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US Trade Chief: WTO Losing Focus, Must Rethink Development

U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade chief said on Monday that the World Trade Organization is losing its focus on trade negotiations in favor of litigation and needed to rethink how it defines developing economies.

Setting a combative tone at the start of the WTO’s 11th ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer complained that too many countries were not following WTO rules and too many wealthier members had been given unfair exemptions as developing countries.

“We need to clarify our understanding of development within the WTO. We cannot sustain a situation in which new rules can only apply to a few and that others will be given a pass in the name of self-proclaimed development status,” Lighthizer told the conference’s opening session.

Lighthizer said it was impossible to negotiate new WTO rules when many of the current ones were not being followed, and added that too many members viewed exemptions from WTO rules as a path to faster growth.

In a thinly veiled swipe at China’s trade practices, Lighthizer said the United States was leading negotiations to “correct the sad performance of many members in notification and transparency.”

He also said Washington wanted the WTO to help make markets operate more efficiently, addressing new challenges such as chronic industrial overcapacity and the influence of state-owned  nterprises.

Lighthizer, who has long criticized the WTO’s dispute settlement system, has emerged as the leading voice behind the Trump administration’s “America First” trade agenda. That includes stepped up trade enforcement actions, along with several studies that could lead to broad new tariffs on steel and aluminum, as well as potential retaliation against China’s intellectual property practices. Some of these could run afoul of WTO rules.

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Russia Urges India to Back China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Russia threw its weight behind China’s massive Belt and Road plan to build trade and transport links across Asia and beyond, suggesting to India on Monday that it find a way to work with Beijing on the signature project.

India is strongly opposed to an economic corridor that China is building in Pakistan that runs through disputed Kashmir as part of the Belt and Road initiative.

India was the only country that stayed away from a May summit hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping to promote the plan to build railways, ports and power grids in a modern-day recreation of the Silk Road.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said New Delhi should not let political problems deter it from joining the project, involving billions of dollars of investment, and benefiting from it.

Lavrov was speaking in the Indian capital after a three-way meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj at which, he said, India’s reservations over the Chinese project were discussed.

“I know India has problems, we discussed it today, with the concept of One Belt and One Road, but the specific problem in this regard should not make everything else conditional to resolving political issues,” he said.

Russia, all the countries in central Asia, and European nations had signed up to the Chinese project to boost economic cooperation, he said.

“Those are the facts,” he said. “India, I am 100 percent convinced, has enough very smart diplomats and politicians to find a way which would allow you to benefit from this process.”

The comments by Russia, India’s former Cold War ally, reflected the differences within the trilateral grouping formed 15 years ago to challenge U.S.-led dominance of global affairs.

But substantial differences between India and China, mainly over long-standing border disputes, have snuffed out prospects of any real cooperation among the three.

India, in addition, has drawn closer to the United States in recent years, buying weapons worth billions of dollars to replace its largely Soviet-origin military.

Swaraj said the three countries had very productive talks on economic issues and the fight against terrorism.

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Will Misconduct Scandals Make Men Wary of Women at Work?

Some women, and men, worry the same climate that’s emboldening women to speak up about sexual misconduct could backfire by making some men wary of female colleagues.

Forget private meetings and get-to-know-you dinners. Beware of banter. Think twice before a high-ranking man mentors a young female staffer.

“I have already heard the rumblings of a backlash: ‘This is why you shouldn’t hire women,’” Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a recent post .

“So much good is happening to fix workplaces right now. Let’s make sure it does not have the unintended consequence of holding women back,” said Sandberg, author of the working women’s manifesto “Lean In.”

Ana Quincoces, a Miami-based attorney and entrepreneur who owns her own food line, says her business and its success involves working mostly with men, and sales and other activities are often concluded over lunch or drinks. Those opportunities, she says, are dwindling, because many of the men she knows through her business “are terrified.”

“There’s a feeling of this wall that wasn’t there that is suddenly up because they don’t know what’s appropriate anymore — it’s disconcerting,” Quincoces said. “I feel that they’re more careful, more formal in their relationships with co-workers. And I can’t say I blame them, because what’s happened is pervasive. Every day there’s a new accusation.”

