Category Archives: Business

economy and business news

US Economy Expands at 3 Percent Rate in Third Quarter

The U.S. economy expanded at a three percent annual pace in July, August and September, about the same pace as the prior quarter.

Friday’s Commerce Department data surprised economists, who thought damage from two hurricanes would cut growth to a lower level. The data show the world’s largest economy is now about 2.3 percent larger than it was at this time last year.

Stuart Hoffman of PNC bank says the “solid” growth data is likely to help corporate profits and reinforce the U.S. central bank’s determination to raise interest rates in December. Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute says the figures “overstate” growth, and he notes inflation is still below the Fed’s two percent target, making an interest rate hike unnecessary at this time.

Officials raise rates to fend off high inflation by cooling economic activity. Rates were slashed during the recession to bolster growth and employment. 

Federal Reserve leaders gather Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington to debate interest rate policy. Most economists predict they will not raise rates until their next meeting in mid-December.

Next Friday, government experts will publish unemployment data for October. September’s rate was a low 4.2 percent.

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Who Will Be the Next Fed Chief?

President Trump says he is “very close” to picking a person for the most important economic post in the country: the head of the US Federal Reserve. Current Chair Janet Yellen, whose term expires early next year, is one of at least five candidates under consideration. Regardless of the president’s choice, most analysts who spoke with VOA don’t expect big changes in US monetary policy. But as Mil Arcega reports, others say, sooner or later the next Fed Chief could face a slowing economy.

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Greater Scrutiny Set for Nonimmigrant Work Visa Renewals

The United States has announced changes to its nonimmigrant work visa policies that are expected to make renewals more difficult.

In the past, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would generally approve the renewals unless the visa holder had committed a crime. Now, renewals will face the same scrutiny as the original applications.

“USCIS officers are at the front lines of the administration’s efforts to enhance the integrity of the immigration system,” USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna said, according to the announcement posted on USCIS’ website this week. “This updated guidance provides clear direction to help advance policies that protect the interests of U.S. workers.”

The new regulations could affect more than 100,000 people holding at least eight different types of work visas who fill out the I-129 form for renewals.

Sam Adair, a partner at the Graham Adair business immigration law firm in California and Texas, said that for the most part, he expected visa holders would most likely face lengthier adjudication periods in their renewal processes, as opposed to increased numbers of denials.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big shift for us,” Adair told VOA. “But I think what we’ll see is just an increase in the number of requests for evidence, an increase in the delays on the adjudication of these petitions, and really it’s going to just result in more costs for the employers who are filing these petitions.”

‘High-skilled’ workers

Of all visa holders affected by this policy, those in the United States on an H-1B, a visa for “high-skilled” workers, are the biggest group. Of 109,537 people who had to submit I-129 forms in fiscal 2017, 95,485 were H-1B holders, according to data sent to VOA by USCIS.

H-1B visas have been threatened in the past, most recently by a bill proposed this year that would have raised the minimum salary requirement for workers brought in on the visa. While advocates of the program argued that it would keep workers from being exploited, many H-1B holders feared that businesses would be less willing to hire them or keep them on board.

But some Americans support the new regulations, saying that nonimmigrant work visas hurt American workers.

“It’s prudent to make sure that the people that receive those visas are in complete compliance with all of the requirements,” Joe Guzzardi, national media director of Californians for Population Stabilization, told VOA.

“It just isn’t possible to think that there aren’t American workers that couldn’t fill these jobs,” he said, noting that while the regulations might hurt businesses, they would help Americans looking for work.

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Trump Ponders New Head for Federal Reserve

President Donald Trump says he is “very close” to picking a person for the most important economic post in the United States, the head of the Federal Reserve. Current Chair Janet Yellen’s term expires early next year and she is one of at least five candidates for the job.

Besides Yellen, the candidates include Fed board member Jerome Powell, former Fed governor Kevin Warsh, Stanford University economist John Taylor and Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn.

 

WATCH: Who Will Be the Next Fed Chief?

