Category Archives: Business

economy and business news

Eritrea Closes Hundreds of Businesses for Bypassing Banks 

Eritrea has temporarily shut down nearly 450 private businesses, the latest in a series of moves that has sent shockwaves through the economy of the Red Sea nation.

The closures were a response to companies hoarding cash and “failing to do business through checks and other banking systems,” according to a Dec. 29 editorial published by Eritrea’s Ministry of Information on the state-run website Shabait.com.

Most of the affected businesses operate in the hospitality sector, according to the announcement, and they will remain closed for up to eight months, depending on the severity of the violations.

About 58,000 private businesses operate across the country, according to the government; less than 1 percent was affected by the recent closures.

Replacing the currency

The government has taken other steps in recent years to reassert control over the economy.

In 2015, Eritrea mandated that citizens exchange all notes of the currency, the nakfa, for new notes. The government also imposed financial restrictions, including limits on the amount of cash that could be withdrawn from bank accounts or kept in private hands, according to multiple reports.

Business owners complained about the restrictions, and reports from inside the country indicate the rules have altered Eritrea’s black market exchange rate, which affects the price of many goods.

State control

Tesfa Mehari, a professor of economics in England, said the Eritrean government wants a state-owned economy. That’s a trap many other countries have fallen into that generally leads to economic failure, Mehari said.

“The government cannot develop the economy. Only the people can do that,” Mehari told VOA’s Tigrigna service. “The government can only be a facilitator. There hasn’t been a country in the world that developed because of government control.”

He also said that the closures harm people’s trust in the government and in banking institutions. 

“At the end of the day, if the people of Eritrea want to develop the economy of the country, they can only work based on trust, especially with banks. What you have with banks is a matter of oath,” Mehari said.

Compounding this mistrust, he added, is that the government’s actions aren’t backed by a specific law or decree that is publicly available for all to read.

In a statement, the government also acknowledged shortcomings in modernizing its banking sector with up-to-date technology and relevant expertise, another potential impediment to confidence in the system.

In contrast, Ibrahim Ibrahim, an Eritrean-born accountant who supports the government, said the actions are needed to fight inflation and stabilize the currency.

“I don’t think the Eritrean government is trying to control the economy, and I don’t think that’s the current environment,” said Ibrahim, who is based in Washington, D.C. “However, there might be a situation where the government is taking measures to adjust things that are not normal and turn it into normalcy as per usual.”

He said any government has the right to regulate its currency and the businesses operating within its borders.

“When these businesses are given permission to work, that means they’re entering a contract,” he said. “At the core of entering into such agreements is that the businesses work within the legalities and the laws in place. If these businesses are not working according to the law, the government is going to take appropriate measures.”

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Iran’s Working Class on Front Lines of Protests

The Iranian town of Doroud should be a prosperous place — nestled in a valley at the junction of two rivers in the Zagros Mountains, it’s in an area rich in metals to be mined and stone to be quarried. Last year, a military factory on the outskirts of town unveiled production of an advanced model of tanks.

Yet local officials have been pleading for months for the government to rescue its stagnant economy. Unemployment is around 30 percent, far above the official national rate of more than 12 percent. Young people graduate and find no work. The local steel and cement factories stopped production long ago, and their workers haven’t been paid for months. The military factory’s employees are mainly outsiders who live on its grounds, separate from the local economy.

“Unemployment is on an upward path,” Majid Kiyanpour, the local parliament representative for the town of 170,000, told Iranian media in August. “Unfortunately, the state is not paying attention.”

​It’s the economy

That’s a major reason Doroud has been a front line in the protests that have flared across Iran. Several thousand residents have been shown in online videos marching down Doroud’s main street, shouting, “Death to the dictator!” At night, young men set fires outside the gates of the mayor’s office and hurl stones at banks.

Anger and frustration over the economy have been the main fuel for the eruption of protests that began Dec. 28. 

President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, had promised that lifting most international sanctions under Iran’s landmark 2015 nuclear deal with the West would revive Iran’s long-suffering economy. But while the end of sanctions did open up a new influx of cash from increased oil exports, little has trickled down to the wider population. At the same time, Rouhani has enforced austerity policies that hit households hard.

Demonstrations have broken out mainly in dozens of smaller cities and towns like Doroud, where unemployment has been most painful and where many in the working class feel ignored.