She said many of the men she knows are now avoiding one-on-one social occasions that were normal in the past.

“This is going to trickle down into all industries. … It’s going to become the new normal,” Quincoces said. “It’s a good thing because women are not afraid anymore, but on the other side, it’s a slippery slope.”

Americans were already edgy about male-female encounters at work: A New York Times/Morning Consult poll of 5,300 men and women last spring found almost two-thirds thought workers should be extra careful around opposite-sex colleagues, and around a quarter thought private work meetings between men and women were inappropriate.

But in a season of outcry over sexual misconduct, some men are suddenly wondering whether they can compliment a female colleague or ask about her weekend. Even a now-former female adviser to the head of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party suggested on Facebook that men would stop talking to women altogether because of what she portrayed as overblown sexual misconduct claims.

Certain managers are considering whether to make sure they’re never alone with a staffer, despite the complications of adding a third person in situations like performance reviews, says Philippe Weiss, who runs the Chicago-based consultancy Seyfarth Shaw at Work.

Philadelphia employment lawyer Jonathan Segal says some men are declaring they’ll just shut people out of their offices, rather than risk exchanges that could be misconstrued.

“The avoidance issue is my biggest concern, because the marginalization of women in the business world is at least as big a problem as harassment,” Segal says. A recent report involving 222 North American companies found the percentage of women drops from 47 percent at the entry level to 20 percent in the C suite.

Vice President Mike Pence has long said he doesn’t have one-on-one meals with any woman except his wife and wants her by his side anywhere alcohol is served, as part of the couple’s commitment to prioritizing their marriage. The guidelines have “been a blessing to us,” the Republican told Christian Broadcasting Network News in an interview this month.

Employment attorneys caution that it can be problematic to curb interactions with workers because of their gender, if the practice curtails their professional opportunities. W. Brad Johnson, a co-author of a book encouraging male mentors for women, says limiting contact sends a troubling message.

“If I were unwilling to have an individual conversation with you because of your gender, I’m communicating ‘you’re unreliable; you’re a risk,’” says Johnson, a U.S. Naval Academy psychology professor.

Jessica Proud, a communications professional and Republican political consultant in New York City, said it would be wrong if this national “day of reckoning” over sexual misconduct resulted in some men deciding not to hire, mentor or work with women. She recalled a campaign she worked on where she was told she couldn’t travel with the candidate because of how it might look.

“I’m a professional, he’s a professional. Why should my career experience be limited?” she said. “That’s just as insulting in a lot of ways.”

 

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Traders Brace for Launch of Bitcoin Futures Market

The newest way to bet on bitcoin, the cyptocurrency that has taken Wall Street by storm with its stratospheric price rise and wild daily gyrations, will arrive Sunday when bitcoin futures start trading.

The launch has given an extra kick to the cyptocurrency’s scorching run this year. It has nearly doubled in price since the start of December, but recent days saw sharp moves in both directions, with bitcoin losing almost a fifth of its value Friday after surging more than 40 percent in the previous 48 hours.

But while some market participants are excited about a regulated way to bet on or hedge against moves in bitcoin, others caution that risks remain for investors and possibly even the clearing organizations underpinning the trades.

The futures are cash-settled contracts based on the auction price of bitcoin in U.S. dollars on the Gemini Exchange, owned and operated by virtual currency entrepreneurs Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.

A regulated bitcoin product

“The pretty sharp rise we have seen in bitcoin in just the last couple of weeks has probably been driven by optimism ahead of the futures launch,” said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab in Austin.

Bitcoin fans appear excited about the prospect of an exchange-listed and regulated product and the ability to bet on its price swings without having to sign up for a digital wallet.

The futures are an alternative to a largely unregulated spot market underpinned by cryptocurrency exchanges that have been plagued by cybersecurity and fraud issues.

“You are going to open up the market to a whole lot of people who aren’t currently in bitcoin,” Frederick said.

Mixed reception in US

The futures launch has so far received a mixed reception from big U.S. banks and brokerages.

