiations over economic reform later bogged down, blocking attempts to secure the second tranche of $400 million, sources told Reuters then.

Now, AfDB’s loans will be more targeted, Hott said.

“It’s hundreds of millions of dollars, just in one go, that we were supposed to provide in budget support, but we will move into real projects … ” he said.

Earlier this month, the head of Nigeria’s Debt Management Office said the country is still in talks with the World Bank for a $1.6 billion loan, which will help plug part of an expected $7.5 billion deficit for 2017.

The administration is also trying to restructure its debt to move away from high-interest, naira-denominated loans and towards dollar loans, which carry lower rates.

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Trump Expected to Nominate Powell for Fed Chair

U.S. President is expected to nominate Federal Reserve Governor Jerome Powell as the next chairman of the central bank, senior administration officials said Monday.

Powell is a Republican centrist who appears inclined to continue the Fed’s strategy of gradual interest rate hikes.

But officials say Trump hasn’t made up his mind and could change it.

Powell would represent a middle-ground pick for Trump, who is also considering current Democratic Fed Chair Janet Yellen as well as Stanford University economist John Taylor and former Fed Governor Kevin Warsh.

Powell could, however, relax some of the stricter financial rules that were enacted after the 2008 financial crisis. Trump has complained that those rules have been too restrictive.

The decision over the Fed’s next leader is overshadowing this week’s meeting of the Federal Reserve’s policy meeting.

Trump said Friday he has “someone very specific in mind” for the Fed. “It will be a person who, hopefully, will do a fantastic job,” Trump said in a short video message posted on Instagram and Twitter.

Many conservative members of Congress had been pushing Trump to select Taylor, rather than Powell, for Fed chairman. Taylor, one of the country’s leading academics in the area of Fed policy, would likely embrace a more “hawkish” approach — more inclined to raise rates to fight inflation than to keep rates low to support the job market. Taylor is the author of a widely cited policy rule that provides a mathematical formula for guiding rate decisions. By one version of that rule, rates would be at least double what they are now.

 

Yellen, who was selected as Fed chair by President Barack Obama, has been an outspoken advocate for the stricter financial regulations that took effect in 2010 to prevent another crisis.

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Blockchain Technology Could Unblock Southeast Asia

Imagine you could swipe your phone over a piece of fish in the supermarket and instantly see secure records of its entire path through the supply chain, from the technique used by the fisherman who caught it in Indonesia to when it was shipped and how it was processed at a factory in your home country —  all at the tap of a smartphone.

Trial projects such as that one are testing the potential of Blockchain technology to bring transparency to all sorts of notoriously inefficient or shadowy industries in Southeast Asia.

Blockchain, the technology that powers bitcoin, is an essentially unchangeable form of bookkeeping. It creates cryptographically chained signatures between blocks of information that are authenticated by users over a peer-to-peer distributed ledger — a public record that can be applied to any type of bookkeeping, not just cryptocurrencies.

“It removes the requirement for a centralized authority, and in a lot of the products that it’s being launched in, this centralized authority tends to be the government,” said Alisa DiCaprio, head of research at R3 — an enterprise banking software firm that uses distributed ledger technology.

In a region where the most important records — identity and ownership for instance — are often subjected to little or no external oversight, blockchain offers enormous potential benefits.

Erin Murphy, Founder and Principal of Inle Advisory Group, a Myanmar and emerging business advisory firm, said major Asian business hubs are looking to blockchain to clean up and simplify transactions.

“Ideally, we would want to see adoption of blockchain at an official level all across the region,” she said in an email. “But perhaps not surprisingly, the governments that are leading blockchain adoption are those that are already low-corruption.”

One of those governments, she said, is Singapore, which is working with major banks on a blockchain-based system to streamline and qualitatively improve their customer (KYC) processes.

In other countries, it is being used for completely different purposes. In the Philippines, a remittance market worth billions of dollars per month has been invaded by firms offering cheaper services built on blockchain, which people can access without a bank account..

