Category Archives: Business

economy and business news

Flirting With Default, Venezuela Vows Debt Payment

Venezuela’s cash-strapped government on Tuesday vowed it was making debt payments responsibly, even as two ratings agencies declared partial default on a crippling debt load that has fueled hunger and disease.

President Nicolas Maduro’s government left investors scratching their heads on Monday after a debt negotiation meeting that offered no specifics on plans to avoid default or execute an unlikely restructuring plan.

Despite optimism that payment will continue in the short-term, investors believe the country will at some point be unable to service some $60 billion in junk bonds — potentially triggering messy lawsuits and worsening an already difficult economic situation.

“Today we have initiated payment of interest on Venezuela’s foreign debt,” said Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez in a televised speech, apparently referring to delayed payment of $200 million on several Venezuelan bonds.

Debt renegotiation

Government officials describe Monday’s meeting as the start of a debt renegotiation process that Maduro announced earlier this month.

Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, an all-powerful legislature created in August despite condemnation by the opposition and the international community, on Tuesday approved a resolution “to support and accompany the refinancing process.”

But investors say that no such process in fact exists. They say Maduro’s government has presented no coherent financial plan, and that any such plan would likely be made impossible by U.S. sanctions.

Bonds downgraded

Ratings agency Fitch on Tuesday downgraded Venezuelan bonds to “selective default,” citing delays in paying interest on bonds maturing in 2019 and 2024. The decision followed a similar one by S&P on Monday and by Fitch on debt from state oil company PDVSA.

“Selective default” means that a ratings agency believe that a borrower has defaulted on some of its obligations but will likely continue to make timely payments on others.

In response, Venezuela and PDVSA bonds tumbled on Tuesday, wiping out most of a rally from last week that had been driven by investor confidence that payment would continue.

In a sign it may be gearing up for a legal dispute, Venezuela has appointed lawyer David Syed to advise it, working alongside a team at global law firm Dentons, according to IFR, a Thomson Reuters news service.

Routine delays

Investors nonetheless appear to remain broadly comfortable with a wait-and-see approach, with no clear signs of creditors preparing to file legal claims in response to payment delays.

That approach is encouraged by the staggering investment return on Venezuelan bonds, which Tuesday were paying an average of 50 percentage points more than comparable U.S. securities.

Delays have become routine since October, when Venezuela and PDVSA starting using 30-day grace periods to stretch out limited cash-flow. Investors broadly shrug them off, and some take advantage of associated market jitters to buy them on the cheap.

U.S. citizens blocked

Sanctions by the government of U.S. President Donald Trump, in response to accusations that Maduro’s government has undermined democracy and systematically violated human rights, block U.S. citizens from buying newly issued Venezuelan debt.

That makes it effectively impossible for the country to refinance, because such operations rely on swaps in which investors exchange outstanding bonds for new ones.

The measures also bar any dealings with dozens of blacklisted officials, including Vice President Tareck El Aissami and Economy Minister Simon Zerpa — the two main leaders of the debt negotiation commission.

Venezuela has dismissed U.S. accusations of drug-dealing and corruption by its officials as politically motivated fabrications by Washington to tarnish the country’s reputation, and describes the sanctions as a colonial exercise by the Trump government.

Venezuelans hit hard

Four years of recession in the South American nation, fueled by failing socialist economics and a plunge in global oil prices, have hit Venezuelans hard. Many skip meals or suffer from malnutrition and preventable diseases.

With some $9 billion in payments looming for 2018, a default would be a short-term relief for the government, enabling Maduro to spend on desperately-needed food and medicine imports ahead of next year’s presidential election.

But that strategy could also backfire if it sparks aggressive legal challenges from abroad, including moves to seize assets of PDVSA.

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Alaska Airlines Discontinues Los Angeles-Havana Daily Flight

U.S. airline Alaska Airlines on Tuesday said it would discontinue a daily flight between Los Angeles and Havana, Cuba, after Jan. 22, due to the recent changes in Cuba travel policies by the U.S. government.