Moody’s Analytics economist Ryan Sweet says a new Fed chief is likely to continue current policy at least for a while because “rocking the boat” could rattle financial markets.

The Fed’s job is to manage the world’s largest economy in ways that maximize employment and maintain stable prices. During recessions, the bank cuts interest rates in a bid to boost economic growth and create more jobs.To cope with the most recent recession, the U.S. central bank slashed interest rates nearly to zero.

The jobless rate fell from 10 percent to the current 4.2 percent, and the economy stopped shrinking and began growing slowly.

Critics of the record-low interest rates said keeping rates too low for too long could spark strong inflation and damage the economy. However, the inflation rate has been below the two percent level that many experts say is best for the economy.

As a member of the Fed’s board and later as Chair, Yellen supported low interest rates and a slow, cautious return to “normal” rates. Experts also say she improved communication between the Fed and financial markets, which reduced uncertainty and reassured investors.

Trump criticized Yellen during the campaign, but then as president, praised her work. Analysts Tom Buerkle of “Reuters Breaking Views” gives the Fed credit for taking effective action during a crisis when Congress was reluctant to act.

Another candidate is former investment banker Gary Cohn, who now heads the National Economic Council at the White House. He has reportedly been working on efforts to reform taxes and boost spending on U.S. infrastructure.

Fed Board member Jerome Powell is also a candidate. He is a Republican with a background in private equity who served in a top Treasury Department post. Powell supported Yellen’s approach of slashing interest rates during the crisis, and returning them to historic levels as the economy recovers.

When rates were cut to nearly zero, Fed officials took the further step of buying huge quantities of bonds in an effort to push down long-term interest rates to give additional economic stimulus. The complex procedure is called “quantitative easing.”

“Ryan Sweet of Moody’s Analytics says when the next recession appears, Powell will be more willing to use tools like quantitative easing than more conservative candidates like Kevin Warsh and John Taylor.

Warsh is a former member of the Fed’s board, a lawyer, and a former executive of a major financial firm with experience at the president’s National Economic Council.

John Taylor of Stanford University and the Hoover Institution is an eminent economist who has served on advisory councils for presidents and congress and written books on economic topics. Taylor came up with an equation, called the “Taylor Rule,” that considers inflation as well as slack in the economy as a way to set interest rates. Some conservatives say the Taylor Rule would improve policymaking.

Critics say the economy is too complex to be managed by a computer, and the Taylor Rule would make the Fed less independent and effective.

Tara Sinclair of Indeed.com says independence is a “key part” of having an effective monetary policy. She says the interest rate-setting process and other decisions need to be separate from Congress and the administration so interest rates and other policies are based on long-run economic needs.

The president is expected to announce his choice in early November.

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Austerity to Hit Jordan as Debt Spikes, Economy Slows

Jordan’s high and rising public debt has worried the International Monetary Fund and prompted a downgrade from Standard & Poor’s. So the government is planning a blast of austerity by year-end.

Tax hikes and subsidy cuts —- likely to be highly unpopular —- are on the agenda as the country’s debt to GDP ratio has reached a record 95 percent, from 71 percent in 2011.

“Postponing problems might increase the popularity of the government but would be a crime against the nation,” Prime Minister Hani Mulki told a group of parliamentarians this week.

After an IMF standby arrangement that brought some fiscal stability, Jordan agreed last year to a more ambitious three-year program of long-delayed structural reforms to cut public debt to 77 percent of GDP by 2021.

The debt is at least in part due to successive governments adopting an expansionist fiscal policy characterized by job creation in the bloated public sector, and by lavish subsidies for bread and other staple goods.

It also hiked spending on welfare and public sector pay in a move to ensure stability in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” protests in the region in 2011. But the economy has slowed, battered by the turmoil in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

The economic strains reduced local revenue and foreign aid, forcing Jordan to borrow heavily externally and also resort to more domestic financing.

Although there has been some progress this year with improving remittances, tourism and some rebound in exports, there has been no pickup in growth since 2015 — with the officials forecasting 2 percent growth this year from an earlier IMF 2.3 percent target.

