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Bitcoin Hits Record High After Smashing Through $8,000 for First Time

Bitcoin hit a new record high on Monday after smashing through the $8,000 level for the first time over the weekend, marking an almost 50 percent climb in just eight days.

The new high came after leading U.S. payments company Square Inc. said late last week that it had started allowing select customers to buy and sell bitcoins on its Cash app.

Bitcoin traded as high as $8,197.81 on the Luxembourg-based Bitstamp exchange, up over 2 percent on the day and around 48 percent up since dipping to $5,555 on Nov. 12.

An eye-watering eightfold increase in the value of the volatile cryptocurrency since the start of the year has led to multiple warnings that the market is in a bubble, and institutional investors are broadly staying away.

Retail investors, however, as well as some hedge funds and family offices, are piling into the market. The “market cap” of all cryptocurrencies hit an all-time high of over $242 billion on Monday, according to trade website Coinmarketcap.

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White House: Opioid Crisis Cost US Economy $504 Billion in 2015

Opioid drug abuse, which has ravaged parts of the United States in recent years, cost the economy as much as $504 billion in 2015, White House economists said in a report made public on Sunday.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) said the toll from the opioid crisis represented 2.8 percent of gross domestic product that year.

President Donald Trump last month declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. While Republican lawmakers said that was an important step in fighting opioid abuse, some critics, including Democrats, said the move was meaningless without additional funding.

The report could be used by the Trump White House to urge Republicans in Congress – who historically have opposed increasing government spending – to provide more funding for fighting the opioid crisis by arguing that the economic losses far outweigh the cost of additional government funding.

Using a combination of statistical models, the CEA said the lost economic output stemming from 33,000 opioid-related deaths in 2015 could be between $221 billion and $431 billion, depending on the methodology used.

In addition, the report looked at the cost of non-fatal opioid usage, estimating a total of $72 billion for 2.4 million people with opioid addictions in 2015. Those costs included medical treatment, criminal justice system expenses and the decreased economic productivity of addicts.

The CEA said its estimate was larger than those of some prior studies because it took a broad look at the value of lives lost to overdoses. The CEA also said its methodology incorporated an adjustment to reflect the fact that opioids were underreported on death certificates.

“The crisis has worsened, especially in terms of overdose deaths which have doubled in the past ten years,” the CEA said.

“While previous studies have focused exclusively on prescription opioids, we consider illicit opioids including heroin as well.”

Opioids, primarily prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, are fueling the drug overdoses. More than 100 Americans die daily from related overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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With Little Movement, NAFTA Talks Said to Run Risk of Stalemate

Talks to update the North American Free Trade Agreement appeared to be in danger of grinding toward a stalemate amid complaints of U.S. negotiators’ inflexibility, people familiar with the process said on Sunday.

The United States, Canada and Mexico are holding the fifth of seven planned rounds of talks to modernize NAFTA, which U.S. President Donald Trump blames for job losses and big trade deficits for his country.

Time is running short to reach a deal before the March 2018 start of Mexico’s presidential elections, and lack of progress in the current round could put the schedule at risk.

“The talks are really not going anywhere,” Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, the largest Canadian private-sector union, told reporters after meeting with Canada’s chief negotiator on Sunday. “As long as the United States is taking the position they are, this is a colossal waste of time,” said Dias, who is advising the government and regularly meets the Canadian team.

Hanging over the negotiations is the very real threat that Trump could make good on a threat to scrap NAFTA.

Canada and Mexico object to a number of demands the U.S. side unveiled during the fourth round last month, including for a five-year sunset clause that would force frequent renegotiation of the trade pact, far more stringent automotive content rules and radical changes to dispute settlement mechanisms.

Calls for greater US flexibility

“Our internal view as of this morning is that if any progress is to be made, the United States needs to show some flexibility and a willingness to do a deal,” said a Canadian source with knowledge of the talks.

“We are seeing no signs of flexibility now,” added the source, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation. However, a NAFTA country official familiar with the talks said Canada had not yet submitted any counterproposals to the U.S. demands.

Dias said the United States was showing some signs of flexibility over its sunset clause proposal after Mexican officials floated a plan for a “rigorous evaluation” of the trade pact, but without an automatic expiration.

