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Gloomy Davos: Plenty of Crises, Few World Leaders

An array of crises will keep several world leaders away from the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos next week, which takes place against a backdrop of deepening gloom over the global economic and political outlook.

Anxieties over trade disputes, fractious international relations, Brexit and a growth slowdown that some fear could tip the world economy into recession are set to dominate the Jan. 22-25 Alpine meeting.

The WEF’s own Global Risks Report set the tone this week with a stark warning of looming economic headwinds, in part because of geopolitical tensions among major powers.

​No Trump, Macron or May

Some 3,000 business, government and civil society figures are scheduled to gather in the snow-blanketed ski resort, but among them are only three leaders of the Group of Seven most industrialized countries: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte.

Donald Trump, who stole the Davos limelight last year with a rare appearance by a sitting U.S. president, pulled out of this year’s event as he grapples with a partial U.S. government shutdown.

On Thursday, the White House said Trump had also canceled his delegation’s trip to Davos because of the shutdown, now in its 27th day. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been expected to lead the U.S. team, according to two senior administration officials.

French President Emmanuel Macron is also skipping the meeting as he seeks to respond to the “yellow vest” protests, while British Prime Minister Theresa May battles to find a consensus on Brexit.

​No Xi, either

Outside the G7, the leaders of Russia and India are shunning Davos, while China —whose president, Xi Jinping, was the first Chinese leader to attend the elite gathering in 2017 to offer a vigorous defense of free trade — is sending Xi’s deputy instead.

That will leave the likes of British Finance Minister Philip Hammond, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and a host of central bankers with the task of trying to reassure business chiefs.

“Davos will be dominated by a high level of anxiety about stock markets, a slowdown in growth and international politics,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Markit. “The leadership presence is lower than last year but those who are going … will be seeking to impart a sense of confidence and calm business and investors’ nerves.”

​Forum still has its glitz

Before the U.S. cancellation, a Trump administration official had said the U.S. delegation would also discuss the importance of reforming institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Trump has harshly criticized globalization and questioned U.S. participation in multilateral institutions such as the WTO, calling for a revamp of international trade rules.

Davos watchers said the absence of so many top leaders this year did not mean the glitzy forum had lost its status as a global stage for top politicians to present their agendas.

“Abe is going to Davos not just as Japanese prime minister but also as chair of the G20. It will be a perfect opportunity to lay the groundwork of upcoming G20 meetings,” said a Japanese government source familiar with international affairs.

“Of course there may be inconveniences such as missing opportunities to hold bilateral meetings, but that won’t undermine the importance of Davos,” he said.

A Chinese official who has attended Davos regularly but will not go this year said China had never expected to make progress at the meeting on the trade dispute with the United States. 

“It’s just an occasion for making a policy statement,” he said.

​Networking opportunities

The low turnout among major Western leaders may also give more prominence to political personalities who may otherwise be upstaged. Davos will be the first major international outing for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, elected on a wave of anti-establishment and conservative nationalism also seen elsewhere.

He said on Twitter he would present “a different Brazil, free of ideological ties and widespread corruption.”

For business chiefs, the value of Davos lies not so much in the public sessions but in the networking and deal-making opportunities on the sidelines of the main conference.

“It’s the best place to pitch for ideas, build connections and get your brand known,” said Chen Linchevski, chief executive of Precognize, an Israel-based start-up developing software that prevents technical or quality failures at manufacturing plants.

“It’s the kind of place where in a few days you meet people you wouldn’t easily meet otherwise,” said Linchevski, who is paying 50,000 Swiss francs ($50,495) to attend the event.

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Gloomy Davos: Plenty of Crises, Few World Leaders

An array of crises will keep several world leaders away from the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos next week, which takes place against a backdrop of deepening gloom over the global economic and political outlook.

Anxieties over trade disputes, fractious international relations, Brexit and a growth slowdown that some fear could tip the world economy into recession are set to dominate the Jan. 22-25 Alpine meeting.

The WEF’s own Global Risks Report set the tone this week with a stark warning of looming economic headwinds, in part because of geopolitical tensions among major powers.

