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Markets Disrupted as Italy’s Populists Negotiate Cabinet

Italy’s prime minister-designate, Giuseppe Conte, a political novice and obscure law professor accused of padding his resume, put the finishing touches to his cabinet lineup Friday. And initial reaction from financial markets was far from approving.

Italian government bond prices slumped and the country’s ailing banks saw their stock prices hit an 11-month low. Italy’s outgoing economy minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, warned the incoming coalition government of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and far-right League not to underestimate the power of the markets.

“The most worrying aspect of the program, which this government is working on, is its underestimation of the consequences of certain choices,” Padoan told the Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper.

M5S and the League unveiled their government agreement a week ago, after more than 70 days of tortuous talks, following the country’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March. The polls saw establishment parties trounced.

The coalition partners’ program includes massive tax cuts favoring the rich — a League demand — additional spending on welfare for the poor, and job-seekers and a roll-back of pension reforms that helped Italy weather the multi-year-long eurozone debt crisis which bankrupted Greece.

Investors — domestic and foreign — are expressing alarm about what the next few months may hold for an Italy governed by unlikely political partners. Fears include a public sector spending spree that will put Rome not only on a collision course with the European Union over budget rules. It also will weaken the already perilous state finances of Italy, the third largest economy in Europe and the second most indebted.

Some financial analysts say investors are becoming wary about European equities in general, fearing political and economic unpredictability in Italy could trigger contagion, prompting a new eurozone crisis. European markets were on track Friday to record collectively their first weekly decline since March — and investors last week withdrew the most money in nearly two years from western European funds.

“Investors should take caution as far as European equities go,” Boris Schlossberg, managing director of FX Strategy at BK Asset Management, told CNBC’s cable TV show Trading Nation this week.

Immigration

EU officials in Brussels and Italy’s half-a-million migrants are as anxious as investors. They are bracing for confrontations with the incoming populist government, whose two halves agree about very little, except when it comes to euro-skepticism and disapproval of migrants. M5S itself is split sharply between liberals and conservatives.

Earlier this week Italian President Sergio Mattarella approved Giuseppe Conte, aged 54, as the coalition’s nominee for prime minister — despite evidence that the academic had padded his resume with stints at New York University, Girton College, Cambridge and France’s prestigious Sorbonne. None of them had any record of his official attendance, although he was granted a visitor’s library card by NYU.

Conte also claimed in his resume to have founded a prominent Italian law practice, but was only an external contributor, according to the firm.

A figurehead?

Few here in Rome believe Conte, who was born in the southern region of Puglia, will be anything but a figurehead. The mutually antagonistic party leaders, M5S’ Luigi Di Maio and the League’s Matteo Salvini, weren’t prepared to give way to each other and let the other have the job — hence Conte’s nomination, which still has to be approved by parliament.

The Economist magazine suggested he might end up as the fictional valet Truffaldino, a character in an 18th century Italian comedy entitled “Servant of Two Masters.” Whether he will be able to bridge disagreements between Di Maio and Salvini is unclear — and a testimony to that, say analysts, is the party leaders’ decision to set up a “conciliation committee” to adjudicate disputes.

“Nobody knows what will happen, because this is a government without precedent and the two parties are virtually incompatible,” said Sergio Fabbrini, director of the LUISS School of Government in Rome.

Economy

The parties were locked in dispute Friday with no agreement about who should occupy the key position of economy minister. The League has been pushing for 82-year-old economist Paolo Savona, a former industry minister who wants Italy to drop the euro as its currency, which he describes as “a German cage.” Savona opposed Italy signing in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty, a key document that started the process of closer EU political integration.

Even if the League fails in its bid to secure the economic portfolio for Savona, there are plenty of likely policy clashes ahead between the EU and Western Europe’s first all-populist government, despite the fact the League is no longer demanding Italy drop Europe’s single currency and M5S is no longer pushing for a referendum on Italy’s future EU membership.

Both party leaders now talk about reforming the EU from within.

