Official: ‘No Formal Decision’ on Florida Offshore Drilling

The Trump administration’s promise to exempt Florida from an offshore drilling plan is not a formal action, an Interior Department official said Friday in a statement that Democrats said contradicted a high-profile announcement by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Zinke has proposed opening nearly all U.S. coastline to offshore oil and gas drilling, but said soon after announcing the plan that he will keep Florida “off the table” when it comes to offshore drilling.

Zinke’s Jan. 9 statement about Florida “stands on its own,” said Walter Cruickshank, the acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, but there’s been no formal decision on the five-year drilling plan.

No decision

“We have no formal decision yet on what’s in, or out, of the five-year program,” Cruickshank told the House Natural Resources Committee at a hearing Friday.

Zinke’s announcement about keeping Florida off the table, made during a Tallahassee news conference with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, will be part of the department’s analysis as it completes the five-year plan, Cruickshank said.

Democrats seized on the comment to accuse Zinke of playing politics by granting the Republican governor’s request to exempt Florida while ignoring nearly a dozen other states that made similar requests.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson called Cruickshank’s comments “stunning” and said they confirm what he and other Democrats had suspected — that Zinke’s statement was “nothing more than a political stunt” to help Scott run for Nelson’s Senate seat.

Scott is a friend and ally of President Donald Trump, and Trump has urged him to run for the Senate.

Zinke’s promise to take Florida off the table was “just empty words” until he takes formal steps needed to publish a new draft plan that excludes Florida, Nelson said.

​Florida governor confident

Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for Zinke, called the claims by Nelson and other Democrats false. 

“Cruickshank simply said BOEM will finish the legally required analysis of the planning areas, as is always done for all planning areas,” she said in an email.

Scott said Friday he did not see Cruickshank’s comments but was confident the Trump administration will not allow drilling in Florida.

“Secretary Zinke is a man of his word. He’s a Navy Seal. He promised me that Florida would be off the table, and I believe Florida is off the table,” Scott told reporters Friday.

States seek exemptions

Zinke announced plans two weeks ago to vastly expand offshore oil drilling from the Atlantic to the Arctic and Pacific oceans, including in more than a dozen states where drilling is now blocked. The five-year plan would open 90 percent of the nation’s offshore reserves to development by private companies.

The plan has drawn bipartisan opposition by coastal state governors from California to New Hampshire, with at least 11 governors formally asking Zinke to remove their states from the plan. Seven governors from Massachusetts to North Carolina submitted a joint request for exemptions this week.

“Like Florida, each of our states has unique natural resources and an economy that is reliant on tourism as an essential driver,” the governors wrote. The letter was signed by Republican leaders of Massachusetts and Maryland and Democrats from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina.

By exempting Florida but not other states, Zinke showed he is “more concerned with politics than proper process when it comes to making key decisions that affect our coastal communities,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Zinke’s action may violate the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which governs drilling in U.S. coastal waters, Cantwell said. The law requires formal notice and a comment period before taking regulatory action.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., a member of the natural resources panel, told Cruickshank that the Interior Department has not offered “a single reason why Florida is more unique than California or Virginia or South Carolina or other coastal states.”

Oil industry groups have praised Zinke’s plan, while environmental groups say it would harm America’s oceans, coastal economies, public health and marine life.

Nelson said this week he is blocking three Trump nominees for high-level Interior jobs to protest the drilling proposal.

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Anniversary of Women’s March Electrified by #MeToo Movement

One year after more than 4 million protesters rallied for the Women’s March in cities across the country, tens of thousands are expected here in Washington for an anniversary march. While the focus for the first march was the newly inaugurated president, this year’s march takes place at a time when women are speaking out more than ever, highlighting sexual harassment and the abuse of power. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look at the growth of the #MeToo movement.

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Facebook to Prioritize ‘Trustworthy’ News

Social media giant Facebook said Friday that it would begin to prioritize “trustworthy” news outlets on its site in order to counteract “misinformation.”

The company said it would ask its more than 2 billion users to rank the news organizations they trusted in order to prioritize “high-quality news” over less trusted sources. It said the new ranking system would seek to separate news organizations trusted only by their own subscribers from ones that are broadly trusted across society.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post that the company was not “comfortable” deciding which news sources are the most trustworthy in a “world with so much division.”

