U.S. consumer spending strong; manufacturing struggling

FILE PHOTO: People tour The Shops during the grand opening of The Hudson Yards development, a residential, commercial, and retail space on Manhattan's West side in New York City, New York, U.S., March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales surged in July as consumers bought a range of goods even as they cut back on motor vehicle purchases, which could help to assuage financial market fears that the economy was heading into recession.

The upbeat report from the Commerce Department on Thursday, however, will likely not change expectations that the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates again next month as news from the manufacturing sector remains dour, underscoring the darkening outlook for the economy against the backdrop of trade tensions and slowing growth overseas.

A key part of the U.S. Treasury yield curve inverted on Wednesday for the first time since June 2007, triggering a stock market sell-off. An inverted Treasury yield curve is historically a reliable predictor of looming recessions.

Financial markets have fully priced in a 25-basis-point rate cut at the U.S. central bank’s Sept. 17-18 policy meeting. The Fed lowered its short-term interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point last month, citing the acrimonious U.S.-China trade war and slowing global economies.

But the data could push markets to dial back expectations of a 50-basis-point rate cut next month.

“So yes, consumers are lifting economic growth and easing pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut more aggressively, but the trade war itself, and the rhetoric that accompanies it will push for more rate cuts,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Retail sales increased 0.7% last month after gaining 0.3% in June, the government said. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales would rise 0.3% in July. Compared to July last year, retail sales increased 3.4%.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales jumped 1.0% last month after advancing by an unrevised 0.7% in June. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

U.S. stock index futures extended gains after the release of the data. U.S. Treasury yields rose while the dollar <.DXY> was slightly weaker against a basket of currencies.

STRONG LABOR MARKET

July’s gain in core retail sales suggested strong consumer spending early in the third quarter, though the pace will likely slow from the April-June quarter’s robust 4.3% annualized rate. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, is being underpinned by the lowest unemployment rate in nearly half a century.

While a separate report from the Labor Department on Thursday showed an increase in the number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits last week, the trend in claims continued to point to a strong labor market.

Solid consumer spending is blunting some of the hit on the economy from the downturn in manufacturing, which is underscored by weak business investment. There are, however, red flags for the labor market coming from manufacturing.

The sector’s struggles were highlighted by a third report from the Fed on Thursday showing factory production dropped 0.4% in July. Output at factories has declined more than 1.5% since December 2018. Manufacturing, which makes up about 12% of the economy, is also being weighed down by an inventory overhang, especially in the automotive sector.

Manufacturing productivity tumbled at its fastest pace in nearly two years in the second quarter, with factories cutting hours for workers, another report from the Labor Department showed.

Manufacturing’s troubles appear to have persisted into the third quarter. Though a report from the Philadelphia Fed on Thursday showed factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region slowed less than expected in August amid an increase in new orders, manufacturers reported hiring fewer workers.

A measure of factory employment dropped to its lowest level since November 2016. The weakness in factory employment in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware was mirrored by another survey from the New York Fed. Activity in New York state was little changed this month, with employment measures deteriorating further.

“The health of factories is still an important driver of growth and the soft patch for production remains a factor that is keeping economic growth in the slow lane,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

The economy grew at a 2.1% rate in the second quarter, decelerating from the first quarter’s 3.1% pace. Growth estimates for the third quarter are below a 2.0% rate.

In July, auto sales fell 0.6% after rising 0.3% in June. Receipts at service stations rebounded 1.8%, reflecting higher gasoline prices. Sales at building material stores gained 0.2%.

Receipts at clothing stores increased 0.8%. Online and mail-order retail sales jumped 2.8%, the most in six months, after rising 1.9% in June. They were likely boosted by Amazon.com Inc’s <AMZN.O> Prime Day.

Receipts at furniture stores rose 0.3%. Sales at restaurants and bars accelerated 1.1%. But spending at hobby, musical instrument and book stores dropped 1.1% last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

Predicting the next U.S. recession, investors apprehensive

FILE PHOTO: Ships and shipping containers are pictured at the port of Long Beach in Long Beach, California, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Saqib Iqbal Ahmed

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A protracted trade war between China and the United States, the world’s largest economies, and a deteriorating global growth outlook has left investors apprehensive about the end to the longest expansion in American history.

