China’s choices narrowing as it burns through FX reserves to support yuan

100 yuan and 100 dollars

By Nichola Saminather

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – As China’s foreign exchange reserves threaten to tumble below the critical $3 trillion mark, the biggest fear for investors is not whether Beijing can continue to defend the yuan but whether it will set off a vicious cycle of more outflows and currency depreciation.

Data this week is expected to show China’s forex reserves precariously perched just above $3 trillion at end-December, the lowest level since February 2011, according to a Reuters poll.

While the world’s second-largest economy still has the largest stash of forex reserves by far, it has been churning through them rapidly since August 2015, when it stunned global investors by devaluing the yuan <CNY=CFXS> and moving to what it promised would be a slightly freer and more transparent currency regime.

Since then, authorities have repeatedly intervened to support the yuan when it weakened too sharply, burning through half a trillion dollars of reserves and prompting them to sell some of their massive holdings of U.S. government bonds.

They also have put a tightening regulatory chokehold on individuals and businesses who want to move money out of the country, while denying they were imposing new capital controls.

Concerns over the speed with which China is depleting its ammunition are swirling, with some analysts estimating it needs to retain a minimum of $2.6 trillion to $2.8 trillion under the International Monetary Fund’s adequacy measures.

“There has been quite a bit of anxiety and speculation because the way many people in China talk about it is ‘will the government defend the 7-per-dollar level or the 3 trillion dollars’,” said Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong.

China stepped into both its onshore and offshore yuan markets this week to shore up the yuan as it neared the 7 level, sparking speculation that it wants to regain a firm grip ahead of the Jan. 20 inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who has threatened to brand Beijing a currency manipulator.

But if forex reserves continue to be depleted at a fast pace and capital flight continues, some strategists believe China’s leaders may have little choice but to sanction another big “one-off” devaluation.

That could set off competitive currency devaluations by other struggling emerging economies, even as the world braces for greater trade protectionism under Trump.

MORE CONTROLS

To slow the yuan’s decline without depleting reserves at an ever faster pace, analysts and economists expect authorities to turn to even tighter regulatory measures, including more scrutiny of outbound investments, overseas lending and export revenues, and closing loopholes in existing capital controls.

But as fast as authorities jump to control one exit ramp, others may open up unless Beijing can reverse the market’s mind-set that the yuan is on a one-way depreciation path.

“It doesn’t matter if there’s actually enough reserves or not,” said Joey Chew, Asia foreign exchange strategist at HSBC, who believes China doesn’t need a buffer of more than $2 trillion.

“If people think there won’t be enough they’ll try to get out and it becomes a self-fulfilling mechanism.

“The authorities are already aware that trying to run down reserves will be counterproductive, which is why they’re relying on regulatory controls,” she added.

As recently as last week, authorities introduced requirements for financial institutions to report all single domestic and overseas cash transactions of more than 50,000 yuan ($7,212.72) from July onwards, down from 200,000 yuan previously.

The authorities also stepped up scrutiny on individual foreign currency purchases, although they kept the $50,000 annual individual quota in place.

“Previously, capital controls had been relatively loose and authorities had turned a blind eye to individual forex purchases because of abundant foreign exchange reserves,” said Jerry Hu, an economist at Shanghai Securities.

“But they are now strengthening supervision in order to change expectations.”

With regulators also pledging to increase scrutiny of major outbound deals, “it’s not impossible to see that we’ll see further moves in that area,” Kuijs said.

China could also encourage its domestic exporters to convert more of their earnings into yuan, HSBC’s Chew said.

Chew believes new capital controls are unlikely.

“There are a lot of controls already,” she said. “They were maybe not as strictly enforced, so they’ll focus on improving that. But the tweaks may not be enough. We still expect capital outflows and we still expect RMB depreciation.”

Dwyfor Evans, head of Asia-Pacific macro strategy at State Street Global Markets, also feared authorities may be limited in how they respond.

“Chinese officials have few policy options,” he said.

“If they allow faster depreciation, this will only spur pressures for greater outflows. And a one-off devaluation risks a repeat of the market turbulence evidenced twice in the past 18 months.”