“There’s too much sensationalism, misinformation and polarization in the world today,” he wrote.

“Social media enables people to spread information faster than ever before, and if we don’t specifically tackle these problems, then we end up amplifying them,” Zuckerberg added.

​Outside experts rejected

He said Facebook considered asking outside experts to choose the most reputable news sources, but that doing so would most likely have led to an “objectivity problem.” He said the company decided to rely on member surveys as the most “objective” way to rank trust in news sources.

Zuckerberg said it’s important that Facebook’s News Feed “promotes high-quality news that helps build a sense of common ground.”

He also announced that Facebook would shrink the content on its News Feed from 5 percent to 4 percent. This means users will see fewer posts from news organizations while scrolling through their feeds in favor of more posts from friends.

Facebook has been struggling with how to handle its distribution of news in an era of fake news and claims of media bias.

The social media company has faced accusations that it helped spread misinformation as well as Russian-linked content meant to influence the 2016 U.S. elections.

Also last year, U.S. Republican lawmakers expressed concern that Facebook was suppressing stories from conservative news sources.

The Pew Research Center has found that more than two-thirds of Americans are getting at least some of their news from social media, making such outlets prime sources of information.

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US Health Agency Revokes Obama-era Planned Parenthood Protection

U.S. health officials on Friday said they were revoking legal guidance issued by the Obama administration that had sought to discourage states from trying to defund organizations that provide abortion services, such as Planned Parenthood.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials also said the department is issuing a new regulation aimed at protecting health care workers’ civil rights based on religious and conscience objections.

The regulation protects the rights of health care workers from providing abortion, euthanasia, and sterilization, the officials said during a media call with reporters.

On Thursday, HHS said it was creating a new division that would focus on conscience and religious objections, a move it said was necessary after years of the federal government forcing health care workers to provide such services.

HHS will issue a letter Friday to state Medicaid offices that will rescind the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance, which was issued after states including Indiana had tried to defund abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.

The guidance “restricted states’ ability to take certain actions against family-planning providers that offer abortion services,” HHS said in a statement.

The Medicaid program, jointly funded by states and the federal government, provides health care services to the poor and disabled. Federal law prohibits Medicaid or any other federal funding for abortion services.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said the move encourages states to try to block access to care at Planned Parenthood.

“The law is clear, it is illegal to bar women from seeking care at Planned Parenthood. Longstanding protections within Medicaid safeguard every person’s right to access care at their qualified provider of choice,” Laguens said in a statement.

New rule

The rule will enforce existing statutes that guarantee these civil rights. Roger Severino, the director of the Office of Civil Rights at HHS, said the office had received 34 complaints since President Donald Trump took office last January.

When asked by reporters if the rule would allow providers to deny care to transgender individuals based on religious objections, Severino said the rule refers to statutes that are based on providing procedures.

Experts on Thursday said the move to protect workers on religious grounds raised the possibility it could provide legal cover for otherwise unlawful discrimination, and encourage a broader range of religious objections.

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US Embassies, Security Services Expected to Continue Functioning in Government Shutdown

The government has officially shut down 18 times since 1976, when the current federal budgeting process was instituted.

The last time was in 2013, in a deadlock over health care policy. The shutdown lasted 16 days and furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

What stops and what continues during a federal shutdown varies, but in 2013, 850,000 federal workers were furloughed, meaning they could not come to work. Technically, federal workers cannot be paid for those days, but in the past, they have been paid retroactively.

The 850,000 figure amounts to less than half of the federal civilian workforce of 2 million. Essential agencies, such the FBI, Border Patrol, and Voice of America, continue functioning with a skeleton staff. Air traffic controllers will stay on the job, as will federal security agents at airports.

Overseas, U.S. embassies also have “essential” staff members who will continue to perform basic duties; however, the State Department has not elaborated on what duties it could still perform in the event of a shutdown.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said his department is “ready” if the government shuts down. Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday that officials had yet to decide what services will continue but added, “We will be prepared for all contingencies.”

In 2013, immigration and citizenship services continued, but were limited. The U.S. Electronic Immigration System, which includes an “e-verify” system to help process employment applications, is expected to be unavailable during a shutdown.