​Fury at ruling class

The working classes have long been a base of support for Iran’s hard-liners. But protesters have turned their fury against the ruling clerics and the elite Revolutionary Guard, accusing them of monopolizing the economy and soaking up the country’s wealth. 

Many protests have seen a startlingly overt rejection of Iran’s system of government by Islamic clerics.

“They make a man into god and a nation into beggars!” goes the cry heard in videos of several marches. “Clerics with capital, give us our money back!”

Food prices jump

The initial spark for the protests was a sudden jump in food prices. It is believed that hard-line opponents of Rouhani instigated the first demonstrations in the conservative city of Mashhad in eastern Iran, trying to direct public anger at the president. But as protests spread from town to town, the backlash turned against the entire ruling class.

Further stoking the anger was the budget for the coming year that Rouhani unveiled in mid-December, calling for significant cuts in cash payouts established by Rouhani’s predecessor as a form of direct welfare. Since he came to office in 2013, Rouhani has been paring them back. The budget also envisaged a new jump in fuel prices.

But amid the cutbacks, the budget revealed large increases in funding for religious foundations that are a key part of the clerical state-above-the-state, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the public coffers. 

After the lifting of most sanctions in early 2016, the economy saw a major boost — 13.4 percent growth in the GDP in 2016, compared to a 1.3 percent contraction the year before, according to the World Bank. But almost all that growth was in the oil sector.

Growth outside the oil sector was at 3.3 percent. Major foreign investment has failed to materialize, in part because of continued U.S. sanctions hampering access to international banking and the fear other sanctions could eventually return.

Iran’s official unemployment rate is at 12.4 percent, and unemployment among the young, those 19 to 29, has reached 28.8 percent, according to the government-run Statistical Center of Iran.

The provinces face more economic hardship, but the pain has been felt in the capital, Tehran, and other major cities as well. But there it’s been more cushioned within a large middle class. Many can ignore those picking through trash for food. However, in December 2016, Iranians expressed shock over a series of photographs in a local newspaper showing homeless drug addicts sleeping in open graves in Shahriar, on Tehran’s western outskirts.

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Brits Call for ‘Latte Levy’ to Reduce Cup Waste

Britain should charge a 25-pence ($0.34) levy on disposable coffee cups to cut down waste and use the money to improve recycling facilities, a committee of lawmakers said Friday.

Chains Pret A Manger, Costa Coffee, Caffe Nero and Greggs alongside U.S. firm Starbucks are among the biggest coffee-sellers in Britain, rapidly expanding in the last 10 years to meet increasing demand.

Although some outlets give a discount to customers using their own cup, only 1-2 percent of buyers take up the offer, according to parliament’s environmental audit committee, which said a “latte levy” was needed instead.

2.5 billion cups a year

“The UK throws away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year; enough to circle the planet 5½ times,” said chair of the committee, Mary Creagh.

“We’re calling for action to reduce the number of single-use cups, promote reusable cups over disposable cups and to recycle all coffee cups by 2023,” she said.

The committee said that if the recycling target is not met then disposable coffee cups should be banned.

Bag levy success

In October 2015, Britain introduced a charge of 5-pence on all single-use plastic bags provided by large shops, which led to an 83 percent reduction in UK plastic bags used in the first year.

On Friday the environment ministry said the government was working closely with the sector and had made progress in increasing recycling rates.

“We are encouraged by industry action to increase the recycling of paper cups with some major retail chains now offering discounts to customers with reusable cups,” said a spokeswoman.

“We will carefully consider the committee’s recommendations and respond shortly,” she said.

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Investors Skittish, but Marijuana Growers, Sellers to Stay the Course

Marijuana-related stocks plummeted, cannabis boosters worried about the industry’s future and defiant growers and sellers vowed to keep operating after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled a tougher approach Thursday to federal pot enforcement.

The plunging stock prices reversed a weekslong rally driven by optimism for legal recreational sales that started Monday in California. Several marijuana stocks saw double-digit losses in the hours after Sessions’ announcement, including the largest pot-producing company that is publicly traded.

