US Trade Deficit Hits 8-Month Low on Weak Chinese Imports

The U.S. trade deficit fell to an eight-month low in February as imports from China plunged, temporarily providing a boost to President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda and economic growth in the first quarter.

The surprise second straight monthly narrowing in the trade gap reported by the Commerce Department on Wednesday was also driven by soaring aircraft exports, which are likely to reverse after Boeing halted deliveries of its troubled 737 MAX aircraft. MAX planes have been grounded indefinitely following two deadly crashes.

Economists warned the trade deficit would remain elevated regardless of whether the United States and China struck a trade deal that was to the White House’s liking because of Americans’ insatiable appetite for cheaper imports.

Talks between Washington and China to resolve the bitter trade war have been dragging. The United States is also embroiled in conflicts with other trading partners, including the European Union, contributing to big swings in exports and imports data in recent months.

“Even if trade negotiations are resolved in such a way as to reduce the bilateral trade deficit with China, one of the Trump administration’s stated goals, this would likely divert trade flows to other countries and have little impact on the top-line U.S. trade deficit,” said Emily Mandel, an economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

The trade deficit tumbled 3.4% to $49.4 billion in February, the lowest level since June 2018. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the trade shortfall widening to $53.5 billion in February.

The politically sensitive goods trade deficit with China – a focus of the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policy – decreased 28.2% to $24.8 billion in February as imports from the world’s No. 2 economy plunged 20.2%. U.S. exports to China jumped 18.2% in February.

Washington last year imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of goods imported from China, with Beijing retaliating with duties on $110 billion worth of American products. Trump has defended the duties as necessary to protect domestic manufacturers from what he says is unfair foreign competition.

Trump has delayed tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. The White House argues that substantially reducing the trade deficit would lift annual economic growth by at least 3% on a sustainable basis, a feat that economists have said is impossible because of low productivity and population growth.

The economy grew 2.9% in 2018.

The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies, while U.S. Treasury debt prices rose marginally.

Stocks on Wall Street fell.

Growth estimates raised

February’s smaller trade deficit suggests the economy will probably avoid a sharp slowdown in growth that had been feared at the start of the year. The goods trade deficit declined 1.7% to an eight-month low of $72.0 billion in February.

When adjusted for inflation, the overall goods trade deficit fell $1.8 billion to $81.8 billion, also the lowest since last June. Goldman Sachs raised its first quarter gross domestic product estimate by four-tenths of percentage point to a 2.1% annualized rate.

The Atlanta Federal Reserve bumped up its GDP forecast to a 2.4% pace from a 2.3% rate. The economy grew at a 2.2% rate in the fourth quarter.

“It sounds like pencils are being sharpened in order to revise up first-quarter GDP forecasts,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

In February, goods exports increased 1.5% to $139.5 billion. The surge in goods exports is unlikely to be sustained given slowing global economic growth. The dollar’s strength last year means U.S.-manufactured goods are less competitive on foreign markets.

Shipments of civilian aircraft soared by $2.2 billion in February. Exports of motor vehicles and parts increased by $0.6 billion. There was a small rise in soybean exports. Economists expect soybean exports to remain moderate because of an outbreak of swine flu that has reduced demand for soybean meal in China.

In February, imports rose 0.2% to $259.1 billion.

Consumer goods imports increased by $1.6 billion in February, led by a $2.1 billion rise in imports of cellphones and other household goods.

Imports of industrial supplies and materials fell by $1.2 billion. Capital goods imports rose slightly, pointing to slower business spending on equipment.

Crude oil imports fell to 173.7 million barrels, the lowest since March 1992, from 223.1 million barrels in January. An increase in domestic production has seen the United States become less dependent on foreign oil.

“We see more potential for stronger imports in coming months, which would reestablish a trend toward wider deficits,” said Andrew Hollenhorst, an economist at Citigroup in New York.