U.S. mail services are expected to continue, but federal tax refunds could be delayed. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said Friday that the national parks would be open this time, especially if services are provided by third parties. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told reporters Friday the city will pick up the trash all around the monuments on the National Mall and bill the federal government.

The National Zoo would likely close to visitors, although workers would continue to feed and care for its residents — some 1,800 animals of about 300 different species.

Based on 2013, federal courts can be expected to remain open. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has said the federal court system can function for about three weeks without needing additional funds.

Medicare insurance for the elderly is expected to continue, but research programs at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could be suspended until funding is restored.

Military personnel are expected to continue working, but civilian employees of the military would likely be placed on unpaid leave.

The Veterans Administration is expected to continue functioning, including operation of its hospitals.

Some agencies, like the federal courts and Department of State, can function for several weeks on their remaining funds. After that time, more services could be curtailed.

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Anti-smoking Plan May Kill Cigarettes — and Save Big Tobacco

Imagine if cigarettes were no longer addictive and smoking itself became almost obsolete; only a tiny segment of Americans still lit up. That’s the goal of an unprecedented anti-smoking plan being carefully fashioned by U.S. health officials.

But the proposal from the Food and Drug Administration could have another unexpected effect: opening the door for companies to sell a new generation of alternative tobacco products, allowing the industry to survive — even thrive — for generations to come.

The plan puts the FDA at the center of a long-standing debate over so-called “reduced-risk” products, such as e-cigarettes, and whether they should have a role in anti-smoking efforts, which have long focused exclusively on getting smokers to quit.

“This is the single most controversial — and frankly, divisive — issue I’ve seen in my 40 years studying tobacco control policy,” said Kenneth Warner, professor emeritus at University of Michigan’s school of public health.

The FDA plan is two-fold: drastically cut nicotine levels in cigarettes so that they are essentially non-addictive. For those who can’t or won’t quit, allow lower-risk products that deliver nicotine without the deadly effects of traditional cigarettes.

This month the government effort is poised to take off. The FDA is expected to soon begin what will likely be a years-long process to control nicotine in cigarettes. And next week, the agency will hold a public meeting on a closely watched cigarette alternative from Philip Morris International, which, if granted FDA clearance, could launch as early as February.

The product, called iQOS, is a pen-like device that heats Marlboro-branded tobacco but stops short of burning it, an approach that Philip Morris says reduces exposure to tar and other toxic byproducts of burning cigarettes. This is different from e-cigarettes, which don’t use tobacco at all but instead vaporize liquid usually containing nicotine.

For anti-smoking activists, these new products may mean surrendering hopes of a knockout blow to the industry. They say there is no safe tobacco product and the focus should be on getting people to quit. But others are more open to the idea of alternatives to get people away from cigarettes, the deadliest form of tobacco.

Tobacco companies have made claims about “safer” cigarettes since the 1950s, all later proven false. In some cases the introduction of these products, such as filtered and “low tar” cigarettes, propped up cigarette sales and kept millions of Americans smoking. Although the adult smoking rate has fallen to an all-time low of 15 percent, smoking remains the nation’s leading preventable cause of death and illness, responsible for about one in five U.S. deaths.

Anti-smoking groups also point to Big Tobacco’s history of manipulating public opinion and government efforts against smoking: In 2006, a federal judge ruled that Big Tobacco had lied and deceived the American public about the effects of smoking for more than 50 years. The industry defeated a 2010 proposal by the FDA to add graphic warning labels to cigarette packs. And FDA scrutiny of menthol-flavored cigarettes — used disproportionately by young people and minorities — has been bogged down since 2011, due to legal challenges.

“We’re not talking about an industry that is legitimately interested in saving lives here,” said Erika Sward of the American Lung Association.

But some industry observers say this time will be different.

“The environment has changed, the technology has changed, the companies have changed — that is the reality,” said Scott Ballin, a health policy consultant who previously worked for the American Heart Association.

Under a 2009 law, the FDA gained authority to regulate certain parts of the tobacco industry, including nicotine in cigarettes, though it cannot remove the ingredient completely. The same law allows the agency to scientifically review and permit sales of new tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. Little has happened so far. Last year, the agency said it would delay the deadline for manufacturers to submit their vapor-emitting products for review until 2022.

