Global Business Daily: U.S. sanctions Nord Stream, Honda's UK closure
"I have a big problem with a third country interfering in our energy policy... German industry needs Nord Stream 2 to enhance energy supply safety." So said the Federation of German Industry president Dieter Kempf two years ago, when the U.S. first began applying pressure on Germany over its planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline tie-up with Russia's Gazprom.
In the last troubled days of the Trump administration, Washington seems to be again focusing on foreign adversaries through a series of threatened trade sanctions. Sources claim the U.S. State Department is preparing a list of firms it plans to target, after work on the stalled pipeline got underway again in the Baltic Sea this week.
CGTN Europe speaks to one trade expert about how the tough stance from Washington is now playing out in the 16-year dispute with the EU over government subsidies to aircraft manufacturers Airbus and its U.S. rival Boeing.
Elsewhere, the global shortage of semiconductors has claimed its first victim in the auto industry, as Honda says it will close its plant at Swindon in the UK for four days next week due to the impact of chip shortages on production.
In the first funding allocation from its $100 million racial equality and justice initiative, launched after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US last year, the world's most valuable company Apple has announced plans for a venture capital fund and new black-focused education facilities in Atlanta and Detroit. The projects will target start-up firms and design and technology students from all non-white backgrounds, with Apple describing "an entrepreneurial opportunity" in under-represented groups.
And UK supermarkets warn of more bare shelves in Northern Ireland as Brexit confusion hits the supply of perishable goods like fruit and vegetables.
Meanwhile the latest figures show just how hard COVID-19 hit the delivery of seaborne goods across Europe last summer, as ports from Stockholm to Athens went into lockdown.
European firms involved in the construction of the new Russian-backed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline have been warned they again face the risk of U.S. sanctions, according to Reuters. The news agency reports that the outgoing Trump administration is preparing a final round of punitive measures against overseas targets deemed unfriendly to U.S. interests. Earlier this week it was announced that the stalled $11 billion Gazprom project would recommence by laying a crucial section of pipeline under the Baltic, after fresh funding was raised in Germany. Nord Stream 2 has also notified the Danish Energy Agency of its intentions to resume construction along two unfinished parallel segments of the pipeline in the waters south-east of Bornholm Island later this month. The US State Department is expected to release a shortlist on Thursday of construction and financial services companies that may face penalties under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if they don't pull out. It follows two previous warnings last November, which led to the Swiss firm Allseas abandoning ties to Nord Stream 2. Gazprom and the Bundestag maintain the deal is purely commercial.
Japanese car giant Honda is to close its plant at Swindon in the UK for four days next week, blaming the shortage in semiconductor chips globally. Along with VW, Nissan and GM, Honda has been warning for some time that the premium on chip prices paid by big tech firms cannot be matched by hard-pressed auto manufacturers, who need them for their electric car development projects and are now falling behind in delivery priority. The company has informed staff that "some production activities will not run Monday 18 to Thursday 21 January... with a view to restart[ing] production on Friday 22 January." The Swindon site, which is due to close permanently this summer, has borne the brunt of global chip shortages due to its reliance on deliveries from its Asian home market.
U.S. car giant Ford says sales in China rose 6 percent year-on-year in 2020. Overall 602,627 vehicles were sold in China last year, where Ford makes cars through Jiangling Motors Corp Ltd (JMC). That's a rise of 6 percent on the previous year, marking the first annual growth in the world's biggest car market since 2017.
Oil prices hit a near year high in Tuesday trading as worries about the impact of the COVID-19 recovery and new cuts in Saudi Arabia weighed on the market. Brent was at $56.56 per barrel, a rise of 1.62 percent on the day, while West Texas Intermediate rose 1.76 percent to $53.17. Prices are now at their highest point since last February as OPEC+ members meet to consider further cuts to tighten global supplies.
Meanwhile the combination of severe winter weather in Asia, supply outages and congestion in the shipping market has pushed spot prices for liquified natural gas to a new high. The North Asian price benchmark has risen 18-fold in less than nine months, according to reports by Bloomberg, with the benchmark hitting above $30 per million British thermal units on Tuesday, outperforming the rise in all other listed commodities, including Bitcoin.
The Bitcoin price has dipped again in Asian markets, putting the digital currency on course for its worst week of trading since March of last year. Bitcoin's price fell almost 7 percent to about $32,359 in early trading before paring some losses, after a 26 percent fall on Monday shaved its value from near-record highs of $42,000. Regulators around the world have been repeating their warnings over the high risks involved in backing digital currencies, as dollar weakness and low inflation and bond yields lead to investors seeking new asset classes.
Data protection agencies in any EU country should be allowed to take legal action against Facebook or any "Big Tech" firm, even if their regional headquarters are in a different EU state, according to new guidance by the adviser to the EU's top court. The recommendation comes after Facebook argued Belgium's privacy regulator had no jurisdiction over its activities as its European headquarters is in Dublin. In a move that is set to have far-reaching consequences,Advocate-General Michal Bobek, adviser to the European Court of Justice, has stated that data protection watchdogs in any state should be able to act if they believe standards are being flouted.
Uber is to appeal against the $59 million fine from a California regulator in a dispute over whether the ride-hailing company should share detailed information on claims of sexual assault and harassment by staff and passengers. Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission acted after the company refused to share the data, including full names and contact information of victims, arguing that doing so would violate their privacy.