 


Long-Hidden Kafka Trove Within Reach After Series of Trials

A long-hidden trove of unpublished works by Franz Kafka could soon be revealed following a decade-long battle over his literary estate that has drawn comparisons to some of his surreal tales.

A district court in Zurich upheld Israeli verdicts in the case last week, ruling that several safe deposit boxes in the Swiss city could be opened and their contents shipped to Israel’s National Library.

At stake are untouched papers that could shed new light on one of literature’s darkest figures, a German-speaking Bohemian Jew from Prague whose cultural legacy has been hotly contested between Israel and Germany.

What’s in the vaults?

Though the exact content of the vaults remains unknown, experts have speculated the cache could include endings to some of Kafka’s major works, many of which were unfinished when they were published after his death.

Israel’s Supreme Court has stripped an Israeli family of its collection of Kafka’s manuscripts, which were hidden in Israeli bank vaults and in a squalid, cat-filled Tel Aviv apartment. But the Swiss ruling would complete the acquisition of nearly all his known works, after years of lengthy legal battles over their rightful owners.

Kafkaesque saga

The saga could have been penned by Kafka himself, whose name has become known as an adjective to describe absurd situations involving inscrutable legal processes. Kafka was known for his tales of everyman protagonists crushed by mysterious authorities or twisted by unknown shames. In “The Trial,” for example, a bank clerk is put through excruciating court proceedings without ever being told the charges against him.

“The absurdity of the trials is that it was over an estate that nobody knew what it contained. This will hopefully finally resolve these questions,” said Benjamin Balint, a research fellow at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute and the author of “Kafka’s Last Trial,” which chronicles the affair. “The legal process may be ending, but the questions of his cultural belonging and inheritance will remain with us for a very long time.”

Manuscripts not burned

Kafka bequeathed his writings to Max Brod, his longtime friend, editor and publisher, shortly before his death from tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40. He instructed his protege to burn it all unread.

Brod ignored his wishes and published most of what was in his possession — including the novels “The Trial,” “The Castle” and “Amerika.” Those works made the previously little-known Kafka posthumously one of the most celebrated and influential writers of the 20th century.

But Brod, who smuggled some of the manuscripts to pre-state Israel when he fled the Nazis in 1938, didn’t publish everything. Upon his death in 1968, Brod left his personal secretary, Esther Hoffe, in charge of his literary estate and instructed her to transfer the Kafka papers to an academic institution.

Instead, for the next four decades, Hoffe kept the papers stashed away and sold some of the items for hefty sums. In 1988, for instance, Hoffe auctioned off the original manuscript of “The Trial” at Sotheby’s in London. It went for $1.8 million to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, north of Stuttgart.

When Hoffe died in 2008 at age 101, she left the collection to her two daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler, both Holocaust survivors like herself, who considered Brod a father figure and his archive their rightful inheritance. Both have since also passed away, leaving Wiesler’s daughters to continue fighting for the remainder of the collection.

Legitimate inheritance or cultural assets?

Jeshayah Etgar, a lawyer for the daughters, downplayed the significance of the potential findings in Zurich, saying they were likely replicas of manuscripts Hoffe had already sold. Regardless, he said the ruling was the continuation of a process in which “individual property rights were trampled without any legal justification.” He said his clients legitimately inherited the works and called the state seizure of their property “disgraceful” and “first degree robbery.”

Israel’s National Library claims Kafka’s papers as “cultural assets” that belong to the Jewish people. Toward the end of his life, Kafka considered leaving Prague and moving to pre-state Israel. He took Hebrew lessons with a Jerusalem native who eventually donated her pupil’s vocabulary notebook to the library. In recent years, the library also took possession of several other manuscripts the courts had ordered Hoffe’s descendants to turn over.

“We welcome the judgment of the court in Switzerland, which matched all the judgments entered previously by the Israeli courts,” said David Blumberg, chairman of the Israel National Library, a nonprofit and non-governmental body. “The judgment of the Swiss court completes the preparation of the National Library of Israel to accept to entire literary estate of Max Brod, which will be properly handled and will be made available to the wider public in Israel and the world.”

