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US Current Account Deficit Hits $123.1 Billion

The deficit in the broadest measure of U.S. trade rose to the highest level in more than eight years this spring, reflecting in part a drop in fines and penalties paid by foreign companies.

The deficit in the current account increased to $123.1 billion, up 8.5 percent from an imbalance of $113.5 billion in the first quarter, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday. It was the biggest deficit since a gap of $150 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008.

 

The current account is the most complete measure of trade because it includes not only goods and services but investment flows and other payments between the United States and the world.

 

President Donald Trump has promised to reduce America’s trade deficit, contending it costs U.S. factory jobs.

 

One of the biggest contributing factors to the larger deficit in the April-June quarter was a decline in receipts from foreigners after they had risen sharply in the first quarter. The government attributed the $5.2 billion decrease in receipts of secondary income from foreigners to a decline in fines and penalties paid by foreign companies. That category had risen sharply in the first quarter.

 

Exports of goods and services increased $2.2 billion in the second quarter. Exports are getting a lift from a pickup in global growth and a drop in the value of the U.S. dollar against other currencies. A weaker dollar makes American products more competitive on foreign markets.

 

Imports of goods and services were also up in the second quarter, rising $11.8 billion, reflecting rising domestic demand from stronger U.S. growth.

 

The rise in the current account deficit put the imbalance in the second quarter at a level equivalent to 2.6 percent of the total economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, up from 2.4 percent in the first quarter. By comparison, the largest current account deficit in relation to GDP was in the fourth quarter of 2005 when the deficit totaled 6.3 percent of GDP.

 

Trump says America’s trade deficits have been caused by bad trade deals and abusive practices by China and other U.S. trading partners. He has pledged changes that he says will reduce the deficit and bring back American factory jobs.

 

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Popular US Toy Store Files for Bankruptcy

Toys ‘R’ Us, an iconic United States toy store, has filed for bankruptcy after struggling to compete with online retailers and racking up about $5 billion worth of debt.

In a statement Monday, the company said it is voluntarily seeking relief through the U.S. bankruptcy process, but that its international holdings would not be affected.

“The company’s approximately 1,600 Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us stores around the world, the vast majority of which are profitable, are continuing to operate as usual,” the statement reads. “Customers can also continue to shop for the toy and baby products they are looking for online.”

The company said it has begun the process of working with creditors to restructure the debt that its stores will remain open as the bankruptcy plays itself out.

The bankruptcy filing, CEO Dave Brandon said in a statement, “will provide us with greater financial flexibility to invest in our business … and strengthen our competitive position in an increasingly challenging and rapidly changing retail marketplace worldwide.”

The company said it is “well-stocked” for the upcoming holiday season, which has historically been a time when retailers can pad their bottom-line at the end of the year.

Toys ‘R’ Us has seen its popularity fall since the 1980s and ‘90s, when it began losing customers to big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target, and more recently with the advent of online shopping giants like Amazon.

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Jet Fuel Shortage Disrupts Travel To-From New Zealand’s Main Airport

As many as three dozen domestic and international flights at New Zealand’s Auckland Airport have been canceled Tuesday as it struggles to deal with a weeklong fuel shortage.

New Zealand’s main airport has lost 70 percent of its jet fuel supplies since a digger ruptured the main pipeline that carries fuel to the facility, forcing many air carriers to refuel at other airports in the Pacific region. The accident has also cut off supplies of high-grade gasoline at Auckland gas stations, although fuel supplier Z Energy says stocks of regular gasoline are still plentiful.

The pipeline’s owner says the repairs will not be completed until sometime next week.

Prime Minister Bill English says a naval tanker and military trucks have been assigned to transport fuel to ease the shortage, and has ordered all lawmakers and public employees to avoid any unnecessary air travel until the situation is resolved.

The fuel disruption has placed enormous pressure on English with Saturday’s national elections on the horizon. Jacinda Ardern, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, accused English of ignoring warnings about the pipeline’s vulnerability.

