Category Archives: Business

economy and business news

Philippines Preps Economy for Bumper Year in 2018 

Officials in the Philippines, one of Asia’s fastest growing economies, are planning a series of economic stimulus measures in 2018 to ease poverty and compensate for a lag in foreign investment.

Manila is building $169 billion in infrastructure, such as railways and an airport terminal, while toying with legal changes that would let foreigners own larger shares of localized businesses.

​Tax reform

In another major step, President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law this month the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion act. Tax revenue would pay for infrastructure and social services.

The idea is to create jobs and bring in foreign investment. Those outcomes would help sustain economic growth while giving the government funds to ease poverty that afflicts about a quarter of the population of 102 million.

“As the country builds for the future, there is the developing (of) social capital,” said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in Metro Manila.

“Developing social capital eventually means these are your health, technical skills and education that are needed by individuals,” he said. “That’s part and parcel of the package.”

​Infrastructure and taxes

The World Bank forecasts 6.7 percent growth in the Philippine economy this year followed by 6.8 percent in 2018 and 2019. Much of the growth comes from overseas remittances, a boom in call-center jobs and consumption.

A cornerstone of Duterte’s economic policies is the “Build, Build, Build” program to replace decayed infrastructure through 2022 by adding the likes of railways and expressways.

By 2019, a small airport three hours north of Manila will open a new terminal to ease congestion in the capital, for example.

Officials hope new infrastructure will entice foreign factory investment that’s now deterred in part by transportation delays. Foreign investment makes up less than 3 percent of the economy now, lagging Asian peers such as South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The tax law signed by Duterte on December 19 is expected to generate $1.8 billion in revenues in its first year. It exempts tax payments for people earning less than the equivalent of $5,005 per year while shifting payment burdens to wealthier people and vehicle owners.

Congress received a bill in 2016 that would lower corporate taxes by 2 percentage points per year until they drop from today’s 30 percent, among Southeast Asia’s highest, to 20 percent.

“I think the way they are going about overhauling the tax code is clearly something that is somewhat path-breaking,” said Rahul Bajoria, a regional economist with Barclays in Singapore.

“They’re looking to tax the right set of individuals,” he said. “It kind of makes sense, and if they’re able to do the same with the corporate tax code, that would be a pretty significant achievement because the tax base itself is quite small.”

The government is also eyeing monetary policy changes to keep inflation in check, economists believe.

And in November Duterte told the National Economic and Development Authority Board to work on easing restrictions on foreign participation in certain industries where ownership is restricted.

Foreign companies, a potential provider of factory jobs for Filipinos, have held back investments because of those restrictions.

​Roadblocks

The government aims to cut poverty from 26 percent to 17 percent by 2020, according to the Ministry of Finance. But snags in the proposed economic measures could limit the jobs or funding needed to reach that goal, some fear.

Timelines for new infrastructure, which is paid in part by foreign aid, is catching attention now given the country’s budget deficit, Ravelas said. 

“What people are looking at now is how fast they are going to push the spending,” he said.

Infrastructure spending has grown from 5 percent of GDP in 2016 to about 7.45 percent now because of the surge in infrastructure construction.

But that program contributed to a 234.9 billion peso ($4.7 billion) budget deficit in the first 10 months of this year, 9 percent more than in the same period of 2016.

Economists still say Duterte is doing more than previous presidents to overhaul the economy and reduce poverty.

But past Philippine presidents have tried the same, particularly with infrastructure spending and tax reform, with little to show, said Renato Reyes, secretary general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabaya alliance of left-wing Philippine organizations.

His alliance advocates land reform instead of the government’s “neoliberal” policies.

“Previous presidents have had their own versions of the same economic stimulus programs, which did not really raise the livelihood of the ordinary folks, but it did contribute to making economic statistics look a little better,” Reyes said.

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Trump Administration Rescinds Rules for Drilling on Public Land

President Donald Trump’s administration is rescinding proposed rules for hydraulic fracturing and other oil- and gas-drilling practices on government lands, government officials announced Thursday.