U.S. negotiating objectives that were updated on Friday appeared to accommodate the Mexican proposal, saying the revised NAFTA should “provide a mechanism for ensuring that the Parties assess the benefits of the Agreement on a periodic basis.”

Canada and Mexico are also unhappy about U.S. demands that half the content of North American-built autos come from the United States, coupled with a much higher 85 percent North American content threshold. Officials are due to discuss the issue from Sunday through the end of the fifth round on Tuesday, Flavio Volpe, president of the Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said there was little chance of making substantial progress on autos in Mexico City, as the U.S. demands were still not fully understood.

“I don’t expect a heavy negotiation here,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the talks.

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Britain to Submit ‘Brexit Bill’ Proposal Before December EU Meeting

Britain will submit its proposals on how to settle its financial obligations to the European Union before an EU Council meeting next month, finance minister Philip Hammond said on Sunday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was told on Friday that there was more work to be done to unlock Brexit talks, as the European Union repeated an early December deadline for her to move on the divorce bill.

“We will make our proposals to the European Union in time for the council,” Hammond told the BBC.

Last week, May met fellow leaders on the sidelines of an EU summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, to try to break the deadlock over how much Britain will pay on leaving the bloc in 16 months.

 

She signaled again that she would increase an initial offer that is estimated at some 20 billion euros ($24 billion), about a third of what Brussels wants.

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European Cities Battle Fiercely for Top Agencies Leaving UK

Brexit is still well over year away but two European cities on Monday will already be celebrating Britain’s departure from the European Union.

 

Two major EU agencies now in London — the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority — must move to a new EU city because Britain is leaving the bloc. The two prizes are being hotly fought over by most of the EU’s other 27 nations.

 

Despite all the rigid rules and conditions the bloc imposed to try to make it a fair, objective decision, the process has turned into a deeply political beauty contest — part Olympic host city bidding, part Eurovision Song Contest.

 

It will culminate in a secret vote Monday at EU headquarters in Brussels that some say could be tainted by vote trading.

 

The move involves tens of millions in annual funding, about 1,000 top jobs with many more indirectly linked, prestige around the world and plenty of bragging rights for whichever leader can bring home the agencies.

 

“I will throw my full weight behind this,” French President Emmanuel Macron said when he visited Lille, which is seeking to host the EMA once Britain leaves in the EU in March 2019. “Now is the final rush.”

 

At an EU summit Friday in Goteborg, Sweden, leaders were lobbying each other to get support for their bids.

 

The EMA is responsible for the scientific evaluation, supervision and safety monitoring of medicines in the EU. It has around 890 staff and hosts more than 500 scientific meetings every year, attracting about 36,000 experts.

 

The EBA, which has around 180 staff, monitors the regulation and supervision of Europe’s banking sector.

 

With bids coming in from everywhere — from the newest member states to the EU’s founding nations — who gets what agency will also give an indication of EU’s future outlook.

 

The EU was created as club of six founding nations some 60 years ago, so it’s logical that a great many key EU institutions are still in nations like Germany, France and Belgium. But as the bloc kept expanded east and south into the 21st century, these new member states see a prime opportunity now to claim one of these cherished EU headquarters, which cover everything from food safety to judicial cooperation to fisheries policy.

 

Romania and Bulgaria were the last to join the EU in 2007 and have no headquarters. Both now want the EMA — as does the tiny island nation of Malta.

 

“We deserve this. Because as we all know, Romania is an EU member with rights and obligations equal with all the rest of the member states,” said Rodica Nassar of Romania’s Healthcare Ministry.

 

But personnel at the EMA and EBA are highly skilled professionals, and many could be reluctant to move their careers and families from London to less prestigious locations.

 

“You have to imagine, for example, for the banking authority, which relies on basically 200 very high-level experts in banking regulatory matters to move to another place,” said Karel Lannoo of the CEPS think tank. “First of all, to motivate these people to move elsewhere. And then if you don’t manage to motivate these people, to find competent experts in another city.”

 

As the vote nears, Milan and Bratislava are the favorites to win the EMA, with Frankfurt, and perhaps Dublin, leading the way for the EBA.