“This year we are at a crossroads. Everything I am trying to do is to stop the hemorrhage and start breathing,” Mulki was quoted as saying at another meeting to garner support.

The rising debt accentuated by the protracted regional conflicts on Jordan’s borders was the main reason Standard and Poor last week downgraded its sovereign rating to B+.

Subsidy risk

Economists said Jordan’s ability to maintain a costly subsidy system and a large state bureaucracy was increasingly untenable in the absence of large foreign capital inflows or infusions of foreign aid, which have dwindled as the Syrian crisis has gone on.

Jordanian officials say they expect less donor support next year than any time since the crisis began. They are also concerned that Gulf states, hit by lower oil prices, have so far not committed any support funds given after the “Arab Spring” to be renewed.

Politicians and economists say the government’s fiscal consolidation plan envisages a doubling of bread prices and raising sales taxes on basic food and fuel items.

This should cut into the estimated 850 million dinars ($1.2 billion) the government pays in annual subsidies from bread to electricity to water.

But economists reckon subsidy cuts are bound to worsen the plight of poorer Jordanians, a majority of the country’s population, and removing subsidies has triggered civil unrest in the past.

As well as debt, the IMF has also pointed to the unemployment rate, which has risen sharply in the last two years to 16 percent, and to low tax collection.

The IMF says Jordan stands out among countries in the region with among the lowest tax collections. Personal taxes constituting only 0.4 percent of GDP, with nearly 95 percent of the population not subject to income tax.

Critics say any hikes would extract more from the segment of salaried employees that already pays while leaving influential business tycoons outside the tax net.

“The tax burden in comparison with countries of the region except the oil producers is low… there is big generosity in exemptions,” said Jihad Azour, the IMF’s director of the Middle East and Central Asia department during a recent visit to Jordan.

Economists fear that the IMF’s tax recommendations endorsed by the government that range from expanding corporate income tax to dividends and tougher sanctions for tax evaders will hurt business sentiment in a country whose political stability has turned it a safe haven.

“It’s important to activate growth to bolster stability and ensure a faster drop in debt,” said the IMF’s Azour adding that tackling Jordan debt problem was crucial for its future prosperity in a turbulent region.

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China Turning Pakistan Port Into Regional Giant

An unprecedented Chinese financial and construction effort is rapidly developing Pakistan’s strategically located Arabian Sea port of Gwadar into one of the world’s largest transit and transshipment cargo facilities.

The deep water port lies at the convergence of three of the most commercially important regions of the world, the oil-rich Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia.

Beijing is developing Gwadar as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, known as CPEC. The two countries launched the 15-year joint mega project in 2015 when President Xi Jinping visited Islamabad.

Under the cooperation deal construction or improvement of highways, railways, pipelines, power plants, communications and industrial zones is underway in Pakistan with an initially estimated Chinese investment of $46 billion.

The aim is to link Gwadar to landlocked western China, including its Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, giving it access to a shorter and secure route through Pakistan to global trade. The port will also provide the shortest route to landlocked Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, through transit trade and offering transshipment facilities.

Chinese fuel imports and trading cargo will be loaded on trucks and ferried to and from Xinjiang through the Karakoram Highway, snaking past snow-caped peaks in northern Pakistan.

‘Qualitative change’

Gwadar will be able to handle about one million tons of cargo annually by the end of the year. Officials anticipate that with expansion plans under way, the port will become South Asia’s biggest shipping center within five years, with a yearly capacity of handling 13-million tons of cargo. And by 2030, they say, it will be capable of handling up to 400-million tons of cargo annually.

China has in recent months begun calling CPEC  the flagship project of its global Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. The “qualitative change” from an experimental project to flagship project underscores the importance Beijing attaches to CPEC, said Zhao Lijian, the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad.

Out of 39 “early harvest” projects under CPEC, 19 have since been completed or are under construction with a Chinese investment of about $18.5 billion, Lijian told VOA. The progress makes it the fastest developing of all of at least six BRI’s corridors China plans to establish, added the Chinese diplomat.