(Additional reporting by Kevin Yao in BEIJING; Editing by Vidya Ranganathan and Kim Coghill)

Cyber fraudsters take money out of 20,000 Tesco Bank accounts

A Tesco supermarket is seen, in west London

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – The banking arm of Britain’s biggest retailer Tesco was scrambling on Monday to deal with an online attack over the weekend on 40,000 customers’ accounts, 20,000 of which had money removed.

The hack is the first on a British bank known to have resulted in customers losing money, adding to growing concerns about the British financial sector’s vulnerabilities to cyber attacks, which have jumped in frequency over the past two years.

Tesco Bank, which manages 136,000 current accounts, stopped all online transactions while it worked to resume normal service, although customers could still use their bank cards in shops and to withdraw money from cash machines.

“Any financial loss that results from this fraudulent activity will be borne by the bank,” Tesco Bank Chief Executive Benny Higgins told BBC radio. “Customers are not at financial risk.”

“We think it would be relatively small amounts that have come out but we’re still working on that,” he said, adding that he expected the cost of refunding customers would be “a big number but not a huge number”.

Shares in supermarket chain Tesco, which wholly owns Tesco Bank, were down 1.2 percent at 200.20 pence by 1030 GMT.

The bank is a minnow in Britain’s retail banking market, with about 2 percent of current accounts, and represents only a small part of Tesco’s overall business.

It contributed 503 million pounds ($623.4 million) to the group’s revenue of 24.4 billion pounds in the first half of its 2016-17 financial year.

But while the financial hit to the group may be limited, Tesco Bank risks serious reputational damage from an attack that affected 29 percent of its customer current accounts.

Other British banks have been targeted by cyber attacks in recent years, but the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) which regulates the sector said it was not aware of any previous incident in which customers had lost money.

Reported attacks on financial institutions in Britain have risen from just five in 2014 to over 75 so far this year, according to FCA data, but bank executives and providers of security systems say there are many more unreported attacks.

HSBC issued a series of apologies to customers earlier this year after its UK personal banking websites were shut down by a “denial of service” attack, but no customer funds were at threat during that breach.

Cliff Moyce, global head of financial services at DataArt, a network of technology consulting and software services firms, said reduced staffing levels over the weekend were likely to have been one of the reasons for the impact of the hack.

“The clever part was doing it over the weekend when banks are typically understaffed, and will respond more slowly,” he said in a comment emailed to media.

“Automated fraud detection systems appear to have worked well, but a lack of people at desks will not have helped.”

Other well-known British brands hit by significant cyber attacks over the past year include telecoms firms TalkTalk and Vodafone, business software provider Sage and electronic goods retailer Dixons Carphone.

(Additional reporting by Michael Holden, James Davey and Huw Jones; Editing by Greg Mahlich)

Exclusive: Russia may borrow in yuan this year for first time

100 Yuan Note

By Yelena Orekhova and Andrey Ostroukh

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia may borrow Chinese yuan for the first time ever by the end of 2016, a Russian finance ministry official said, a step towards Moscow’s ambition of using Asian credit markets to compensate for its limited access to Western funding.

Russia needs new sources of cash as low crude oil prices lead to widening shortfalls in the budget. Its access to Western capital markets is restricted by Western sanctions imposed on it over the conflict in Ukraine.

One option the finance ministry may choose is selling treasury bonds, known as OFZs, denominated in the Chinese currency, later this year, Konstantin Vyshkovsky, head of the state debt department at the finance ministry, told Reuters.

Moscow may raise the equivalent of $1 billion in yuan through the OFZs, money that the finance ministry would convert into rubles, Vyshkovsky said.

Russia has drawn closer to China, painting it as its close partner, after Moscow’s relations with the West were soured by its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its support of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

But Moscow’s pivot towards Asia has not gone smoothly, in part because Asian credit markets are much shallower than the Western debt markets that Russia has turned to in the past when it needed to borrow.

Russia raised $3 billion through a dollar-denominated Eurobond this year, but the issue was complicated by the fact that many major financial institutions were wary of taking part because of sanctions risk.

Under a plan set by the finance ministry, Russia will not raise any more foreign debt this year, so the yuan-denominated OFZs, which are considered domestic borrowing, would be a timely supplement for the budget.