The FDA says it wants to continue to help people quit by supporting a variety of approaches, including new quit-smoking aids and opening opportunities for a variety of companies, including drugmakers, to help attack the problem. As part of this, the FDA sees an important role for alternative products — but in a world where cigarettes contain such a small amount of nicotine that they become unappealing even to lifelong smokers.

“We still have to provide an opportunity for adults who want to get access to satisfying levels of nicotine,” but without the hazards of burning tobacco, said FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. He estimates the FDA plan could eventually prevent 8 million smoking-related deaths.

​’Smoke-free future’

Philip Morris International and its U.S. partner Altria will try to navigate the first steps of the new regulatory path next week.

At a two-day meeting before the FDA, company scientists will try and convince government experts that iQOS is less-harmful than cigarettes. If successful, iQOS could be advertised by Altria to U.S. consumers as a “reduced-risk” tobacco product, the first ever sanctioned by the FDA.

Because iQOS works with real tobacco, the company believes it will be more effective than e-cigarettes in getting smokers to switch.

Philip Morris already sells the product in about 30 countries, including Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom.

iQOS is part of an elaborate corporate makeover for Philip Morris, which last year rebranded its website with the slogan: “Designing a smoke-free future.” The cigarette giant says it has invested over $3 billion in iQOS and eventually plans to stop selling cigarettes worldwide — though it resists setting a deadline.

Philip Morris executives say they are offering millions of smokers a better, less-harmful product.

Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids still sees danger. He says FDA must strictly limit marketing of products like iQOS to adult smokers who are unable or unwilling to quit. Otherwise they may be used in combination with cigarettes or even picked up by nonsmokers or young people who might see the new devices as harmless enough to try.

“As a growing percentage of the world makes the decision that smoking is too dangerous and too risky, iQOS provides an alternative to quitting that keeps them in the market,” Myers says.

It’s unclear whether existing alternatives to cigarettes help smokers quit, a claim often made by e-cigarette supporters. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests about 60 percent of adult e-cigarette users also smoke regular cigarettes.

The case for lower nicotine

Experts who study nicotine addiction say the FDA plan is grounded in the latest science.

Several recent studies have shown that when smokers switch to very low-nicotine cigarettes they smoke less and are more likely to try quitting. But they also seek nicotine from other sources, underscoring the need for alternatives. Without new options, smokers would likely seek regular-strength cigarettes on the black market.

Crucial to the FDA proposal is a simple fact: Nicotine is highly addictive, but not deadly. It’s the burning tobacco and other substances inhaled through smoking that cause cancer, heart disease and bronchitis.

“It’s hard to imagine that using nicotine and tobacco in a way that isn’t burned, in a non-combustible form, isn’t going to be much safer,” said Eric Donny, an addiction researcher at the University of Pittsburgh.

A study of 800 smokers by Donny and other researchers showed that when nicotine was limited to less than 1 milligram per gram of tobacco, users smoked fewer cigarettes. The study, funded by the FDA, was pivotal to showing that smokers won’t compensate by smoking more if nicotine intake is reduced enough. That was the case with “light” and “low-tar” cigarettes introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, when some smokers actually began smoking more cigarettes per day.

Still, many in the anti-smoking community say larger, longer studies are needed to predict how low-nicotine cigarettes would work in the real world.

Legal risks

Key to the FDA plan is the assumption that the two actions will happen at the same time: as regulators cut nicotine in conventional cigarettes, manufacturers will provide alternative products.

But that presumes that tobacco companies will willingly part with their flagship product, which remains enormously profitable.

Kenneth Warner, the public policy professor, said he would be “astonished” if industry cooperates on reducing nicotine levels.

“I don’t think they will. I think they will bring out all of their political guns against it and I’m quite certain they will sue to prevent it,” he said.

In that scenario, the FDA plan to make cigarettes less addictive could be stalled in court for years while companies begin launching FDA-sanctioned alternative products. Tobacco critics say that scenario would be the most profitable for industry.