The rules developed under President Barack Obama would have applied mainly in the West, where most federal lands are located. Companies would have had to disclose the chemicals used in fracking, which pumps pressurized water underground to break open hydrocarbon deposits.

The rules to be rescinded Friday were supposed to take effect in 2015, but a federal judge in Wyoming blocked them at the last minute. In September, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver declined to rule in that case because the Trump administration intended to rescind the rules.

Industry praise

The long-awaited change drew praise from industry groups including the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Petroleum Association of America and Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, which sued to block the rules.

They claimed the federal rules would have duplicated state rules, putting unnecessary and expensive burdens on petroleum developers.

“States have an exemplary safety record regulating fracking, and that environmental protection will continue as before,” Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said in a release.

Fracking and water

Fracking has been so successful in boosting production over the past decade it has become almost synonymous with oil and gas drilling. In many areas, it would be rare nowadays for a gas or oil well to not be fracked.

The process requires several million gallons of water each time. Environmentalists say the potential risks to groundwater require regulation.

“Fracking is a toxic business, and that’s why states and countries have banned it. Trump’s reckless decision to repeal these common-sense protections will have serious consequences,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email.

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US Economic Momentum Expected to Continue in 2018

Despite initial concerns about an untested new leader, the world’s largest economy will end the year on a high note. The US economy is expanding at the fastest pace in more than two years, buoyed in part by low unemployment, soaring stock prices and a broad economic recovery around the globe. The momentum is expected to carry into 2018, but, as Mil Arcega reports, economists say the new year is likely to bring new challenges.

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As Online Shopping Grows, UPS Sees Record Holiday Package Returns

United Parcel Service Inc is on track to return a record number of packages this holiday shipping season, a sign that e-commerce purchases surged to new heights over the past month.

The world’s largest package delivery company and rival FedEx Corp get paid by retailers like Amazon.com Inc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc for handling e-commerce deliveries.

Both have benefited from booming delivery volumes over the past few years, but also have had to invest billions of dollars to upgrade and expand their networks to cope.

An 8 percent increase in returns

UPS said on Wednesday it handled more than 1 million returns to retailers daily in December, a pace expected to last into early January. It said returns would likely peak at 1.4 million on Jan. 3, which would be a fifth consecutive annual record, up 8 percent from this year.

The returns follow what could be the strongest holiday shopping season on record for both brick-and-mortar and online retailers, once stores publish sales data. Mastercard Inc said on Tuesday U.S. shoppers spent over $800 billion during the season, more than ever before.​

FedEx said on Wednesday it experienced another record-breaking peak shipping season, but declined to provide specifics. The company’s Chief Marketing Officer Rajesh Subramaniam told analysts last week about 15 percent of all goods purchased online are returned, with apparel running at about 30 percent.

UPS said record-breaking e-commerce sales during Black Friday and Cyber Monday in late November jolted the returns season, with a larger flood of packages going back to retailers even as many gifts sat under Christmas trees.

Rates raised

UPS has worked for years to increase its ability to forecast customer shipping demands to handle major package volume spikes ahead of the holidays. It has also raised shipping rates and added 2018 peak-season surcharges.

The returns delivered in 2017 are part of the 750 million packages UPS said it expects to deliver globally during the peak shipping season from the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday through New Year’s Eve. That is an increase of nearly 40 million over the previous year.

UPS and FedEx shares were both up slightly on Wednesday.

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Homelessness to Digital IDs: Five Property Rights Hotspots in 2018

The global fight over land and resources is getting increasingly bloody and the race for control of valuable assets is expanding from forests and indigenous territories to the seas, space and databanks.

Here are five hotspots for property rights in 2018:

  1. Rising violence: From Peru to the Philippines, land rights defenders are under increasing threat of harassment and attack from governments and corporations.

At least 208 people have been killed so far this year defending their homes, lands and forests from mining, dams and agricultural projects, advocacy group Frontline Defenders says.

The tally has exceeded that of 2016, which was already the deadliest year on record, and “it is likely that we will see numbers continue to rise”, a spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

  1. Demand for affordable housing: Governments are under increasing pressure to recognize the right to housing, as Smart Cities projects and rapid gentrification push more people on to the streets, from Mumbai to Rio de Janeiro.