The money raised may help avoid a greater budget deficit, which this year will exceed the ceiling of three percent of gross domestic product that had been initially set by President Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s Reserve Fund is running out and low prices for crude oil, its key export, are putting pressure on the budget. The finance ministry had said it will respond by increasing borrowing and will also try to proceed with selling state stakes in major Russia companies.

The OFZ bonds would be issued as part of additional borrowing worth 200 billion rubles ($3.21 billion), Vyshkovsky said.

The extra borrowing program for the fourth quarter was approved in September after Russia had nearly reached its full-year borrowing limit of 300 billion rubles in the domestic market in the first three quarters.

Sovereign rouble bonds enjoyed strong demand this year thanks to high yields linked to the central bank interest rates . The central bank has been reluctant to cut rates quickly, given risks that inflation won’t slow to its ambitious target an all-time low of 4 percent in 2017.

($1 = 62.2255 rubles)

(Reporting by Yelena Orekhova, writing by Andrey Ostroukh, editing by Christian Lowe, Larry King)

Baby traffickers thriving in Nigeria as recession bites

baby grasps hand

By Anamesere Igboeroteonwu and Tom Esslemont

ENUGU, Nigeria/LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As 16-year-old Maria strained under the anguish of labor in southeastern Nigeria, a midwife repeatedly slapped her across the face – but the real ordeal began minutes after birth.

“The nurse took my child away to be washed. She never brought her back,” the teenager said, gazing down at her feet.

Maria said she learned her newborn daughter had been given up for adoption for which she received 20,000 naira ($65.79) – the same price as a 50 kilogram bag of rice.

And Maria is far from alone.

A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigative team spoke to more than 10 Nigerian women duped into giving up their newborns to strangers in houses known as “baby factories” in the past two years or offered babies whose origins were unknown.

Five women did not want to be interviewed, despite the guarantee of anonymity, fearing for their own safety with criminal gangs involved in the baby trade, while two men spoke of being paid to act as “studs” to get women pregnant.

Although statistics are hard to come by, campaigners say the sale of newborns is widespread – and they fear the illegal trade is becoming more prevalent with Nigeria heading into recession this year amid ongoing political turbulence.

“The government is too overstretched by other issues to focus on baby trafficking,” said Arinze Orakwue, head of public enlightenment at the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP).

Record numbers of baby factories were raided or closed down in the southeastern states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo this year, NAPTIP said.

A total of 14 were discovered in the first nine months of 2016, up from six in 2015 and 10 in 2014, the data showed.

But despite the growing number of raids, the scam exploiting couples desperate for a baby and young, pregnant, single women continues with newborns sold for up to $5,000 in Africa’s most populous nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.

Cultural barriers are also a factor in the West African nation, with teenage girls fearing they will be publicly shamed by strict fathers or partners over unwanted pregnancies if they do not give up their children, experts say.

“In southeastern Nigeria a woman is deemed a failure if she fails to conceive. But it is also taboo for a teenager to fall pregnant out of wedlock,” said Orakwue.

Maria said in the home in Imo state where she gave birth pregnant teenagers were welcomed by a maternal nurse who liked to be called “mama” but went on to sell the babies they delivered.

“(After I gave birth) somebody told me that mama collected big money from people before giving them other people’s babies,” Maria told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the grounds of a school compound in her village.

“I do not know where my baby is now,” said Maria, using a false name for her own protection.

A lot of the trade is carried out in Nigeria but authorities suspect babies are also sold to people from Europe and the United States because many foreigners continue to seek infants there despite the controversy around Nigerian adoptions.

HIDDEN PROBLEM

The U.S. Department of State alerted prospective adoptive parents to the issue of child buying from Nigeria in June 2014 after Nigerian media warned that people were posing as owners of orphanages or homes for unwed mothers to make money.

“The State Department is aware of a growing number of adoption scams,” an alert on its website read.

Over 1,600 children have been adopted from Nigeria by U.S. citizens since 1999, according to the State Department website, about a third of them aged between one and two years old.

A U.S. official said the State Department facilitates contact between foreign officials and U.S. authorities when foreign governments raise any concerns regarding the welfare of an adopted child.

“To date, we are not aware of any concerns regarding the welfare of a child adopted from Nigeria,” a State Department official told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement.

