German Jobless Rate Hits Best Figure Since 1990 Reunification

Germany, Europe’s most robust economy, said Thursday that its unemployment rate fell to 5.3 percent in November, the lowest figure since West and East Germany were unified in 1990.

Even as Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Berlin politicians struggle to form a coalition government, the German economy remains strong, with a months-long dip in the country’s jobless rate and solid demand for German products from other countries.

The German report came as Eurostat, the statistics agency for the European Union, said the jobless rate for the 19-nation eurozone bloc that uses the euro currency dropped to 8.8 percent in October. It was the lowest figure since January 2009, when Europe and countries across the world were in the midst of a steep recession.

The German and European jobless rates trail those in the United States, the world’s largest economy, where unemployment has dropped to 4.1 percent, a 17-year low. But the U.S. and European numbers point to steady improvement that had been slow to emerge after the devastating job losses and high unemployment seven to nine years ago.

Eurostat said more than 14 million people remained out of work, but that was 1.5 million fewer than a year ago. In Spain, the jobless rate has been cut from about 25 percent to 16.7 percent.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said that while wages still are not increasing much, they could rise in the coming months as the continent’s economy continues to rebound.

Patrick Chovanex, chief strategist at New York-based Silvercrest Asset Management, told VOA the U.S. is in the eighth year of its recovery.

“It’s a recovery that has kind of waxed and waned,” he said. “One of the things that has been happening over the past couple years is that different parts of the economy were waxing and waning out of sequence with one another. So housing would be strong while manufacturing would be weak, and then vice versa. Every so often they happen to coincide.

“Right now we’re seeing a pattern of several elements of the economy being strong at once. Hopefully, that will continue.”

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OPEC Agrees Oil Cut Extension to End of 2018

OPEC agreed on Thursday to extend oil output cuts until the end of 2018 as it tries to finish clearing a global glut of crude while signalling it could exit the deal earlier if the market overheats.

Non-OPEC Russia, which this year reduced production significantly with OPEC for the first time, has been pushing for a clear message on how to exit the cuts so the market doesn’t flip into a deficit too soon, prices don’t rally too fast and rival U.S. shale firms don’t boost output further.

The producers’ current deal, under which they are cutting supply by about 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) in an effort to boost oil prices, expires in March.

Two OPEC delegates told Reuters the group had agreed to extend the cuts by nine months until the end of 2018, as largely anticipated by the market.

OPEC also decided to cap the output of Nigeria at around 1.8 million bpd but had yet to agree a cap for Libya. Both countries have been previously exempt from cuts due to unrest and lower-than-normal production.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has yet to meet with non-OPEC producers led by Russia, with the meeting scheduled to begin after 1500 GMT.

Before the earlier, OPEC-only meeting started at the group’s headquarters in Vienna on Thursday, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said it was premature to talk about exiting the cuts at least for a couple of quarters and added that the group would examine progress at its next meeting in June.

“When we get to an exit, we are going to do it very gradually… to make sure we don’t shock the market,” he said.

The Iraqi, Iranian and Angolan oil ministers also said a review of the deal was possible in June in case the market became too tight.

International benchmark Brent crude rose more than 1 percent on Thursday to trade near $64 per barrel.

Capping Nigeria, Libya

With oil prices rising above $60, Russia has expressed concerns that such an extension could prompt a spike in crude production in the United States, which is not participating in the deal.

Russia needs much lower oil prices to balance its budget than OPEC’s leader Saudi Arabia, which is preparing a stock market listing for national energy champion Aramco next year and would hence benefit from pricier crude.

“Prices will be well supported in December with a large global stock draw. The market could surprise to the upside with even $70 per barrel for Brent not out of the question if there is an unexpected interruption in supply,” said Gary Ross, a veteran OPEC watcher and founder of Pira consultancy.

The production cuts have been in place since the start of 2017 and helped halve an excess of global oil stocks although those remain at 140 million barrels above the five-year average, according to OPEC.

Russia has signaled it wants to understand better how producers will exit from the cuts as it needs to provide guidance to its private and state energy companies.

“It is important… to work out a strategy which we will follow from April 2018,” Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Wednesday.

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Mexico Economy Minister Calls US NAFTA Autos Proposal ‘Not Viable’

Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said Wednesday that Trump administration demands for a U.S.-specific automotive content requirement in NAFTA were “not viable,” and he declined to specify when Mexico would formally respond.

At a news conference following a series of meetings with senior U.S. trade officials and lawmakers in Washington, Guajardo said that Mexico was still trying to understand the U.S. proposals that would require 50 percent of vehicles’ value content to be produced in the United States as part of updated North American Free Trade Agreement rules.