India has committed to providing Housing for All by 2022, while Canada’s recognition of housing as a fundamental right could help eliminate homelessness in the country.

“We need our governments to respond to this crisis and recognize that homelessness is a matter of life and death and dignity,” said Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to housing.

  1. Takeover of public lands: From the shrinking of wilderness national monuments in Utah to the felling of rainforests for palm plantations in Indonesia, public lands risk being rescinded or resized by governments in favor of business interests.

Governments are also likely to be hit by more lawsuits from indigenous communities fighting to protect their lands, as well as the environment.

  1. Fight over space and sea: A race to explore and extract resources from the moon, asteroids and other celestial bodies is underway, with China, Luxembourg, the United States and others vying for materials ranging from ice to precious metals.

The latest space race targets a multi-trillion dollar industry.

Expect more debate over the 50-year-old U.N. Outer Space Treaty, which declares “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind.”

On Earth, the fight over the seas is intensifying, particularly in the Arctic. Melting ice caps have triggered a fierce contest between energy companies in the United States, Russia, Canada, and Norway over drilling rights.

  1. Debate over data: As more countries move towards digital citizen IDs, there are growing concerns about privacy and safety of the data, the ethics of biometrics, and the misuse of data for profiling or increased surveillance.

Campaigners are pushing for “informational privacy” to be part of the right to privacy, and for governments to treat the right to data as an inalienable right, like the right to dignity.

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Venezuelans Scramble to Survive as Merchants Demand Dollars

There was no way Jose Ramon Garcia, a food transporter in Venezuela, could afford new tires for his van at $350 each.

Whether he opted to pay in U.S. currency or in the devalued local bolivar currency at the equivalent black market price, Garcia would have had to save up for years.

Though used to expensive repairs, this one was too much and put him out of business. “Repairs cost an arm and a leg in Venezuela,” said the now-unemployed 42-year-old Garcia, who has a wife and two children to support in the southern city of Guayana. “There’s no point keeping bolivars.”

For a decade and a half, strict exchange controls have severely limited access to dollars. A black market in hard currency has spread in response, and as once-sky-high oil revenue runs dry, Venezuela’s economy is in free-fall.

The practice adopted by gourmet and design stores in Caracas over the last couple of years to charge in dollars to a select group of expatriates or Venezuelans with access to greenbacks is fast spreading.

Food sellers, dental and medical clinics, and others are starting to charge in dollars or their black market equivalent – putting many basic goods and services out of reach for a large number of Venezuelans.

According to the opposition-led National Assembly, November’s rise in prices topped academics’ traditional benchmark for hyperinflation of more than 50 percent a month – and could end the year at 2,000 percent. The government has not published inflation data for more than a year.

“I can’t think in bolivars anymore, because you have to give a different price every hour,” said Yoselin Aguirre, 27, who makes and sells jewelry in the Paraguana peninsula and has recently pegged prices to the dollar. “To survive, you have to dollarize.”

The socialist government of the late president Hugo Chavez in 2003 brought in the strict controls in order to curb capital flight, as the wealthy sought to move money out of Venezuela after a coup attempt and major oil strike the previous year.

Oil revenue was initially able to bolster artificial exchange rates, though the black market grew and now is becoming unmanageable for the government.

Trim the Tree With Bolivars

President Nicolas Maduro has maintained his predecessor’s policies on capital controls. Yet, the spread between the strongest official rate, of some 10 bolivars per dollar, and the black market rate, of around 110,000 per dollar, is now huge.

While sellers see a shift to hard currency as necessary, buyers sometimes blame them for speculating.

Rafael Vetencourt, 55, a steel worker in Ciudad Guayana, needed a prostate operation priced at $250.

“We don’t earn in dollars. It’s abusive to charge in dollars!” said Vetencourt, who had to decimate his savings to pay for the surgery.

In just one year, Venezuela’s currency has weakened 97.5 percent against the greenback, meaning $1,000 of local currency purchased then would be worth just $25 now.

Maduro blames black market rate-publishing websites such as DolarToday for inflating the numbers, part of an “economic war” he says is designed by the opposition and Washington to topple him.