In Britain a couple was found by the High Court to have “fallen under the spell” of an elaborate fraud after paying 4,500 pounds ($5,600) for herbal treatment in Nigeria that caused the woman’s stomach to swell, media reported in 2014.

The couple only realized they had been duped nine months later when presented with a baby in Nigeria that actually was not theirs, the Daily Mail newspaper reported.

Babies, whose biological parents or backgrounds are unknown, are offered to women who have not been able to conceive naturally, according to NAPTIP and interviews with three women.

The British government said it was committed to stamping out what it calls the “miracle babies” phenomenon.

“Specially-trained teams are working at the UK border to identify and safeguard babies and children who may be at risk of trafficking,” said a spokesman for the Home Office (UK interior ministry) in a statement.

Denmark suspended adoptions from Nigeria in 2014 citing concerns over forgery, corruption and lack of control by the authorities.

Apart from the illicit trade in babies, Nigeria also faces the problem of domestic and international trafficking in women and children.

Human trafficking, including selling children, is illegal in Nigeria, but almost 10 years ago a UNESCO report identified the industry as the country’s third most common crime after financial fraud and drug trafficking – and the situation appears to be getting worse, according to campaigners.

The Nigerian government has not ratified an internationally recognized set of rules known as the Hague Adoption Convention which meant the laws governing adoptions remain murky and complicated, campaigners said.

“There is corruption in the adoption process and that is the individual (Nigerian) states’ responsibility,” said NAPTIP’s Orakwue in a phone interview

“But central government should step up its funding to NAPTIP so we can increase support to victims,” Orakwue said.

HERBAL TREATMENT

Sophie, who was not able to conceive, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she started to develop the symptoms of pregnancy after visiting a herbalist in Enugu state in 2014.

However the traditional doctor told Sophie her swollen stomach contained gas resulting from the herbal treatment rather than a fetus – but she could arrange to buy a baby.

“(The herbalist) said that she would bring me a newborn baby, girl or boy, depending on which one I wanted,” she said in the grimy sitting room of her apartment in southeastern Nigeria.

The woman said a girl would cost 380,000 naira ($1,250) while a boy would cost 500,000 naira ($1,645), said Sophie who opted for a girl.

But a sense of obligation to the woman who brought her a child prevented her from reporting the crime, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I considered everything and thought to myself ‘why should I report (the herbalist) to the police?’ She had helped me,” she said.

NAPTIP does not have data on the number of domestic adoptions that have taken place, a figure it says is not held by central government.

“In the southeastern states, the sale of babies is unarguably very prevalent as recorded by the agency,” said Cordelia Ebiringa, NAPTIP’s commander in Enugu state.

DEADLY GAME

Men are also involved in the process of illicit baby trafficking, with sperm donors impregnating surrogate mothers who then sell their babies, according to two Nigerian men.

Surrogacy is illegal in Nigeria.

Jonathan, 33, said he was paid 25,000 naira ($82) by his boss or “madam” every time he helped a client to become pregnant.

“I don’t see it as somebody exploiting me. The madams pay me for my work,” said Jonathan, who withheld his full name.

Jonathan said he did not know whether the women gave their babies away or went on to sell them although he was concerned what he was doing could be illegal.

“I often think ‘what if the police catch me?'”

Nigeria’s anti-human trafficking agency said it did not have data or information on the role of sperm donors, but many women they spoke to did not want to reveal how they fell pregnant.

“NAPTIP has no records of studs that impregnate the women at the baby factories as most of the pregnant women rescued and interviewed in such cases claimed unplanned pregnancies,” said Ebiringa.

Little information was made available by the Nigerian police or authorities in southeastern states about the number or identity of the people who run the “baby factories”.

No data was provided on the number of arrests by police in southern states of Enugu and Abia on baby trafficking offences despite repeated requests by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But the dangers involved, both from the law and from trafficking gangs, are palpable, according to Jonathan, who estimates he has fathered about 15 children as a “stud”.

“These (baby traffickers) can be dangerous,” said Jonathan, who was once threatened by a group of thugs who found out what he was doing. “They are ready to kill anybody if you stand in their way.”