Trouble ahead

Nonetheless, flashpoints are on the near horizon. Salvini, a hardline migrant opponent, is likely to become interior minister and will oversee the coalition’s agreed to anti-immigration plans, many of which are in violation of EU law. They include truncating asylum procedures, the forcible detention of irregular migrants and the repatriation of half-million migrants, most from sub-Saharan Africa, to their countries of origin.

Next month, EU leaders are due to extend the European bloc’s sanctions on Russia, but Italy’s coalition partners are opposed, viewing Moscow as a partner, rather than foe. Both M5S and the League want the sanctions lifted that were imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Some analysts predict the new government’s slim majority — only seven in the Senate — as well as fiscal realities, will constrain the revolutionary fervor of Italy’s populists. But others envision instability and unpredictability in the weeks and months ahead.

On Friday, the European Commission’s vice-president for the euro, Valdis Dombrovskis, issued a stark warning to Italy: “Our message from the European Commission is very clear: that it is important Italy continues to stick with responsible fiscal and macro-economic policies.”

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Discharged and Jobless: US Veterans Seek Change in Hiring Rules

Military veterans who were discharged for relatively minor offenses say they often can’t get jobs, and they hope a recent warning to employers by the state of Connecticut will change that.

The state’s human rights commission told employers last month they could be breaking the law if they discriminate against veterans with some types of less-than-honorable discharges. Blanket policies against hiring such veterans could be discriminatory, the commission said, because the military has issued them disproportionately to black, Latino, gay and disabled veterans.

At least one other state, Illinois, already prohibits hiring discrimination based on a veteran’s discharge status, advocates say, but Connecticut appears to be the first to base its decision on what it deems discrimination by the military. Regardless of the state’s reasons, veterans say, the attention there could at least educate employers.

“You may as well be a felon when you’re looking for a job,” said Iraq War veteran Kristofer Goldsmith. Goldsmith said the Army gave him a general discharge in 2007 because he attempted suicide.

An honorable discharge is the only type that entails full benefits. A dishonorable discharge is given after a court-martial for serious offenses, which can include felonies. Other types of discharges in between — known by veterans as “bad paper” — are issued administratively, with no court case, and can stem from behavior including talking back, tardiness, drug use or fighting.

The commission says its guidance focused on that middle class of discharges.

Sometimes such discharges are given to veterans whose violations stemmed from post-traumatic stress disorder, like Goldsmith’s, or brain injuries. Many private employers may not be aware of those extenuating circumstances or understand the differences between discharges, critics say.

And they either won’t hire bad-paper veterans or won’t give them preferences an honorably discharged veteran would get, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School told the Connecticut commission.

The clinic, acting on behalf of the Connecticut chapter of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, showed the commission job postings that require applicants who have served in the military to have been honorably discharged.

It also cited a 2017 report by the advocacy organization Protect Our Defenders that found black service members were more likely to be disciplined than white members. And the commission’s guidance to employers notes thousands of service members have been discharged for their sexual orientation.

Employers might require an honorable discharge as an easy way to narrow the pool and get strong applicants, said Amanda Ljubicic, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

“At face value it seems like a simple, logical cutoff to make as an employer,” she said. “Certainly this new policy forces employers to think about it differently and to think about the complexities.”

The Vietnam Veterans of America asked for a presidential pardon for bad-paper veterans. President Barack Obama didn’t respond as he was leaving office, nor did President Donald Trump as he was entering, said John Rowan, the organization’s president. He was unsure whether activists would ask Trump again.

PTSD

More than 13,000 service members received a type of discharge for misconduct, known as other than honorable, between 2011 and 2015, despite being diagnosed with PTSD, a traumatic brain injury or another condition associated with misconduct, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, under an order from Congress, expanded emergency mental health coverage to those veterans for the first time last year.

Passing new laws to address the effects of bad paper is probably not the best solution, said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who pushed for the changes; rather, he said, the military should stop issuing bad-paper discharges to injured veterans.

Goldsmith, 32, said he developed PTSD after his first deployment to Iraq. He was set to leave the military and go to college when the Army extended his active-duty service and ordered him back in 2007. Goldsmith said he attempted suicide shortly before he was due to deploy.

