Trade Optimism Lifts Stocks, But 2018 Ends in Red

Equities around the world rose Monday as possible progress in resolving the trade dispute between the United States and China engendered some investor optimism in what has been a punishing end of year for markets.

The U.S. benchmark S&P 500 stock index advanced in light trading volume after U.S. President Donald Trump said he held a “very good call” with China’s President Xi Jinping on Saturday to discuss trade and said “big progress” was being made.

Chinese state media were more reserved, saying Xi hoped the negotiating teams could meet each other halfway and reach an agreement that was mutually beneficial.

The rise in U.S. equities mirrored that in Asian and European markets, which were also buoyed by trade optimism.

Despite Monday’s advance, equities ended the year largely in the red, victims of investor anxiety over trade tensions and slowing economic growth. Asian and European shares had been sluggish for much of the year, and in recent months, U.S. stocks followed suit.

“If the European economy continues to decelerate and the Chinese economy decelerates because of tariffs, there is definitely going to be spillover to the United States,” said Shannon Saccocia, chief investment officer at Boston Private.

The S&P 500 dropped more than 9 percent in December, its largest decline since the Great Depression. For the year, the index slid more than 6 percent, its biggest drop since the 2008 financial crisis.

Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan ended down 16 percent for the year, while the STOXX 600 was more than 13 percent lower.

MSCI’s gauge of stocks around the globe fell 11.1 percent in 2018.

A further blow to the Chinese economy could spur a quicker resolution to the U.S.-China trade dispute and thus boost global equities, Saccocia said. Survey data on Monday showed Chinese manufacturing activity contracting for the first time in two years even as the service sector improved.

On Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 265.06 points, or 1.15 percent, to 23,327.46, the S&P 500 gained 21.11 points, or 0.85 percent, to 2,506.85 and the Nasdaq Composite added 50.76 points, or 0.77 percent, to 6,635.28.

MSCI’s emerging markets index rose 0.32 percent, while the MSCI world stock index gained 0.66 percent.

No more hikes

Yields on U.S. Treasuries fell on Monday, keeping with the trend over the past two months as investors moved to lower-risk investments.

Benchmark 10-year notes last rose 15/32 in price to yield 2.686 percent, compared with 2.738 percent late Friday.

The fall in Treasury yields reflects expectations of a slowdown, if not a pause altogether, in the Federal Reserve’s progression of interest-rate hikes.

The precipitous drop in yields has undermined the U.S. dollar in recent weeks. The dollar index, which measures the greenback against a basket of six other currencies, was down 0.3 percent and on track to end December with a loss. It is, however, still set for its highest yearly percentage gain since 2015.

On Monday, the dollar fell to a six-month low against the yen.

The euro was up 0.2 percent to $1.1459, on track to end the year down nearly 5 percent against the dollar.

Oil posted its first year of losses since 2015, with Brent crude futures down 19.5 percent and U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures down 24.8 percent.

On Monday, Brent crude settled 59 cents higher, or 1.11 percent, at $53.80 a barrel. U.S. crude settled up 8 cents, or 0.18 percent, at $45.41 a barrel.

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China Factory Activity Shrinks for First Time in 2 Years

China’s factory activity shrank in December for the first time in more than two years, an official survey showed Monday, intensifying pressure on Beijing to reverse an economic slowdown as it enters trade talks with the Trump administration.

The purchasing managers’ index of the National Bureau of Statistics and an industry group, the China Federation of Logistics & Purchasing, fell to 49.4 from November’s 50.0 on a 100-point scale. Any reading below 50 shows that activity is contracting. The December figure was the lowest since February 2016 and the first drop since July 2016.

 

In the quarter that ended in September, China’s economic growth sank to a post-global crisis low of 6.5 percent compared with a year earlier. The slowdown occurred despite government efforts to stem the downturn by ordering banks to lend more and by boosting spending on public works construction.

 

Forecasters expect annual growth of about 6.5 percent, down slightly from 2017’s 6.7 percent. But some industry segments, including auto and real estate sales, have suffered more serious declines.

 

“Downward pressure on the economy is still large,” economist Zhang Liqun said in a statement issued with the PMI.