($1 = 304.00 naira)($1 = 0.8042 pounds)

(Reporting By Tom Esslemont and Anamesere Igboeroteonwu, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

U.S. states stung by tumble in April of Income tax revenue

A car passes a sign advertising tax return services in Falls Church, Virginia

By Karen Pierog

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. state personal income taxes tumbled in the key revenue month of April due to lower investment returns from weaker equities and energy prices in 2015, a Reuters analysis of state data found.

This April, personal income tax (PIT) revenue fell by an average of 9.88 percent compared to the same month last year in the 32 U.S. states and Puerto Rico for which Reuters has data.

Taxes on wages and investment income are a top revenue source for the 43 states that collect it. April is the most important revenue month because it contains the tax filing deadline and the tendency of taxpayers who owe money to wait until the last minute to pay.

Personal income taxes make up slightly more than a third of states’ total general fund revenue, and sales taxes comprise roughly another third.

Collections have been volatile in recent years, including 2013’s “April Surprise,” which delivered unexpectedly high revenues to states as taxpayers sold investments to dodge an increase in federal taxes.

Collections plunged in April 2014 then rebounded last year with the help of a robust stock market.

In 2015, the U.S. benchmark S&amp;P 500 stock index lost 0.7 percent compared with a 11.4 percent gain in 2014.

“The kinds of income that are kind of driving this are particularly capital gains related to the stock market. If you had to find a No. 1 culprit, that’s it,” said Don Boyd, Director of Fiscal Studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, New York.

News of falling revenue comes as most states are nearing the end of fiscal 2016 and the beginning of fiscal 2017, leading some to turn to temporary measures to plug budget holes, Boyd said.

John Hicks, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers in Washington, said the 20 percent growth rate in the tax in April 2015 from a year earlier set “an extremely high bar.”

He said that PIT withholding has been more stable for states than capital gains-related tax revenue.

“The underlying personal income information – even while we’ve been bouncing for the last few years – has still been on a slow, but increasing trend,” Hicks added.

MOST STATES SEE COLLECTIONS DECREASE

Louisiana had the most dramatic drop at 81.5 percent. The plunge was due to a change in the way Louisiana issues refunds as well as a fall in withholding collections because the last day of April fell on a Saturday.

This resulted in some revenue payments being deposited in May, according to Kizzy Payton, press secretary for the Louisiana Department of Revenue.

Louisiana – like North Dakota, where PIT collections fell 34.7 percent – is also feeling the sting from the struggling energy sector. Oklahoma, another key energy producing state, experienced an 18 percent drop in revenue in April.

New Jersey’s PIT revenue was down 14.8 percent, largely due to a decline in taxpayers’ investment income and the state’s tax structure, which relies on wealthy residents.

Oregon’s receipts came in a third lower than last year, mainly because excess state revenue during the previous year led to a surplus income tax credit on 2015 returns, said Bob Estabrook, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Revenue.

Lower income tax rates led to revenue drops in Illinois, down 28.8 percent, and in Ohio, down 41.3 percent. But in Kansas, which slashed rates in 2013, revenue was up 23 percent.

Seven states – Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming – collect no income tax, and two – New Hampshire and Tennessee – only levy taxes on dividend and interest income, but not wages.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog; additional reporting by Hilary Russ, Robin Respaut, Rory Carroll and Edward Krudy; editing by Daniel Bases and G Crosse)

Yen falls vs dollar for second day to near two-week low

Japanese Yen Notes

By Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The yen slid to a nearly two-week low against the dollar on Tuesday as risk appetite improved for a second straight session, undermining traditional safe havens such as the Japanese currency.

Repeated verbal warnings from Japan over the weekend and on Tuesday saying it was prepared to step in to weaken the currency has also held off investors seeking to buy the yen at the expense of the dollar. The greenback has struggled recently as the Federal Reserve is on track to raise U.S. interest rates gradually.

“Risk appetite is naturally tied to the belief that we’re in an ultra-low-yield environment and investment managers can’t simply sit here,” said Jeremy Cook, chief economist at payments company World First in London.

“We have to see a move any time we see the slightest bit of positivity, by grabbing yield in emerging markets currencies, for instance.”