Because of his general discharge, Goldsmith lost his GI Bill benefits. He didn’t know how he’d find a job. If he didn’t mention his military service, he would have a four-year gap on his resume. But if he did, he would have to disclose medical information to explain why he left.

A friend eventually hired him to work at a photo-booth company, and Goldsmith began contacting members of Congress to press for health care for veterans with bad paper.

“Things like addressing employment discrimination on the national level are so far from possible,” he said, “I don’t think any of us in the advocacy community has put enough pressure on Congress to handle it.”

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Broadcom’s Tan, CBS’s Moonves Among Highest-Paid CEOs

Here are the highest-paid CEOs for 2017, as calculated by The Associated Press and Equilar, an executive data firm.

The AP’s compensation study covered 339 executives at S&P 500 companies who have served at least two full consecutive fiscal years at their respective companies, which filed proxy statements between January 1 and April 30.

Compensation often includes stock and option grants that the CEO may not receive for years unless certain performance measures are met. For some companies, big raises occur when CEOs get a stock grant in one year as part of a multi-year grant.

  1. Hock Tan

Broadcom

$103.2 million

Change from last year: Up 318 percent

  1. Leslie Moonves

CBS

$68.4 million

Change: flat

  1. W. Nicholas Howley

TransDigm

$61 million

Change: Up 223 percent

(Howley left the CEO position last month.)

  1. Jeffrey Bewkes

Time Warner

$49 million

Change: Up 50 percent

  1. Stephen Kaufer

TripAdvisor

$43.2 million

 

Change: Up 3,400 percent

(Kaufer’s 2017 compensation excludes $4.8 million in incremental fair value relating to the modification of awards granted in 2013.)

  1. David Zaslav

Discovery Communications

$42.2 million

Change: Up 14 percent

  1. Robert Iger

Walt Disney

$36.3 million

Change: Down 11 percent

  1. Stephen Wynn

Wynn Resorts

$34.5 million

Change: Up 23 percent

(Wynn left the CEO position in February.)

  1. Brenton Saunders

Allergan

$32.8 million

Change: Up 693 percent

  1. Brian Roberts

Comcast

$32.5 million

Change: Down 1 percent

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China Snaps up US Oil, Straining Capacity to Export It

The U.S. oil export infrastructure is straining to keep up as the country’s crude oil exports hit new highs and China snaps up more of it than ever before.

U.S. crude production has surged to a record 10.7 million barrels a day, driven largely by growth from the Permian shale patch in West Texas, which pumps more than 3 million barrels per day.

However, the infrastructure to move it abroad is lagging, even as U.S. prices are well below the Brent benchmark, a discount that sits just off three-year highs at $8.09 per barrel. 

U.S. crude exports peaked at 2.6 million bpd two weeks ago, but are expected to keep rising.

What is US export capacity?

No definitive data are available on how much crude the United States can export, though analysts estimate a nationwide capacity of 3.5 million to 4 million bpd. Most terminal operators and companies do not disclose capacity, and the U.S. Energy Department does not track it.

“So far, export capacity is keeping pace, but we are walking a tightrope,” said Bernadette Johnson, vice president at Drilling Info.

That capacity may begin to be tested next month, as Sinopec, Asia’s largest refiner, bought a record 16 million barrels, or about 533,000 bpd of U.S. crude, to load in June, two sources with knowledge of the matter said Wednesday.

For the last six months of available data, ending in February, the United States exported about 332,000 bpd to China.

Terminals designed for imports

Analysts are concerned about how quickly the crude terminals at Gulf Coast ports, many initially designed for imports, can shift to handling exports. Only the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port can handle supertanker exports, but it only started testing in February. The supertankers, known as VLCCs or very large crude carriers, can handle about 2 million barrels of oil, the amount preferred by Asian buyers with bigger ports.

“There’s only one dock on the Gulf Coast that can handle a VLCC deepwater, and that’s LOOP. And the LOOP has only started to export,” said Sandy Fielden, director of research in commodities and energy at Morningstar. 

Port of Corpus Christi in Texas is developing its Harbor Island port, which will accommodate 120 VLCCs per year, said Jarl Pedersen, chief commercial officer at the port, with a targeted completion of late 2020.