“One pipeline, one digger, and New Zealand grinds to a halt,” Ardern told reporters Tuesday. The 37-year-old politician has led the Labour Party from a certain electoral defeat to a tight race with English’s ruling National Party.

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Coffee Rivals Square Off in Italy Ahead of Starbucks Invasion

Two of Italy’s biggest coffee houses are reinforcing their brands with flagship cafes in Milan near the spot where U.S. rival Starbucks is set to begin operations next year.

Lavazza opens its first flagship cafe in the coffee-obsessed city on Tuesday, not far from the renovated 19th century palazzo where Starbucks will open its first Italian store, a ‘Reserve Roasteries’ outlet offering specialty blends and fine food.

Another top Italian brand, illycaffe, opened its own luxury cafe close to the Starbucks site in May, in a cozy courtyard in Milan’s most fashionable street.

Lavazza, which is opening near the city’s famous La Scala opera house, and illycaffe both deny their moves are a response to a global rival’s impending arrival, a first step in what may become a 200-store expansion.

Industry experts suspect it is no coincidence.

“Lavazza and illycaffe are the purists of coffee, they want to show they are there when Starbucks arrives,” says Jean-Paul Gaillard, who ran Nespresso for 10 years before founding the Ethical Coffee Company, a Swiss firm selling coffee pods.

Milan’s battle of the coffee palaces reflects global competition among major brands to capture a growing market for people who are prepared to pay a premium for quality espresso coffees in upmarket boutique cafes.

Nestle last week bought California-based Blue Bottle Coffee, one of the top boutique U.S. chains whose single-origin and cold-brewed coffees have proven popular with hipsters and have made inroads into the Starbucks franchise.

JAB Holdings, the investment vehicle of Germany’s Reimann family, has also been buying up independent start-ups selling premium brews around the world, from Europe to the Americas.

Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz hopes his company’s arrival in Milan, which he calls the home of the “perfect espresso”, and the inspiration for his Starbucks vision, will show discerning Italian coffee-lovers that “we got it right.”

“We are happy to hear about Lavazza’s growth,” said a Starbucks spokesman when asked to comment on Lavazza’s opening.

The U.S. chain will open its 2,400-square-meter cafe in late 2018, seeking to attract tourists, young Italians and the business crowd. If the Milan experiment succeeds, Starbucks and its local partner, Antonio Percassi, could open more than 200 stores in Italy over six years, according to Percassi.

Some analysts are skeptical that Starbucks can crack a market where espresso typically sells for just one euro ($1.20), a fraction of the price of a Starbucks coffee.

But the local brands are also gambling Italians will spend much more than one euro for a restaurant-style experience: illycaffe charges around three times that for coffee brought to the table.

Nestle, JAB Holdings and Starbucks are the three largest players in the global coffee market, followed by several mid-tier players including Lavazza and illycaffe.

“As the biggest get bigger, mid-tier companies are in a position where they must either expand or risk being left behind or swallowed up by their massive rivals,” said Matthew Barry, an analyst at market research firm Euromonitor International.

Lavazza’s chief executive and some of its family owners will cut a ribbon to launch their cafe, where customers can sip a blend of coffee specifically crafted for the store, taste gourmet food and buy single-origin coffees.

“The opening of the new flagship store has nothing to do with Starbucks,” a Lavazza spokeswoman said, adding that it was solely aimed at giving people an exclusive Lavazza experience.

The group is primarily a roaster and supplier to independent cafes and restaurants rather than a retailer and its new store is a way of boosting brand visibility on the high street.

Lavazza went on an acquisition spree three years ago, buying up three coffee suppliers in Europe and Canada, boosting sales to nearly 2 billion euros last year. It has overtaken Starbucks in supermarket sales, Euromonitor International says.

Illycaffe sells its coffee both through independent cafes and 230 mono-brand stores, some of them directly owned, in 43 countries, and says it wants to develop the network further, though not via major acquisitions.