Global stock markets were on the upswing overall led by European and Wall Street shares, adding to the positive risk sentiment. [MKTS/GLOB]

In late morning trading, the dollar rose 0.7 percent to 109.11 yen, after hitting a roughly two-week peak of 109.27 <JPY=>. The U.S. currency tumbled to an 18-month low of 105.55 yen last week after the Bank of Japan stood pat on monetary policy.

Finance Minister Taro Aso said on Monday Tokyo was ready to intervene to weaken the currency if moves were volatile enough to hurt the country’s trade and economy. He reiterated that message on Tuesday.

A key economic adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Koichi Hamada, also said on Tuesday Japan would intervene in currency markets if the yen rose to between 90 and 95 per dollar.

“There’s definitely the possibility of intervention,” said World First’s Cook. “But I don’t think this will turn the market around. It will be more of a stop-gap measure.”

He added that the only thing that could reverse the yen’s recent strength is fiscal and monetary policy action and any change could happen as early as June.

Meanwhile, speculators were cutting favorable bets on the yen, having piled into the currency in the past few weeks. [IMM/FX]

In other currencies, the euro rose 0.8 percent to a near two-week high of 124.38 yen <EURJPY=>, pulling away from a three-year trough of 121.48 plumbed late last week.

The euro was flat against the dollar at $1.1388 <EUR=>. The dollar index <.DXY> was at 94.171, having hit its highest in nearly two weeks earlier and extending its rise from a 15-month trough struck on May 3.

(Reporting by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss in New York; Additional reporting by Anirban Nag in London; Editing by James Dalgleish)

U.S. Bullet train proposals shun public funds, favor private cash

China Railway High-speed Harmony bullet trains are seen at a high-speed train maintenance base in Wuhan

By Robin Respaut

(Reuters) – It took years of lawsuits and political battles for California to finally break ground last year on the nation’s first bullet train, which aims to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles by 2029.

High-speed rail advocates had hoped the line, supported by more than $13 billion in state and federal money, would inspire similar government-financed projects. Instead, its many delays have left rail groups wary of accepting public funds for projects they are proposing in three other states.

Companies in Texas, Minnesota and Nevada all plan to tap private cash from investors globally, with help from foreign train makers and governments eager to export train technology. The projects would rely on partnerships with Japanese or Chinese firms that face saturated train markets at home.

“The United States is the Holy Grail of deployment for Japan, China, France, Germany and Spain,” said Tim Keith, Texas Central CEO.

California’s example shows that taking taxpayer money opens the door to political and legal challenges that can drag out planning, bidding and approvals for years, private rail advocates said. Companies now see a quicker – even cheaper – path by largely avoiding such headaches.

“All the rules relating to public engagement start the day you take public funding,” said Wendy Meadley, chief strategy officer for North American High Speed Rail Group’s project in Minnesota. With private financing, she said, opponents “can’t make thousands of public records requests and run the project over.”

The company said last year it would seek money from Chinese investors. Now, it said it is considering two foreign partners for the $4.2 billion project, which seeks to connect the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul to the internationally renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, by 2022.

Texas Central is paying for engineering studies with $75 million from Texas investors, $40 million from a state-backed Japanese development fund and about $130 million in design work from two firms. The Dallas-to-Houston rail line is projected to cost $12 billion and be completed by 2021.

In Nevada, privately financed XpressWest plans to link Las Vegas to Southern California. Started by Las Vegas developer Marnell Companies, the company formed a joint venture last fall with a consortium of Chinese firms, infusing $100 million into the project expected to break ground as soon as this year.

XpressWest officials declined to comment.

GOVERNMENT JUMPSTART

Some experts remain skeptical that bullet trains can work without government money to finance initial legs of construction.

Rail lines are generally profitable once in operation, said Jim Steer, director of UK-based high-speed rail research organization Greengauge 21. But operating profits are unlikely to be enough to repay massive construction costs.

“No private party is actually going to stump up the kind of money needed to create these things,” said Steer.

Supporters of the new rail lines said investors can expect solid returns based on ticket sales and profits from high-end real estate developments near stations.

Current economic trends also make private financing for infrastructure projects easier to secure. Interest rates at historic lows have created global demand for stable, long-term investments, igniting interest in infrastructure projects from banks and major investors, such as pension funds.

The number of institutional investors in infrastructure, such as roads, airports and rail, more than doubled since 2011, according to Preqin, an alternative investments research firm.

