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Soaring Agave Prices Give Mexican Tequila Makers a Headache

In the heartland of the tequila industry, in Mexico’s western state of Jalisco, a worsening shortage of agave caused by mounting demand for the liquor from New York to Tokyo has many producers worried.

The price of Agave tequilana, the blue-tinged, spiky-leaved succulent used to make the alcoholic drink, has risen six-fold in the past two years, squeezing smaller distillers’ margins and leading to concerns that shortages could hit even the larger players.

In front of a huge metal oven that cooks agave for tequila, one farmer near the town of Amatitan said he had been forced to use young plants to compensate for the shortage of fully grown agave, which take seven to eight years to reach maturity.

He asked not to be identified because he did not want his clients to know he was using immature plants.

The younger plants produce less tequila, meaning more plants have to be pulled up early from a limited supply – creating a downward spiral.

“They are using four-year-old plants because there aren’t any others. I can guarantee it because I have sold them,” said Marco Polo Magdaleno, a worried grower in Guanajuato, one of the states allowed to produce tequila according to strict denomination of origin rules.

More than a dozen tequila industry experts interviewed by Reuters said that the early harvesting will mean the shortage is even worse in 2018.

Already, the 17.7 million blue agaves planted in 2011 in Mexico for use this year fall far short of the 42 million the industry needs to supply 140 registered companies, according to figures from the Tequila Regulatory Council (CRT) and the National Tequila Industry Chamber (CNIT).

The shortages are likely to continue until 2021, as improved planting strategies take years to bear fruit, according to producers.

The result is agave prices at 22 pesos ($1.18) per kilo – up from 3.85 pesos in 2016.

Those higher prices mean that low-cost tequila producers, which make a cheaper, less pure drink that once dominated the market, find it harder to compete with premium players.

“It doesn’t make sense for tequila to be a cheap drink because agave requires a big investment,” said Luis Velasco, CNIT’s president.

Small-scale distillers of quality tequilas are also feeling the pinch and some warn that drinkers are seeking alternative tipples.

“At more than 20 pesos per kilo, it’s impossible to compete with other spirits like vodka and whisky,” said Salvador Rosales, manager of smaller producer Tequila Cascahuin, in El Arenal, a rural town in Jalisco.

“If we continue like this a lot of companies will disappear,” he said.

Exports to the United States of pure tequila jumped by 198 percent over the past decade, while cheaper blended tequila exports rose by just 11 percent, CNIT data shows.

Over the same time, Mexican production declined 4 percent, with blended tequila leading the fall.

Global Demand

As it sheds its image as a fiery booze drunk by desperados and fratboys, while moving into the ranks of top-shelf liquors, the tequila industry has seen a flurry of deals in recent years.

In January, Bacardi Ltd. said it would buy fine tequila maker Patron Spirits International for $5.1 billion.

In 2017, after years of speculation, Mexico’s Beckmann family launched an initial public offering of Jose Cuervo, raising more than $900 million.

And Britain’s Diageo Plc swapped its Bushmills Irish whiskey label for full ownership of the high-end Don Julio tequila in 2014.

The question posed by many distillers is how to keep pace with tequila’s success.

“The growth has overtaken us. It’s a crisis of success of the industry,” said Francisco Soltero, director of strategic planning at Patron, which buys agave under various contracts.

“We thought that we were going to grow a certain amount, and we’re growing double,” he said.

Large sellers such as Patron and Tequila Sauza say they have not experienced problems paying for agave, and forecast that their inventories will keep growing.

“If you sell value, the costs don’t worry you,” Soltero said.

Tequila Sauza, which mostly grows its own agave, does not foresee supply problems, chief executive Servando Calderon said.

But some think it is simply a matter of time before the higher production costs and scarcity pressures bigger players.

“We are sure this will have a strong impact on the big firms such as Cuervo or Sauza,” said Raul Garcia, President of the National Committee for Agave Production in Tequila, a group that includes most agave producers in the country.

“We don’t see that the problem will be resolved soon, and that’s what worries us.”

Demand is also being driven by other, fashionable agave-derived products, including agave syrup and health supplement inulin, which use the equivalent of 20 percent of the plants needed in 2018, the CRT said.