Canopy Growth, a Canada-based company with the ticker symbol WEED, lost $3.58 a share, or 10 percent, to close at $32.32 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Shares of garden-supply company Scotts Miracle-Gro also skidded Thursday, following a steady rise last year after it added fertilizer, lights and other products to serve marijuana growers. The company’s share price fell by as much as 7 percent before closing down 2.3 percent, or $2.49, to $106.17 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Investors spooked

“Jeff Sessions’ decision to rescind the Cole memoranda puts the marijuana industry and marijuana legalization efforts in a precarious position,” said Aaron Herzberg, a California lawyer and founder of the cannabis investment company CalCann Holding, referring to an Obama-era memo that limited U.S. crackdowns on pot in states where it’s legal.

Brent Kenyon, a consultant who helps advise and establish recreational marijuana businesses in Oregon, said his phone had been ringing all Thursday with calls from worried clients. Investors, including some who are involved in his businesses, are spooked, he said.

“I’m just telling people to hold off. We need more information, we need to see what the president is going to say about this,” he said by phone from a cannabis conference in Hawaii.

Andy Williams, CEO of the Medicine Man Denver dispensary, is taking a wait-and-see approach to the new policy but pointed out the economic impact of legal pot.

“This industry around the United States has attracted a lot of investment. Billions of dollars in investment,” he said. “Just talking about what Sessions wants to do today has dropped the market.”

​’Business as usual’

Steve DeAngelo, owner of California’s largest marijuana retailer, said it will be “business as usual” at his Harborside dispensary in Oakland.

“I think the main impact of this is really going to be on investors, more than anything else,” he said. “Some investors might get a bit nervous about putting more money into the cannabis industry until the situation resolves itself.”

Another of California’s largest marijuana operators said it also plans no changes in response to Sessions’ announcement.

“For this industry and for this community, we are really based on resilience, going against the tide. This is no different,” said Michael Steinmetz, CEO of Flow Kana, which distributes cannabis products from small, outdoor farmers. “From my perspective, things don’t change.”

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Wall Street’s Love of Tax Cuts Drives Dow to 25,000 Mark

Wall Street sure loves the tax bill, even if polls show most Americans don’t.

The Dow Jones industrial average surged past 25,000 Thursday, a strong signal of investor enthusiasm for President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut. The milestone comes less than a year after the Dow topped 20,000.

“We broke a very, very big barrier,” Trump said Thursday at the White House. “Every time you see that number go up on Wall Street it means jobs, it means success, it means 401(k)s that are flourishing.”

It’s easy to see why investors like the tax overhaul: Businesses will benefit from a steep cut in the corporate tax rate. They’ll also be able to fully deduct the cost of major purchases from their taxable income, reducing the amount they owe. And companies with large stockpiles of cash overseas can bring the money back to the United States at new, lower rates.

All told, Wall Street analysts estimate the tax package should boost earnings for companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index by roughly 8 percent this year. That’s much more generous than the average tax cut of 1.6 percent that middle-class families will receive, according to the Tax Policy Center.

“All else being equal, this should go straight to the bottom line,” said David Joy, chief market strategist for Ameriprise Financial, a financial services company based in Minneapolis. Improved corporate profits contributed to the market’s gains last year.

The public has been less enthusiastic about the tax law. A Monmouth University poll last month found that nearly half of Americans disapproved of it, with only 26 percent in support.

Where profits will go

Still, some workers have seen a benefit: So far, nearly 20 large companies have announced bonuses and higher minimum wages as a result of the tax cut. AT&T, Comcast, Bank of America, and American Airlines have all pledged to pay $1,000 bonuses to their employees.

Investors also appear less concerned than many politicians about how the additional profits will be used. The Trump administration says it expects companies will plow much of the extra profit back into their businesses, purchasing more software, machinery, and other equipment. Those investments will make workers more productive and provide a key boost to the economy’s long-run growth. They should also boost wages and salaries for employees.

Opponents of the tax law respond that companies are more likely to pass the windfall on to shareholders in the form of higher dividend payments and share buybacks, which raise the price of those shares still in investors’ hands. Previous cuts in corporate tax rates, in the U.S. and overseas, haven’t always led to higher wages.

For Wall Street, it’s all good, at least in the short run. Most analysts take the view that either way, companies and the economy will benefit. Whether businesses pass most of the extra money to workers or to shareholders, consumer spending should increase and lift economic growth.