“Any steps that get taken at first may not be viewed through an anti-corruption lens and may inadvertently tackle that issue; it will likely be viewed through a development lens to kickstart poverty alleviation and bringing sectors up to international standards that attract foreign investment,” Murphy said.

More than money

There are many trials with clear utility in Southeast Asia underway, including systems for land titling under development in Sweden and Japan.

In June, the United Nations unveiled a blockchain-based system built in partnership with Microsoft and Accenture that gives stateless refugees a permanent identity based on biometric data.

It’s also being explored for secure voting systems.

The blockchain-based app developed to track the supply chain of fish from Indonesia — Provenance — is now the basis of many other trials, including a project to create a similar system for the garment industry.

Online you can view the results of a pilot released in May this year that follows a piece of clothing — an Alpaca Mirror Jumper from London-based designer Martine Jarlgaard, from a farm in Dulverton, Britain, through every step of production into London with location, content and timestamps.

It is a long way, though, from realizing that something can be done to actually making it happen, DiCaprio of R3 said.

“The technical capability to do this exists in most developing countries,” she said. “You have engineers who can code on the blockchain. But the understanding of how to actually implement this from a business point of view is very poor.”

DiCaprio estimates it will take about five years before we actually see large-scale functioning applications and believes the most impactful will occur at the macro economic level.

“So for example one area that it’s moving very quickly is trade finance,” she said. “And trade finance, you’re generally talking about fairly large companies, generally in Asia mostly exporting or importing from or to the US or EU,.”

Faster, cheaper and more transparent transactions combined with reductions in the risks of lending and borrowing would flow to down to the village level, she added.

Subversion vs centralization

Blockchain proponents are divided by some sharply divergent values. Some see blockchain — whose slogan is “be your own bank,” as technology that can fundamentally upend a global financial system they believe is intractably corrupt.

“There is a serious opportunity for us here to remove money out of government,” said a Southeast Asia based bitcoin trader who would only give his alias FlippingABitCoin, fearing he could expose himself to physical theft.

Billions of people currently excluded from the formal banking system will be able to access global cryptocurrencies with no middle man using nothing more than a phone, he said.

“It will level out the playing field of power,” he said.

Another group of enthusiasts are encouraging the absorption of this technology by states, as demonstrated by Canada, Singapore, China and Germany, all of which are either exploring or conducting trials of their own central bank digital currencies using blockchain.

“In the long run, we believe if there is any threat at all to governments, it is that other governments will lead the way in adopting blockchain technologies in producing low-corruption, high-transparency, highly-secure digitized economic infrastructures that will attract business, investment and stakeholder confidence,” wrote Michael Hsieh, a non-resident affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, in an email.

“The societies who lead in the great fintech [financial technology] innovation race of the 21st century will siphon all the capital and productivity from those that lag,” he wrote.

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For Spanish, Catalan Economies, No Winners in Standoff

Xavier Gabriel can take some credit if the tiny Catalan mountain town of Sort is one of the most famous in Spain.

He runs a lottery shop called La Bruja de Oro, or The Golden Witch, in a town whose name, aptly, means “Luck” in Catalan. Its fortune in having sold many prize-winning tickets has made it a household name and a successful online business.

But the crisis surrounding Catalonia’s push for independence has changed life for 60-year-old Gabriel. He joined more than 1,500 companies in moving their official headquarters out of the wealthy region in recent weeks. Their main fear: that they would no longer be covered by Spanish and European Union laws if Catalonia manages to break away, dragging their businesses into unknown territory.

“The time had come to make a decision,” said Gabriel, who employs 16 people and describes himself as a proud Catalan.

​Hedging their bets

Like Gabriel’s, the vast majority of companies that moved their headquarters didn’t transfer workers or assets, such as bank holdings or production equipment. So far, it’s mainly a form of legal insurance. But as the political crisis escalates, the risk is that companies are deferring investments and hiring. There is evidence that tourists are holding off booking, perhaps frightened by images in the media of police crackdowns, street demonstrations and strikes.