The recent rise in U.S.-China trade war tensions has brought forward the next U.S. recession, according to a majority of economists polled by Reuters who now expect the Federal Reserve to cut rates again in September and once more next year.

Trade tensions have pulled corporate confidence and global growth to multi-year lows and U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement of more tariffs have raised downside risks significantly, Morgan Stanley analysts said in a recent note.

Morgan Stanley forecast that if the U.S. lifts tariffs on all imports from China to 25 percent for 4-6 months and China takes countermeasures, the U.S. would be in recession in three quarters.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc <GS.N> said on Sunday that fears of the U.S.-China trade war leading to a recession are increasing and that Goldman no longer expects a trade deal between the world’s two largest economies before the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Global markets remain on edge with trade-related headlines spurring big moves in either direction. On Tuesday, U.S. stocks jumped sharply higher and safe-havens like the Japanese yen and Gold retreated after the U.S. Trade Representative said additional tariffs on some Chinese goods, including cell phones and laptops, will be delayed to Dec. 15.

Besides watching developments on the trade front economists and investors are watching for signs they hope can alert them to a coming recession.

1. THE YIELD CURVE

The U.S. yield curve plots Treasury securities with maturities ranging from 4 weeks to 30 years. When the spread between the yield on the 3-month Treasury bill and that of the 10-year Treasury note slips below zero, as it did earlier this year, it points to investors accepting a lower yield for locking money up for a longer period of time.

As recession signals go, this so-called inversion in the yield curve has a solid track record as a predictor of recessions. But it can take as long as two years for a recession to follow a yield curve inversion.

The closely-followed yield spread between U.S. 2-year and 10-year notes has also narrowed – marking the smallest difference since at 2007 – according to Refinitiv data.

GRAPHIC – Yield curve as a predictor of recessions🙂

2. UNEMPLOYMENT

The unemployment rate and initial jobless claims ticked higher just ahead or in the early days of the last two recessions before rising sharply. Currently the U.S. unemployment rate is near a 50-year low.

“Although job gains have slowed this year, they continue to signal an above-trend economy,” economists at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research said in a recent note.

Claims will be watched over the coming weeks for signs that deteriorating trade relations between the United States and China, which have dimmed the economy’s outlook and roiled financial markets, were spilling over to the labor market.

(GRAPHIC – Unemployment rate: )

3. GDP OUTPUT GAP

The output gap is the difference between actual and potential economic output and is used to gauge the health of the economy.

A positive output gap, like the one now, indicates that the economy is operating above its potential. Typically the economy operates furthest below its potential at the end of recessions and peaks above its potential towards the end of expansions.

However, the output gap can linger in positive territory for years before a recession hits.

(GRAPHIC – The GDP output gap peaks before recessions🙂

4. CONSUMER CONFIDENCE

Consumer demand is a critical driver of the U.S. economy and historically consumer confidence wanes during downturns. Currently consumer confidence is near cyclical highs.

(GRAPHIC – Consumer confidence is at cyclical highs: )

5. STOCK MARKETS

Falling equity markets can signal a recession is looming or has already started to take hold. Markets turned down before the 2001 recession and tumbled at the start of the 2008 recession.

The recent pullback in U.S. stocks has done its share to raise concerns about whether the economy is heading into a recession. On a 12-month rolling basis, the market has turned down ahead of the last two recessions. The 12-month rolling average percent move is now below the recent highs of January 2018 but still above higher than the lows hit in December.

(GRAPHIC – The S&P 500 has fallen during recessions🙂

6. BOOM-BUST BAROMETER

The Boom-Bust Barometer devised by Ed Yardeni at Yardeni Research measures spot prices of industrials inputs like copper, steel and lead scrap, and divides that by initial unemployment claims. The measure fell before or during the last two recessions and has retreated from a peak hit in April.