Trump has repeatedly made highly optimistic claims about the impact of his tax cuts and other policies on the economy, speculating that they would lead to annual growth of 4 percent or higher.

Expectations

Last month, the Treasury Department estimated that the economy will expand at a 2.9 percent annual rate for the next decade.

Private economists, as well as the Federal Reserve, forecast a more modest impact. Most expect growth will be closer to 2.5 percent in 2018 and slower than that in subsequent years.

Some companies and sectors will likely benefit more than others, particularly if they derive most of their income from the United States. Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimate that large banks will see their earnings rise by 13 percent as a result of the corporate rate cut. Wells Fargo will likely see the biggest gain, at 18 percent.

Analysts at Stifel, an investment bank, project that some restaurant chains could see earnings boosts of 20 percent or more, including Chipotle, Wingstop and Domino’s Pizza.

Barclays, another bank, says that technology and pharmaceutical firms, which are already paying lower taxes because they have lots of cash overseas, will see much smaller increases of less than 4 percent.

The legislation’s corporate tax cut is not necessarily as dramatic as it seems, because most corporations don’t end up paying the full 35 percent rate. Barclays estimates that the “effective” tax rate — what companies actually pay — will drop from 26 percent to 20.1 percent.

Shareholders vs. investment

Joy and other analysts think that most of the money brought back from other countries will go to shareholders, rather than investment. That’s what happened in 2004, when companies were given a one-time low rate on repatriated cash as an inducement.

Opinions differ, however, when it comes to the additional profits that result from the tax cut. Many economists expect that most of those dollars will also be passed on to shareholders.

Glenn Hubbard, an economist at Columbia Business School and former top economist for President George W. Bush, says the corporate tax cut will eventually benefit workers through higher pay. That will also boost the economy and most businesses by lifting spending.

“Any way you slice it, it’s good for companies,” Hubbard said.

For much of last year, the stock market’s gains were helped by a synchronized global recovery, with economies from Europe to Asia to Latin America expanding simultaneously for the first time in a decade.

Since November, investors’ anticipation of a tax cut has pushed markets higher, said Keith Parker, an analyst at UBS.

Still, the market’s outsize return only benefits a narrow slice of the population. According to research by Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University, just 10 percent of the population owns 84 percent of the stock market’s value.

“That benefit won’t accrue to everybody, certainly,” Joy said.

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Dow Breaks 25,000 Barrier for First Time

The Dow Jones Industrial Average broke through the 25,000-threshold for the first time Thursday, and notched another 1,000-point milestone. The index of blue-chip stocks is studded with industrial heavyweights such as Boeing and Caterpillar.

Among the biggest gainers were technology companies and banks. Wells Fargo jumped 1.9 percent and Microsoft rose 0.7 percent.

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday morning, “Dow just crashes through 25,000. Congrats! Big cuts in unnecessary regulations continuing.”

 

The Dow increased 118 points, or 0.5 percent, to 25,037. The Nasdaq edged up 16 points to 7,081.

This latest record came in early trading Thursday — only five weeks after closing above 24,000 points for the first time.

Other major indexes also rose to new levels, driven by a strong report on private jobs.

The recent rally has been spurred by faster economic gains around the world, along with a more optimistic outlook from businesses and consumers.

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Australia Plans Legal Cannabis Exports to a Lucrative World Market

Australia said Thursday it planned to become the fourth country in the world to legalize medicinal marijuana exports in a bid to score a piece of the estimated $55 billion global market.

Cannabis cultivation in Australia is still relatively small, as recreational use remains illegal. But the government hopes domestic medicinal use, legalized last year, and exports will rapidly boost production.

“Our goal is very clear: to give farmers and producers the best shot at being the world’s No. 1 exporter of medicinal cannabis,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Melbourne.

Company shares rise

Shares in the more than a dozen Australian cannabis producers listed on the local exchange soared after the announcement.

Cann Group ended the day up 35 percent; AusCann Group rose nearly 54 percent; and BOD Australia closed up about 39 percent. All were record highs for those companies. Hydroponics Company finished up 30 percent, hitting its highest price in five weeks.

Peter Crock, chief executive of Cann Group, which cultivates cannabis for medicinal and research purposes, said medicinal marijuana production had been stymied by limited demand from Australian patients.