“The new store wants to be a landmark for the global nomad in search for the real Italian lifestyle experience,” illycaffe said, without commenting on the arrival of Starbucks.

Milanese coffee society is divided on whether Starbucks can make its name at the high-end of Italian market, the world’s fourth-largest coffee consumer.

“I am curious about Starbucks, I will give it a try when it arrives in Milan,” office worker Giuseppe Gaggiano, 55, said at a small, upmarket independent cafe close to the Starbucks site.

However, another customer there, Alberto Paparusso, 31, said he wouldn’t abandon his usual cafe: “I don’t like Starbucks coffee. It’s not worth going there.”

($1 = 0.8371 euros)

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Economy Minister: Mexico Sees ‘Elephants in the Room’ in NAFTA Talks

Mexico’s economy minister said on Monday a successful retool of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would hinge on two or three complex areas that he called “elephants in the room,” just days before the next round of treaty talks in Canada.

Speaking at an event in Mexico City, Ildefonso Guajardo said four chapters in the agreement could be renegotiated in the third round of talks, due to take place Sept. 23-27 in Ottawa.

The areas cover smaller companies, transparency and food safety.

The “elephants,” such as the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico and rules of origin, will determine the success of the trade treaty’s renegotiation, he said. Rules of origin specify the percentage of components in a product that must be from the three NAFTA nations for it to qualify as duty free.

“This challenge of resolving two or three un-traditional topics at the trade negotiation tables is what is going to determine if, at the end of the day, we’re going to have an agreement or not,” Guajardo said in a Forbes Mexico talk.

In addition, Guajardo added that as many as 13 other chapters would also be tough to negotiate.

Asked by journalists if Mexico would accept national content rules that would require a portion of products to be made in the United States, the minister said the topic had yet to reach the negotiating table.

“We would analyze it, but I believe as of today there is no trade agreement that contains this type of clause,” he said.

Guajardo reiterated that Mexico was ready to modernize the agreement, which U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to scrap, and to find solutions with the United States and Canada.

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US Trade Envoy says WTO Dispute Settlement ‘Deficient’

The WTO dispute settlement system is “deficient” and has often ruled in favor of free trade that overlooks details of a trade agreement, U.S. trade envoy Robert Lighthizer said on Monday.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Lighthizer, a trade lawyer, made clear that the administration was poised to push for major changes to the global trade system during upcoming meetings of the Geneva-based trade body. WTO member countries will meet in Buenos Aires on Dec 10.

U.S. President Donald Trump called the World Trade Organization a “disaster” during his presidential campaign and his administration has sought to unilaterally go after countries like China that it thinks is breaking trade rules.

“There are a number of issues on which there is pretty broad agreement that the WTO dispute settlement understanding is deficient,” said Lighthizer, highlighting problems with WTO staffing and transparency.

“The United States sees numerous examples where the dispute settlement process over the years has really diminished what we’ve bargained for or imposed obligations that we do not believe we agree to,” he said.

He added: “There have been a lot of cases in the trade remedies laws where in my opinion the decisions are really indefensible.”

Since its launch in 1995 the WTO has become the main venue for resolving trade disputes between countries. The Trump administration has begun to launch trade investigations under statutes seldom used in the WTO era, including a “Section 301” probe of China’s intellectual property practices.

Lighthizer did not threaten a U.S. withdrawal from the WTO, but emphasized his own dissatisfaction with some of its rulings.

In a letter in March, the Trump administration made clear that U.S. law supersedes WTO rules — a view that could be invoked should Congress adopt policies that are later challenged by other member countries as violating WTO rules.

“We’ve had tax laws struck down, we’ve had other provisions where the WTO has taken…the decision they were going to strike down something they thought shouldn’t happen, rather than

looking at the agreement as a contract,” he said.

Lighthizer emphasized that the Trump administration was reviewing all trade agreements and would seek to renegotiate those that did not benefit U.S. workers and businesses.