On Venezuela’s borders with Brazil and Colombia, the prices of imported oil, eggs and wheat flour vary daily in line with the black market price for bolivars.

In an upscale Caracas market, cheese-filled arepas, the traditional breakfast made with corn flour, increased 65 percent in price in just two weeks, according to tracking by Reuters reporters. In the same period, a kilogram of ham jumped a whopping 171 percent.

The runaway prices have dampened Christmas celebrations, which this season were characterized by shortages of pine trees and toys, as well as meat, chicken and cornmeal for the preparation of typical dishes.

In one grim festive joke, a Christmas tree in Maracaibo, the country’s oil capital and second city, was decorated with virtually worthless low-denomination bolivar bills.

Most Venezuelans, earning just $5 a month at the black market rate, are nowhere near being able to save hard currency.

“How do I do it? I earn in bolivars and have no way to buy foreign currency,” said Cristina Centeno, a 31-year-old teacher who, like many, was seeking remote work online before Christmas in order to bring in some hard currency.

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California Preps for Pot-infused Fare, From Wine to Tacos

The sauvignon blanc boasts brassy, citrus notes, but with one whiff, it’s apparent this is no normal Sonoma County wine. It’s infused with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that provides the high. 

Move over, pot brownies. The world’s largest legal recreational marijuana market kicks off Monday in California, and the trendsetting state is set to ignite the cannabis culinary scene. 

Chefs and investors have been teaming up to offer an eye-boggling array of cannabis-infused food and beverages, weed-pairing supper clubs and other extravagant pot-to-plate events in preparation for legalization come Jan. 1. 

Legal pot in states like Oregon, Washington and Colorado and California’s longstanding medical marijuana market already spurred a cannabis-foodie movement with everything from olive oil to heirloom tomato bisques infused with the drug.

Cannabis-laced dinners with celebrity chefs at private parties have flourished across Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego in recent years, but a medical marijuana card was required to attend. 

With that requirement gone, the edibles market is expected to boom, though manufacturers face a host of regulations, and doctors fear the products could increase emergency room visits and entice youth. Marijuana industry analysts predict edibles for the recreational marijuana market will top $100 million in sales in 2018. 

“Californian’s culinary expertise is far more refined from college kids making pot brownies in a dorm,” said John Kagia of Frontier Data, a cannabis market research firm. 

Expect a slew of vegan and gluten-free choices and low-dose snacks from trail mixes to chocolates. And they may well be served at a gym or Pilates studio.

“This is the dawn of the Amsterdam-style cafe in the U.S.,” Kagia said. “We expect to see spaces that are targeted to cannabis consumers that capitalize on the arts and entertainment offerings of California and really create unique and elevated experiences.”

That includes ethnic options in a state with the largest immigrant population in the U.S. 

“Now you see all kinds of cuisines,” said Cristina Espiritu of the 420 Foodie Club, which has promoted cannabis food events in Southern California that have included everything from Mediterranean dishes to Filipino specialties. “There’s going to be infused tacos, infused burritos. I think because of the diversity and creativity in California, this is going to explode.”

But Espiritu worries regulations could make certain aspects of the culinary experience accessible only to the elite in places like Beverly Hills.

Kitchens for those making edibles to sell must be licensed. And organizers must pay $5,000 a year for a license to host up to 10 events, and depending on the size, they may be required to hold them at a fairground. Cities can pose additional fees and ban an event altogether. 

Regulations prohibit manufacturers from producing cannabis products for retail sale that include perishable items that could pose a health risk, such as dairy, seafood, fresh meat, or food or beverages appealing to children. It’s still unclear if those rules would apply to a chef-hosted dinner or cooking class that people have paid for.

Edible products must be produced in serving sizes with no more than 10 milligrams of THC and no more than 100 milligrams of THC for the total package.

Drug policy expert and Stanford Law School professor Robert J. MacCoun said the regulations are too lax. Edibles already being sold in the medical marijuana industry vary widely in their potency, so people get more stoned than they planned and can end up in emergency rooms. 