Gwadar is a “symbol of regional peace and prosperity” because it will connect countries around Pakistan to serve their trading interests, said port Chairman Dostain Khan Jamaldini.

Jamaldini dismissed as “not true” concerns that skilled Chinese laborers, engineers and businesses will flood Pakistan, hurting domestic industries. About 65 percent of the labor force on construction and other projects at Gwadar is Pakistani, and the number of Chinese is currently just over 300, he added.

Security concerns and India’s claims over some of the territory crossed by the massive project remain key challenges for Gwadar and CPEC in general. Pakistani and Chinese officials dismiss reported assertions that Beijing is expanding its presence at Gwadar to be able to handle naval ships and military transport planes.

The collaboration has “no strategic or political” aims against a third country, insisted Lijian. He went on to assert that the purpose of CPEC” is to help our iron brother Pakistan” to improve its economy and to strengthen the bilateral relationship.

Pakistani officials have trained and deployed about 15,000 troops and paramilitary forces to guard CPEC-related projects and the Chinese working on them. Islamabad alleges that the Indian intelligence agency has been tasked to plot subversive acts to derail CPEC.

Sleepy fishing town

Gwadar, with a population of around 100,000, mostly fishermen and boat makers, is often referred to as a sleepy fishing town.

The costal city’s poverty-stricken residents are hoping new employment opportunities will be created for them in the wake of the massive development underway in Gwadar.

But their immediate challenges are shortages of clean drinking water and hours long daily power blackouts.

“We are happy Chinese are building port, hospitals, schools and roads but right now we out of power during most of the day and limited water availability,” said fisherman Khalil Ahmed.

The family, like other fishermen in Gwadar, has been plying unspoiled crystal blue waters of the Arabian Sea for decades with age-old fishing techniques and barely surviving on limited income because financial resources do not allow them to buy modern fishing tools.

However, ongoing massive economic activity will “qualitatively” change the lives of its poverty-stricken residents for the better, says Mushahid Hussain, who chairs a parliamentary committee on CPEC.

He says a fisheries processing plant is being installed at the port and arrangements are being planned to train and equip fishermen to improve and export local fish to other parts of Pakistan and China.

Senator Hussain believes economic projects under construction in Gwadar will help its people and address long-running grievances of the province of Baluchistan, where the port is situated.

The poverty-stricken largest Pakistani province has long been in the grip of a low-level Baluchistan separatist insurgency, which mainly stems from demands from the federal government for local control over Baluchistan’s vast natural resources.

Gwadar’s existing 50-bed government hospital is being extended to 300 beds, a technical and vocational institute is being constructed, a 300-megawatts coal-based power plant and a desalination plant are being installed, a new international airport and a six-lane international standard expressway are being built to connect Gwadar port with the rest of Pakistan and neighboring countries, including Iran and Afghanistan.

Local officials say most of the projects, including the new airport, are being built with Chinese financial grants. The rest of the projects in Gwadar and elsewhere in Pakistan under CPEC are being built with “interest-free” and “soft-loans” from China.

 

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US Workforce to Add 11.5 Million Jobs by 2026

The U.S. economy is expected add another 11.5 million jobs by 2026, as an aging population and longer life spans raise the need for health care providers. The total U.S. workforce is expected to grow to 167.6 million people.

Tuesday’s projections come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which says job growth will accelerate slightly from its current pace, but it will not return to the brisk gains seen the over previous decades. The BLS updates its job outlook every two years as new information becomes available.

The percentage of the workforce over age 55 will rise to nearly one-quarter in 2026, a sharp increase from the less than 17 percent back in 2006. People in their 50s and 60s may retire, which is one reason experts expect workforce participation rates (the percentage of working age people who have jobs or are seeking work) to decline.

Over the decade, nine out of 10 new jobs will be in the services sector, particularly health care. Employment by companies that produce goods is expected to grow at a meager one-tenth of one percent a year, with a gain of just 219,000 jobs by 2026.