And rising prices are leading to growing theft, driving out smaller producers, said Jose de Jesus, a producer of blue agave in Tepatitlan. Criminals come to the area with large trucks in the middle of the night to steal agave, he said.

According to the CRT last year 15,000 plants were reported stolen, more than triple the number in 2016.

($1 = 18.7096 Mexican pesos)

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Peru Defends China as Good Trade Partner After US Warnings

Peru’s trade minister defended China as a good trade partner on Tuesday, after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Latin American countries against excessive reliance on economic ties with the Asian powerhouse.

Eduardo Ferreyros said Peru’s 2010 trade liberalization deal with China had allowed the Andean nation of about 30 million people to post a $2.74 billion trade surplus with Beijing last year.

“China is a good trade partner,” Ferreyros told foreign media, as Tillerson met with President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Lima, a stop on Tillerson’s five-nation Latin American tour.

“We’re happy with the results of the trade agreement.”

The remarks were the Peruvian government’s first signal since Tillerson’s warning that it does not share Washington’s concerns about growing Chinese influence in the region.

Before kicking off his trip to Latin America on Friday, Tillerson suggested that China could become a new imperial power in the region, and accused it of deploying unfair trade practices.

“I appreciate advice, no matter where it comes from. But we’re careful with all of our trade relations,” Ferreyros said, when asked about Tillerson’s remarks.

Ferreyros also praised Peru’s trade relationship with Washington, despite a trade deficit with the United States. “I’m not afraid of trade deficits,” Ferreyros said.

Since China first overtook the United States as Peru’s biggest trade partner in 2011, thanks mostly to its appetite for Peru’s metals exports, bilateral trade has surged and diplomatic ties have tightened.

Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker, made a point of visiting China before any other nation on his first official trip abroad as president in 2016.

Under former president Barack Obama, the United States had hoped to counter China’s rise in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region, which includes large parts of Latin America, with the sweeping Trans-Pacific trade deal known as the TPP.

While President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the TPP upon taking office, the 11 remaining signatories, including Peru and Japan, have struck a similar deal that they plan to sign without the United States in March.

Tillerson, who left Peru for Colombia on Tuesday, said on Monday that Trump was open to evaluating the benefits of the United States joining the so-called TPP-11 pact in the future, which Ferreyros called “a good sign.”

All countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including China, were welcome to join TPP-11, Ferreyros said. “But the deal has closed and countries that want to join obviously can’t renegotiate the whole agreement,” he added.

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US Stocks Seesaw Wildly After Day of Record Losses

U.S. stock prices fluctuated wildly Tuesday after regaining ground following a sharply lower open on the heels of selloffs earlier in the day in Asia and Europe.

The volatility continued unabated one day after The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed the most points in one day in its more than 120-year history.

The Dow fell 530 points at the market open and the more broad-based Standard & Poors 500 Index (S&P 500) tumbled 1.3 percent. The technology heavy Nasdaq Composite Index dropped 1.1 percent.

Earlier Tuesday, Asia’s benchmark stock indexes collapsed, as Monday’s massive selloffs on Wall Street rolled across the globe.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 index lost as much seven percent of its value at one point during the trading session, before closing at 21,610 points, a loss of nearly five percent.  Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index followed suit, dropping just over five percent in its worst trading day since August 2015.

The benchmark indexes Australia and South Korea also suffered serious losses.

In early Europe trading London’s FTSE 100 was down 3.5 percent at 7,081 points.

Asian markets were caught in the ripple effect of Monday’s 1,175-point loss on the Dow, marking the biggest point decline in history.  The S&P 500 also had a bad day, losing just over four percent to finish at 2,648 points.  

The stock market has now lost about a trillion dollars in value since Friday, when the Dow lost 666 points.  That drop followed a solid jobs report that showed the U.S. economy adding 200 thousand jobs and wages rising at the fastest pace in a decade. The tighter labor market and rising wages prompted investor fears of higher inflation and the possibility that the U.S. Federal Reserve would raise interest rates faster and higher than they have in recent years.

Analysts who spoke with VOA had been expecting a stock market “correction,” a decline of at least 10-percent from the most recent record highs, as a result of the record run-up in stock prices this year.  