 

Overall orders and exports both contracted, indicating that Chinese factories are suffering from weak demand at home and abroad. Exports to the United States kept growing at double-digit monthly rates through late 2018 despite President Donald Trump’s punitive tariffs. But growth in exports to the rest of the world fell sharply in November and forecasters expect American demand to weaken in early 2019.

 

That adds to complications for Chinese leaders who are trying to reverse a broad economic slowdown and avert politically dangerous job losses.

 

Chinese and U.S. envoys are due to meet in early January for negotiations that are intended to resolve their economically threatening trade war. Over the weekend, Trump sounded an optimistic note, tweeting that he had spoken with President Xi Jinping by phone.

 

“Deal is moving along very well,” Trump tweeted. “If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute. Big progress being made!”

 

But economists say the 90-day moratorium on new penalties that was agreed to by Trump and Xi on Dec. 1 is likely too little time to resolve their sprawling dispute.

 

Chinese economic activity already was weakening after Beijing tightened controls on bank lending in late 2017 to cool a debt boom. The downturn was more abrupt than expected, which prompted regulators to shift course and ease credit controls. But they moved gradually to avoid reigniting a rise in debt. Their measures have yet to put a floor under declining growth.

 

Chinese leaders promised at an annual economic planning meeting in mid-December to shore up growth with tax cuts, easier lending for entrepreneurs and other steps.

 

 

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Kenyan GDP Growth at 6 Percent in Third Quarter 2018

Kenya’s economy expanded faster in the third quarter of this year than in the same period last year due to strong performance in the agriculture and construction sectors, the statistics office said on Monday.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics said the economy grew 6 percent in the third quarter of 2018, compared with 4.7 percent in the same period in 2017.

It said the agriculture sector expanded by 5.2 percent compared with 3.7 percent in the third quarter of 2017, helped by better weather.

“Prices of key food crops remained low during the quarter compared to the corresponding quarter of 2017, an indication of relative stability in supply,” KNBS said.

Manufacturing grew by 3.2 percent from a 0.1 percent contraction in the third quarter of 2017, KNBS said.

It said that the electricity and water supply sector grew by 8.5 percent from 4.5 percent in the third quarter of 2017, mainly due to a big increase in the generation of electricity from hydro and geothermal sources.

Gross foreign reserves increased to 1,222.5 billion from 1,085.6 billion in the same period of last year.

The current account deficit narrowed by 23 percent to 116 billion Kenyan shillings ($1.14 billion), it said.

This was mainly due to lower imports of food and higher value of exports of goods and services.

The government forecasts that the economy will expand by 6.2 percent in 2019, up from a forecast 6.0 percent this year.

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Nigeria Targets 26M People in Yellow Fever Campaign

Nigeria’s campaign to vaccinate more people against yellow fever appears to be making headway. The government is partnering with the World Health Organization (WHO), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and UNICEF to immunize more than 26 million people. It is the second phase of Nigeria’s preventive campaign after a yellow fever outbreak in September 2017. Timothy Obiezu has more from Abuja.

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The Euro Currency Turns 20 Years Old on Tuesday

The euro currency turns 20 years old on January 1, surviving two tumultuous decades and becoming the world’s No. 2 currency.

After 20 years, the euro has become a fixture in financial markets, although it remains behind the dollar, which dominates the world’s market.

The euro has weathered several major challenges, including difficulties at its launch, the 2008 financial crisis, and a eurozone debt crisis that culminated in bailouts of several countries.

Those crises tested the unity of the eurozone, the 19 European Union countries that use the euro. While some analysts say the turmoil and the euro’s resilience has strengthened the currency and made it less susceptible to future troubles, other observers say the euro will remain fragile unless there is more eurozone integration.

Beginnings 

The euro was born on January 1, 1999, existing initially only as a virtual currency used in financial transactions. Europeans began using the currency in their wallets three years later when the first Euro notes and coins were introduced.

At that time, only 11 member states were using the currency and had to qualify by meeting the requirements for limits on debt, deficits and inflation. EU members Britain and Denmark received opt-outs ahead of the currency’s creation.

The currency is now used by over 340 million people in 19 European Union countries, which are: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

Other EU members are required to join the eurozone when they meet the currency’s monetary requirements.

Popularity

Today, the euro is the most popular than it has ever been over the past two decades, despite the rise of populist movements in several European countries that express skepticism toward the European Union.