​No Trump, Macron or May

Some 3,000 business, government and civil society figures are scheduled to gather in the snow-blanketed ski resort, but among them are only three leaders of the Group of Seven most industrialized countries: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte.

Donald Trump, who stole the Davos limelight last year with a rare appearance by a sitting U.S. president, pulled out of this year’s event as he grapples with a partial U.S. government shutdown.

On Thursday, the White House said Trump had also canceled his delegation’s trip to Davos because of the shutdown, now in its 27th day. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been expected to lead the U.S. team, according to two senior administration officials.

French President Emmanuel Macron is also skipping the meeting as he seeks to respond to the “yellow vest” protests, while British Prime Minister Theresa May battles to find a consensus on Brexit.

​No Xi, either

Outside the G7, the leaders of Russia and India are shunning Davos, while China —whose president, Xi Jinping, was the first Chinese leader to attend the elite gathering in 2017 to offer a vigorous defense of free trade — is sending Xi’s deputy instead.

That will leave the likes of British Finance Minister Philip Hammond, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and a host of central bankers with the task of trying to reassure business chiefs.

“Davos will be dominated by a high level of anxiety about stock markets, a slowdown in growth and international politics,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Markit. “The leadership presence is lower than last year but those who are going … will be seeking to impart a sense of confidence and calm business and investors’ nerves.”

​Forum still has its glitz

Before the U.S. cancellation, a Trump administration official had said the U.S. delegation would also discuss the importance of reforming institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Trump has harshly criticized globalization and questioned U.S. participation in multilateral institutions such as the WTO, calling for a revamp of international trade rules.

Davos watchers said the absence of so many top leaders this year did not mean the glitzy forum had lost its status as a global stage for top politicians to present their agendas.

“Abe is going to Davos not just as Japanese prime minister but also as chair of the G20. It will be a perfect opportunity to lay the groundwork of upcoming G20 meetings,” said a Japanese government source familiar with international affairs.

“Of course there may be inconveniences such as missing opportunities to hold bilateral meetings, but that won’t undermine the importance of Davos,” he said.

A Chinese official who has attended Davos regularly but will not go this year said China had never expected to make progress at the meeting on the trade dispute with the United States. 

“It’s just an occasion for making a policy statement,” he said.

​Networking opportunities

The low turnout among major Western leaders may also give more prominence to political personalities who may otherwise be upstaged. Davos will be the first major international outing for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, elected on a wave of anti-establishment and conservative nationalism also seen elsewhere.

He said on Twitter he would present “a different Brazil, free of ideological ties and widespread corruption.”

For business chiefs, the value of Davos lies not so much in the public sessions but in the networking and deal-making opportunities on the sidelines of the main conference.

“It’s the best place to pitch for ideas, build connections and get your brand known,” said Chen Linchevski, chief executive of Precognize, an Israel-based start-up developing software that prevents technical or quality failures at manufacturing plants.

“It’s the kind of place where in a few days you meet people you wouldn’t easily meet otherwise,” said Linchevski, who is paying 50,000 Swiss francs ($50,495) to attend the event.

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WSJ: US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Weighs Lifting Tariffs on China

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin discussed lifting some or all tariffs imposed on Chinese imports and suggested offering a tariff rollback during trade discussions scheduled for Jan. 30, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing people familiar with the internal deliberations.

But Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has resisted the idea, and the proposal had not yet been introduced to President Donald Trump, according to the Journal.

U.S. stocks advanced on the news even as a Treasury spokesman working with the administration’s trade team denied the report.

“Neither Secretary Mnuchin nor Ambassador Lighthizer have made any recommendations to anyone with respect to tariffs or other parts of the negotiation with China,” the spokesman said.

“This an ongoing process with the Chinese that is nowhere near completion.”

Chinese Vice Premier Liu He will visit the United States on Jan. 30 and 31 for the latest round of trade talks aimed at resolving a bitter trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies.

In December, Washington and Beijing agreed to a 90-day truce in a trade war that has disrupted the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars of goods.

Mid-level U.S. and Chinese officials met in Beijing last week to discuss China’s offers to address U.S. complaints about intellectual property theft and increase purchases of U.S. goods and services.

Lighthizer did not see any progress made on structural issues during those talks, Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley said earlier this week.