 

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US Trade Gap Hits $566 Billion in 2017, Highest Since 2008

The U.S. trade deficit hit the highest level in nine years in 2017, defying President Donald Trump’s efforts to bring more balance to America’s trade relationships.

 

The Commerce Department said Tuesday that the trade gap in goods and services rose to $566 billion last year, the highest level since $708.7 billion in 2008. Imports set a record $2.9 trillion, swamping exports of $2.3 trillion.

 

The U.S. ran an $810 billion deficit in the trade of goods and a $244 billion surplus in services such as banking and education.

 

The goods deficit with China hit a record $375.2 billion in 2017, and the goods gap with Mexico rose to $71.1 billion. Trump has sought to reduce the deficits with China and Mexico. His administration is weighing whether to impose trade sanctions on China for the theft of U.S. intellectual property. It is also renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.

 

The overall December trade deficit in goods and services rose to $53.1 billion, up from $50.4 billion in November and highest since October 2008.

 

Countries run trade deficits when they buy more from other countries than they sell.

 

Trump sees trade deficits as a sign of economic weakness and largely as the result of unfair competition by America’s trading partners. Most economists see them largely as the result of bigger economic forces: Americans spend more than they produce, and imports fill the gap.

 

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Misery on US Stock Market Spreads to Asia Tuesday

U.S. stocks opened sharply lower Tuesday on the heels of selloffs earlier in the day in Asia and Europe and one day after the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed the most points in one day in its more than 120-year history.

The Dow fell 530 points at the market open and the more broad-based Standard & Poors 500 Index (S&P 500) tumbled 1.3 percent. The technology heavy Nasdaq Composite Index dropped 1.1 percent.

Earlier Tuesday, Asia’s benchmark stock indexes collapsed, as Monday’s massive selloffs on Wall Street rolled across the globe.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 index lost as much seven percent of its value at one point during the trading session, before closing at 21,610 points, a loss of nearly five percent.  Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index followed suit, dropping just over five percent in its worst trading day since August 2015.

The benchmark indexes in Australia and South Korea also suffered serious losses.

In early Europe trading London’s FTSE 100 was down 3.5 percent at 7,081 points.

Asian markets were caught in the ripple effect of Monday’s 1,175-point loss on the Dow, marking the biggest point decline in history.  The S&P 500 also had a bad day, losing just over four percent to finish at 2,648 points.  

The stock market has now lost about a trillion dollars in value since Friday, when the Dow lost 666 points.  That drop followed a solid jobs report that showed the U.S. economy adding 200 thousand jobs and wages rising at the fastest pace in a decade. The tighter labor market and rising wages prompted investor fears of higher inflation and the possibility that the U.S. Federal Reserve would raise interest rates faster and higher than they have in recent years.

Analysts who spoke with VOA had been expecting a stock market “correction,” a decline of at least 10 percent from the most recent record highs, as a result of the record run-up in stock prices this year. 

 

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Venezuela Announces 99.6 Percent Devaluation of Official Forex Rate

Venezuela’s central bank on Monday announced a devaluation of more than 99 percent of its official exchange rate with a new foreign exchange platform.

The central bank said the first auction of its new DICOM system yielded an exchange rate of 30,987.5 bolivars per euro, equivalent to around 25,000 per dollar.

That is a devaluation of 86.6 percent with respect to the previous DICOM rate and 99.6 percent from the subsidized rate of 10 bolivars per dollar, which was eliminated last week.

The new rate is still dwarfed by the black market rate for greenbacks, currently at 228,000 bolivars per dollar according to website DolarToday, which is used as a reference.

Venezuela is undergoing a major crisis, with quadruple-digit inflation and shortages of food and medicine. Economists consistently describe the 15-year-old currency control system as the principal obstacle to functioning commerce and industry.

 

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UN: US Tax Overhaul May Drain $2 Trillion From Foreign Projects

U.S. President Donald Trump’s tax reform could bring almost $2 trillion back to the United States as U.S. firms repatriate cash piles from foreign affiliates, a U.N. report said Monday.

Ending the incentive to hoard cash overseas could produce a stimulus effect in the United States, and Trump has credited the tax reform with spurring a $350 billion investment plan by Apple.