“I was clear that the domestic content [requirement] is something that is not viable at this point,” Guajardo said.

He added that Mexico would eventually make a counterproposal on automotive rules of origin, but declined to specify the timing of that response.

His visit was partly aimed at bolstering support in Congress for NAFTA at a time when tax legislation is consuming lawmakers’ attention and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is growing frustrated with the slow pace of NAFTA talks.

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to scrap the trade agreement if it cannot be renegotiated to shrink U.S. trade deficits and return manufacturing jobs to the United States.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said after meeting with Guajardo earlier  Wednesday that congressional Republicans “are determined” to strengthen trade ties with Mexico.

“I expect the administration will continue to work with us to modernize NAFTA and bolster our robust relationship with such an important ally,” Ryan said in a statement.

US waiting on counterproposals

After the last NAFTA negotiating round ended last week, Lighthizer complained that Mexico and Canada had not offered counterproposals to its demands on autos and other major areas aimed at “rebalancing” the trade pact.

The United States also is seeking to lift the regional value content requirement for NAFTA-produced cars and trucks to 85 percent from 62.5 percent. Guajardo said that once Mexico has a firm understanding of the U.S. autos proposal, it can work with its own stakeholders to see what adjustments could be made to regional content for autos.

But he said that the U.S. demand to move to 85 percent regional content within three years was “entirely unrealistic.”

Guajardo said he discussed with Lighthizer on Tuesday how to move the talks toward consideration of potential “rebalancing” outcomes. But first, he said, Mexico needed to be clear with its American and Canadian counterparts about unacceptable proposals and its priorities for keeping the pact beneficial to all parties.

“We have to start a process of looking at what’s next after we complete the modernization effort,” he added.

On dispute settlement, Guajardo said that Mexico would be willing to consider some adjustments to the investor-state dispute settlement system, after the United States proposed making the use of such arbitration panels optional.

“We can explore the opt-in, as long as we can define our own opt-in,” Guajardo said of the dispute settlement proposal, adding that otherwise, Mexico is “not interested.”

At a more limited round of NAFTA talks in mid-December in Washington, Guajardo said it would be important to agree on key issues in order to close some NAFTA chapters, such as those on food safety, telecommunications, regulatory practices and digital commerce.

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Facebook Suspends Ability to Target Ads by Excluding Racial Groups

Facebook Inc. said on Wednesday it was temporarily disabling the ability of advertisers on its social network to exclude racial groups from the intended audience of ads while it studies how the feature could be used to discriminate.

Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, told African-American U.S. lawmakers in a letter that the company was determined to do better after a news report said Facebook had failed to block discriminatory ads.

The U.S.-based news organization ProPublica reported last week that, as part of an investigation, it had purchased discriminatory housing ads on Facebook and slipped them past the company’s review process, despite claims by Facebook months earlier that it was able to detect and block such ads.

“Until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately, we are disabling the option that permits advertisers to exclude multicultural affinity segments from the audience for their ads,” Sandberg wrote in the letter to the Congressional Black Caucus, according to a copy posted online by ProPublica.

It is unlawful under U.S. law to publish certain types of ads if they indicate a preference based on race, religion, sex or certain classifications.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network with 2.1 billion users and $36 billion in annual revenue, has been on the defensive for its advertising practices.

In September, it disclosed the existence of Russia-linked ads that ran during the 2016 U.S. election campaign. The same month it turned off a tool, also reported by ProPublica, that had inadvertently let advertisers target based on people’s self-reported jobs, even if the job was “Jew hater.”

Sandberg said in the letter that advertisers who use Facebook’s targeting options to include certain races for ads about housing, employment or credit will have to certify to Facebook that they are complying with Facebook’s anti-discrimination policy and with applicable law.

Sandberg defended race- and culture-based marketing in general, saying it was a common and legitimate practice in the ad industry to try to reach specific communities.

U.S. Representative Robin Kelly of Illinois, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Facebook’s action was appropriate.

“When I first raised this issue with Facebook, I was disappointed,” Kelly, a Democrat, said in a statement. “When it became necessary to raise the issue again, I was irritated. Thankfully, we’ve been able to establish a constructive pipeline of communication that’s resulted in a positive step forward.”

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New, Long-acting Drugs Cut Frequency of Migraine Headaches in Trials

New, long-acting drugs may offer hope to millions of people who suffer from migraines. Studies of two of these medicines, given as shots every month or so, found they cut the frequency of the notoriously painful and disabling headaches.

The drugs are the first preventive medicines developed specifically for migraines. They work by interfering with a substance involved in modifying nerve signaling and progression of pain and symptoms.