The U.S. government made it tougher last week for Americans to visit Cuba and do business in the country, making good on a pledge by President Donald Trump to roll back his Democratic predecessor’s move toward warmer ties with Havana.

The regulations include a ban on Americans doing business with some 180 Cuban government entities, holding companies, and tourism companies.

The airline which started the Los Angeles-Havana flight in January this year, said it will redeploy the aircraft to other markets with stronger demand.

Passengers who have tickets booked to Havana after January 22 will be rebooked on another airline at no additional cost or a full refund, the company said.

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Sudan to Unify Currency Rate in Bid to Win Foreign Investment

Sudan is taking steps to close the gap between its official and unofficial currency rates and scrap subsidies by end-2019 to win foreign investment after U.S. sanctions ended, Minister of State for Finance Magdi Hassan Yassin told Reuters on Tuesday.

Washington last month suspended 20-year sanctions and lifted a trade embargo because it decided that Sudan had made progress on counterterrorism cooperation and on internal conflicts such as one in Darfur. It also unfroze assets and removed financial restrictions.

Sudan is hoping the measures will help the import-dependent country get back on its feet after years of hardship caused partly when the south seceded in 2011 and it lost three-quarters of its oil output, its main source of foreign currency.

“We will gradually lift subsidies in accordance with the five-year plan by the end of 2019. … Most of the things that hinder foreign investment are being addressed and there are reforms to investment and company laws,” Yassin said.

Sudan last November cut fuel and electricity subsidies and announced import restrictions to save scarce foreign currency.

Sudan’s year-on-year inflation decreased in October to 33.08 percent from 35.13 percent in September on the back of lower food and beverage prices, a report from Sudan’s central statistics agency said Tuesday.

Sudan’s central bank has held the official exchange rate at 6.7 pounds to the dollar but currency is largely unavailable at that price. The pound currently hovers around 23 pounds to the dollar, according to currency traders.

“The 2018 budget, which will start in January, will be the first budget after the U.S. ended the economic sanctions. … The central bank will set policies to unify the exchange rate,” Yassin said.

But “there are no directions to float the pound,” he added.

Analysts and officials say Sudan must conduct tough reforms such as floating its currency if it hopes to benefit from sanctions relief and begin to attract new investment.

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Shrinking GE Rattles Investors, Shares Hit 5-year Low

General Electric’s new Chief Executive John Flannery on Monday outlined steps that will turn the biggest U.S. industrial conglomerate into a smaller, more focused company, surprising some investors who sold the company’s shares to a five-year low.

Flannery’s plan to shrink GE’s multi-industry array of businesses was a reversal of the deal-driven empire building of his predecessors, Jeff Immelt and Jack Welch, and potentially a milestone in the decline of the conglomerate as a business strategy.

Other companies that once emulated the GE model of spreading bets among diverse industries are now unwinding their portfolios as well, something Immelt also did throughout his 16 years as CEO, even as he made acquisitions.

Flannery said he will pare GE down to three core businesses: power, aviation and healthcare. He will keep Immelt’s strategy of building software to complement GE’s machinery, albeit with a narrower focus and reduced budget.

For investors, Flannery’s decision to cut both the dividend and the 2018 earnings forecast by half added up to a whole that was less than they judged GE be worth last week.

GE shares fell to their lowest level in more than five years as investors worried the years-long overhaul would not pare down enough expenses or generate as much cash as they hoped. They closed off the day’s lows, down 7.2 percent to $19.02.

“They need to cut more cost,” said Scott Davis, an analyst at Melius Research. “GE is still a bloated company with duplicate costs up and down the organization.”

GE stock has effectively been dead money since September 2001, when Immelt took over, posting a negative total return even after reinvesting its juicy dividends. Once the most valuable U.S. publicly traded company, GE now has a market value of $168 billion, less than a fifth of Apple.

“You have pessimism around its portfolio of businesses mixed with a pretty harsh cut in the dividend,” said John Augustine, chief investment officer at Huntington Private Bank. “It took them years to get into this mess and it will take them several years to right the ship and get back into a stronger position.”