“I believe, and I think the president believes, that we must be proactive,” he said, “We must demand reciprocity in home and international markets. So expect change, expect new approaches and expect action.”

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Google Offers to Display Rival Sites Via Auction – Sources

Alphabet unit Google has offered to display rival comparison shopping sites via an auction as part of an EU compliance order following a landmark fine for favoring its own service, four people familiar with

the matter said on Monday.

The proposal, submitted to the European Commission on August 29 following a record 2.4-billion-euro ($2.87 billion) penalty, would allow competitors to bid for any spot in its shopping section known as Product Listing Ads, the people said.

Three years ago, the world’s most popular internet search engine made a similar offer in an attempt to settle a long-running investigation by the European Commission and stave off a fine. The offer was ultimately rejected following negative feedback from rivals and discord within the EU executive.

Under this earlier proposal, Google had reserved the first two places for its own ads. The new offer would also see Google set a floor price with its own bids minus operating costs. The company has sought feedback from competitors.

The offer does not address the issues set out by EU competition regulators, the people said. The Commission had ordered Google to treat rivals and its own service equally.

“This is worse than the commitments,” one of the people said, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The Commission was not immediately available for comment.

Google did not respond to a request for comment. Google has until September 28 to stop its anti-competitive practices or its parent company Alphabet could be fined up to 5 percent of its average daily worldwide turnover.

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Harvey Recovery Czar Faces Limits to ‘Future-proofing’ Texas

The man tasked with overseeing Texas’ Hurricane Harvey rebuilding efforts sees his job as “future-proofing” before the next disaster, but he isn’t empowered on his own to reshape flood-prone Houston or the state’s vulnerable coastline, which has been walloped by three major hurricanes since 2006.

 

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp will face the same political and bureaucratic challenges that have long stalled meaningful improvements in storm protections, and some doubt that even Harvey’s record flooding and huge price tag will bring about real change.

 

“It doesn’t give me very much confidence at all,” Houston resident Steve Sacks said of the prospects that the government will get the recovery right. Sacks’s home has flooded four times since 2012, and even before Harvey’s floodwaters near the rooftops in his Meyerland neighborhood, he was frustrated by delays and what he believes is the mismanagement of a government project to elevate homes in the city.

 

“It’s all spur of the moment and not thought out. It’s just, ‘Let’s go ahead and react now to make it look good,”’ said the 46-year-old Sacks.

 

Sharp, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, follows a line of fix-it men charged with picking up the pieces following major storms in recent years, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. He has won early bipartisan praise as a practical choice to preside over the efforts to recover from Harvey, which killed more than 70 people and damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 homes.

Sharp is the rare Democrat with sustained relevance in Republican-controlled Texas. He is former lawmaker and state comptroller who was U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s college roommate at Texas A&M, which Sharp has led since 2011 and will continue to lead while overseeing the rebuilding effort. Abbott joked that he’s now getting calls, texts and emails from Sharp “up to and sometimes well after midnight.”

 

Sharp hasn’t laid out a long-term rebuilding plan yet and most of his public comments so far have been aimed at reassuring hard-hit communities that he won’t be a bureaucratic cog. But he has indicated that he’s thinking about the next disaster, saying “one of the guiding principles will be to future-proof what is being rebuilt so as to mitigate future risks as much as possible.”

 

Abbott spokesman John Wittman said Sharp will be involved in developing a rebuilding plan to “minimize the impact” of future natural disasters and will advocate for funding.

 

But Sharp is constrained in how far he can go in reimagining a more resilient Texas coast. His mandate only pertains to public infrastructure, and not housing, which experts say is crucial to any comprehensive mitigation plan, including buying out particularly flood-prone neighborhoods.

Sharp’s mandate also doesn’t mention zoning changes — Houston is the largest U.S. city with no zoning laws — or how much money the state will put up to deliver on his eventual recommendations. Abbott, who has estimated that the recovery could cost more than $150 billion, has suggested the state will dip into its $10 billion rainy day fund, but not by how much.