The bright packages appeal to children, who often are too young to read warning labels, MacCoun said. He thinks edibles should be restricted to plain brown or white packaging.

“Everyone sees this as a kind of new gold rush in the way that it will make a lot of money, but I think we need to be more careful about how this rolls out,” he said.

Many see California’s recreational marijuana business mirroring its wine industry, with people seeking weed pairings, cannabis farm tours and products made from organic, local plants. 

Rebel Coast Winery’s THC-infused sauvignon blanc is made from Sonoma County grapes, but the alcohol is removed in compliance with regulations that prohibit mixing pot with alcohol. 

It smells like marijuana, meeting another requirement that it not be confused with a food or beverage that does not contain pot.

Founder Alex Howe is planning high-end dinner parties in Los Angeles in early 2018 to debut the $59.99 bottle of wine. Each bottle contains 16 milligrams of THC, and the company says on average, people feel the effects in under 15 minutes. 

“We really wanted to mimic that ritual of opening a bottle of wine at dinner, or at a party with friends or while watching a movie, which is something so familiar to people, especially in California,” he said.

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Eastern Libya to Stage Conference in March to Rebuild Benghazi

Authorities in eastern Libya have announced a conference in March to drum up support to rebuild the country’s second-largest city Benghazi heavily damaged during three years of fighting between military forces and Islamist fighters.

The announcement signals a desire to demonstrate a return to normality in the port, where top military commander Khalifa Haftar declared the end of a campaign to oust Islamist fighters in July.

Clashes have sporadically continued in some isolated areas, while life has returned in the rest of the city, though some districts were almost completely destroyed by shelling and air strikes.

A forum titled “International Conference and Exhibition for rebuilding Benghazi city” will be held from March 19-21, the organizers said in an invitation posted online, adding that a six-day exhibition would be held the same month.

Haftar is aligned with a government and parliament in eastern Libya which was listed as the conference’s sponsor.

He has rejected a U.N.-backed government based in the capital, Tripoli, as he has gradually strengthened his position on the ground.

The United Nations has sought to bridge differences between the two sides, part of a conflict since Muammar Gadhafi was toppled in 2011. Talks were suspended in October.

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Oil Prices Rise on Libyan Pipeline Blast

Oil moved higher above $65 a barrel on Tuesday, within sight of its highest since mid-2015, supported by an explosion on a crude pipeline in Libya and voluntary OPEC-led supply cuts.

The move towards restart of a key North Sea pipeline, Forties, capped the rally. The pipeline is being tested after repairs and full flows should resume in early January, its operator said on Monday.

Brent crude, the international benchmark for oil prices, rose 19 cents to $65.44 a barrel at 1447 GMT. Prices hit $65.83 on December 12, the highest since June 2015. U.S. crude added 24 cents to $58.71.

“The confirmation that Forties is coming back … has the potential for capping Brent,” said Olivier Jakob, analyst at Petromatrix.

Trading activity was thin due to the Christmas holiday in many countries.

Oil turned positive following the explosion at the Libyan pipeline, which feeds the Es Sider terminal. It was not immediately clear what impact the blast will have on Libyan output, which has been recovering in recent months after being hampered for years by conflict and unrest.

Brent has risen 17 percent in 2017. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, plus Russia and other non-members, have been withholding output since January 1 to get rid of a glut.

The producers have extended the supply cut agreement to cover all of 2018.

Iraq’s oil minister said on Monday there would be a balance between supply and demand by the first quarter, leading to a boost in prices. Global oil inventories have decreased to an acceptable level, he added.

That is earlier than predicted in OPEC’s latest official forecast, which calls for a balanced market by late 2018.

While the OPEC action has lent support to prices all year, the unplanned shutdown of the Forties pipeline on December 11 pushed Brent to its mid-2015 high.

Forties plays an important role in the global market as it is the biggest of the five North Sea crude streams underpinning Brent, the benchmark for oil trading in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Rising production in the United States is offsetting some of the OPEC-led cuts.

The U.S. rig count, RIG-OL-USA-BHI, an early indicator of future output, held at 747 in the week to December 22, according to the latest weekly report by Baker Hughes.

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