Other scholars question Israel’s adoption of Kafka, noting that he was conflicted about his own Judaism. The German Literature Archive, for instance, has sided with Hoffe’s heirs and aimed to purchase the collection itself, arguing the German-language writings belong in Germany. Dietmar Jaegle, an archive official, said he would not comment on the Zurich verdict as he had not yet seen it.

Balint cautioned that the contents of the hidden archive may not live up to everyone’s expectations.

“It is very unlikely we are going to discover an unknown Kafka masterpiece in there, but these are things of value,” Balint said, noting the fierce competition over any original Kafka material. “There is something about the uncanny aura of Kafka that is attracted to all this.”


China’s Economic Growth Steady Amid Tariff Fight With US

China’s economic growth held steady in the latest quarter despite a tariff war with Washington, in a reassuring sign that Beijing’s efforts to reverse a slowdown might be gaining traction.

The world’s second-largest economy expanded by 6.4% over a year earlier in the three months ending in March, the government reported Wednesday. That matched the previous quarter for the weakest growth since 2009.

“This confirms that China’s economic growth is bottoming out and this momentum is likely to continue,” said Tai Hui of JP Morgan Asset Management in a report.

Government intervention

Communist leaders stepped up government spending last year and told banks to lend more after economic activity weakened, raising the risk of politically dangerous job losses.

Beijing’s decision to ease credit controls aimed at reining in rising debt “is starting to yield results,” Hui said.

Consumer spending, factory activity and investment all accelerated in March from the month before, the National Bureau of Statistics reported.

The economy showed “growing positive factors,” a bureau statement said.

​Recovery later this year

Forecasters expect Chinese growth to bottom out and start to recover later this year. They expected a recovery last year but pushed back that time line after President Donald Trump hiked tariffs on Chinese imports over complaints about Beijing’s technology ambitions.

The fight between the two biggest global economies has disrupted trade in goods from soybeans medical equipment, battering exporters on both sides and rattling financial markets.

The two governments say settlement talks are making progress, but penalties on billions of dollars of each other’s goods are still in place.

China’s top economic official, Premier Li Keqiang, announced an annual official growth target of 6% to 6.5% in March, down from last year’s 6.6% rate.

Li warned of “rising difficulties” in the global economy and said the ruling Communist Party plans to step up deficit spending this year to shore up growth.

Beijing’s stimulus measures have temporarily set back official plans to reduce reliance on debt and investment to support growth.

Also in March, exports rebounded from a contraction the previous month, rising 14.2% over a year earlier. Still, exports are up only 1.4% so far this year, while imports shrank 4.8% in a sign of weak Chinese domestic demand.

Auto sales fell 6.9% in March from a year ago, declining for a ninth month. But that was an improvement over the 17.5% contraction in January and February.

Tariffs’ effect long-lasting

Economists warn that even if Washington and Beijing announce a trade settlement in the next few weeks or months, it is unlikely to resolve all the irritants that have bedeviled relations for decades.

The two governments agreed Dec. 1 to postpone further penalties while they negotiate, but punitive charges already imposed on billions of dollars of goods stayed in place.

Even if they make peace, the experience of other countries suggests it can take four to five years for punitive duties to “dissipate fully,” said Jamie Thompson of Capital Economics in a report last week.

Chinese leaders warned previously any economic recovery will be “L-shaped,” meaning once the downturn bottomed out, growth would stay low.

Credit growth accelerated in March, suggesting companies are stepping up investment and production.

Total profit for China’s national-level state-owned banks, oil producers, phone carriers and other companies rose 13.1% over a year ago in the first quarter, the government reported Tuesday. Revenue rose 6.3% and investment rose 9.7%.


Argentine Presidential Hopeful Massa Says Would Revamp IMF Deal

Argentine presidential hopeful Sergio Massa would renegotiate the country’s unpopular financing deal with the International Monetary Fund if he wins office later this year, the former congressman told reporters on Tuesday.