“It’s like Coke, you can have regular Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, we’ll sell you any Coke you like,” said Robin Koval, president of the Truth Initiative, which runs educational anti-tobacco campaigns.

But the FDA’s Gottlieb says the two parts of the plan must go together. “I’m not going to advance this in a piecemeal fashion,” he said.

When pressed about whether the industry will sue FDA over mandatory nicotine reductions, tobacco executives for Altria and other companies instead emphasized the long, complicated nature of the regulatory process.

“I’m not going to speculate about what may happen at the end of a multiyear process,” said Jose Murillo, an Altria vice president. “It will be science and evidence-based and we will be engaged at every step of the way.”

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US Senate Resumes Debate on Spending Measure to Avert Shutdown

With a government shutdown looming at midnight, U.S. President Donald Trump has put off plans for a weekend trip to his Florida resort pending Senate approval of a temporary spending bill.

Trump had been scheduled to attend a fundraising dinner Saturday to mark the one-year anniversary of his presidency, but with Senate approval of a House-passed funding bill in doubt, White House officials said the president would stay in Washington pending resolution of the budget showdown.

Officer of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney Friday said the chance of a shutdown had “ratcheted up” to 50-50 after chances of winning enough Democratic support for the measure seemed to deteriorate.

“We were operating under a sort of 30 percent shutdown up until yesterday, I think it’s ratcheted up now,” Mulvaney told White House reporters. “We’ve had our meeting just about a half an hour ago, a teleconference with a bunch of agencies to tell them to start to implement their lapse plan, the next step in preparing for a lapse in funding, that’s what we call a shutdown.

White House legislative director Marc Short told reporters Trump had been making phone calls Friday to try to negotiate a deal, but wouldn’t say whom the president had called. “We’re trying to keep it open,” he said.

The House-passed bill would keep the government open until February 16, but the Senate ended the day without a vote that would send the temporary funding measure to the president’s desk.

In a Friday morning tweet, Trump acknowledged that Democratic votes are needed to approve the measure; but, he suggested Democrats’ demands for immigration protection could derail chances for the bill’s passage, leading to a shutdown.

Many Democrats have banded together to demand inclusion of protections for beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in any short-term spending bill. The program shields from deportation some 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought to America as children. DACA recipients will lose protection from deportation within weeks unless Congress acts.

The White House Friday began a campaign to blame Democrats for any cut in government operations, calling it the “Schumer Shutdown” after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Budget Director Mulvaney rejected the contention of Democrats that the DACA issue needs urgent resolution.”There is absolutely no reason to have to insert a DACA discussion, an immigration discussion, into the funding bill today,” Mulvaney said

The office of House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement accusing Democrats of “reckless intent” to shut down the government.”

“Senate Democrats are the only ones standing in the way of a fully funded government and a reauthorized health insurance program for children. This is no time to play politics and force a shutdown,” the statement said. “This is wrong. I urge Senator Schumer and the Senate Democrats to reconsider their reckless intent to shut down the government.”

The temporary measure faces a tough road to passage in the Senate, where several Democrats must join the razor-thin Republican majority to reach the 60-vote threshold needed for it to pass. If the temporary measure is approved, lawmakers would use the interim period to negotiate a spending package to cover the rest of fiscal 2018, which ends September 30.

Eleven House Republicans voted against the spending bill Thursday, including Florida Representatives Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who vowed to vote against any legislation that did not include action for DACA recipients.

A third issue that is part of the legislation is children’s insurance. Trump objected to a measure that would extend children’s health insurance for the next six years, which had largely Democratic support but was being supported by some Republicans as a means of getting the bill passed.

The spending package being voted on did not include enough military spending to please some Republicans, it had no protections for the Dreamers, immigrants who aspire for permanent U.S. residence, and its children’s insurance provisions were less than what Democrats wanted.

House Democrats were uniformly opposed to the bill, forcing negotiations between House Speaker Ryan and the conservative House Freedom Caucus to ensure the bill would pass. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows secured commitments for future votes on military funding and a permanent legislative solution for the DACA program.

In September, President Trump ordered an end to the Obama administration program that shielded young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

The U.S. government has shut down before. The last time was in 2013, in a deadlock over health care policy. The shutdown lasted 16 days and furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers.