In a November survey for the European Central Bank, 64 percent of respondents across the eurozone said the euro was a good thing for their country. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they thought the euro was a good thing for Europe.

In only two countries — Lithuania and Cyprus — did a majority of people think the euro is a bad thing for their nation.

That is a big contrast to 2010, the year that both Greece and Ireland were receiving international bailout packages, when only 51 percent of respondents thought the euro was a good thing for their country.

Challenges

The euro faced immediate challenges at its beginning with predictions that the European Central Bank (ECB) was too rigid in its policy and that the currency would quickly fail. The currency wasn’t immediately loved in European homes and businesses either with many perceiving its arrival as a price hike on common goods.

Less than two years after the euro was launched — valued at $1.1747 to the U.S. dollar — it had lost 30 percent of its value and was worth just $0.8240 to the U.S. dollar. The ECB was able to intervene to successfully stop the euro from plunging further.

The biggest challenge to the block was the 2008 financial crisis, which then triggered a eurozone debt crisis that culminated in bailouts of several countries.

Tens of billions of euros were loaned to Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus and Spain, either because those countries ran out of money to save their own banks or because investors no longer wanted to invest in those nations.

The turmoil also highlighted the economic disparity between member states, particularly between the wealthier north and the debt-laden southern nations.

Poorer countries experienced both the advantages and disadvantages to being in the eurozone.

Poorer countries immediately benefited from joining the union, saving trillions of euros due to the lowering borrowing costs the new currency offered.

However, during times of economic downturn, they had fewer options to reverse the turmoil.

Typically in a financial crisis, a country’s currency would plunge, making its goods more competitive and allowing the economy to stabilize. But in the eurozone, the currency in poorer countries cannot devalue because stronger economies like Germany keep it higher.

Experts said the turbulent times of the debt crisis exposed some of the original flaws of the euro project.

However, the euro survived the financial crisis through a combination of steps from the ECB that included negative interest rates, trillions of euros in cheap loans to banks and buying more than 2.6 trillion euros in government and corporate bonds.

Future

ECB chief Mario Draghi was credited with saving the euro in 2012 when he said the bank would do “whatever it takes” to preserve the currency.

Some experts say the flexibility of the bank proves it is able to weather financial challenges and say the turmoil of the past two decades have left the ECB better able to deal with future crises.

However, other observers say that the 19 single currency nations have not done enough to carry out political reforms necessary to better enable the countries to work together on fiscal policy and to prepare for future downturns.

Proposals for greater coordination, including a eurozone banking union as well as a eurozone budget are still in the planning phases.

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NASA Probe to Make History New Year’s Day

NASA scientists are getting a very special New Year’s Day gift. The New Horizons spacecraft is moving into unexplored space beyond Neptune to investigate objects so far out in our solar system they can hardly be seen by telescope. As VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports, the trip far out in space may help scientists figure out how the solar system was created.

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Tiny Tracking Devices Help Protect Endangered Species From Poaching

A French technology company has created a tiny tracking device to combat poaching. The tracker is smaller, lighter and cheaper than previous methods, such as radio collars. The creators say the technology can also allow those in remote villages to share information on the internet regardless of language or literacy barriers. Arash Arabasadi reports.

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Trump Says ‘Big Progress’ on Possible China Trade Deal

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter on Saturday that he had a “long and very good call” with Chinese President Xi Jinping and that a possible trade deal between the United States and China was progressing well.

As a partial shutdown of the U.S. government entered its eighth day, with no quick end in sight, the Republican president was in Washington, sending out tweets attacking Democrats and talking up possibly improved relations with China.

The two nations have been in a trade war for much of 2018 that has seen the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods between the world’s two largest economies disrupted by tariffs.

Trump and Xi agreed to a ceasefire in the trade war, agreeing to hold off on imposing more tariffs for 90 days starting Dec. 1 while they negotiate a deal to end the dispute following months of escalating tensions.

“Just had a long and very good call with President Xi of China,” Trump wrote. “Deal is moving along very well. If made, it will be very comprehensive, covering all subjects, areas and points of dispute. Big progress being made!” Chinese state media also said Xi and Trump spoke on Saturday, and quoted Xi as saying that teams from both countries have been working to implement a consensus reached with Trump.