 

 

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Report: No Fireworks — or Progress — at NAFTA Talks

Negotiators at high stakes talks to update NAFTA have so far kept their tempers but are not making much progress on tough U.S. demands that could sink the 1994 trade pact, a well-placed source said Saturday.

Officials from the United States, Canada and Mexico are meeting in Mexico City for the fifth of seven planned rounds to update the North American Free Trade Agreement, which U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from.

Time is running short to seal a deal by the deadline of end-March 2018. Officials say next year’s Mexican presidential election means talks after that date will not be possible.

US demands

The U.S. administration has made a series of demands that the other members say are unacceptable, such as a five-year sunset clause and tightening so-called rules of origin to boost the North American content of autos to 85 percent from the current 62.5 percent.

“It is very slow moving but there are no fireworks,” said a Canadian source with knowledge of the talks, adding there had “not been much conversation at all” on the more contentious U.S. proposals.

Officials have so far discussed other issues such as labor, gender, intellectual property, energy and telecommunications but it is too soon to say whether there will be any breakthroughs during this round, added the source. The talks are due to end next Tuesday.

Though the mood in the fifth round has been calmer than the tense scenes seen last month during the fourth round in Arlington, Virginia, the negotiations are now beyond the halfway point of an initial schedule with few clear signs of process.

‘Things Mexico won’t accept’

Mexican officials say they hope chapters on telecommunications and e-commerce will be concluded in the fifth round, but there has been no indication of this yet.

Although negotiators are scheduled to discuss rules of origin every day starting Saturday, the source said detailed talks on boosting North American content would not be held before the end of the round.

Canada and Mexico say the new rules of origin are unworkable and would damage the highly integrated auto industry.

“I hope the United States understands there are things … that Mexico won’t accept, and (I hope) the negotiating process becomes more rational,” Moises Kalach, head of the international negotiating arm of Mexico’s CCE business lobby, told Reuters late on Friday.

Congressional action

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office on Friday revised its official objectives to conform to demands that it currently has on the negotiating table.

The move prompted U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, to remove a “hold” he had put in place to block the confirmation of two Trump administration nominees for deputy USTR positions, a Wyden aide said.

Wyden complained the trade office had been keeping members of Congress “in the dark” about its tactics and was not in compliance with U.S. trade negotiating laws.

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Post-Harvey Houston: Years Until Recovery, Plenty of Costs Unknown

When the heaviest rain of tropical storm Harvey had passed, Kathryn Clark’s west Houston neighborhood had escaped the worst. Then the dams were opened — a decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prevent upstream flooding and potential dam failures by releasing water into Buffalo Bayou, just a few hundred feet from the end of Clark’s street.

When she and her husband returned to survey the damage later that week, they entered their two-story home by kayak in roughly three feet of water. In the kitchen, a snake slithered past.

Nothing like that had happened in the nearly 11 years the Clarks have lived there; it got Kathryn thinking about their long-term plans, including whether to rebuild.

“What if they decide to open the dams again?” she asked. “But if you don’t rebuild, you just walk away, and that is a big loss.”

The Clarks ultimately opted to reconstruct, a process that will take another half-year before they can move back in. Elsewhere in the city, the waiting will be longer.

​A sprawling concrete jungle

In early November, Texas Governor Greg Abbott told reporters that Texas will need more than $61 billion in federal aid, to help fund a reconstruction plan that he said would curtail damage from future coastal storms. However, he added, there will be more requests: “This is not a closed book.”

Hurricane Harvey, the costliest storm in U.S. history, will affect Houston for months, and years. Apart from tens of thousands of ongoing home rebuilding projects, civil construction is in the evaluation phase.

“With Katrina, it actually took them 12 years before FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] made their final payment to the city of New Orleans,” said Jeff Nielsen, executive vice president of the Houston Contractors Association. “That’s how long it takes to really test and figure out where all the repairs and where all the damage occurred.”

Houston covers a landmass of 1,600 square kilometers, compared to New Orleans’ 900, and is much more densely populated. The impermeable concrete jungle experienced major runoff during the storm, and that translates to high civil construction costs in roads, bridges, water, sewage and utility lines that are difficult to determine.