What stops and what continues during a federal shutdown varies, but federal research projects could be stalled, national parks closed, tax refunds delayed, processing of veterans’ disability applications delayed, and federal nutrition programs suspended, as was the case in 2013.

The government has officially shut down 18 times since 1976, when the current federal budgeting process was instituted.

Michael Bowman on Capitol Hill contributed to this article.

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Time After Time: Luxury Watchmaker to Sell Pre-owned Pieces

Swiss luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet said it would launch a second-hand business this year, becoming the first big brand to announce plans to tap into a fast-growing market for pre-owned premium watches.

The company told Reuters it would launch the business at its outlets in Switzerland this year. If this proved successful, it would roll out the operation in the United States and Japan.

“Second-hand is the next big thing in the watch industry,” Chief Executive Francois-Henry Bennahmias told Reuters in an interview at the SIHH watch fair in Geneva this week.

Going to the ‘dark side’

Luxury watchmakers have hitherto eschewed the second-hand trade, fearing diluting the exclusivity of their brands and cannibalizing their sales. They have instead ceded the ground to third-party dealers.

But some are now looking to change tack, driven by an industry-wide sales slowdown combined with a second-hand market that is expanding rapidly, fuelled by online platforms like Chrono24 and The RealReal.

“At the moment, in watches, we leave it to what I call the ‘dark side’ to deal with demand for pre-owned pieces,” added Bennahmias, whose company is known for its octagonal Royal Oak timepieces that sell for 40,000 Swiss francs ($41,680) on average.

“Anybody but the brands (is selling second hand) — it’s an aberration commercially speaking,” he said.

Others may follow

Several smaller brands, including H.Moser & Cie and MB&F, have signaled interest in the second-hand trade.

“It is important to control the sale of second-hand watches to protect the owners and the value of watches already in the market by keeping the grey market in check,” H.Moser & Cie boss Edouard Meylan told Reuters.

MB&F, which plans to launch second-hand sales via its website this year, told Reuters it expected to typically give a 20-30 percent discount on second-hand watches. A spokesman said customers buying from established watch brands could feel confident they were getting genuine products in good working order and with a valid warranty.

Bigger brands Rolex, Patek Philippe, Swatch Group, Richemont and Breitling all declined to comment, when asked whether they planned to enter the second-hand market, while LVMH’s watch division was not immediately available.

Starting small

Audemars Piguet said it would initially allow customers to trade in old watches as part-exchange for new ones, and then sell the second-hand watches. It has not yet decided whether to buy second-hand watches for cash.

Experts say the second-hand luxury watches business, mostly done via online platforms or specialized retailers, is growing rapidly as a new generation of customers that values variety more than permanent ownership enters the luxury world.

In an example of the discounts offered online, a diamond-studded Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “with moderate scratches” sells for $9,450 on The RealReal, about a third of the estimated retail price.

Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Jon Cox said he estimated the size of the second-hand market at $5 billion a year in revenue, including watches sold at auction, and that it had outperformed the market for new pieces in the last couple of years.

That is still dwarfed by a new luxury watch sector worth 37 billion euros ($45.3 billion), according to consultancy Bain & Cie. However Swiss watch exports fell 3.3 percent in 2015 and 9.9 percent in 2016 before posting a modest 2.8 percent rise in the first 11 months of 2017.

US top market for pre-owned

The United States, where sales of new watches have been falling for years, is the No. 1 market for pre-owned watches, followed by Britain and Japan, said U.S. retailer Danny Govberg, who sells new watches for Rolex and other brands, but also an increasing number of second-hand timepieces.

His company said its second-hand sales had grown by 37-40 percent year-on-year over the past five years. In an example of prices, it said it listed a second-hand Audemars Piguet Royal Oak for $24,950 compared with a $32,000 retail price.

Together with a partner in Hong Kong and a Singapore-based investor, Govberg recently launched global e-commerce platform WatchBox for buying and selling pre-owned luxury watches.

“People sell us watches by the bucket,” he said.

He said many people sold watches to buy a new one so the pre-owned market was actually driving new sales, like in the car market. 

“The brands are still trying to figure it out, they don’t have the solution yet,” he said.