Interactive Brokers plans to offer its customers access to the first bitcoin futures when trading goes live, but bars clients from assuming short positions and has margin requirements of at least 50 percent.

Several online brokerages including Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade will not allow the trading of the newly launched futures.

Some of the big U.S. banks including JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, will not immediately clear bitcoin trades for clients, the Financial Times reported on Friday.

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Argentina Blocks Two Activists From Entry on Eve of WTO Meeting

Argentina blocked two European activists from entering the country on the eve of the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires, the two told a local radio program Saturday.

Sally Burch, a British activist and journalist for the Latin American Information Agency, said Argentina had already revoked credentials given to her by the WTO to attend the meeting but thought she would be able to enter the country as a tourist.

“They found my name on a list and started asking questions … supposedly I was a false tourist,” Burch said on Radio 10.

“It’s not very democratic of Argentina’s government.”

Petter Titland, spokesman for the Norweigan NGO Attac Norge, said authorities denied him entry without explaining why.

Late last month, Argentina rescinded the credentials of 60 activists who had been accredited by the WTO to attend the meeting because it determined they would be “more disruptive than constructive.”

WTO meetings often attract protests by anti-globalization groups, but they have remained largely peaceful since riots broke out at the 1999 meeting in Seattle.

WTO’s spokesman, Keith Rockwell, reiterated on Saturday that it disagreed with Argentina’s decision to revoke activists’ credentials. “We didn’t have the same perspective but we’re now moving on,” Rockwell told journalists.

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri has promoted business-friendly policies since taking office in December 2015, and Argentina will host global events as chair of the G-20 group of major economies next year.

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US Economy Adding Jobs, But Employers Say Skills Gap is Rising

The U.S. economy posted another impressive month, adding 228,000 jobs in November. The unemployment rate, now at a 17-year low, remains unchanged at 4.1 percent. But even as more Americans returned to the workforce, job recruiters say the job market is changing and both employers and employees need to be prepared. Mil Arcega reports.

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Wind, Fire, Ash Destroy Much of California Avocado Crop

The wildfire that roared through the orchards of California’s Ventura County destroyed much of the region’s avocado crop not just with flames, but also with fierce Santa Ana winds and a thick blanket of ash.

With the so-called Thomas Fire just 10 percent contained by Friday afternoon, after blackening more than 132,000 acres across Ventura County and destroying some 400 homes and other structures, it is too soon to know the extent of the damage to the upcoming avocado harvest.

But experts say even the mostly family-owned orchards spared by the epic conflagration may have suffered devastating losses to their crops from the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that blow out of the California desert, knocking avocados from the trees with gusts up to 80 miles per hour. (129 kilometers per hour)

The fruit cannot be sold for human consumption once it is on the ground because of food safety regulations.

“A lot of that fruit everybody was looking forward to harvesting next year is laying on the ground,” said John Krist, chief executive of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

​Vulnerable to the wind

Avocados are the rare produce trees planted in hillside groves because of their shallow roots, said Ben Faber, a University of California farm adviser in Ventura. The fruit, typically harvested in February or March, is full-sized and heavy by December, held by a long stem.

Those factors make avocados, already growing away from their natural environment in Central and South America, more vulnerable to the whipping winds than the lemon orchards dotting the flatlands of Ventura, Faber said.

Lemons are also a lighter fruit with a shorter, sturdier stem. Ventura County is California’s largest growing region for both lemons and avocados. The state produces about 90 percent of the nation’s avocado crop and 80 percent of its lemons.

Delayed impact

Some avocado trees that do not appear to have been scorched could also reveal damage later, collapsing from internal heat damage. Fruit that did not burn or get blown off the branches may be sunburned by the loss of canopy.

Both lemon and avocado crops are also likely to suffer further from the thick coating of ash left by the Thomas Fire, which interferes with the natural enemy insects that hunt the pests feeding on the fruit trees. Those enemy insects are known to growers as “bio-controls.”

“When you get all this ash, they can’t do their jobs,” Faber said of the enemy insects. “That’s going to cause a disruption to the bio controls that’s going to go on for a year or more. So the impact of the fires is not all immediate.”