WATCH: Post-Harvey Houston: Years Until Recovery, Unknown Costs

Nielsen explains to VOA the immensity of the task. 

“You may be driving down the road one day and, all of a sudden — boom — there is a 10-foot sinkhole underneath the road because there is a water line or a sewer line or a storm sewer line that runs underneath that road.

“There is no way to tell that that’s happening without going through and testing each and every line,” Nielsen said.

​Waiting, waiting

Rob Hellyer, owner of Premier Remodeling & Construction, says Houston has seen an uptick in inquiries for both flood and nonflood-related projects — good for business, but a challenge for clients.

“A lot of those people come to the realization that ‘If we want to get our project done in the next two or three years, we better get somebody lined up quick,’” Hellyer told VOA.

But industrywide, much of the workforce is dealing with flooding issues of their own, while simultaneously attempting to earn a living.

“It really has disbursed that labor pool that we have been using for all these years,” Hellyer said.

Labor shortages in construction-related jobs have long been a challenge despite competitive wages, according to Nielsen, who describes his field — civil construction — as less-than-glamorous.

“Outside, it’s hot. What could be more fun than pouring hot asphalt on a road?” he asked.

Networking barriers

With construction costs up and waiting periods long, the hands-on rebuilding effort is typically attractive for some lower-wage immigrant communities.

Among the city’s sizable Vietnamese population, though, that’s not exactly the case, said Jannette Diep, executive director of Boat People SOS Houston office (BPSOS), a community organization serving the area’s diaspora population.

“[Vietnamese construction workers] face not only a language barrier but that networking piece, because they’re not intertwined with a lot of the rules and regulations,” Diep said. “‘Well, how do I do the bid; what’s the process?’”

Overwhelmed with paperwork and often discouraged by limited communication skills in English, Diep says many within the industry opt to work only from within their own communities, despite more widespread opportunities across Greater Houston.

The same barriers apply to the Asian diaspora’s individual post-recovery efforts. BPSOS-Houston, according to Diep, remains focused on short-term needs — food, clothing, cleaning supplies — and expects the longer-term recovery to take two to three years, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods.

Love thy neighbor

Loc Ngo, a mother of seven and grandmother from Vietnam, has lived in Houston for 40 years, but speaks little English. In Fatima Village, a tightly knit single-street community of mobile homes — comprising 33 Vietnamese families — she hardly has to.

“They came to fix the home and it cost $11,000, but they’re not finished yet,” she explained, through her son’s translation. “The washer, dryer and refrigerator — I still haven’t bought them yet, and two beds!”

Across the street, the three-generation Le family levels heaps of dirt across a barren lot that’s lined by spare pipes and cinderblocks. They plan to install a new mobile home.

At the front end of the road is the village’s single-story church, baby blue and white, like the sky — the site of services, weddings, funerals and community gatherings.

Victor Ngo, a hardwood floor installer, typically organizes church events. But for now, his attention is turned to completing reconstruction of the altar and securing donations to replace 30 ruined benches.

“At first I had to spend two months to fix up my house, and now I finished my house, and I [have started] to fix up this church,” Ngo said. “So basically, I don’t go out there to work and make money. Not yet.”

In the village, made up largely of elders, Ngo stresses the importance of staying close to home to help with rebuilding, translation, and paperwork, at least for a while longer.

“We stick together as a community to survive,” he said.

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Some Republicans Nervous NAFTA Talks Could Fail

Pro-trade Republicans in the U.S. Congress are growing worried that U.S. President Donald Trump may try to quit the NAFTA free trade deal entirely rather than negotiate a compromise that preserves its core benefits.

As a fifth round of talks to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement kicked off in Mexico on Friday, several Republicans interviewed by Reuters expressed concerns that tough U.S. demands, including a five-year sunset clause and a U.S.-specific content rule, will sink the talks and lead to the deal’s collapse.

Business groups have warned of dire economic consequences, including millions of jobs lost as Mexican and Canadian tariffs snap back to their early 1990s levels.

“I think the administration is playing a pretty dangerous game with this sunset provision,” said Representative Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from eastern Pennsylvania.

He said putting NAFTA under threat of extinction every five years would make it difficult for companies in his district, ranging from chocolate giant Hershey Co to small family owned manufacturing firms, to invest in supply chains and manage global operations.