 

“When you’re dealing with a limited amount of funds, there are always trade-offs that have to be made,” said Marc Williams, deputy executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. His agency will work closely with Sharp’s commission, which could recommend elevating certain roads that flooded during Harvey.

 

All rebuilding czars are eventually tested by political and financial realities. Donald Powell, who left his role as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to be the federal coordinator of Gulf Coast recovery efforts after Katrina, expressed frustration over not being able to speed up the rebuilding.

 

Marc Ferzan, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to oversee New Jersey’s recovery after Sandy, said his biggest struggle was jumping from agency to agency to get funding.

 

“Whether it’s Katrina or Sandy or any major event you’re going to hear the same story. It’s just the way disaster aid is administered. It’s a slow, cumbersome process that is too bureaucratic to respond to the urgency of the situation,” he said.

 

After Hurricane Andrew caused $26 billion in damage to the Miami area in 1992, Florida installed the most stringent building codes in the country. Since 2001, structures throughout the state must be built to withstand winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph), and new codes also require shatterproof windows, fortified roofs and reinforced concrete pillars, among other things.

 

Sam Brody, an environmental planning expert and director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University, said drainage is among the “low-hanging fruit” that could be addressed immediately to begin future-proofing the coast for the next major storm. But he said the funds and the political determination must be solved.

 

“In terms of will, there hasn’t been the will in the past. Maybe this is a wake-up call, and maybe with his leadership and personality, he can change the way we can think and act,” Brody said of Sharp.

This week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner endorsed long-stalled plans for a sweeping reservoir project that might have spared parts of the city from Harvey’s flooding. He also has joined some top Texas Republicans in urging Congress to approve billions to build a coastal seawall that could protect Houston and other areas from deadly storm surges that Harvey didn’t unleash but that future storms could.

 

Turner said Houston “cannot talk about rebuilding” if “we do not build the coastal spine.”

 

How active the federal government will be in making the Texas coast more resilient is unclear. Following Sandy, the Obama administration commissioned a design competition that ultimately resulted in nearly $1 billion in federal funding to kickstart projects that include turning the low-lying Meadowlands into a flood-protected public park and installing bulkheads and seawalls along the Hudson River.

 

The project, known as Rebuild by Design, was just a one-time initiative. And even when things go right, such enormous undertakings are slow to materialize: the first projects aren’t scheduled to break ground until 2019, seven years after Sandy.

 

“You are receptive when you feel like something ripped the heart out of your city,” said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design. “Everyone is going to need to say, ‘We’ve had enough.”’

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Irma’s Damage a Reminder of Florida Economy’s Vulnerability

Florida’s economy has long thrived on one import above all: People.

 

Until Irma struck this month, the state was adding nearly 1,000 residents a day – 333,471 in the past year, akin to absorbing a city the size of St. Louis or Pittsburgh. Every jobseeker, retiree or new birth, along with billions spent by tourists, helped fuel Florida’s propulsive growth and economic gains.

 

Yet Hurricane Irma’s destructive floodwaters renewed fears about how to manage the state’s population boom as the risks of climate change intensify. Rising sea levels and spreading flood plains have magnified the vulnerabilities for the legions of people who continue to move to Florida and the state economy they have sustained.

 

Florida faces an urgent need to adapt to the environmental changes, said Jesse Keenan, a lecturer at Harvard University who researches the effects of rising sea levels on cities.

“A lot is going to change in the next 30 years – this is just the beginning,” Keenan said.

 

People might need to live further inland, Keenan said, and employers might have to relocate to higher ground, with the resulting competition between offices and housing driving up land prices. It would become harder to adequately insure houses built along canals. Traffic delays could worsen across parts of Florida as more roads flood. Developers might shift away from sprawling suburban tracts toward denser urban pockets that are better equipped to manage floods.