“Now is the perfect time to bring your business, your jobs, and your investments to the United States of America,” Trump told the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

The reform ends a system whereby companies defer tax on foreign earnings until the funds are repatriated. Instead it treats those earnings as if they were being repatriated, with an 8 percent tax on non-cash assets and a 15.5 percent tax on cash.

“This measure is widely expected to have the most significant and immediate effect on global investment patterns,” said the report by the U.N. trade and development agency UNCTAD.

Big firms had long awaited such a tax break, having last received one in the 2005 U.S. Homeland Investment Act, which brought $300 billion back from abroad, the report said.

Since then, U.S. overseas retained earnings have grown to $3.2 trillion, half of U.S.-owned foreign direct investment, with about $2 trillion in cash. Unlike in 2005, companies are not required to actually repatriate the funds.

The biggest overseas cash hoarders are in the tech sector, with Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Alphabet and Oracle holding $530 billion, a quarter of the total, the report said. Other major cash holders are in pharmaceuticals and engineering.

Almost 40 percent of the funds are located in the United Kingdom or its Caribbean offshore territories such as the British Virgin Islands, UNCTAD said, citing data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Even if the money was not invested in tangible assets, its withdrawal could still have a macroeconomic impact, said Richard Bolwijn, UNCTAD’s head of investment research.

“It’s still a part of … the external sources of finance helping to make up for savings shortfalls in developing countries,” he said.

Much of the impact depends on how other countries react, and there is still uncertainty as the details of the tax bill are clarified. In addition, there are some concerns that the U.S. reforms could violate tax treaties and trade rules, the UNCTAD report said.

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Wall St Plunges, Dow Erases 2018’s Gains

U.S. stocks plunged in highly volatile trading on Monday, with both the S&P 500 and Dow Industrials indices slumping more than 4.0 percent, as the Dow notched its biggest intraday decline in history with a nearly 1,600-point drop and Wall Street erased its gains for the year.

The declines for the benchmark S&P500 index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average were the biggest single-day percentage drops since August 2011, a period of stock-market volatility marked by the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating and the eurozone debt crisis, as a pullback from record highs deepened.

The question now for investors, who have ridden a nearly nine-year bull run, is whether this is the long-awaited pullback that paves the way for stocks to again keep rising after finding some value, or the start of a decline that leads to a bear market.

“A lot of people who have been in this market for the past three or four years have never seen this before,” said Dennis Dick, a proprietary trader at Bright Trading LLC in Las Vegas.

“The psychology of the market changed today. It’ll take a while to get that psychology back.”

Bulls argue that strong U.S. corporate earnings, including a boost from the Trump administration’s tax cuts, will ultimately support market valuations. Bears, including short sellers that bet on the market decline, say that the market is over-stretched in the context of rising bond yields as central banks withdraw their easy money policies of recent years.

The U.S. stock market has climbed to record peaks since President Donald Trump’s election, on the prospect of tax cuts, corporate deregulation and infrastructure spending, and it remains up 23.8 percent since his victory. Trump has frequently taken credit for the rise of the stock market during his presidency, though the rally and economic recovery began during the Obama administration.

As the stock market fell on Monday, the White House said the fundamentals of the U.S. economy are strong. U.S. economic growth was running at a 2.6 annualized rate in the fourth quarter last year and the unemployment rate is at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent.

On Monday, the financial, health care and industrial sectors fell the most, but declines were spread broadly as all major 11 S&P sectors dropped at least 1.7 percent. All 30 of the blue-chip Dow industrial components finished negative.

With Monday’s declines, the S&P 500 erased its gains for 2018 and is now down 0.9 percent in 2018. The Dow is down 1.5 percent for the year.

The market’s pullback comes amid concerns about rising bond yields and higher inflation which were heightened following Friday’s January U.S. jobs report that also prompted worries that the Federal Reserve will raise rates at a faster pace than expected this year.

“The market has had an incredible run,” said Michael O’Rourke, chief market strategist At JonesTrading In Greenwich, Connecticut.