“It’s a whole new direction” for treatment and an important advance for people who don’t want to take or aren’t helped by the daily pills sometimes used now to prevent recurrences, said Dr. Andrew Hershey, neurology chief at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

He had no role in the research but has tested other migraine drugs and wrote a commentary published with the studies Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.

Migraines plague more than a billion people worldwide, more than 38 million in the U.S. alone. They’re more severe than an ordinary headache — throbbing, squeezing pain and pressure, often accompanied by vision problems, sensitivity to light, noise or smells, and nausea. They can leave people unable to work or do simple things like cooking or even holding a conversation.

What studies show

One study tested erenumab, from Amgen and Novartis, in about 900 people who averaged eight migraines a month. Nearly half had already tried other preventive medicines.

For six months, they were given monthly shots into the abdomen of a high dose of the drug, a low dose or a dummy medicine. The number of days they suffered migraines each month dropped by three to four in the drug groups and nearly two in the placebo group. Half of the patients on the higher dose saw their migraine days cut at least in half.

“I very definitely benefited,” said Anne Vickers, who got the lower dose through one of the study leaders at Mercy Hospital St. Louis in Missouri.

“I can have anywhere from 15 to 18 headaches per month, and probably five of those days are migraines,” but that dropped 40 percent on the drug, she said. “I have three kids, so for me it meant having more days when I was able to live my everyday life, cook a meal at home, go to events at school.”

The second study tested fremanezumab, from Teva Pharmaceutical, for chronic migraines, defined as headaches on 15 or more days per month, at least eight of them migraines.

About 1,000 patients were given monthly shots for three months: One-third got the drug each time, another third got the drug the first time and then dummy shots the next two times, and the rest got dummy shots each time.

Monthly headache days dropped by four to five in the groups given the drug and by two to three for those given dummy treatments.

The caveats

Average reductions of one or two days a month are modest, but “there are some patients who have had a complete response — they become headache-free,” Hershey said.

No worrisome side effects emerged, but the studies were very short, so long-term safety and effectiveness are unknown.

The new drugs were not tested against existing ones, only placebo treatments.

Many study leaders work for or have other financial ties to the drugmakers, and the companies helped analyze results.

Biotech drugs like these tend to be very expensive, and if they’re approved, insurers may set big co-pays or require patients to try older medicines first, Hershey said. When the drugs did work, the benefit was seen right away, so there’s less financial risk in trying one or two doses.

“The patient will know quickly if this is a drug for them, and if not, move on to something else,” Hershey said.

Both drugs have been submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval. Eli Lilly and Co. and Alder Biopharmaceuticals also are testing similar drugs.

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Poll: Nearly Half of Americans Oppose Republican Tax Bill

Opposition has grown among Americans to a Republican tax plan before the U.S. Congress, with 49 percent of people who were aware of the measure saying they opposed it, up from 41 percent in October, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

Congressional Republicans are trying to rush their tax legislation to a vote on the Senate floor before the end of the week. President Donald Trump strongly backs the bill and wants to sign it into law before the end of the year.

In addition to the 49 percent who said they opposed the Republican tax bill, 29 percent said they supported it and 22 percent said they “don’t know,” according to the Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll of 1,257 adults conducted from Thursday to Monday.

When asked “who stands to benefit most” from the plan, more than half of all American adults surveyed selected either the wealthy or large U.S. corporations. Fourteen percent chose “all Americans,” 6 percent picked the middle class and 2 percent chose lower-income Americans.

The tax bill being crafted in the Senate would slash the corporate tax rate, eliminate some taxes paid only by rich Americans and offer a mixed bag or temporary tax cuts for other individuals and families.

As congressional discussion on the bill has unfolded, public opposition to it has risen, on average, following Trump’s unveiling of a nine-page “framework” on September 27 that started the debate in earnest, Reuters/Ipsos polling showed.

On October 24, for example, among adults who said they had heard of the “tax reform plan recently proposed by congressional Republicans,” 41 percent said they opposed it, while 31 percent said they “don’t know” and just 28 percent said they supported it.

Trump and his fellow Republicans are determined to make a tax code overhaul their first major legislative win since taking control of the White House and Congress in January.

The House of Representatives on November 16 approved its own tax bill. The Senate is expected to decide on Wednesday whether to begin debating its proposal, as the measure moves toward a decisive floor vote later this week.

The two chambers would need to reconcile differences between their plans before legislation could be sent to the White House for Trump’s signature.

In the November 23-27 poll, 59 percent of Republicans supported the tax bill, 26 percent said they did not know and 15 percent opposed it. Among Democrats, 82 percent opposed it, 11 percent said they did not know and 8 percent supported it.