Chinese media also quoted Xi as saying that he hopes both sides can meet each other half way and reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial as soon as possible.

Having canceled his plans to travel to his estate in Florida for the holidays because of the government shutdown that started on Dec. 22, Trump tweeted, “I am in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come on over and make a deal.”

The Republican-controlled Congress was closed for the weekend and few lawmakers were in the capital.

The shutdown, affecting about one-quarter of the federal government including 800,000 or so workers, began when funding for several agencies expired.

Congress must pass legislation to restore that funding, but has not done so due to a dispute over Trump’s demand that the bill include $5 billion in taxpayer money to help pay for a wall he wants to build along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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DRC Protests Hamper Ebola Epidemic Response

The World Health Organization says violent protests in DR Congo’s conflict-ridden North Kivu Province are hampering efforts to control the spread of the Ebola virus.  Protests erupted Thursday in response to the government’s decision to delay presidential elections in the region until March.

 

The World Health Organization reports anti-government protests in the towns of Beni and Butembo in North Kivu in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are having a serious impact on the Ebola response operation.   It says critical field work is being disrupted; including vaccinations, contact tracing, and checking on people who have been potentially exposed to the deadly virus. 

 

WHO spokesman Tarek Jasarevic says an Ebola transit center in Beni was attacked, frightening people waiting for test results and the staff caring for them.  He tells VOA the violence is an unfortunate setback to Ebola control efforts, which have been progressing.

“All gains that we have made so far in fighting Ebola in North Kivu are at risk because of this violence… And, in recent weeks, we were quite optimistic about Beni city because we have seen some decrease in numbers.  However, now again with this surge in violence, we may again lose these gains,” said Jasarevic.

Latest figures from the DRC Ministry of Health put the number of Ebola cases at 593, including 359 deaths — a fatality rate of 60 percent.  Another 203 people reportedly have recovered from Ebola.

The outbreak in North Kivu was declared five months ago on August 1.  More than 1,000 health workers from the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization and other agencies are on the ground trying to stop the disease from spreading.  

Jasarevic says a lot of work lies ahead before the epidemic can be brought under control.   For that to happen, he says, it is important that health workers have access to the population and that their security is assured.

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Farmers Risk Loss of Federal Payments, Loans, From Shutdown

The end of 2018 seemed to signal good things to come for America’s farmers. Fresh off the passage of the farm bill, which reauthorized agriculture, conservation and safety net programs, the Agriculture Department last week announced a second round of direct payments to growers hardest hit by President Donald Trump’s trade war with China.

Then parts of the government shut down.

The USDA in a statement issued last week assured farmers that checks would continue to go out during the first week of the shutdown. But direct payments for farmers who haven’t certified production, as well as farm loans and disaster assistance programs, will be put on hold beginning next week, and won’t start up again until the government reopens.

There is little chance of the government shutdown ending soon. Trump and Congress are no closer to reaching a deal over his demand for border wall money, and both sides say the impasse could drag well into January.

Although certain vital USDA programs will remain operational in the short term, that could change if the shutdown lasts for more than a few weeks.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, helps feed roughly 40 million Americans. According to the USDA, eligible recipients are guaranteed benefits through January. Other feeding programs, including WIC, which provides food aid and nutrition counseling for pregnant women, new mothers and children, and food distribution programs on Indian reservations, will continue on a local level, but additional federal funding won’t be provided. School lunch programs will continue through February.

USDA has earmarked about $9.5 billion in direct payments for growers of soybeans, corn, wheat, sorghum and other commodities most affected by tariffs. The first round of payments went out in September. The deadline to sign up for the second round of payments is January 15.

The impact of the shutdown, which began shortly before most federal workers were scheduled for a holiday break, started coming into focus by midweek.

About 420,000 employees are working without pay, while 380,000 are being forced to stay home. In the past, federal employees have been paid retroactively. But government contractors won’t get paid for hours they’ll lose staying home, causing problems for those who rely on hourly wages.

In anticipation of the financial bind many federal workers and contractors may soon find themselves in, the Office of Personnel Management offered some advice: haggle with landlords, creditors and mortgage companies for lower payments until the shutdown is over.

The shutdown also is affecting national parks, although unevenly: Some remain accessible with bare-bones staffing levels, some are operating with money from states or charitable groups, while others are locked off.

 

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