The $56 billion IMF standby financing agreement includes fiscal cuts that have enraged wide segments of the public, denting the popularity of President Mauricio Macri.

“We need to find a longer-term mechanism to ensure that Argentina meets its debt obligations, ” the 46-year-old Massa said in a briefing with international correspondents.

Macri was forced to negotiate the IMF deal last year amid a sell-off in the peso that raised questions about Argentina’s ability to pay dollar-denominated bond obligations. Many Argentines blame the IMF for policies that set the stage for the country’s 2002 sovereign debt default and economic meltdown.

Popular protests supported by Massa’s Peronist party have gained momentum in recent weeks as the Macri administration pursues IMF-backed public utility subsidy cuts and other austerity measures aimed at erasing the primary fiscal deficit this year, a goal included in the IMF pact.

Massa, who wants to unseat Macri in the October election, spoke just hours after Macri’s government announced that consumer prices shot 4.7 percent higher in March alone, bringing 12-month inflation to 54.7 percent.

More than three years into his first term, Macri’s re-election is less than certain as his government strains to jumpstart a shrinking economy while cutting the fiscal deficit and trying to tame one of the world’s highest inflation rates.

Previous Argentine leader and possible October candidate Cristina Fernandez, a free-spending populist with wide support among low-income voters, has risen in the opinion polls while discontent rises over Macri’s policy of cutting public utility subsidies and other austerity measures.

Massa once served in Fernandez’s cabinet but broke with her over what he called her top-down leadership style. He is running behind both Fernandez and Macri in the opinion polls.

Argentina’s economy will remain subject to shocks until clarity emerges regarding the country’s October presidential election, ratings agency Moody’s said this month.


Kudlow: White House Talking to Other Possible Fed Candidates

The White House is considering other possible candidates for the board of the Federal Reserve although President Donald Trump still backs his two potential nominees, Herman Cain and Stephen Moore, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Tuesday.

Kudlow, speaking to reporters at the White House, added that Trump’s picks are still going through the nominating process for the seats on the U.S. central bank’s board of governors.

“We are talking to a number of candidates. We always do,” he said when asked if the White House was vetting alternates for Cain and Moore, whose controversial potential nominations have raised concerns among economists as well as some of Trump’s fellow Republicans.

The U.S. Senate must confirm any nominees, and Republicans control the chamber with 53 seats. But four of them have said they oppose Cain, a former pizza company chief executive, effectively sinking his nomination.

Neither candidate’s name has been formally sent to the Senate, but Trump has pledged to do so.

Economists and other critics have raised concerns about two Trump loyalists serving at what has traditionally been a nonpartisan financial entity.

 


Fearing Austerity, Lebanese Protest Ahead of Budget

The Lebanese government has yet to disclose its budget for 2019, but protesters are already in the streets fearing the “difficult and painful” reforms it is expected to announce as it tries to get spending in control and rein in public debt.

Retired army officers blocked several highways with burning tires Tuesday, a preemptive warning to the government against any cuts to their pensions that might be part of its effort to reduce one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens.

Though small, the protests offered a glimpse of the political minefield facing the government.

The budget is seen as a critical test of its will to enact long-stalled reforms that economists say are more pressing than ever for an economy that has suffered years of low growth. State finances are strained by a bloated public sector, high debt servicing costs and hefty subsidizes spent on the power sector.

“We went out today to tell them that our pensions are a red line,” said Khaled Ammar, one of a number of retired officers blocking the highway south of Beirut.

The budget has yet to be finalized but speculation it will include cuts to the massive public wage bill has grown since Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil hinted at such steps Saturday.

“There are those who should be making people aware today that if a temporary reduction doesn’t happen, then there will be no salaries for anyone,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that “if we must start with the ministers and MPs, so be it.”

Protesters said tackling corruption should be the priority.

“If the economic condition of the country has reached this difficult level … we are not responsible for it, the politicians are,” said Ammar, a father of three who served in the military for three decades.