 

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Snapchat Seeks to Attract More Users by Redesigning App

Snapchat is separating what friends share and what media organizations publish in an attempt to appeal to a broader range of users.

The photo messaging app has not been gaining enough users, especially beyond its core of younger people. Parent company Snap Inc.’s stock is down sharply since its initial public offering earlier this year.

Users will now see two separate feeds — one from friends and one from publishers and non-friend accounts they follow. Before, Snapchat was mixing those posts, much the way Twitter, Facebook and other rivals continue to do. Snap hinted at changes three weeks ago, but didn’t provide details then.

CEO Evan Spiegel took a jab at rivals, writing that social media “fueled ‘fake news’” because of this content mixing.

 

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With Deforestation Rising, Colombia Businesses Join Fight to End Destruction

Colombia’s palm oil industry and big businesses have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains as the country battles to reverse the growing destruction of its tropical rainforests.

The commitment signed this week makes Colombia the first country in the world to launch its own chapter of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, a global effort by governments, companies and nongovernmental organizations.

The TFA 2020 Colombia Alliance aims to help businesses shift to deforestation-free supply chains by sharing best practices, monitoring forest clearance and training small farmers in sustainable agricultural methods.

It also aims to promote development of certified sustainable products from beef to palm oil for consumers to buy in local supermarkets.

Rainforests in Colombia, Latin America’s largest palm oil producer, are coming under increasing pressure, and deforestation is rampant.

Deforestation in the country’s Amazon region rose 23 percent and across the country rose by 44 percent from 2015 to 2016, said Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s environment minister.

Norway is one of four main donor countries, along with the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, backing the TFA 2020, an initiative hosted by the World Economic Forum.

“These numbers have been higher than what we expected and that’s why it is important to intensify efforts,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Getting the private sector to commit to deforestation-free supply chains is a “critical part of the puzzle” to protect forests, he said.

First such cooperation

“This is the first time in Colombia we see the government and the private sector joining forces like this,” he said.

“My hope and belief is that this partnership will find ways of ensuring that it is not only an agreement on paper but something that will happen in practical terms.”

Protecting forests helps cut carbon emissions, a key driver of climate change. When forests are degraded or destroyed, the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere.

Colombia is home to a swath of rainforest roughly the size of Germany and England combined and has declared a goal of zero net deforestation by 2020 and halting the loss of all natural forest by 2030.

Its rainforests have been increasingly threatened since a 2016 peace deal to end its decades-long civil war opened up former conflict areas to business, agriculture and development, Helgesen said.

Trees also are being cleared for cattle ranching, illegal mining and growing coca — the raw ingredient for cocaine.

Signing up with the Alliance are about 25 palm oil producers and buyers, Colombia’s Federation of Oil Palm Growers and Alqueria S.A., its third-largest dairy company. Also signing up are retail giant Grupo Exito and international companies operating in Colombia such as consumer goods company Unilever.

“The launch of the TFA 2020 Colombia Alliance is important as a strengthening mechanism for joint action in Colombia to reach our deforestation goals,” said Mariana Villamizar, a spokeswoman for Grupo Exito.

Producers and buyers from the beef, dairy and timber sectors are expected to join the partnership soon.

Each company will set targets to achieve zero deforestation across their often complex supply chains, and the government and NGOs will help monitor deforestation.

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US Supreme Court Considers Limits on Government in Key Privacy Case

The U.S. Supreme Court signaled Wednesday it may be open to new limits on the government’s ability to track someone’s movements by accessing data on that person’s cellphone.

A case before the high court could result in a landmark decision in the ongoing debate over civil liberties protections in an era of rapid technological change.

At issue is whether law enforcement will be able to access cellphone data that can reveal a person’s whereabouts without having to first obtain a court-issued search warrant.

The case stems from the conviction of Timothy Carpenter for a series of robberies back in 2010 and 2011. Prosecutors were able to obtain cellphone records that indicated his location over a period of months, information that proved crucial to his conviction.

Get a warrant

On Wednesday, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union argued that law enforcement should be required to obtain a court-ordered search warrant before obtaining such information.

They also argued that allowing law enforcement to access the cellphone data without a warrant would violate the prohibition on unreasonable search and seizures contained in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“It is impossible to go about our daily lives without leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs that reveal where we have been over time, what we have done, who we spent time with,” said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, who spoke to reporters outside the Supreme Court following oral arguments. “It is time for the court, we think, to update Fourth Amendment doctrine to provide reasonable protections today.”

Some of the justices also raised concerns about privacy in the digital age.