 

At the same time, the belief remains firm among some developers and economists that for all the threats from rising water levels, the state’s population influx will continue with scarcely any interruption. The allure of lower taxes and easier living, the thinking goes, should keep drawing a flow of residents and vacationers.

 

“Irma doesn’t change the fact that there is no state income tax,” said Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness. “In a few months, when the first Alberta Clipper starts blowing down cold weather across the United States and it’s 80 degrees and sunny down here, the memories of Irma will be blown away.”

Certainly, the influx of people has been testament to that appeal. After slowing when the housing bubble burst in 2007, the population has marched steadily upward. The number of Floridians, now above 20 million, is projected to hit 24 million by 2030, with more than half the increase coming from retiring baby boomers. Many of them first experienced Florida as tourists. More than 112 million people visited the state last year – a 33 percent increase over the past decade.

 

All of which means that compared with Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago, Irma struck a far more densely packed state. It is also one marked by greater extremes of wealth and poverty. Luxury condo towers populated by the global elite now crowd the Miami skyline. But the metro area is also cursed by the worst rental housing affordability in the United States, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

 

Flooding washed away mobile home parks in the Florida Keys where lower-income workers live. As a magnet for jobs at restaurants, hotels and other parts of the services sector, the state attracts workers with relatively low incomes who can’t pay higher rents if flooding eliminates a chunk of the housing stock.

 

Still, Citigroup estimated that damages were just $50 billion – well below initial estimates – in part because some homes were better equipped to weather the wind and rain than during Andrew.

Storms can cause population loss in the near term. A year after Andrew hit in 1992, Miami-Dade County lost 31,000 residents. Many appear to have moved to Broward and Palm Beach counties, where the risks of flooding were lower, a pattern that could be repeated after Irma.

Given the brisk pace of construction and population growth, Florida could endure a heavy economic blow in coming decades if it fails to reduce the risks from climate change. Homes that were too close to eroding beaches could become effectively worthless. Those along canals that flood could become too costly to rebuild. The state’s economic fuel – tourism and residential development – could dissipate.

 

Sean Becketti, chief economist at Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant, warned in an analysis last year that rising sea levels and widening flood plains “appear likely to destroy billions of dollars in property and to displace millions of people.”

 

“The economic losses and social disruption,” Becketti added, “may happen gradually, but they are likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession.”

 

Federal taxpayers might oppose bailing out these homeowners, Becketti said, mortgage lenders could absorb heavy losses and employers might choose to move to safer parts of the country – and take their jobs with them.

 

Still, for now at least, the heads of several major Florida real estate companies say they expect people to keep flocking to Florida despite the increasing risks.

 

Budge Huskey, president of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty, drove around Naples, Florida, and said he observed “very little damage” to homes constructed under new building codes after Hurricane Andrew. These houses had wind-resistant hurricane windows and stronger roofs.

 

“Let’s face it, people work their whole lives to retire to Florida – that’s where they want to be,” Huskey said.

 

Jay Parker, CEO of Douglas Elliman’s Florida brokerage, monitored Irma from an Atlanta hotel. He was gratified that Florida escaped much of the expected destruction. And he said would-be buyers, sniffing out potential bargains, were approaching him at the hotel about cut-rate deals on condos in the storm’s wake.

 

“If anything,” Parker said, “this might create some short-term buying sprees.”

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Brazil’s Odebrecht Quits Argentine Subway Construction Project

Scandal-hit Brazilian construction company Odebrecht said on Sunday it has sold its 33 percent stake in a massive subway project in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, but vowed to keep working in the country.

Odebrecht is involved in a sprawling corruption saga and has already paid $3.5 billion in settlements in the United States, Brazil and Switzerland, embroiling politicians across Latin America.

“Present for 30 continuous years, Odebrecht plans to continue contributing to the development of Argentina in an ethical, integral and transparent manner,” the construction company said in a statement emailed to Reuters.

In July the Argentine justice system banned Odebrecht from bidding on new projects in the country a period of one year.