Bloated public sector

Lebanese leaders have been warning of economic crisis for some time. In a February policy statement, the new government committed itself to launching fast and effective reforms that could be “difficult and painful” to avoid a worsening of economic, financial and social conditions.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said last week he was concerned about a Greek-style crisis in Lebanon while saying that government measures would prevent “economic problems.”

At a Paris conference last year, Lebanon promised to cut its budget deficit by 1 percent of gross domestic product a year over five years. Economists are now looking for a bigger cut because last year’s deficit was bigger than expected at between 10.5%to 11% of GDP instead of a projected 8.2%.

Serious reforms would help Lebanon unlock some $11 billion in financing pledged in Paris.

The government last week approved a plan to overhaul the power sector — a major drain on state finances for years.

Critics say the government must deliver this time, pointing to previous such plans that were never implemented.

The public sector wage bill is the state’s biggest outgoing, followed by servicing the public debt equal to around 150% of GDP. The wage bill went up in 2017 after increases were agreed ahead of a parliamentary election.

Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at Lebanon’s Byblos Bank, hopes to see the deficit brought down by 2% of GDP and says reforms should include shutting down the many obsolete government agencies.

“They have to freeze hiring, freeze future salary increases, and increases in benefits, and they have to cut the number of public sector employees and restructure the way companies restructure when they are in financial difficulties,” he said.

“The public sector has recruited 31,000 people over the last four years — more than the entire financial sector.”


Development Bank Earmarks $4.4 Billion for Central Africa

The African Development Bank (AfDB) promised Tuesday to invest $4.4 billion (3.89 billion euros) in infrastructure in over the next seven years.

The sum will help to finance 30 projects, ranging from electricity networks and transport to information technology and communication and improve cross-border trade, it said in a statement.

Spending will be focused on Cameroon, Chad, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Central African Republic.

Growth in central Africa doubled in 2018, with GDP expanding by 2.2% against 1.1% a year earlier, according to AfDB figures.

The rate is still far behind the average for sub-Saharan Africa, which was 3.5 percent.

 


Mexican President Says to Return ‘Stolen’ Wealth to the People

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday he will create a “Robin Hood” institute to return to the people the ill-gotten wealth seized from corrupt politicians and gangsters.

His administration is drawing up a bill to create an independent “Robin Hood” institute “against the corrupt” that would put confiscated goods such as real estate, jewelry and cars into the public’s hands, the president told reporters.

“Let’s quickly return everything to the people that’s been stolen,” he said at his regular morning news conference.

For example, the institute could assign seized homes to municipalities for schools, hospitals or elderly care centers, he said. Assets seized by the government tend to have been ransacked or require expensive upkeep, he noted.

He did not estimate the value of the assets, or offer details on how they would be given back to the people.

Since taking office in December, veteran leftist Lopez Obrador has rolled out a string of welfare programs for the poor and the elderly, cut salaries for top civil servants and says he is saving public money by eliminating corruption.

Lopez Obrador has shunned the often luxurious trappings of Mexico’s wealthy elites, choosing to fly coach and drive through the capital in a white Volkswagen Jetta.

Immediately upon taking office, he turned over the presidential palace to the public and put his predecessor’s official plane up for sale.


Tiger Woods’ Victory in Masters a Win for Golf Business

Tiger Woods’ victory at the Masters golf tournament on Sunday, his first major victory since 2008, is expected to lift sales for sponsors, broadcasters and golf courses lucky enough to host a tournament with Woods playing.

The competition put the 43-year-old back on top of a sport he helped transform 25 years ago.

“Tiger sells golf,” says Eric Smallwood, president of Apex Marketing Group, a Michigan analytics firm. Apex found that Nike earned $22.5 million worth of brand exposure just from Woods’ final round, with Nike’s “Swoosh” logo splashed on his hat, shirt, pants and shoes. Nike stock was up about one percent on Monday.

Tournament broadcaster CBS Corp saw a ratings bump.