Kpler, a cargo tracking service, Thursday estimated that up to 4.8 million bpd can be moved from the top crude-exporting ports of Corpus Christi, Houston, Port Arthur and New Orleans. Their estimate in October was 3.2 million bpd.

PIRA Energy Group put the U.S. overall crude export capacity at 3.5 million bpd, while Morningstar’s estimate is 3.8 million bpd at most.

Pipelines lacking, too

In addition to port constraints, inadequate pipeline space has created a glut of supply in West Texas, pushing the principle cash grade there to a $13 discount to benchmark U.S. crude futures this month, the biggest in 3½ years.

“The constraint is really the pipeline coming down from the Permian to Corpus Christi,” Pedersen said. However, the ship channel still needs to be deepened, a $320 million project in development with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

There is 3.4 million bpd of pipeline capacity, while total output from tight oil and legacy production from vertical wells in the Permian is at more than 4.2 million bpd, according to energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

“The combined volumes mean that the infrastructure is crammed full — there’s little or no room for incremental volumes,” R.T. Dukes, head of U.S. Lower 48 oil supply at Wood Mackenzie said in a note.

About 300,000 bpd of new pipeline capacity is to come on by the end of January, but “it’s really from next summer that we’ll see big new capacity,” Dukes said.

In the second half of 2019, another 1.25 million bpd will be added, lifting total capacity up to 5 million bpd, he said.

“That’s when the big discount of WTI at Midland will narrow,” Dukes said.

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Brazil: Deal Reached to Suspend Crippling Trucker Strike

Brazil’s government said late Thursday that a deal had been reached with truckers to suspend a 4-day-old strike that caused fuel shortages, cut into food deliveries, backed up exports and threatened airline flights.

Eliseu Padilha, chief of staff for President Michel Temer, told reporters in Brasilia that several unions that represent truckers agreed to suspend the strike for 15 days to give all parties time to negotiate a solution to rising fuel prices that drivers say have cut deeply into their earnings.

The deal came after a full day of negotiations with several of the largest transportation unions. 

 

Diumar Bueno, president of the National Confederation of Autonomous Transporters, told the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo that he hoped the agreement would lead to drivers quickly dismantling roadblocks on highways and streets.

But it wasn’t immediately clear how many of the thousands of truckers, who by the nature of their jobs operate with a good bit of independence, would heed calls to stop the strike.

Road transport

Brazil’s economy runs largely on road transport, and the strike to protest rising diesel prices was beginning to have serious consequences, with highway police reporting blocked roads in nearly all of Brazil’s states.

The airport in the capital of Brasilia allowed landings only by planes that carried enough fuel to take off again. The stop-gap measure hadn’t resulted in any flight cancelations, but it was unclear how long it could continue before companies would have to ground planes. The civil aviation authority and airport authorities said they were monitoring fuel supplies carefully.

Long lines formed at gas stations, and some ran out of some kinds of fuel. In Rio de Janeiro, only about two-thirds of the city’s buses were running Thursday, according to Rio Onibus, which represents the companies that run the various lines.

Local media reported food shortages and rationing in some supermarkets, and an association of supermarkets in Brazil’s south warned that perishable food would run out in days if the strike did not end. The association said stores on average have a 15-day supply of dry goods, but fresh food would run out or spoil before then.

The Brazilian Association of Meat Industry Exporters said dozens of meatpacking plants were idling because of the strike, and 1,200 containers carrying beef for export were not being loaded on ships each day. Brazil is one of the largest exporters of meat in the world.

Truckers complain that rising diesel prices have cut deeply into their income and are demanding relief from the government. Diesel prices are being pushed up by rising world oil prices and Brazil’s falling real currency.

Truckers reject Petrobras move

Truckers rejected the Wednesday decision by the state oil company Petrobras to reduce diesel prices at refineries by 10 percent. The company said the measure would last for 15 days and give the government time to negotiate an end to the strike.

“The government thinks truckers are illiterate and can’t count,” said Vicente Reis, who has been driving for 20 years. “In 2018, there has already been about a 25 percent increase in fuel prices. And now they want a 15-day freeze with (a reduction of) 10 percent. Truckers know how to count, Mr. President.”