The Trump administration is scheduled to increase tariffs March 2 on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods to 25 percent from 10 percent.

The timeline is seen as ambitious, but the resumption of face-to-face negotiations has bolstered hopes of a deal.

China has repeatedly played down complaints about intellectual property abuses, and has rejected accusations that foreign companies face forced technology transfers.

Industrial stocks, which have been sensitive to trade developments, jumped 1.4 percent after the Wall Street Journal report.

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WSJ: US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin Weighs Lifting Tariffs on China

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin discussed lifting some or all tariffs imposed on Chinese imports and suggested offering a tariff rollback during trade discussions scheduled for Jan. 30, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing people familiar with the internal deliberations.

But Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has resisted the idea, and the proposal had not yet been introduced to President Donald Trump, according to the Journal.

U.S. stocks advanced on the news even as a Treasury spokesman working with the administration’s trade team denied the report.

“Neither Secretary Mnuchin nor Ambassador Lighthizer have made any recommendations to anyone with respect to tariffs or other parts of the negotiation with China,” the spokesman said.

“This an ongoing process with the Chinese that is nowhere near completion.”

Chinese Vice Premier Liu He will visit the United States on Jan. 30 and 31 for the latest round of trade talks aimed at resolving a bitter trade dispute between the world’s two largest economies.

In December, Washington and Beijing agreed to a 90-day truce in a trade war that has disrupted the flow of hundreds of billions of dollars of goods.

Mid-level U.S. and Chinese officials met in Beijing last week to discuss China’s offers to address U.S. complaints about intellectual property theft and increase purchases of U.S. goods and services.

Lighthizer did not see any progress made on structural issues during those talks, Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley said earlier this week.

The Trump administration is scheduled to increase tariffs March 2 on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods to 25 percent from 10 percent.

The timeline is seen as ambitious, but the resumption of face-to-face negotiations has bolstered hopes of a deal.

China has repeatedly played down complaints about intellectual property abuses, and has rejected accusations that foreign companies face forced technology transfers.

Industrial stocks, which have been sensitive to trade developments, jumped 1.4 percent after the Wall Street Journal report.

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Indonesian Presidential Candidates Spar Over Corruption

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has accused his election rival of allowing corrupt candidates on his legislative ticket and failing to include women in senior positions.

Widodo and former General Prabowo Subianto, along with their running mates, faced off Thursday in the first of five debates before the April 17 election. The debate focused on terrorism, human rights, corruption, and law and order.

Opinion polls show Widodo commanding 52 percent to 54 percent popular support and Subianto 30 percent to 35 percent. About 10 percent of voters are undecided and another 15 percent are considered swing voters, meaning the race has the potential to tighten.

Subianto, making his second bid for president after being narrowly defeated by Widodo in 2014, waffled when asked why his party has the highest number of candidates with corruption records.

“Maybe the corruption they did was not huge, maybe he or she just, what I mean is, the theft was indeed wrong, but the most important thing to be eradicated was a corrupter who stole trillions of rupiah (hundreds of millions of dollars) of state money, of people’s money,” he said.

Questioning Subianto’s opening statement of a commitment to empowering women, Widodo said he has nine women in important Cabinet positions but there are few women in the leadership of Subianto’s Gerindra party.

Subianto said his party has many female candidates and criticized the quality of decision making by Widodo’s women ministers.

Widodo, the first Indonesian president from outside the country’s Jakarta elite, has made upgrading Indonesia’s infrastructure the signature policy of his five year-term.

In debating human rights, none of the candidates addressed Subianto’s involvement in human rights abuses during the dictator Suharto’s regime that ended two decades ago.

 

 

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Tunisia Hit by General Strike, Amid Economic Tensions

Workers around Tunisia went on strike Thursday to demand higher pay in a standoff with a government struggling to reduce unemployment, poverty and social tensions.

All flights in and out of the North African country’s main airport were cancelled, and schools nationwide were closed. Ports, public transport, hospitals and other public services were also disrupted.

 

Marathon last-minute negotiations between the government and union umbrella group UGTT failed to avert Thursday’s strike by public sector workers.