And the situation risks getting worse before it improves: the central government’s decision Friday to take control of the region could spiral out of control if there is popular resistance, whether by citizens or local authorities like the Catalan police force.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the crisis is having a very damaging effect on the economy,” said Javier Diaz Gimenez, an economics professor at Spain’s prestigious IESE Business School.

Financial markets in Spain have so far fallen only modestly, reflecting investors’ apparent belief that the tensions will eventually be resolved. The Spanish government has called a regional election in Catalonia for Dec. 21 and could later consider revisions to the constitution that might placate some of the independence supporters.

But that could take some time, Diaz Gimenez says, given how confrontational both sides have been.

Banks leave

The list of businesses moving headquarters includes Catalonia’s top two banks, Caixabank and Sabadell, which are among Spain’s top five lenders. Then there is the Codorniu cava sparkling wine maker for which Catalonia is famous. Another well-known cava maker, Freixenet, is also planning to follow if the independence drive continues. Publishing giant Planeta, the world’s leading Spanish-language publisher and second biggest publisher in France, has also moved its official address out of Catalonia.

Caixabank says it suffered a moderate but temporary run on deposits because of the crisis, but said it has since recovered and was adamant the move was permanent.

Shares for Caixabank, Sabadell and some other companies have been volatile, falling after the Oct. 1 vote for independence and jumping sharply when they announced their decision to move headquarters.

Tip of the iceberg

Lottery shop owner Gabriel says ticket sales this month are up nearly 300 percent over last year, a rise he attributed to popular support for his decision to move his business.

Diaz Gimenez said the decisions to move headquarters, while not immediately affecting jobs, were “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Plans to relocate firms or invest elsewhere are going to accelerate and some of it is going to go to, say, Poland, and it’s never going to come back,” he said.

“People that were thinking about investing in Spain and Barcelona are starting to think again,” he said. “It’s not just Catalonia. It’s the mismanagement by Spain, which is proving that it’s not a serious country because it cannot solve this thing.”

Spanish economy humming

The turmoil, ironically, comes just as Spain has been enjoying some of the fastest economic growth in Europe.

Its economy, the fourth-largest in the 19-country eurozone, grew by a hefty quarterly rate of 0.9 percent in the second quarter. The government has maintained its forecast for growth in 2017 at 3.1 percent, but revised its estimate for 2018 from 2.6 percent to 2.3 percent because of the political crisis. Moody’s credit rating agency has warned that a continued political impasse and, ultimately, independence for Catalonia would severely hurt the country’s credit rating.

Billions at stake

Tourism seems to be taking the biggest hit so far.

Experts say spending in the sector in Catalonia in the first two weeks of October — that is, following the independence referendum — was down 15 percent from a year earlier.

Tourism represents about 11 percent of Spain’s 1.1-trillion euro ($1.3 trillion) gross domestic product, with Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, providing a fifth of that, being the most popular destinations for visitors.

Exceltur, a nonprofit group formed by the 25 leading Spanish tourist groups, expects growth in tourism this year to ease from an estimated 4.1 percent to 3.1 percent.

Reservations in Barcelona alone are down 20 percent compared with last year, it said. If the trend continues in the final three months of the year, it could lead to losses of up to 1.2 billion euros ($1.41 billion) in the sector, which in turn could affect jobs.

Analysts fear that the independence movement’s stated aim of continuing to create as much social and economic chaos for Spain as possible could exacerbate the situation. The Catalan National Assembly group has been openly talking about a boycott against Spain’s top companies and major strike activity.

“Spain, its tourism, everything is very dependent on image,” Diaz Gimenez said. “And this is just killing it.”

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On Climate Change, It’s Trump vs. Markets

At the 2015 Paris summit, world leaders pledged to take steps to avoid catastrophic climate change. This November in Bonn, Germany, U.N. negotiators will be back, working out the details of how to cut emissions of planet-warming gases. It is the first conference since President Donald Trump said the United States would withdraw from the agreement. That leaves questions about the direction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. As VOA’s Steve Baragona reports, the answer is not straightforward.

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