(GRAPHIC – The Boom-Bust Barometer🙂

7. HOUSING MARKET

Housing starts and building permits have fallen ahead of some recent recessions. U.S. homebuilding fell for a second straight month in June and permits dropped to a two-year low, suggesting the housing market continued to struggle despite lower mortgage rates.

(GRAPHIC – Housing starts have fallen before prior recessions: )

8. MANUFACTURING

Given the manufacturing sector’s diminished role in the U.S. economy, the clout of the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) manufacturing index as a predictor of U.S. GDP growth has slipped in recent years. However, it is still worth watching, especially if it shows a tendency to drop well below the 50 level for an extended period of time.

ISM said its index of national factory activity slipped to 51.2 last month, the lowest reading since August 2016, as U.S. manufacturing activity slowed to a near three-year low in July and hiring at factories shifted into lower gear, suggesting a further loss of momentum in economic growth early in the third quarter.

“The slowdown in manufacturing activity likely reflects, in part, the tariffs that went into effect over the course of last year,” economists at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research said in a note on Friday.

(GRAPHIC – ISM Manufacturing Index: )

9. EARNINGS

S&P 500 earnings growth dipped ahead of the last recession. Earnings estimates for S&P 500 companies have been coming down but companies are still expected to post growth for most quarters this year.

(GRAPHIC – Earnings fell during the last recession: )

10. HIGH-YIELD SPREADS

The gap between high-yield and U.S. government bond yields rose ahead of the 2007-2009 recession and then widened dramatically.

Credit spreads typically widen when perceived risk of default rises. Spreads have fallen from their January highs.

(GRAPHIC – Junk bond yields jumped in the 2008 recession🙂

11. FREIGHT SHIPMENTS

The Cass Freight Index, a barometer of the health of the shipping industry produced by data company Cass Information Systems Inc, logged a 5.3% year-over-year decline in June. That marked the index’s seventh straight month with a negative reading on a year-over-year basis.

“Whether it is a result of contagion or trade disputes, there is growing evidence from freight flows that the economy is beginning to contract,” Broughton Capital analyst Donald Broughton wrote in the June Cass Freight Index report.

(GRAPHIC – Cass Freight Index – shipments🙂

12. MISERY INDEX

The so-called Misery Index adds together the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. It typically rises during recessions and sometimes prior to downturns. It has slipped lower in 2019 and does not look very miserable.

(GRAPHIC – The Misery Index: )

(Reporting by Saqib Iqbal Ahmed; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Graphic: America’s economy and wages are cooling but not its female workforce

A female construction worker stands outside a construction site in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Data released on Friday showed a return to strong job growth in the United States, allaying some fears the U.S. economy is on a short path to recession. But the data also reinforced the view that economic growth is slowing.

Here are five take-aways from a report by the U.S. Labor Department on U.S. employment during June.

SLOWING GROWTH

Every month the Labor Department surveys payrolls in the private sector to calculate how many hours employees across the nation worked. Seen as a proxy for economic growth, this index of the national work effort grew 0.2% in June, a rate near the muted gains clocked in recent months. That suggests the U.S. economy, which grew at a 3.1% annual rate in the first quarter of this year, could be cooling.

COOLER WAGE GROWTH?

Growth in private sector average hourly earnings accelerated throughout 2018 and through February of this year, when year-over-year growth hit the strongest rate since 2009 at 3.4%. June’s growth rate, however, was a more modest 3.1%. It is probably too early to tell if there has been a break in the upward trend.

Average earnings graphic

WAGE LAGGARDS

The manufacturing sector added 17,000 jobs in June after several months of weak growth or outright decline. Wage growth in the factory sector, however, has underperformed the national average. Wage growth has also been lower in the education and health jobs category tracked by the Labor Department.

leaders_laggards: https://tmsnrt.rs/2FUH8hw

LABOR FORCE INCREASE

A bright spot for the U.S. economy over the last few years has been the increase in the share of the population that either has a job or is looking for one. This so-called labor force participation rate ticked slightly higher in June, both for a key demographic of people of prime working age and for the general population. But the rate for prime-age workers has been mostly falling since January. This suggests the economy might be running lower on its supply of people available to work, which could depress future job growth.

participation rate graphic

WOMEN LEAD

In June, the participation rate fell for men of prime working age, while it rose for women. This is in line with the trend over the last few years. Indeed, the share of men who have jobs or are looking for one was slightly lower in June than it was in January 2017.