‘Soul of the Company’

Flannery, who took over as CEO on Aug. 1, said he was “looking for the soul of the company again” and would focus on “restoring the oxygen of cash and earnings to the company.”

He will cut its board to 12 from 18 members, and bring on three new directors early next year.

GE said it already has shed 25 percent of its corporate staff, meaning 1,500 jobs around the world, including some at its Boston headquarters. It is aiming to reduce overhead cost by $2 billion next year, half of that at its troubled power unit that sells electrical generation equipment.

The transition includes GE getting rid of at least $20 billion of assets through sales, spin-offs or other means.

GE will jettison businesses with “a very dispassionate eye,” Flannery said, keeping only units that offer growth, a leading market position and a large installed base.

GE said it would exit its lighting, transportation, industrial solutions and electrical grid businesses, all of which were widely expected, closing factories around the globe.

But it was vague about other disposals.

It plans to get rid of its 62.5-percent stake in oilfield services company Baker Hughes, only months after making the multi-billion dollar investment. Baker Hughes shares lost 3.2 percent.

Flannery offered no quick fixes for investors. He said power, one of the businesses GE would focus on, was “challenged,” but could be turned around in one to two years.

GE’s Digital unit, on which Immelt bet billions of dollars, would focus on selling apps to customers in its core businesses, Flannery said. He confirmed that the shift meant sales staff were being let go, as Reuters reported last week.

GE also will cut spending on the digital unit to $1.1 billion in 2018 from $1.5 billion in 2017. GE had previously said it would invest $2.1 billion in its digital unit in 2017, but that tally included money not tied to Predix, GE’s industrial-internet platform, GE said.

Flannery said there is “no retreat on the idea” of GE providing both applications and the Predix platform to connect industrial equipment to computers that can make machines run better. However, getting one of its key applications to run on Predix could take two more years.

Flannery added that some of its healthcare IT business, such as software for imaging and hospital staff scheduling, were still critical to the company and not likely to be divested.

Dividend Cut

The dividend cut, to 48 cents from 96 cents next year, is only the third in the company’s 125-year history and the first not during a broader financial crisis. It is expected to save about $4 billion in cash annually.

“This dividend cut will be a major disappointment to GE’s (roughly 40 percent) retail shareholder base,” said RBC Capital Markets analyst Deane Dray.

The cut will be the eighth-biggest dividend cut in history among S&P 500 companies, according to Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst of S&P Dow Jones Indices. GE also had the biggest cut when it slashed its dividend by $8.87 billion in 2009, Silverblatt said.

GE forecast 2018 adjusted earnings of $1 to $1.07 a share, compared with its earlier estimate of $2 per share. Wall Street was expecting $1.16, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Industrial free cash flow will total just $6 billion to $7 billion next year, up from an estimated $3 billion in 2017, but far below earlier targets of $12 billion for 2017.

GE said the weak power business had largely prompted the dividend cut and lowered earnings forecast. Demand for new power plants will remain slow through 2019, Flannery predicted.

But GE also was to blame, he said.

“We did not manage the (power) business well,” he said. “That’s a fundamental change we need to make and that’s going to take some time. This is not a magic wand.”

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Mexico Readying Economic Response if US Exits NAFTA

Mexico’s government is preparing a macroeconomic response in case U.S. President Donald Trump makes good on threats to quit the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an event which could wreak havoc on the Mexican economy and hurt the peso.

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said on Monday the government and central bank were preparing a plan to address the possibility of a future without NAFTA, but gave few details.

The government has said it is examining how it could adjust Mexican legislation to give investors certainty about their investments if the almost 24-year-old NAFTA collapses.

Underpinning some $1.3 trillion in annual trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico, NAFTA has been a central pillar of recent Mexican economic development. Nearly 80 percent of Mexican exports are shipped to the United States.

Trade negotiators from the United States, Mexico and Canada meet in Mexico City this week to continue talks on overhauling the accord, and Videgaray reiterated the government’s position that the expectation was that talks would ultimately succeed.