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Foreign Investors Will Take Heart in Vietnam’s Anti-Graft Crackdown

Foreign investors in Vietnam will welcome a fairer, more predictable set of business practices as the government pursues the heads of local firms over corruption, analysts believe.

Some foreign companies might review their own books to ensure clean accounting, as prosecutors investigate executives in Vietnamese firms over suspected graft. Most will laud the crackdown as steps toward transparency, fairness in business and better-run local partner companies, economists predict.

“The corruption cleanup, I think so far, seems to be well received,” said Song Seng Wun, an economist with the private banking unit of CIMB in Singapore. “There is at least on the surface an effort to clean up and be more transparent in the way of doing business as a way to ensure firmer ground.”

Increased confidence among foreign factory investors, who already like Vietnam for its cheap land and labor, would help buoy the Southeast Asian country’s overall economy.

Foreign investment anchors Vietnam’s $202 billion GDP, which the Asian Development Banks expects will expand by 6.5 percent this year.

​Corruption crackdown widens

High-level graft trials swept Vietnam in much of 2017 as citizens complained vociferously about a range of violations, from bribery during traffic stops to illegal land-use deals.

In September, a court in Hanoi handed a death sentence to the former chairman of state-owned gas and oil firm PetroVietnam and sentenced an official from Vietnam-based OceanBank to life imprisonment for “roles in a multimillion-dollar graft case that has riveted the nation,” according to the local media outlet VnExpress International.

Nguyen Xuan Son, who had served as chairman of the board, received the death penalty for misappropriating $13.6 million from the bank, the news outlet said.

This month, former ruling Communist Party Politburo member Dinh La Thang went on trial along with 21 other officials from PetroVietnam and its affiliates. He is accused of causing losses of about $35 million.

Trinh Xuan Thanh, former head of PetroVietnam Construction, faces charges in this case over violating economic management regulations and misappropriating property. He generated international attention in August when the German government accused agents from Hanoi of abducting him in Berlin as he was seeking asylum.

Observers say this trial is part of Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s broader campaign against corruption.

The nonprofit advocacy group Transparency International ranked Vietnam 113 of 176 countries and regions evaluated in 2016 for perceptions of corruption. New York-based business compliance consultancy Gan Integrity cites bribery, political interference and “facilitation payments” across industries in Vietnam.

The same year the government told its legislature that numerous officials had been “neglecting their duties and failing to uphold moral standards and political virtues,” VnExpress reported.

​Local-foreign schism

Foreign-owned firms may review in-house accounting or money-handling procedures now to make sure they’re following rules in case a disgruntled employee contacts authorities, business experts say.

Western firms generally follow strict British anti-corruption laws when in Vietnam, though investors from elsewhere in Asia may use different standards, said Ralf Matthaes, managing director of Infocus Mekong Research, a market research company in Ho Chi Minh City.

Ford Motor Co. and Intel are among the best-known foreign investors. But most capital comes from South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan. Foreign-operated factories usually make goods, from garments to smartphones, for export.

“There are variances between different countries,” said Dustin Daugherty, senior associate in business intelligence with the consultancy Dezan Shira & Associates in Ho Chi Minh City.

Overall, he said, “they are much more compliance-oriented by far. They’re much more concerned about following the rules. There are fewer corners cut.”

In 2017, registered foreign direct investment in Vietnam reached $29.68 billion as of Dec. 20, an increase of 44 percent from the same period of 2016, according to Ministry of Planning and Investment data.

Foreign and local companies often benefit from each other now rather than competing. Local suppliers provide raw material to foreign-owned factories, for example, or offer back-end support. The state gas firm and OceanBank faced no direct competition from foreign investors.

But a clean company could lose out on land deals, subsidies or government procurement if competing with a corrupt one willing to make payoffs.

Eventually state firms may take on foreign ones overseas, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor with the University of New South Wales in Australia. That shift would raise the urgency for fair play in business.

Vietnamese officials, he said, are “trying to once again a renewed effort to improve the performance of state-owned enterprise, equitize and privatize them, make them more efficient so they can deal with foreign competition and go abroad and perform.”

Corruption “doesn’t seem to affect the flow of foreign investment but it hurts Vietnam,” said Thayer, who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs.

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