Apple says it is putting $60 million into a fresh round of venture capital projects targeting black and ethnic minority start-ups. The world's most valuable company says it will start by allocating $10 million to New York based investment group Harlem Capital, and a further $25 million in Siebert Williams Shank's Clear Vision Impact Fund, as part of a project to help fund a thousand young firms over a 20-year period, taking limited partner stakes in both groups. Apple is also contributing $25 million to mainly black education facilities in Atlanta to encourage silicon and hardware engineering in the design curriculum and will establish an app development academy in Detroit, teaching 1,000 BME students a year skills in coding, design and marketing.
Shares in Spain's Telefonica have surged as the firm confirmed a $9.41 billion cash deal to sell its mobile phone masts in Europe and Latin America to a U.S.-based buyer. Under the terms of the deal, Telefonica's Telxius division, part-owned by the global asset manager KKR, will hand over control of more than 30,000 mobile phone masts in Spain, Germany, Brazil, Peru, Chile and Argentina to the wireless operator American Towers under a sale and leaseback transaction.
Multinational payments giant Visa has called off its planned $5.3 billion merger with financial technology company Plaid, after the deal was threatened by an anti-trust lawsuit from U.S. regulators. The Justice Department had previously attempted to stop the deal last November, saying that Visa was already "a monopolist in online debit transactions" and that the proposed acquisition of Plaid would further concentrate its control of the payments market.
Canadian convenience store chain Alimentation Couche-Tard is in talks with France's Carrefour about a possible $50 billion takeover that would create a new transatlantic retail giant. The news sent shares in Carrefour up almost 14 percent on the CAC 40 in Paris. The deal would give Couche-Tard a valuable foothold in the European and Latin American food retail markets and the opportunity to develop a portfolio of large-format supermarkets, as well as existing urban smaller stores. But analysts warned the deal is likely to face strong opposition in France, where Carrefour remains one of the country's largest private sector employers.
The UK's biggest supermarkets have warned of "significant disruption to food supplies" to Northern Ireland because of what they describe as "unworkable" post-Brexit border arrangements. In an open letter to the Westminster government calling for new negotiations on the arrangements, bosses of Sainsbury, Marks and Spencer and Tesco claim shortages will worsen when the transition period, exempting retailers from the more arduous elements of post-Brexit red tape, ends on March 31. The deal with Brussels to avoid a hard border with the Irish Republic means Northern Ireland remains under the EU's internal market controls. In recent days supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables and animal products have faced disruption.
Online fashion retailer ASOS has announced that sales rose 23 per cent to $1.7 billion in the four months to December, as shoppers opted for casual and leisurewear as the lockdowns across Europe continued. Sales in the UK surged ahead, up 36 percent, as high street rivals Primark, H&M and Zara closed their doors. The group says it expects full-year profit to be at the top end of market expectations.
Elsewhere discount German supermarket chain Lidl has reported record sales in the four weeks to December 27, with revenue rising 18 percent. The firm, headquartered at Neckarsulm near Stuttgart, says it is continuing with an ambitious store opening programme across Europe in 2021, despite cut-throat competition in the food retail sector. Lidl says sales of luxury and "treat" items including prosecco, cakes and desserts was particularly strong in the run-up to Christmas.
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Aside from the threats to Nord Stream 2, U.S. government officials say they've begun collecting increased tariffs on certain European Union products after failing to resolve a 16-year trade dispute with the EU. The long-running battle between Washington and Brussels centers on claims of unfair government subsidies to aircraft manufacturers, involving Europe's Airbus and its U.S. rival Boeing. CGTN Europe was joined by Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy to discuss the reasons for the tough stance being taken by the outgoing Trump administration.
I'm actually inclined to say that the transition of power has very little to do with the timing: it's a longstanding irritant between the two. I would even argue that the relationship with previous administrations, like Obama and Bush, was equally constrained when it came to this topic – because in the end, the aerospace industries are of core national interest, rising above any bipartisan divide.
How do you see the incoming Biden administration tackling this dispute?
The reality is that when it comes to trade negotiators, the U.S.-EU relationship has always been characterized by fierce competition and equally fierce litigation against each other. And as much as you will hear soft terms from [Biden's national security adviser elect] Jake Sullivan, you will also hear perhaps a different tone coming from Katherine Tai, who is by the administration's appointed trade negotiator and who has a background as a litigating lawyer. And they are not paid to back down.
Could it become the basis for a much broader trade agreement between the EU and the United States?
I think we may be looking at something that comes to a truce because in the end, both sides, Boeing and Airbus, are being subsidized by their governments and they have really no intention of complying with these rulings. If both parties are found to be at fault, you should perhaps settle and negotiate and agree that these subsidies should be either gotten rid of or that they should actually excuse them for the time being. In a situation where Airbus has vastly outsold Boeing in the last two years, I think it might be very difficult to see immediate settlement simply because Boeing is going to be negotiating from a position of weakness rather than strength.
And finally, the bosses at shipping company Maersk may be celebrating bumper freight deliveries, but the latest figures show the impact that COVID-19 is having on the overall flow of seaborne goods through Europe's ports. Volumes, as measured by gross weight, was down by as much as half in some southern European ports like Malta. Brexit hit Britain came out with an EU average of minus 9 percent, while the wealthier Scandinavian ports in the cities of Stockholm and Copenhagen fared the best.