Mexico would continue to work on diversifying trade, protect foreign investment, review possible changes to tariff barriers, and prepare a macro-economic response from the finance ministry and the central bank, Videgaray added.

“These are the four lines a plan B must include,” he told Mexican radio. “We have to be prepared for all the scenarios and one of the scenarios is that the United States leaves the treaty, and as we have said, that is not the end of the world, the Mexican economy is much bigger than NAFTA.”

Separately, the International Monetary Fund said in a report on Monday that ending NAFTA would bring back World Trade Organization “most-favored nation” tariffs, which would disrupt Mexican-U.S. trade, and could crimp economic growth, dampen capital inflows and raise risk premia.

The IMF suggested that among various policy responses at Mexico’s disposal, “temporary foreign exchange interventions and liquidity provision could help smooth extreme volatility.”

Concerns that Trump could follow through on his threats to dump NAFTA have battered the Mexican peso in recent weeks.

Additionally, Mexico should continue to implement its structural reforms and boost efforts to diversify trading relationships, which would increase competitiveness and help economic growth over the medium-term, the IMF said.

The IMF sees Mexico’s economy growing 1.9 percent next year after projected expansion of 2.1 percent in 2017.

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Bipartisan Analysis: Senate Bill Would Hike Taxes for 13.8 Million

Promoted as needed relief for the middle class, the Senate Republican tax overhaul would increase taxes for some 13.8 million moderate-income American households, a bipartisan analysis showed Monday.

The assessment by Congress’ nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation emerged as the Senate’s tax-writing committee began wading through the measure, working toward the first major revamp of the tax system in some 30 years.

Barging into the carefully calibrated work that House and Senate Republicans have done, President Donald Trump called for a steeper tax cut for wealthy Americans and pressed GOP leaders to add a contentious health care change to the already complex mix.

Trump’s latest tweet injected a dose of uncertainty into the process as the Republicans try to deliver on his top legislative priority. He commended GOP leaders for getting the tax legislation closer to passage in recent weeks and then said, “Cut top rate to 35% w/all of the rest going to middle income cuts?”

That puts him at odds with the House legislation that leaves the top rate at 39.6 percent and the Senate bill as written, with the top rate at 38.5 percent.

Trump also said, “Now how about ending the unfair & highly unpopular individual mandate in (Obama)care and reducing taxes even further?”

Overall, the legislation would deeply cut corporate taxes, double the standard deduction used by most Americans, and limit or repeal completely the federal deduction for state and local property, income and sales taxes. It carries high political stakes for Trump and Republican leaders in Congress, who view passage of tax cuts as critical to the GOP preserving its majorities at the polls next year.

With few votes to spare, Republicans leaders hope to finalize a tax overhaul by Christmas and send the legislation to Trump for his signature.

The key House leader on the effort, Rep. Kevin Brady, said he’s “very confident” that Republicans “do and will have the votes to pass” the measure this week.

Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he doesn’t expect major changes to the bill as it moves to a final vote in the House. Still, he said Trump’s call for removing the requirement to have health insurance as part of the tax agreement “remains under consideration.”

Trump and the Republicans have promoted the legislation as a boon to the middle class, bringing tax relief to people with moderate incomes and boosting the economy to create new jobs.

“This bill is not a massive tax cut for the wealthy. … This is not a big giveaway to corporations,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, insisted as the panel had its first day of debate on the Senate measure.

Hatch also downplayed the analysis by congressional tax experts showing a tax increase for several million U.S. households under the Senate proposal. Hatch said “a relatively small minority of taxpayers could see a slight increase in their taxes.”

The committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, said the legislation has become “a massive handout to multinational corporations and a bonanza for tax cheats and powerful political donors.”

Tax increase for some

The analysis found that the Senate measure would increase taxes in 2019 for 13.8 million households earning less than $200,000 a year. That group, about 10 percent of all taxpayers, would face tax increases of $100 to $500 in 2019. There also would be increases greater than $500 for a number of taxpayers, especially those with incomes between $75,000 and $200,000. By 2025, 21.4 million households would have steeper tax bills.

The analysts previously found a similar magnitude of tax increases under the House bill.