Women lead graphic 

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Venezuela grinds to a halt as blackout drags into a second day

A general view of a street during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 8, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela shut schools and suspended the workday on Friday as the worst blackout in decades paralyzed most of the troubled nation for a second day, spurring outrage among citizens already suffering from hyperinflation and a crippling recession.

Power went out late on Thursday afternoon due to a problem at Venezuela’s main hydroelectric plant, the government said, calling the event an act of “sabotage” by ideological adversaries.

“We will once again defeat this electrical sabotage. We are going to recover this important service for the population,” Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said in comments broadcast over state television.

While blackouts are routine in many Venezuelan provinces, particularly along the western border with Colombia, nationwide power outages under the ruling Socialist Party have never extended for more than a day.

“This is a severe problem. It is not just any blackout,” said Luis Martinez, a 53-year-old construction worker walking to work in eastern Caracas.

Reuters witnesses could only confirm that lights were on in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz. It was not immediately clear if the power shortages affected oil operations in the OPEC nation.

State oil company PDVSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Caracas, scores of people walked through the streets early in the morning due to the closure of the metro, while others took the few buses that were circulating. Many did not realize the workday was suspended because they could not watch television or listen to the news.

SABOTAGE

President Nicolas Maduro always attributes major power outages to sabotage by opposition adversaries.

Maduro, who was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, blames the crisis on a U.S.-backed sabotage campaign.

His critics say his government has mismanaged the power sector since late socialist leader Hugo Chavez nationalized it in 2007 while setting aside billions of dollars for power projects that were swallowed by corruption.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido slammed the government for bungling the country’s energy supply and dismissed sabotage accusations.

“Sabotage is stealing money from Venezuelans. Sabotage is burning food and medicine. Sabotage is stealing elections,” he wrote via Twitter, referring to humanitarian aid trucks that went up in flames last month when opposition leaders attempted to bring relief supplies across the Colombian border.

More than 3 million people are believed to have fled Venezuela amid a deep economic crisis marked by shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

Venezuela suffered major blackouts in 2008 and 2013 that affected significant parts of the country, but both were resolved in less than six hours.

Maduro’s televised speeches have on several occasions been interrupted by power outages, spurring chuckles from opposition critics.

Local power outages continue to be chronic, particularly in the sweltering western state of Zulia where residents complain of days without power or with limited electricity and voltage fluctuations that damage appliances.

Venezuela is mired in a major political crisis, with more than 40 foreign governments disavowing Maduro in favor of Guaido. The United States in January levied crippling oil industry sanctions meant to starve Maduro’s government of revenue.

Maduro says Guaido is a “puppet” of Washington and dismisses his claim to the presidency as an effort by the Trump administration to control Venezuela’s oil wealth.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth,; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

A decade after recession, a jump in U.S. states with wage gains for American workers

Newly hired employees take a break from training to pose for a group photo at the chain’s soon-to-open 54th outlet in Oakland, California ,U.S., January 24, 2018.

By Ann Saphir, Jonathan Spicer and Howard Schneider

OAKLAND, Calif./CANTON, N.Y./WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The kind of pay raises for which American workers have waited years are now here for a broadening swath of the country, according to a Reuters analysis of state-by-state data that suggests falling unemployment has finally begun boosting wages.

Average pay rose by more than 3 percent in at least half of U.S. states last year, up sharply from previous years. The data also shows a jump in 2017 in the number of states where the jobless rate zeroed in on record lows, 10 years after the financial crisis knocked the economy into a historic recession.

The state-level data could signal an inflection point muffled by national statistics.

Over the past four years, the U.S. economy added 10 million jobs and the overall unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since 2000. Yet wages have disappointed.

The disconnect has puzzled economists at the Federal Reserve, frustrated politicians concerned about rising inequality, and held regular Americans back, even as businesses have benefited and stock markets have surged, particularly in the first year of U.S. President Donald Trump’s presidency.