“There’s a lot of money swimming around the world that doesn’t know where to go,” said Dr. Alexander Metcalf, president of TEMS, Inc., a transportation consulting firm. “We’ve seen huge increases in institutional money that is willing to go into transportation.”

Longstanding U.S. skepticism of expensive train projects does not necessarily extend to foreign investors, Meadley said.

“People outside of this country believe this will happen more than Americans believe this will happen,” she said.

POLITICAL PERILS

The U.S. is decades behind Europe and Asia in building fast trains.

In the early 1990s, French and German companies made plays to construct a high-speed network across Texas. But the project relied in part on taxpayer money, and the proposal collapsed when local political support waned.

Texas train officials now see private financing as the faster, cheaper – and only – avenue. If their project relied on public subsidies, “we’d end up pulling the plug,” said Robert Eckels, a director at Texas Central.

Project officials say they have avoided U.S. federal funding in part because it includes a requirement that American workers manufacture the trains – even though no such U.S. factory currently exists.

Since 2009, the government has spent $10 billion to improve passenger rail service in the U.S. California was the only recipient constructing a high-speed rail line, and the money will only go so far. The state will likely need private money to finance much of the project’s estimated $64 million cost.

State rail officials overseeing the California project, considered the most ambitious planned in the U.S. and the farthest along, say there’s growing interest from foreign governments and international firms to finance the second leg to Los Angeles.

In February, the state announced the opening of the train’s first leg, a 250-mile line from the rural Central Valley to Silicon Valley, would be pushed back by three years to 2025.

The progress has been measured in decades rather than years. California Governor Jerry Brown first signed legislation to study high-speed rail during a previous tenure in office – in 1982.

“Everything big runs into opposition,” Brown said at the rail line’s groundbreaking in January 2015.

(Additional reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Tim Kelly in Tokyo; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

Italy’s Renzi signs potentially huge business deals in Iran

Iran and Italy Leaders

ROME (Reuters) – Italy and Iran signed deals potentially worth billions on Tuesday when Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited Tehran seeking a strong Italian foothold in a nation hungry for infrastructure investment as it emerges from financial isolation.

Renzi was accompanied by a delegation of some 60 business leaders in sectors including, energy, railways and defense, and by Italy’s export agency and state lender which pledged billions of euros in credit lines and guarantees.

Three months ago President Hassan Rouhani made Italy his first stop in Europe as he sought to drum up investment in the Iranian economy, which rejoined the global trading system in January following a deal to lift crippling sanctions in exchange for limiting its nuclear activities.

“The end of sanctions is a historic step not only for Iran but for the whole region,” Renzi told reporters in Tehran with Rouhani standing by his side.

“We are committed to making sure the efforts of the international community are accompanied by mutual trust and by the immediate relaunch of economic links.”

Business delegations from other European countries are expected in Tehran in coming weeks, but Italy is well positioned to win contracts that could deliver a much needed export boost for its chronically sluggish economy.

Enel said it signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Iranian Gas Export Company on possible future cooperation in natural gas, liquefied natural gas and related infrastructure, that could lead to long-term gas supplies for its power stations.

The Enel deal was one of seven signed by Renzi and Rouhani, Iranian state television said. Renzi was due to return to Rome on Wednesday.

Oil major Eni has an agreement that allows it to take oil from Iran in payment for previous investments while oil service group Saipem, expected to clinch a new deal on Tuesday, had already signed preliminary deals in January that a source said at the time could be worth $4-5 billion.

Italy’s state railways company, Ferrovie dello Stato, said it signed a “framework of cooperation” agreement to build two high-speed lines in Iran. The contract could be worth some 3 billion euros, a source close to the matter said.

Italy’s state-run lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti will offer credit lines of 4 billion euros to companies building oil and gas infrastructure, while export agency SACE will guarantee loans and offer trade financing of 4.8 billion euros, a SACE statement said.

($1 = 0.8758 euros)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Stephen Jewkes, additional reporting by Sam Wilkin in Dubai, Isla Binnie in Rome and Francesca Landini in Milan, editing by Isla Binnie and Robin Pomeroy)

Interest Rates Unlikely to Raise Yet

Federal Reserve building in Washington

By Jason Lange and Lindsay Dunsmuir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve appears unlikely to raise interest rates before June amid widespread concern at the U.S. central bank over its limited ability to counter the blow of a global economic slowdown, minutes from the Fed’s March 15-16 policy meeting suggest.