“We have an environment where interest rates are rising. We have a stronger economy so the Fed should continue to tighten … You’re seeing real changes occur and different investments are adjusting to that,” O’Rourke said.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1,175.21 points, or 4.6 percent, to 24,345.75, the S&P 500 lost 113.19 points, or 4.10 percent, to 2,648.94 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 273.42 points, or 3.78 percent, to 6,967.53.

The S&P 500 ended 7.8 percent down from its record high on Jan. 26, with the Dow down 8.5 percent over that time. The declines come after the Dow and S&P posted their biggest weekly percentage drops since January 2016, and the Nasdaq posted its biggest weekly drop since February 2016.

Even with the sharp declines, stocks finished above their lows touched during the session.

At one point, the Dow fell 6.3 percent or 1,597 points, the biggest one-day points loss ever, as it fell through both the 25,000 and 24,000 levels during trading. Traders speculated that the breaching of technical levels prompted a frenzy of automated selling.

“It doesn’t look like people are working their orders — the programs are trading this,” Dan Ryan, who works on the New York Stock Exchange floor for E&J Securities, said as he was leaving work for the day.

Investors also unloaded riskier corporate bonds during the Wall Street rout. Exchange-traded funds that focus on junk bonds suffered a third day of losses. BlackRock’s iShares iBoxx High Yield Corporate Bond ETF, which has about $16 billion in assets, fell 0.6 percent to its lowest share price since December 2016.

The CBOE Volatility index, the closely followed measure of expected near-term stock market volatility, jumped 20 points to 30.71, its highest level since August 2015.

“One thing is that going into the last week or so, investor bullishness was in the top decile of its historical range, which suggests that investors were pretty optimistic, with high expectations and largely complacent,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer with Cresset Wealth Advisors in Chicago. “There’s kind of an emotional reversal that’s going on.”

About 11.5 billion shares changed hands in U.S. exchanges, well above the 7.6 billion daily average over the last 20 sessions.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 8.64-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 6.92-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 1 new 52-week highs and 38 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 17 new highs and 164 new lows.

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Stock Sell-off Creates Market Jitters

Recent losses on global financial markets, including those in the U.S., have some investors concerned about expectations for their holdings and plans for the future.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 2.5 percent Friday, its largest percentage drop since Britain’s decision in June 2016 to leave the European Union.

The Dow and the broader U.S. Standard & Poor’s 500 Index ended the week roughly 4-percent lower, their biggest weekly drops since early 2016, amid fears of inflation and disappointing quarterly corporate earnings results.

Key stock indexes in Europe also fell Friday. Germany’s DAX index dropped 1.7-percent, while France’s CAC 40 Index declined 1.6-percent.

In Asia, Japan’s Nikkei 225 Index slid nearly 1-percent and South Korea’s Kospi fell 1.7-percent.

Meanwhile, U.S. bond yields climbed and contributed to the sell-off after the U.S. government reported that wages grew last month at their fastest pace in eight years.

The wage data helped stoke investor concern that the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, will respond to higher inflation by hiking its key interest rate more quickly than anticipated.

Darrell Cronk, head of the Wells Fargo Investment Institute, said an extended period of low interest rates has helped create the uncertainty.

“We’ve enjoyed low interest rates for so long, we’re having to deal with a little bit higher rates now, so the market is trying to figure out what that could mean for inflation.”

The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury notes rose to 2.852-percent, its highest level in more than four years. The rise in bond yields hinders stock performance in two ways: it makes corporate borrowing more expensive and it makes bonds more attractive to investors compared to riskier stocks.

Bond strategists were unwilling Friday to predict what lies ahead for interest rates this week after the markets’ unusual volatility in the past week.

Investors may get a hint of the direction of interest rates when trading resumes in Asia early Monday, and possibly more insight after the U.S. Treasury’s $66 billion in auctions of 3-, 10- and 30-year bonds from Tuesday to Thursday.

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Guest Workers Leave Behind Big Houses, Ghost Neighborhoods

Over the last decades, growing economic hardships forced people in cities and villages around the world to leave their hometowns to find work in other countries. Dreaming of returning one day and enjoying a better life where they grew up, many invested most of their savings buying houses back home. But often, these houses remain empty, making many communities look like ghost towns. Faiza Elmasry has the story. Faith Lapidus narrates.