Trump says his tax cuts and regulation rollbacks are lifting business sentiment, and in an upbeat address to Congress on Tuesday, he said Americans “are finally seeing rising wages” after “years and years” of stagnation.

Indeed, average hourly earnings were up 2.9 percent in January year-on-year, the biggest rise in more than 8-1/2 years but still less than the 3.5 percent to 4 percent economists say would be a sign of a healthy economy.

The Reuters analysis and interviews with businesses across the country do show wage increases in industries ranging from manufacturing to technology and retail. Executives are mixed, however, on how much to credit Trump after several years of job growth that has chopped nearly six percentage points from the unemployment rate since its peak of 10 percent at the height of the 2007-2009 recession.

“Everyone in the building knows that they can leave and make more money,” said Michael Frazer, president of Frazer Computing, which provides software to U.S. used-car dealers from its offices in northern New York state. In response he raised wages by 6.1 percent at the end of 2017, up from 3.7 percent the previous year.

In Portland, Oregon, software provider Zapproved now hires coding school graduates and spends up to three months training them because the experienced software developers it used to hire have become too expensive. And still, CEO Monica Enand says she gives her developers twice-yearly raises “to make sure we are in the market for pay.”

JOBLESS RATES AT RECORD LOWS

The Reuters analysis of the most recent data available found that in half of the 50 states, average hourly pay rose by more than 3 percent last year. That’s up from 17 states in 2016, 12 in 2015, and 3 in 2014. Average weekly pay rose in 30 states, also up sharply from prior years, the analysis showed.

Unemployment rates are near or at record lows in 17 states, including New York, up from just five in 2016, the Reuters analysis shows.

“Wage growth tends to accelerate when the unemployment rate gets really strong,” said Bart Hobijn, an economics professor at Arizona State University.

California, Arkansas, and Oregon were among those both notching 3-percent-plus wage gains and plumbing record-low unemployment rates. This broadening of benefits to U.S. workers comes as robust global growth pushes up wages from Germany to Japan.

New York Fed President William Dudley said last month that firmer wage gains in states with lower unemployment rates gave him confidence that U.S. inflation, long stubbornly low, would soon rise.

In California, home of Noah’s New York Bagels, more than half of its 53 stores now pay their new hires more than the legal minimum wage, twice as many as in mid-2017.

“It’s very challenging to find enough people” in low-unemployment areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, said Noah’s president Tyler Ricks, who expects to hike pay further this year even as he opens five new stores.

To be sure, some states like Idaho with very low unemployment continue to have slow wage growth, while some like Delaware with very strong wage growth still have jobless rates well above their record lows.

And the share of gross domestic product that feeds back to labor as compensation has only edged slightly higher this decade, after generally declining since the 1970s, suggesting workers have a long way to make up ground.

Yet the state-level data hints at a first step.

Galley Support, a Sherwood, Arkansas-based manufacturer of latches for airplane kitchens and toilets, gave unskilled workers as much as a 20 percent pay hike last year. CEO Gina Radke said it will sap profit but with the Trump administration’s business-friendly policies set to benefit aircraft companies like Boeing, she added, “We feel confident that we will see an increase in sales to cover the increase in wages.”

Work-site managers at Gray, a company that oversees the building of factories and other projects from its headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, also got a 20 percent raise since 2016. Yet a paycheck of up to $200,000 a year, plus bonuses, often isn’t enough to fill all the jobs on offer.

“There is just so much work around for people that it’s just hard to lure them away,” said Susan Brewer, Gray’s vice president of human resources.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir in Oakland, Calif., Jonathan Spicer in Canton, New York and Howard Schneider in Washington; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Brazil exits recession with fastest growth rate since 2013

FILE PHOTO: Cranes are seen in the distance during a workers' strike at Latin America's biggest container port in Santos, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Fernando Donasci/File Photo

By Silvio Cascione

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s economy emerged from its worst recession on record with its fastest growth rate in nearly four years, data showed on Thursday, boosting President Michel Temer’s case for staying in office as he battles a corruption scandal.

Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew 1.0 percent in the first quarter from the preceding one, matching economists’ forecasts for the biggest rise since the second quarter of 2013.

Growth is unlikely to stay as strong in the second quarter, economists said, as the first-quarter performance was driven up by extraordinary harvests of corn and soy and by a strong buildup in inventories across the economy.

Yet Temer, who has resisted protests for his resignation after being placed under investigation by the Supreme Court, tweeted minutes after the release: “The recession is over!”

“It’s the result of the measures we are taking. Brazil is growing again and will grow even more with the reforms,” he went on. He was referring to a legislative agenda seen as crucial for balancing the budget but which got stuck in Congress as his allies debated whether to break ranks with the government.

Fourteen million workers remain unemployed in Brazil, a country with one of the biggest gaps between the wealthy and poor. Many analysts expect Latin America’s largest economy, operating now at 2010 levels and forecast to grow just 0.5 percent in 2017, will continue running below potential throughout next year at least.

Subpar growth, in turn, should give policymakers room to continue cutting interest rates in coming months. The central bank slashed its benchmark Selic rate by 100 basis points on Wednesday to 10.25 percent and flagged further cuts to come, although probably at a slower pace because of the political uncertainty. <BRCBMP=ECI>

“HISTORICAL DAY”

Brazil’s economy shrank more than 3 percent in each of the past two years, the deepest and longest downturn since records began in 1901. As the recession deepened last year, Temer’s predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached for breaking budget rules amid record-low approval ratings.

Temer’s hold on power seemed in danger two weeks ago when the billionaire owners of meatpacker JBS SA <JBSS3.SA> accused him of condoning bribes to silence a key witness in a corruption probe. But lack of a clear replacement and signs of economic growth have given the scandal-plagued president some breathing room, allies have said.

“There is still some way to go before a full recovery but we’re in the right direction,” Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles said in a statement praising what he called a “historical day” for Brazil.

IBGE also revised up fourth-quarter data to show that Latin America’s largest economy contracted 0.5 percent in that period, and not 0.9 percent as originally reported.

Agricultural output rose in the first quarter at the fastest pace since 1996. Services remained stagnant and manufacturing grew only slightly in the first quarter, driven up by stronger exports, IBGE said. Government data later on Thursday showed a record trade balance in May. <BRTBAL=ECI>

Brazil’s economy shrank 0.4 percent in the first quarter from the year-earlier period, following a 2.5 percent drop in the previous quarter. <BRGDP=ECI>

(Reporting by Silvio Cascione; Editing by W Simon and Chizu Nomiyama)

Hush money scandal jeopardizes Brazil’s feeble recovery

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against Brazil's President Michel Temer in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 18, 2017. The sign reads "Out Temer and Elections now!." REUTERS/Nacho Doce

By Alonso Soto

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Hopes Latin America’s largest economy could emerge from its worst-ever recession this year were plunged into doubt on Thursday after President Michel Temer was shaken by allegations he condoned bribing a potential witness.

Fears the scandal could force Temer to step down or derail his ambitious reform agenda drove the biggest daily drop in the Brazilian real since 1999, while the benchmark Bovespa stock index closed 9 percent lower.

Government officials, lawmakers and economists told Reuters the crisis surrounding Temer, 76, could slow the pace of interest rate cuts and diminish consumer and business confidence enough to extend the recession into a third year.

Central Bank data this week suggested Brazil’s economy finally grew in the first three months of the year after eight consecutive quarters of contraction. A second month of job growth in April also fueled hopes of a recovery.

“The government went from its best moment to its worst moment in a matter of seconds,” said a Temer aide, who asked for anonymity to speak freely. “Even the opposition was betting on the approval of the reforms. Now we need to reestablish normalcy.”

Since he took office following the impeachment of leftist President Dilma Rousseff a year ago, Temer has regained investors’ confidence with measures to stop hemorrhaging in public finances. The government recorded a budget deficit of more than 10 percent of gross domestic product last year.

In a defiant address to the nation, Temer insisted that he would not resign and his ministers tried to ease market alarm by promising to push ahead with reforms.