Unlike grapes at wineries in California’s Napa Valley wine-growing region hit by wildfires in October, however, avocados and lemons will not be affected by smoke from the fires because of their thick skins.

Experts said at the time that the delicate grapes, if exposed to sustained heavy smoke, could be vulnerable to “smoke taint,” which can alter their taste and aroma.

Prices not likely to rise

Consumers are not expected to see an impact on avocado prices because Ventura County is only a small piece of the worldwide production chain dominated by Mexico and South America, the farm bureau’s Krist said.

Avocado prices have been higher in most U.S. markets during the second half of 2017, according to the Hass Avocado Board, in part because of a poor harvest last year in the United States and Mexico.

The wildfire news didn’t have a major effect on the stock price of the Limoneira Company, the nation’s largest avocado grower, as shares closed essentially unchanged on Friday.

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‘Worker Bee’ Round of NAFTA Talks to Focus on Easier Chapters

NAFTA trade negotiators convene in Washington next week for a limited round of talks unlikely to move the needle on major sticking points, but aimed at demonstrating some progress toward closing easier chapters.

Last month’s round of negotiations to update the North American Free Trade Agreement in Mexico City failed to resolve major differences, as Canada and Mexico pushed back on what they saw as unreasonable U.S. demands on automotive content rules, dispute settlement and a five-year sunset clause.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said that the United States wanted to see “meaningful progress” before year’s end.

The “intersessional” meetings in a Washington hotel come with lower expectations and without trade ministers from the three countries, who are due to attend a World Trade Organization meeting in Buenos Aires.

Some lobbyists and trade experts said that chapters with the best chances of showing progress were among those that Canada and Mexico had agreed to create or update in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal: digital trade, food safety, state-owned enterprises and telecommunications.

NAFTA negotiators have not closed any chapters since completing talks on competition policy and small-medium enterprises in late September. Talks have since been dominated by U.S. demands, such as for half of all North American automotive content to be produced in the United States.

Less rhetoric, more substance

“The intersessional could be a chance to turn the temperature down,” said Max Baucus, a former U.S. senator who chairs Farmers for Free Trade, a coalition of U.S. farm sector groups. “This should be a round for the worker bees, with less rhetoric and more concrete negotiations.”

A senior Canadian government source said no progress would be made on the most contentious issues at the Washington talks.

Separately, Canada’s chief negotiator, Steve Verheul, said the U.S. “extreme proposals” were proving very hard to deal with.

“We will not accept U.S. proposals that would fundamentally weaken the benefits of NAFTA for Canada and undermine the competitiveness of the North American market in relation to the rest of the world,” Verheul told Canadian lawmakers this week.

The Washington meetings follow stepped-up lobbying efforts by NAFTA backers in the United States to warn against the dangers of withdrawing from the nearly 24-year-old trade pact.

Top Detroit auto executives met with Vice President Mike Pence, and pro-trade Republican senators met with President Donald Trump.

Moises Kalach, the head of Mexico’s CCE business lobby and a government consultant, said that the United States would need to back off from some of its “extreme” positions for compromises to be made.

“We’re ready to dance. The question is whether the American government is willing to do so,” Kalach told Reuters.

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Bangladesh Asks NY Fed to Help it Recover Stolen Millions

Bangladesh’s central bank has asked the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to join a lawsuit it plans to file against a Philippines bank for its role in one of the world’s biggest cyber-heists, several sources said.

The Fed has yet to respond formally, but there is no indication it would join the suit.

Unidentified hackers stole $81 million from Bangladesh Bank’s account at the New York Fed in February last year, using fraudulent orders on the SWIFT payments system. The money was sent to accounts at Manila-based Rizal Commercial Banking Corp and then disappeared into the casino industry in the Philippines.

Nearly two years later, there is no word on who was responsible, and Bangladesh Bank has been able to retrieve only about $15 million, mostly from a Manila junket operator.

​Legal action discussed

Officials from Bangladesh Bank and the New York Fed spoke about legal action against RCBC in a conference call last month that was also attended by two representatives from SWIFT, according to three sources in Dhaka who had direct knowledge of the conversations.