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Trump Signs Bill Easing Restraints on Small US Banks

U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law Thursday a measure that eases rules imposed on banks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession.

The law relaxes regulations and oversight on banks with assets below $250 billion, leaving a handful of the largest U.S. banks that must still comply with the stringent rules and oversight.

Trump said at the signing ceremony the rules and oversight, enacted by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, were “crushing small banks.” Trump lauded the signing as a victory in his administration’s efforts to eliminate regulations to promote economic growth.

Although Trump signed the bill into law, much of Dodd-Frank remains intact. Trump signed the Republican-led measure that was passed by Congress after receiving the support of some Democrats.

Dodd-Frank was signed into law by President Barack Obama in response to a crisis that resulted in the loss of 8 million jobs, 2.5 million home foreclosures and the shuttering of 2.5 million businesses, according to Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.

A federal report prepared by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded economic weaknesses that created the potential for the crisis were “years in the making.” But the report said “it was the collapse of the housing bubble — fueled by low interest rates, easy and available credit, scant regulation and toxic mortgages — that was the spark that ignited a string of events, which led to the full-blown crisis in the fall of 2008.”

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Buffalo: City With a Magnificent Past Fallen on Hard Times

Even though the United States is one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, about 45 million Americans live below the poverty line. In Buffalo, New York, a once-prosperous city that has fallen on hard-times, one-third of its residents live in poverty. As Olga Loginova reports, the city offers an example of what happens when a once-powerful industrial sector declines and well-paying jobs become scarce.

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Deutsche Bank to Slash Thousands of Jobs to Control Costs 

Germany’s struggling Deutsche Bank is slashing thousands of jobs as it reshapes its stocks trading operation and refocuses its global investment banking business on its European base.

The bank said Thursday it would cut its workforce from 97,000 to “well below” 90,000 and that the reductions were underway.

It said headcount in the stocks trading business, mostly based in New York and London, would be reduced by about 25 percent. Those cuts will cost the bank about 800 million euros ($935 million) this year.

Deutsche Bank has struggled with high costs and troubles with regulators. The bank replaced its CEO in April after three years of annual losses and lagging progress in streamlining its operations.

New CEO Christian Sewing has said the bank would refocus on its European and German customer base and cut back on costlier and riskier operations where it doesn’t hold a leading position. Sewing said the bank was committed to its international investment banking operations but must “concentrate on what we truly do well.” The new strategy means stepping back from several decades of global expansion in which the bank sought to compete with Wall Street rivals such as Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase.

Sewing replaced John Cryan in April with a mandate to accelerate the bank’s wrenching restructuring. It has suffered billions in losses from fines and penalties related to past misconduct. But progress in cutting costs has remained elusive. Sewing on Thursday affirmed the bank’s goal to hold costs to 23 billion euros this year and 22 billion next year.

The announcement came hours before Board Chairman Paul Achleitner had to face disgruntled investors at the bank’s annual shareholder meeting. The bank’s share price has sagged and it paid only a small dividend of 11 euro cents per share last year.

Addressing an audience of several thousands in Frankfurt, Achleitner said Cryan had “set the ball rolling for fundamental change” but later displayed “shortcomings in decision-making and implementation.”

“Dear shareholders, you are right to expect the bank and its management to hit the targets it has set itself,” he said. “If there are signs those targets are in jeopardy… then we on the supervisory board have to act swiftly and decisively.”

The bank’s troubles and the turmoil surrounding Cryan’s departure have put pressure on Achleitner as well. Cryan was forced to publicly push back against a media report that Achleitner was looking for a replacement, then left to twist in the wind for days before being shown the door. Achleitner brought Cryan to the bank in 2015 and thus in principle shares responsibility for the bank’s strategy and performance since then.

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Amazon, Starbucks Pledge Money to Repeal Seattle Head Tax

Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan and other companies have pledged a total of more than $350,000 toward an effort to repeal Seattle’s newly passed tax on large employers intended to combat homelessness.