A group of more than 400 millionaires and billionaires, including prominent figures such as Ben and Jerry’s founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, designer Eileen Fisher and financier George Soros, asked Congress to reject the GOP tax plan and not give cuts to the super-wealthy like themselves.

“We urge you to oppose any legislation that further exacerbates inequality,” they said in a letter made public Monday.

Neither bill includes a repeal of the so-called individual mandate of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the requirement that Americans get health insurance or face a penalty. Several top Republicans have warned that including the provision would draw opposition and make passage tougher.

Among the biggest differences in the two bills that have emerged: The House bill allows homeowners to deduct up to $10,000 in property taxes while the Senate proposal unveiled by GOP leaders last week eliminates the entire deduction. Both versions would eliminate deductions for state and local income taxes and sales taxes.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked whether the Senate’s proposed repeal of the property tax deduction could bring higher taxes for some middle-class Americans, acknowledged there would be some taxpayers who end up with higher tax bills.

“Any way you cut it, there is a possibility that some taxpayers would get a higher rate,” McConnell told reporters after a forum in Louisville, Kentucky, with local business owners and employees. “You can’t craft any tax bill that guarantees that every single taxpayer in America gets a tax break. What I’m telling you is the overall majority of taxpayers in every bracket would get relief.”

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EU Approves Economic Sanctions, Arms Embargo Against Venezuela

The European Union has approved economic sanctions, including an arms embargo on Venezuela.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels announced the measures on Monday in response to regional elections last month, which they say worsened the country’s crisis.

The weapons ban is intended to prevent the government of President Nicolas Maduro from purchasing military equipment that could be used for repression or surveillance.

The sanctions also include setting up a system for asset freezes and travel restriction on some past and present Venezuelan officials close to Maduro.

Spain has long pushed for sanctions on those close to Maduro, but the EU has been divided over whom to target.

In Monday’s statement, ministers said they would focus on security forces, government ministers and institutions accused of human rights violations, and the disrespect of democratic principles or the rule of law.

Last Thursday, the U.S. imposed financial sanctions on 10 current and former Venezuelan officials because of corruption and abuse of power allegations related to Maduro’s crackdown on the opposition.

The EU also stressed that it would not recognize Venezuela’s pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly, whose 545 members took office in August and sidelined the opposition-led National Assembly. The EU said its creation has only served to “further erode democratic and independent institutions.”

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Venezuela Sets Foreign Debt Meeting for Monday Afternoon

Venezuela’s foreign debt renegotiation committee will meet with creditors at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Monday at the government’s “White Palace” in downtown Caracas, the finance minister said on Saturday.

“Once again, we invite investors to register their participation in this meeting,” Simon Zerpa, who is also the finance boss of state oil company PDVSA but is on a U.S. sanctions list for alleged corruption, said in a Tweet.

Foreign investor sources had said Zerpa and committee head Tareck El Aissami, who is Venezuela’s vice president but also on a U.S. blacklist for alleged drug traffickers, would probably sit out the meeting to allay any fears about meeting them.

But Saturday’s exhortation by Zerpa, and the location of the meeting right opposite the Miraflores presidential palace, appear to indicate the meeting will not be a low-profile affair.

Socialist leader Nicolas Maduro’s move a week ago to summon bondholders for talks about “restructuring” and “refinancing” some $60 billion in bonds has spooked markets worried Venezuela is heading for a default amid U.S. financial sanctions.

President Donald Trump’s measures against the Maduro administration, which it accuses of being a “dictatorship” that has impoverished Venezuela’s 30 million people through corruption and incompetence, effectively bar U.S. banks from rolling over the country’s debt into new bonds.

Venezuela did, however, appear to be honoring its most recent debt payment: a $1.2 billion payment due on a bond from state oil company PDVSA. Two investors told Reuters they had finally received payment, albeit delayed.

It is unclear how widespread investor participation in Monday’s meeting in Caracas will be. U.S.-based creditors are not prohibited from attending the meeting, but are barred from dealings with officials like Zerpa and El Aissami.

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