The workforce is expected to become more diverse as Asian and Hispanic parts of the U.S. population grow more quickly than average. Whoever is in the workforce will find additional education important, as two out of three jobs in the fastest-growing areas require at least some post-secondary education and training.

And the whole economy is predicted to expand at a two percent annual rate. That is faster than the current growth rate, but below the gains seen in previous decades.

 

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Taiwan Steps up Asia Business to Reduce Dependence on China

Taiwan is offering visa waivers and setting up overseas investment offices across a swathe of countries to its south, the latest moves to deepen a rebalancing of economic relations away from political foe China.

Officials in Taipei hope to foster more tourism, trade and higher education links with 18 countries covering most of South and Southeast Asia plus Australia and New Zealand. Stronger ties in theory would reduce the role of China, which is Taiwan’s top trading partner now, as the two sides struggle over political differences.

In the latest phase of Taiwan’s effort, called the New Southbound Policy, Philippine citizens may visit Taiwan visa-free for 14 days during a trial period that starts next month and ends in July. Taiwan offered waivers to citizens of Brunei and Thailand in August 2016. Those efforts complement new investment offices, growth in the number of university students in Taiwan and more Taiwanese development aid.

“The purpose of the New Southbound Policy is for us to hold a more advantageous position in international society,” Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said in a National Day speech earlier this month. “I also want to use this opportunity to tell our friends from around the world that faced with a rapidly changing Asia-Pacific region. Taiwan is ready to play a more important role in shaping regional prosperity and stability.”

Shaky relations with China

Tsai announced the New Southbound Policy after taking office in May 2016 to rebalance relations for Taiwan’s $529 billion economy.

Taiwanese business people traditionally choose China for investment because of its relatively low costs, skilled workforce and cultural links. More than 93,000 Taiwanese businesses invested in China between 1988 and 2016, according to the American think tank Council on Foreign Relations.

But China claims sovereignty over Taiwan despite the island’s democratic self-rule, causing enough friction to stop dialogue under Tsai’s presidency.

How the New Southbound Policy works

Taiwan’s economic affairs ministry has established investment offices in Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines to help investors find projects in those countries based on local needs.

The Taiwan government is offering as well credit guarantees for smaller businesses headed to Southeast Asia, where aid from Taipei will help pay for infrastructure and other major projects in those countries. The visa waivers facilitate travel to Taiwan, another boon to the economy.

Taiwan’s trade with the 18 countries covered by the policy had risen 20 percent this year compared to last, Tsai said in her speech without giving an exact time frame.

Tourist arrivals from New Southbound countries are rising as the headcount from China decreases, official data show. The number of postsecondary students in Taiwan from New Southbound Policy countries went up 10 percent over the six months to March from a year earlier, while the number of non-degree university students from China has eased since mid-2016.

Taiwan’s Investment Commission last year approved 252 applications for projects intended for China last year, down 21.5 percent from 2015.

But China remains Taiwan’s top trading partner thanks to a thriving consumer market and the maturity of its supply chain for the likes of tech and machinery. Imports and exports totaled $117.9 billion in 2016.

Feedback from South and Southeast Asia

Indonesia has been a bright spot for finding new investment projects, especially in agriculture, an economic affairs official in Taipei said earlier in the year. Thailand had already approved 274 Taiwanese investment applications, worth $1.39 billion, from 2010 to 2015.

About 3,500 Taiwanese investors had invested in Vietnam as early as 2011 because costs were rising in China while Vietnam was offering incentives to lure foreign capital.

The restart in May of Taiwanese-owned Formosa Plastics Group’s Vietnam steel plant could draw a “cluster” of related Taiwanese firms, said Liang Kuo-yuan, president of Taipei-based think tank Polaris Research Institute in Taipei. Factory work had stopped over a suspected toxic leak that killed fish.

The Philippines, an investment-thirsty Southeast Asian archipelago, is actively looking for Taiwanese companies, said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in Metro Manila. Taiwanese electronics firms consider the country an export manufacturing base, he said, while healthcare firms may find partners such as hospitals. The growing consumer base lures others.