Just days after the Seattle City Council approved the levy, the No Tax On Jobs campaign, a coalition of businesses, announced it would gather signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot to repeal it. 

Amazon, Starbucks, Vulcan, Kroger and Albertsons each promised $25,000 to the effort last week, according to a report filed by the campaign. The Washington Food Industry Association pledged $30,000. 

Referendum backers will have to gather 17,632 signatures of registered Seattle voters by June 14 to get the measure on the ballot.

The so-called head tax will charge businesses making at least $20 million in gross revenues about $275 per full-time worker each year. The tax would begin in 2019 and raise about $48 million a year to build affordable housing and provide emergency homeless services.

Opponents say the Seattle measure is a tax on jobs and questioned whether city officials are spending current resources effectively. 

Worker and church groups and others praised the tax as a step toward building badly needed affordable housing in an affluent city where the income gap continues to widen and lower-income workers are being priced out.

The clash over who should pay to solve the city housing crisis that’s exacerbated by Seattle’s rapid economic growth featured weeks of tense exchanges, raucous meetings and a threat by Amazon, the city’s largest employer, to stop construction planning on a 17-story building near its hometown headquarters.

Amazon has resumed planning the downtown building, but the company remains “apprehensive about the future created by the council’s hostile approach and rhetoric toward larger businesses, which forces us to question our growth here,” said Drew Herdener, Amazon’s vice president for global corporate and operations communications. 

Four council members initially pitched an annual tax of $500 per full-time employee before a compromise proposal lowered the tax rate after they could not muster six votes needed to override a potential veto by Mayor Jenny Durkan. 

The mayor signed the head tax on May 16, saying “we must make urgent progress on our affordability and homelessness crisis.”

Seattle’s action came as cities around San Francisco consider business taxes to help offset issues created by the growth of tech companies. 

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Post-Mugabe, Zimbabweans Still Waiting for Economic Uptick

This week marks six months since Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa took office, after Robert Mugabe gave in to military pressure and resigned.

During the weekend, the 75-year-old Mnangagwa told supporters that since he took over, a lot had improved.

He says Zimbabwe’s annual foreign direct investment had been around $400 or 500 million, but for the past five months it has gone to more than $15 billion committed to investment in the country, with international companies and countries such as Canada, South Africa, China, Britain and the United States coming to invest in power generation and water.

Last Tuesday, the British gave $100 million to aid toward trying to eliminate Zimbabwe’s cash crisis, Mnangagwa said.

The country’s methane gas reserves have improved as well, he added.

“After about three and half years, we should be able to produce eight million liters of fuel per day,” Mnangagwa said. “The country only consumes five million [liters] per day — three million surplus per day.  Zimbabwe will prosper, it is going to develop. Zimbabwe will shine not only in SADC [Southern African Development Community], but also in Africa because Zimbabwe is in good hands. Our political party ZANU-PF is a revolutionary party, it caters for the interests of the people.”

Chido Masasai, an unemployed former media student, says Zimbabwe’s people have yet to see the money the president is talking about. She says there is still a shortage of cash, and the black market continues to operate.

What she does see is a greater expression of political views — a significant change from the Mugabe era when authorities regularly harassed the president’s critics and opponents.

“But in terms of freedom of expression, a lot more people are liberal with their views and opinions. You find that there are a lot of political parties that have come into the fore,” Masasai said.

Harare-based economist John Robertson says it is too early for Zimbabwe’s economy to fully recover from Mugabe’s populist policies, which drove away most foreign investment.

“The economy is still in great difficulty, but remember that the difficulties we face were built slowly into the system by 38 years of very badly chosen economic policies, and I think that the media is largely responsible in increasing the expectations of the population beyond what was reasonably possible within a short period of time,” he said.

Robertson added that Mnangagwa might make major policy changes, such as compensating white farmers for land that was confiscated during the Mugabe years, and ensuring that black farmers can get bank loans instead of depending on government handouts.

“I think this is why the president is waiting for the elections,” he said. “Behind him he would have increased amounts of courage to make changes that will prove unpopular to the people who thought they achieved what they were expecting.”

The president is expected to announce a date for the elections soon, which could place in July or August.