Based on preliminary data, the final round of Sunday’s tournament was the highest-rated morning golf broadcast since 1986, when CBS started collecting that data. The tournament, which is usually broadcast in the afternoon, was rescheduled to the morning because of weather.

CBS has the rights to the PGA Championship in May and expects prices for advertising time that is still available to rise as a result of Woods’ Masters victory, according to a source familiar with the matter.

The golf demographic is wealthier and better-educated than other sports fans, so TV ratings are valued more highly because  hey’re more apt to turn into sales, even of big-ticket items, said Neal Pilson, president of Pilson Communications and former president of CBS Sports.

“Historically, events where Tiger Woods is on leaderboards on Sunday generated 30 to 40 percent higher ratings in the United States for those tournaments,” Pilson said.

Makings of a comeback

Woods was a 20-year-old prodigy when he turned pro in 1996.

Less than a year later he was ranked No. 1 in the world. He struck lucrative endorsement deals — including a five-year, $40 million deal with Nike — and golf experienced a surge in popularity.

Then Woods’ personal life collapsed and with it, his brand.

In 2009, after the news of multiple infidelities, he lost endorsement deals with companies like AT&T and Accenture. Other sponsors, such as Procter & Gamble’s Gillette and Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets, kept their contracts with Woods but stopped using him in marketing.

Four back surgeries later, Woods continued to suffer professionally and in the public eye. In 2017 police arrested him for driving under the influence; he pleaded guilty to reckless driving and entered a program for first-time offenders.

In 2018, Woods began a professional comeback that culminated at Sunday’s Masters. After his victory, Nike, which stood behind Woods throughout his darker years, posted an ad on its website titled “Tiger Woods: Same Dream.”

“In sports you have heroes, villains and underdogs,” said Benjamin Hordell, founder of digital marketing and advertising firm DXagency. “Tiger has lived all of it. That’s amazing from a storytelling perspective. People will root against him, but they’re watching.”

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump said he would award Woods the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Turkey: Buying Russian Defense System Should Not Trigger US Sanctions

Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense missile system should not trigger U.S. sanctions because Ankara is not an adversary of Washington and remains committed to the NATO alliance, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Monday.

Speaking at a U.S.-Turkey conference in Washington amid rising tensions between the two NATO allies over Ankara’s plan to buy the Russian S-400 missile system, Akar adopted a relatively conciliatory tone and urged to resolve issues via dialogue.

“Turkey is clearly not an adversary of the United States,” Akar said and added that, therefore, its procurement of the S-400 system should not be considered within the scope of U.S. sanctions designed to target America’s enemies.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Washington had told Ankara it could face retribution for buying the S-400s under a sanctions law known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA).

“This procurement decision does not signify a change in Turkey’s course. I’d like to reiterate strongly that there is no change in Turkey’s commitment to NATO,” Akar said.

The disagreement over the F-35 is the latest of a series of diplomatic disputes between the United States and Turkey including Turkish demands that the United States extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, differences over Middle East policy and the war in Syria, and sanctions on Iran.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has refused to back down from Ankara’s planned purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system that the United States has said would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft, made by Lockheed Martin. 

Turkey has said it will take delivery of the S-400s in July.

In early April, the United States halted delivery of equipment related to the stealthy F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey, marking the first concrete U.S. step to potentially blocking the delivery of the jet to the NATO ally.

Akar said Turkey was puzzled by the move and expected U.S. and other partners in the program to fulfill their obligations.

“We firmly believe that linking the S-400 to the F-35 project is unfortunate. … We are one of the investors and partners and not just a buyer. We have invested over $1 billion … and fulfilled all our obligations,” he said.

Akar repeated Turkey’s offer to hold technical talks with the United States to address “technical concerns” over the S-400 purchase.

Turkey is also assessing a renewed offer from the United States to buy Patriot missile defense systems, Akar added.

“Recently, we received the restated offer for the Patriots. This offer is now on the table, we are studying it carefully,” he said.