“We’re seeing entrepreneurs from Taiwan looking into the Philippines, given that it’s a very big retail market,” Ravelas said.

But one Southeast Asian country, Cambodia, may fear angering China by veering too close to Taiwan. Beijing forbids its allies from establishing formal ties with Taipei. In February Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen declared a ban on raising the Taiwan flag. Two years earlier the government forbid Taiwan from establishing an informal trade office.

Still early days

Similar go-south policies fell flat under former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui in 1993 and his successor, Chen Shui-bian, after 2000. China in those years was cheaper, with less competition from local companies, in turn drawing Taiwanese investors.

Today’s policy will struggle as Taiwan faces competition in the 18 target counties from other foreign investment sources, Liang said. Competitors include China, India, Japan and South Korea. China and India were less competitive before 2000. Taiwan lacks a material advantage, he said.

“The biggest problem is that Southeast Asia is not a blue ocean market,” Liang said. “There are too many competitors, so Taiwan can’t just use its point of view to go compete in that market. Taiwan after all has what strength?”

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Orange Is the New White? Unique Amber Wine Creates Buzz

The sloping vineyards of New York’s Finger Lakes region known for producing golden-hued rieslings and chardonnays also are offering a splash of orange wine.

 

The color comes not from citrus fruit, but by fermenting white wine grapes with their skins on before pressing – a practice that mirrors the way red wines are made. Lighter than reds and earthier than whites, orange wines have created a buzz in trendier quarters. And winemakers reviving the ancient practice like how the “skin-fermented” wines introduce more complex flavors to the bottle.  

 

“Pretty outgoing characteristics. Very spicy, peppery.  A lot of tea flavors, too, come through,” winemaker Vinny Aliperti said, taking a break from harvest duties at Atwater Estate Vineyards on Seneca Lake. “They’re more thoughtful wines. They’re more meditative.”

 

Atwater is among a few wineries encircling these glacier-carved lakes that have added orange to their mix of whites and reds. The practice dates back thousands of years, when winemakers in the Caucasus, a region located at the border of Europe and Asia, would ferment wine in buried clay jars. It has been revitalized in recent decades by vintners in Italy, California and elsewhere looking to connect wine to its roots or to conjure new tastes from the grapes. Or both. Clay jars are optional.

 

Aliperti has been experimenting with skin fermenting for years, first by blending a bit into traditional chardonnays to change up the flavor and more recently with full-on orange wines. This fall, he fermented Vignoles grapes with their skins in a stainless steel vat for a couple of weeks before pressing and then aging them in oak barrels.

Orange wines account for “far less than 1 percent” of what is handled by Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, the nation’s largest distributor with about a quarter of the market, according to Eric Hemer, senior vice president and corporate director of wine education.

 

Hemer expects orange wines to remain a niche variety due to small-scale production, higher retail prices _ up to $200 for a premium bottle – and the nature of the wine.

 

“It’s not a wine that’s going to appeal to the novice consumer or the mainstream wine drinker,” Hemer said. “It really takes a little bit more of, I think, a sophisticated palate.”

 

The wines have caught on in recent years among connoisseurs who like the depth of flavors, sommeliers who can regale customers with tales of ancient techniques and drinkers looking for something different. Christopher Nicolson, managing winemaker at Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn, said the wines hit their “crest of hipness” a couple of years ago, though they remain popular.

 

“I think they’re viewed by these younger drinkers as, ‘Oh, this is something new and fresh. And they’re breaking the rules of these Van Dyke-wearing, monocled … fusty old wine appreciators,’” Nicolson said.

 

It’s not for everyone. The rich flavors can come at the expense of the light, fruity feel that some white wine drinkers crave. And first-time drinkers can be thrown by seeing an orange chardonnay in their glasses.

 

“Actually I wasn’t sure because of the color, but it has a really nice flavor,” said Debbie Morris, of Chandler, Arizona, who tried a sip recently at Atwater’s tasting room. “I’m not a chardonnay person normally, but I would drink this.”

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