“Most Americans, I think, still want to avoid Big Brother,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who often sides with the liberal wing of the court, said.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who often sides with conservatives on the court, said the central question was whether the cellphone information should be accessible to the government “without a warrant.”

Privacy versus security

Justice Department lawyers defended the process of obtaining the data without a court warrant, arguing that even though the technology has changed, the need to rapidly obtain such information for law enforcement has not. The government also argued that privacy rights are not at issue because law enforcement agencies can obtain information from telecommunications companies that record transactions with their customers.

Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy indicated they were open to the government’s position in the case.

Legal experts say whichever way the court eventually rules could have an enormous impact on privacy rights in the digital age.

“I don’t think that this is a world that anybody anticipated a couple of decades ago,” Stanford University law professor David Alan Sklansky said via Skype. “These new data capabilities are rapidly increasing the things that government can do for good and for evil. And figuring out how we allow the government to make full use of these new capabilities, without endangering political liberties and endangering the privacy that is necessary for us to have the kind of flourishing democratic social life we want, is a huge ongoing challenge.”

Sklansky added that the United States “has historically been a leader in thinking about privacy rights, particularly with regard to privacy from the government.”

And he predicted that other countries will be closely following the high court case as they wrestle with similar conflicts. “This is a global problem. Countries around the world are trying to figure out how to deal with it. I think that people in all democratic countries should care about how the United States winds up resolving this question,” he said.

Past rulings

Twice in recent years the Supreme Court has ruled in major cases related to privacy and technology and both times ruled against law enforcement.

The court ruled in 2012 that a warrant is required to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle. And in 2014, the high court ruled that a warrant is required to search a cellphone seized during an arrest.

A decision in the current case, known as Carpenter v. U.S., is expected sometime before the end of June.

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India Unveils New Recommendations to Reinforce Strict Net Neutrality

India has strongly backed a free and open Internet, with its telecom regulator recommending stringent regulations on net neutrality – the concept of ensuring equal access to the web — saying it is important the Internet is not “cannibalized.”

 

India’s push for net neutrality comes at a time when the United States has unveiled plans to roll back regulations on it.

 “The core principles of net neutrality, non-discriminatory treatment of all content, we’ve upheld them,” R.S. Sharma, Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, TRAI, told reporters as he unveiled recommendations following a year-long debate.

These proposals seek to prohibit any service provider from blocking or offering preferential data speeds which essentially means that telecom providers cannot create “fast lanes” for higher paying customers or speed up or slow down websites and apps.

Equal access

Advocates of net neutrality, who have led an impassioned battle to ensure equal web access, welcomed the latest recommendations, saying that these would ensure that India is among countries with the strictest net neutrality rules in the world. Last year India put in place rules that prohibited telecoms from differential pricing.

India’s IT industry lobby, NASSCOM, in a statement, said the reaffirmation of net neutrality would be a “shot in the arm” for the country’s digital economy.

Nikhil Pahwa, one of the founders of Internet Freedom Foundation, which has campaigned for strict net neutrality, says open access to the Internet is critical for India.

“This is really, really essential. It is important for India because we are at the cusp of great Internet growth and innovation with lots of start-ups coming up and students and people developing things online,” he said.

India’s stand on net neutrality had last year effectively blocked efforts by Facebook to offer free but limited access to the web in the country’s fast growing Internet market.

The company said it wanted to expand access to the net in poor, rural areas but digital rights activists had slammed the plan as “poor Internet for poor people” and said it would create a “walled garden” in which Facebook would control the content it offered users. A Facebook spokesperson at the time said the company was disappointed by the outcome but would continue its efforts to “eliminate barriers.”

80 million users

Supporters of an open Internet point out that India’s experience demonstrates that net neutrality rules are not hampering access to the Internet in a country where many people are still not connected to the web.

“In the last year alone we have added about 80 million Internet users. There has been a substantial increase in Internet access in the country and it is increasing rapidly despite net neutrality. So this notion that net neutrality is adversarial to growth of Internet access or to sustainability of mobile operators is incorrect,” said Pahwa.

India’s position on ensuring an open Internet is in contrast to the U.S., where last week the U.S. Federal Communications Commission unveiled plans to repeal net neutrality rules, saying they discourage Internet service providers from making investments in their network to provide better and faster online access.

India’s strict net neutrality rules have disappointed private telecom providers, who had hoped for some leeway in the latest recommendations.

In an oblique reference to the U.S. position, a statement from the telecom industry’s main lobby group, the Cellular Operators Association of India, said that at a time when, globally, countries are adopting a more “market oriented, and market driven approach to net neutrality in order to not stifle development, innovation, proliferation and growth of the Internet, we believe TRAI should have adopted a light touch approach to net neutrality.”

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