The minutes released on Wednesday showed policymakers debated whether they might hike rates in April but “a number” of them argued headwinds to growth would probably persist, with many arguing they should be cautious about raising rates.

“Participants generally saw global economic and financial developments as continuing to pose risks,” according to the minutes.

Policymakers had signaled at the close of the March meeting that they expected to raise rates twice in 2016 but the timing of the hikes still appears up in the air.

According to the minutes, many Fed members said they were concerned that the central bank had limited firepower to respond to shocks from abroad because interest rates are already so close to zero.

“Many participants indicated that the heightened global risks and the asymmetric ability of monetary policy to respond to them warranted caution,” the minutes stated.

Investors have held doubts the Fed would raise rates at all this year and the minutes did little to shift bets on the path of policy.

Prices for fed futures contracts suggested investors still saw the chance of a rate hike in December as just better than even, and they saw virtually no chance of an increase at the April 26-27 policy meeting, according to the CME group.

“Resistance to near-term action is still quite entrenched,” said Ian Shepherdson, an economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

According to the minutes, several of the central bankers said elevated risks faced by the U.S. economy meant that raising rates in April “would signal a sense of urgency they did not think appropriate.”

A small minority indicated a rate hike might be warranted when the Fed meets at the end of April. After that meeting, policymakers next convene June 14-15.

Policymakers had signaled in December that four rate increases were likely in 2016, and the minutes of the March meeting highlighted the consensus within the Fed around a cautious outlook for the economy.

PROCEEDING WITH CARE

Fed chief Janet Yellen said on March 29 the U.S. central bank should “proceed cautiously” in raising rates, a view Fed Governor Lael Brainard pushed late last year which has been recently embraced by policymakers including St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, who had previously warned the Fed might hike too slowly.

Bullard said on Wednesday that economic data has been mixed since the March meeting, which could make it difficult for the Fed to raise rates this month.

The Fed left its target interest rate for overnight lending between banks at between 0.25 percent and 0.5 percent in March and in January after December’s hike which ended seven years of near-zero rates.

Global financial markets have been volatile since August amid concerns a slowing Chinese economy could drag heavily on global growth. Expectations the Fed would outpace other central banks in raising rates also tightened financial conditions by leading the dollar to strengthen in 2014 and 2015, though the consensus for caution has helped stabilize the U.S. currency.

At the same time, an inflation index closely followed by the Fed has begun to rebound, although policymakers were divided in March over whether the increase would prove lasting.

“Some participants saw the increase as consistent with a firming trend in inflation. Some others, however, expressed the view that the increase was unlikely to be sustained,” according to the minutes.

(Reporting by Jason Lange and Lindsay Dunsmuir in Washington; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

China to Donate Millions of Dollars and Thousands of Troops to U.N.

On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced to the United Nations General Assembly that his country would provide more money and troops to aid U.N. peacekeeping efforts.

He said that 8,000 troops would be assigned as a U.N. permanent peacekeeping force. Additionally, China would give $100 million to the African Union, so an immediate response unit could be created and capable of responding to emergencies. Finally, Xi stated that China would donate $1 billion – over the next 10 years – to the United Nations as a “peace and development fund.”

China was among other world leaders from more than 50 countries who pledged equipment and training for U.N. peacekeeping missions as well as roughly 40,000 police and troops.

President Xi Jinping also announced that China would also donate a helicopter squad for African peacekeeping operations.

Bruce Jones, vice president for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and an expert on peacekeeping, state that China’s contributions would be significant, especially the 8,000 police officers.

“Police is one of the most glaring gaps in the United Nations peacekeeping operations,” he said. “This is an important step in creating a dedicated reserve capacity.”

Xi’s pledges for peacekeeping operations comes amid growing concerns over China’s military might and territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. Earlier in his address to the General Assembly, Xi tried to ease the concerns over his country’s growing influence as a threat.

“We are committed to peaceful development. No matter how the international landscape may evolve and how strong China may become, China will never pursue hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence,” he said.