 

Thousands of people gathered at the national union headquarters in Tunis and marched through the capital’s main thoroughfare, carrying signs reading “Get Out!” and “The People Want the Fall of the Regime.” Rallies were also held in other cities.

 

Addressing the crowd in Tunis, the head of the UGTT, Noureddine Tabboubi, accused the government of “neglecting the workers” as runaway inflation has eroded purchasing power.

 

The International Monetary Fund has urged public sector salary freezes and other reforms in exchanges for loans to Tunisia’s struggling economy.

 

The union boss accused the government of being afraid to “move a little finger without the green light” of the IMF. Unions want an end to salary freezes for Tunisia’s 600,000 public sector workers.

 

President Beji Caid Essebsi has called for calm. Thursday’s strike comes after new tensions erupted last month when a journalist set himself on fire to protest unfulfilled promises of Tunisia’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution.

 

Similar rallies were held throughout the country, notably in southern provinces where the strike nearly paralyzed public services.

 

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed warned that the strike would result in a “considerable cost” to an already fragile economy and might push the government to seek further foreign loans with tough conditions.

 

Speaking on public television Wataniya 1 on Wednesday night, Chahed said, “We did everything possible to avoid the strike in presenting proposals that improve purchasing power while at the same time taking into account the country’s capabilities.”

 

He invited the unions back to the negotiating table after Thursday’s strike.

 

 

 

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Tunisia Hit by General Strike, Amid Economic Tensions

Workers around Tunisia went on strike Thursday to demand higher pay in a standoff with a government struggling to reduce unemployment, poverty and social tensions.

All flights in and out of the North African country’s main airport were cancelled, and schools nationwide were closed. Ports, public transport, hospitals and other public services were also disrupted.

 

Marathon last-minute negotiations between the government and union umbrella group UGTT failed to avert Thursday’s strike by public sector workers.

 

Thousands of people gathered at the national union headquarters in Tunis and marched through the capital’s main thoroughfare, carrying signs reading “Get Out!” and “The People Want the Fall of the Regime.” Rallies were also held in other cities.

 

Addressing the crowd in Tunis, the head of the UGTT, Noureddine Tabboubi, accused the government of “neglecting the workers” as runaway inflation has eroded purchasing power.

 

The International Monetary Fund has urged public sector salary freezes and other reforms in exchanges for loans to Tunisia’s struggling economy.

 

The union boss accused the government of being afraid to “move a little finger without the green light” of the IMF. Unions want an end to salary freezes for Tunisia’s 600,000 public sector workers.

 

President Beji Caid Essebsi has called for calm. Thursday’s strike comes after new tensions erupted last month when a journalist set himself on fire to protest unfulfilled promises of Tunisia’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution.

 

Similar rallies were held throughout the country, notably in southern provinces where the strike nearly paralyzed public services.

 

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed warned that the strike would result in a “considerable cost” to an already fragile economy and might push the government to seek further foreign loans with tough conditions.

 

Speaking on public television Wataniya 1 on Wednesday night, Chahed said, “We did everything possible to avoid the strike in presenting proposals that improve purchasing power while at the same time taking into account the country’s capabilities.”

 

He invited the unions back to the negotiating table after Thursday’s strike.

 

 

 

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Chinese Trade Negotiator to Visit US in Late January

China’s economic czar, Vice Premier Liu He, will travel to the United States later this month for the second round of negotiations aimed at resolving the ongoing trade war between the global economic giants.

Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng told reporters in Beijing Thursday that Liu will visit Washington on January 30-31. He was invited by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

U.S. negotiators were optimistic after the first round of talks in Beijing last week that the two sides would be able to resolve tariff disputes that have upset global markets.

The trade talks are the result of an agreement last month between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to stop the tit-for-tat tariff conflict between the two countries for 90 days starting on New Year’s Day.

The United States has long complained about access to the vast Chinese market and Beijing’s demands U.S. companies reveal their technology advances.

If no deal is reached by March 2, U.S. tariffs on $200 billion Chinese goods will rise from 10 percent to 25 percent.

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Chinese Trade Negotiator to Visit US in Late January

China’s economic czar, Vice Premier Liu He, will travel to the United States later this month for the second round of negotiations aimed at resolving the ongoing trade war between the global economic giants.

Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng told reporters in Beijing Thursday that Liu will visit Washington on January 30-31. He was invited by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

U.S. negotiators were optimistic after the first round of talks in Beijing last week that the two sides would be able to resolve tariff disputes that have upset global markets.

The trade talks are the result of an agreement last month between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to stop the tit-for-tat tariff conflict between the two countries for 90 days starting on New Year’s Day.

The United States has long complained about access to the vast Chinese market and Beijing’s demands U.S. companies reveal their technology advances.

If no deal is reached by March 2, U.S. tariffs on $200 billion Chinese goods will rise from 10 percent to 25 percent.

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John Bogle, Founder of Vanguard, Dies at 89 

John C. Bogle, who simplified investing for the masses by launching the first index mutual fund and founded Vanguard Group, died Wednesday, the company said. He was 89.

Bogle did not invent the index fund, but he expanded access to no-frills, low-cost investing in 1976 when Vanguard introduced the first index fund for individual investors, rather than institutional clients.

The emergence of funds that passively tracked market indexes, like the Standard & Poor’s 500, enabled investors to avoid the higher fees charged by professional fund managers who frequently fail to beat the market. More often than not, the higher operating expenses that fund managers pass on to their shareholders cancel out any edge they may achieve through expert stock-picking.

Mutual fund industry critic

Bogle and Vanguard shook up the industry further in 1977. The company ended its reliance on outside brokers and instead began directly marketing its funds to investors without charging upfront fees known as sales loads.

Bogle served as Vanguard’s chairman and CEO from its 1974 founding until 1996.

He stepped down as senior chairman in 2000, but remained a critic of the fund industry and Wall Street, writing books, delivering speeches and running the Bogle Financial Markets Research Center.

The advent of index funds accelerated a long-term decline in fund fees and fostered greater competition in the industry. Investors paid 40 percent less in fees for each dollar invested in stock mutual funds during 2017 than they did at the start of the millennium, for example. But Bogle continued to maintain that many funds were overcharging investors, and once called the industry “the poster-boy for one of the most baneful chapters in the modern history of capitalism.”

Bogle also believed that the corporate structure of most fund companies poses an inherent conflict of interest, because a public fund company could put the interests of investors in its stock ahead of those owning shares of its mutual funds. Vanguard has a unique corporate structure in which its mutual funds and fund shareholders are the corporation’s “owners.” Profits are plowed back into the company’s operations, and used to reduce fees.

$5 trillion under management

Vanguard, based in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, manages $5 trillion globally. It helped usher in a new era of investing, and index funds have increasingly become the default choice for investors. In 2017, investors plugged $691.6 billion into index funds while pulling $7 billion out of actively managed funds, according to Morningstar.

Vanguard offers both index and managed funds, but remains best-known for its index offerings. Vanguard’s original index fund, now known as the Vanguard 500 Index, is no longer the company’s biggest, but remains among the company’s lowest-cost funds.

Bogle spent the first part of his career at Wellington Management Co., a mutual fund company, then based in Philadelphia. He rose through the ranks and, in his mid-30s, was tapped to run Wellington.

He engineered a merger with a boutique firm that was making huge sums, but was ousted after the stock market tanked in the early 1970s, wiping out millions in Wellington’s assets. He said he learned an important lesson in how little money managers really know about predicting the market.

Knack for math

Bogle suffered several heart attacks and underwent a heart transplant in 1996, the year he stepped down as CEO. He reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 for Vanguard directors in 1999 and left as senior chairman the next year.

Vanguard did not provide a cause of death. Philly.com is reporting he died of cancer, citing Bogle’s family.

John Clifton Bogle was born in May 1929 in Montclair, New Jersey, to a well-off family; his grandfather founded a brick company and was co-founder of the American Can Co. in which his father worked.

Bogle attended Manasquan High School in Manasquan, N.J, for a time, then got a scholarship to the prestigious all-boys Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey. It was at Blair that Bogle discovered his knack for math. He graduated from Blair in 1947 and was voted most likely to succeed.

Bogle graduated from Princeton with a degree in economics in 1951. His thesis was on the mutual fund industry, which was then still in its infancy.

Bogle is survived by his wife, Eve, six children, 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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