Hershey operates candy plants in Monterrey and Guadalajara, Mexico.

Lawmakers’ letter

Nearly 75 House of Representatives members signed a letter this week opposing U.S. proposals on automotive rules of origin, which would require 50 percent U.S. content in NAFTA-built vehicles and 85 percent regional content.

They warned that this would “eliminate the competitive advantages” that NAFTA brings to U.S. automakers or lead to a collapse of the trade pact.

Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who has long been a supporter of free trade deals, said he disagreed with the Trump approach of “trying to beat someone” in the NAFTA talks. Texas is the largest U.S. exporting state with nearly half of its $231 billion in exports last year headed to Mexico and Canada, according to Commerce Department data.

“We need to offer Mexico a fair deal. If we want them to take our cattle, we need to take their avocados,” Sessions said.

Still, congressional apprehension about Trump’s stance is far from unanimous. The signers were largely Republicans, with no Democrats from auto-intensive states such as Michigan and Ohio signing.

Democratic support

Some pro-labor Democrats have actually expressed support for U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s tough approach.

“Some of those demands are in tune,” said Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee.

“We don’t want to blow it up, Republicans don’t want to blow it up. But we want substantial changes in the labor, the environmental, the currency, on how you come to an agreement when there’s a dispute, and on problems of origin.”

Farm state Republicans are especially concerned that a collapse of NAFTA would lead to the loss of crucial export markets in Mexico and Canada for corn, beef and other products.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said Lighthizer in a recent meeting agreed that a withdrawal from NAFTA would be hard on U.S. agriculture, which has largely benefited from the trade pact.

U.S. agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico quintupled to about $41 billion in 2016 from about $9 billion in 1993, the year before NAFTA went into effect, according to U.S. Commerce Department data.

Grassley said, however, that Lighthizer’s approach was “taking everybody to the brink on these talks.”

Other Republicans are taking a wait-and-see approach to the talks.

Representative Frank Lucas of Oklahoma said he was willing to give Trump “the benefit of the doubt” on NAFTA talks, adding that farmers and ranchers in his rural district were strong Trump supporters in the 2016 election.

“The president’s a practical fellow. When push comes to shove, he understands the base,” Lucas said.

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Unions Take NAFTA Wage Fight to Mexican Senate

The head of Canada’s biggest private-sector union headed to Mexico’s Senate on Friday, promising to fight at the NAFTA trade pact talks for improved Mexican wages and free collective bargaining as a way of benefiting workers across North America.

The issue of tougher labor standards has emerged as a key sticking point in the talks to update the North American Free Trade Agreement, and has brought disparate groups of workers from across the region closer to U.S. populists.

“There will not be an agreement” until the Mexican team agrees to free collective bargaining, the elimination of so-called yellow unions that are dominated by employers, and fair wages for Mexican workers, Unifor President Jerry Dias said.

The event held in a side chamber of the Senate was organized by the umbrella organization Better Without Free Trade Agreements, which represents dozens of social organizations and unions.

Dias argued that low wages have not only hurt Mexican workers but have also prompted manufacturing jobs in Canada and the United States to leave for Mexico.

By including much tougher labor standards in an updated NAFTA, the issue could be dealt with head on, he said. “When you start talking about low wages, we can deal with that under the dispute mechanism as an unfair subsidy.”

The fifth round of talks NAFTA is being held in the upscale Camino Real hotel in Mexico City.

“What Mexico offers in this negotiation and to the rest of the world is cheap labor. That’s what Mexico puts on the table and how it presents itself as an attractive place for investments,” Senator Mario Delgado of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution told Reuters.

“It is a shame and it is unsustainable for Mexico. … Our salary policy is putting at risk the existence of the treaty,” said Delgado.

Mexican business leaders argue that integrating Mexico into North American supply chains has made the entire region more competitive. Recent studies have shown, however, that wages in Mexico have experienced significant downward pressure.

Given Mexico’s higher inflation rates, wages are now lower there in real terms than when NAFTA took effect, according to a report published in August by credit rating agency Moody’s.

While formally employed workers earn significantly more, the statutory minimum wage is a mere 80 pesos ($4.23) a day.