It was agreed that Bangladesh Bank would send a proposal on the suit to the New York Fed, they said.

“The aim is to file a case by March-April in New York,” said one of the sources. “Work is on. Bangladesh Bank is likely to send something to the Fed soon.”

The source said the idea was it would be a civil suit to recover the money, and that Bangladesh hoped the Fed and SWIFT would be joint petitioners.

Subhankar Saha, a spokesman for Bangladesh Bank, said he had no knowledge of any plans to sue RCBC but that “efforts are on to recover the entire stolen money.”

The New York Fed and SWIFT declined comment.

A source familiar with the New York Fed’s thinking confirmed that Bangladesh Bank’s external counsel raised the idea of filing a suit against RCBC in the call.

The New York Fed officials agreed to review any proposal Bangladesh Bank wrote up, but they did not formally agree to a joint effort, and have not since worked on it nor heard from Bangladesh Bank, the source said.

​Rogue employees

RCBC has blamed rogue employees, and Philippine prosecutors have filed money-laundering charges against a former RCBC bank manager and four people who owned the bank accounts where the funds were sent, but are not identifiable because the accounts were in fake names. They are the only people to be formally cited in association with the crime.

Bangladeshi officials have cited internal RCBC documents, also seen by Reuters, to assert that the Filipino bank ignored suspicions raised by some RCBC officials when the money was first remitted to the accounts on Feb. 5, 2016, and then delayed acting on requests from RCBC’s head office to freeze the funds on Feb. 9.

RCBC did not respond to requests for comment. But it has said in the past that it would not pay any compensation and that Bangladesh Bank bore responsibility for the theft since it was negligent.

RCBC was fined a record 1 billion Philippine pesos ($20 million) by the country’s central bank last year for its failure to prevent the movement of the stolen money through it.

Separately, a Bangladesh court has sent letters rogatory to the United States seeking the findings of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into the case, said the main police investigator in Dhaka. Letters rogatory are documents used to obtain judicial assistance from foreign courts.

“We have questions for the Federal Reserve Bank, we want to collect the FBI report, what their findings are,” Molla Nazrul Islam, a special superintendent of police in Bangladesh, told Reuters this week.

An FBI spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on ongoing cases.

A hacking group called Lazarus that is believed to have connections to North Korea has been linked to the Bangladesh cyberheist, and some U.S. officials said earlier this year that prosecutors were building a case against Pyongyang. But no case has yet been filed.

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Ford to Test New Self-driving Vehicle Technology in 2018

Ford Motor Co will begin testing its latest self-driving vehicle technology next year in at least one city but has not changed its plan to begin commercial production until 2021, the company said.

The automaker said on Thursday that it would test self-driving prototypes in various pilot programs with partners such as Lyft, the ride services company in which rival General Motors owns a minority stake, and Domino’s Pizza. However, Ford has still not decided whether to operate its own on-demand transportation service.

New business models

In a blog post, Jim Farley, president of global markets, said Ford also would test new business models that involve its self-driving vehicles, including the movement of people and goods.

GM unveiled plans last week to introduce its own on-demand ride-sharing service in several U.S. cities in 2019, using self-driving versions of the battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt.

Ford is shifting production of a future battery electric vehicle to Mexico to free up capacity at its Flat Rock, Michigan, plant to build the self-driving vehicles in 2021, according to spokesman Alan Hall.

The electric vehicle, whose more-advanced battery system will enable a driving range of more than 300 miles, will go into production in 2020 at Ford’s Cuatitlan plant, which suppliers say will also build a new hybrid crossover vehicle around the same time.

Adding 850 jobs

At the Flat Rock plant, Ford is boosting investment to $900 million from $700 million and adding 850 jobs.

Both the 2020 electric and the 2021 self-driving vehicles will draw on the next-generation Ford Focus for some of their underbody structure and components while using different propulsion systems.

Unlike the full electric vehicle from Cuatitlan, the self-driving vehicle from Flat Rock will use a hybrid system with a gasoline engine and an electric motor, Hall said.