“While the Australian patient base is growing, it is very small,” Crock told Reuters. “Being able to export will allow us to have the scale to increase production.”

Hunt said the new legislation would include a requirement that growers first meet demand from local patients before exporting the remainder of their crop.

Three countries export

Despite growing demand, only Uruguay, Canada and the Netherlands have so far legalized the export of medicinal marijuana. Israel has said it intends to do so within months.

The Australian government’s proposal needs to pass federal parliament when it returns to session in February. The country’s main opposition Labor Party has signaled it would support the move. Exports would then likely begin within months.

Fuelled by a growing acceptance of the benefits of marijuana to manage chronic pain, moderate the impact of multiple sclerosis and to soften the effects of cancer treatment, several countries and 29 states in the United States have legalized cannabis for medicinal use.

Australia’s chief commodity forecaster does not publish data on cannabis production, but rough estimates by the University of Sydney estimated the legal industry at A$100 million ($78 million), well below the C$4 billion ($3.19 billion) that Canada estimates its market to be worth.

U.S. consultants Grand View Research last year forecast the global medicinal cannabis market would be worth $55.8 billion by 2025.

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US Auto Sales Decline, Ending Record Streak

Auto sales in the United States fell by 2 percent in 2017, the first decline in seven years.

Ford Motor reported Wednesday that its new vehicle sales fell 1 percent, as did those of General Motors. Fiat Chrysler reported a decline of 8 percent compared with 2016. Volkswagen said its sales in the U.S. rose by 5 percent.

But even with the decline, the industry sold 17.2 million cars, making 2017 the fourth-best sales year in U.S. history, after 2000, 2015 and 2016, according to Kelley Blue Book.

For the 36th straight year, Ford’s F-Series pickup truck remained the top-selling vehicle in the country. Mercedes-Benz was the top selling luxury brand, even with a sales decline of 1 percent.

Analysts expect auto sales to fall in 2018 because of higher interest rates. But they say the vehicles themselves are to blame for some of the decline. The newer models are more durable so drivers are holding on to their cars longer. The average age of vehicles on the road has climbed to 11.6 years, up from 8.8 years in 1998.

Despite the decline, the industry remains robust. The average price of a new vehicle reached an all-time high last year of $36,113, as drivers bought bigger SUVs with more sophisticated technology.

“It’s still a buoyant industry and the underlying factors that drive it are still very positive,” Ford’s U.S. sales chief, Mark LaNeve, said.

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Spotify Hit With New Copyright Lawsuit in US

A music publisher is seeking at least $1.6 billion from Spotify for alleged copyright violations, the latest lawsuit to hit the fast-growing streaming company.

Wixen Music Publishing Inc., which holds rights to songs of major artists including Neil Young, the Doors, Tom Petty and Santana, charged in a lawsuit that Spotify failed to seek licenses for significant parts of its 30 million-song catalog.

“While Spotify has become a multibillion-dollar company, songwriters and their publishers, such as Wixen, have not been able to fairly and rightfully share in Spotify’s success, as Spotify has in many cases used their music without a license and without compensation,” said the lawsuit filed last week in a federal court in Los Angeles.

The lawsuit said that Spotify initially tried to work with record labels but, “in a race to be first to market, made insufficient efforts to collect the required musical composition information.”

Wixen, which is seeking a jury trial against the Swedish company, presented a list of 10,784 songs for which it questioned Spotify’s permission to stream.

The publisher said it was seeking the maximum allowed $150,000 in damages for copyright damages for each song, meaning an award of at least $1.6 billion, along with the fees of its lawyers.

Spotify did not immediately comment on the latest suit. In May, it reached an agreement to settle a pair of two similar lawsuits under which Spotify said it would set up a $43.45 million fund to compensate songwriters.

Wixen called the settlement, which still needs final approval from a judge, “grossly insufficient” and said that it would opt out of the deal insofar as possible.

Even if unsuccessful, lawsuits amount to a headache for Spotify as the company considers going public.

Spotify, which has been valued at anywhere from $8 billion to $16 billion, has maintained its dominance as streaming rapidly grows and transforms the recorded music market.

Spotify said in July that it had 60 million users worldwide who pay for subscriptions, with 80 million more using its free tier.

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