Still, the specter of renewed political uncertainty raised doubts about the recovery and senior politicians said they could not press on with reforms in the midst of calls for Temer to step down.

Senator Ricardo Ferraço, a Temer ally in charge of drafting the government’s labor reform, said he had halted his work until the political crisis was resolved.

The lawmaker sponsoring the government’s flagship pension reform, Arthur Maia, also said there was no room to advance on the legislation in the midst of the turmoil created by the allegations against Temer.

“This certainly makes approval of the reforms more difficult,” Senator Valdir Raupp, a close ally to Temer, told Reuters. “Halting legislative work is the worst path to take. We have to see how things evolve in coming days.”

CAUTIOUS CENTRAL BANK

Government officials also said they worry the crisis could hamper investors’ interest in multi-million dollars auctions of oil rights, hydroelectric plants and infrastructure projects later this year. Temer was betting on those investments to add momentum to the recovery

Risks that labor and pension reforms could stall will likely prompt the central bank to slow the pace of interest rate cuts, limiting a source of relief for businesses battered by the recession, economists said.

The sharp depreciation of Brazil’s real could raise inflation expectations and cut short the easing cycle, economists said. The real closed down nearly 8 percent at 3.38 per US dollar.

“Although there is still room to cut rates, the central bank will be more cautious on the pace of easing,” said Alessandra Ribeiro, partner with consultancy Tendencias.

“The scandal compromises the recovery, which could be much weaker than originally expected or even fizzle away.”

Earlier this week, many market economists expected a more aggressive 125-basis-point rate cut at the bank’s next meeting on May 31. Investment banks expected the bank’s benchmark Selic rate to drop below 8 percent this year.

A surge in Brazilian interest rate futures shows traders are scaling back their bets for steeper rate cuts.

For Jose Carlos Martins, head of construction industry group CBIC, political paralysis would further undermine an economy struggling with more than 14 million unemployed.

“The chaos in the markets should serve as a warning for Congress to continue with the reforms,” Martins said. “Paralysis will send a terrible message to everyone.”

(Reporting by Alonso Soto; Editing by Andrew Hay)

Brazil’s worst-ever recession likely extended into fourth quarter

Shoppers walk in a mall in Refice, northeast Brazil, May 5, 2010. REUTERS/Bruno Domingos

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s economy probably contracted for an eighth straight quarter at the end of 2016, offering further proof that Latin America’s largest economy has been in its worst recession ever, a Reuters poll showed on Friday.

Gross domestic product probably shrank 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter from the third after seasonal adjustments, according to the median forecast of 16 economists. Brazil’s GDP contracted 0.8 percent in the third quarter.

Brazil’s economy is expected to have contracted 3.5 percent in 2016, after a decline of 3.8 percent in 2015. Brazil has never experienced such a long and deep period of recession, at least since records began more than a century ago.

The recession has left nearly 13 million people unemployed and caused a record number of bankruptcy filings. It also contributed to the ousting of former President Dilma Rousseff last year and to the low approval ratings of her successor, President Michel Temer.

The fourth-quarter GDP numbers will be released on March 7.

Leading indicators have suggested the economy is finally emerging out of recession in the first quarter of 2017, Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles told Reuters earlier this week. The central bank has been cutting interest rates at a rapid pace as inflation falls, which is expected to help boost growth.

The recovery, however, is expected to be very slow. The median expectation of economists in a weekly central bank survey projected a GDP expansion of 0.5 percent in 2017.

Although this recession has been the deepest in Brazil’s history, it has not been as dramatic as other crises in the country’s turbulent economic past. Previous downturns were often marked by debt crises, capital flights, hyperinflation and mass migration, none of which happened during the current recession.

Brazil’s economy probably shrank 2.2 percent in the fourth quarter from a year before, according to the poll.

(Reporting by Silvio Cascione; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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)

Nervy global investors revisit 1930s playbook

Unemployed man during the Great Depression

By Mike Dolan

LONDON (Reuters) – Global investors are once again dusting off studies of the 1930s as fears of protectionism, nationalism and a retreat of globalization, sharpened by this week’s Brexit referendum, escalate anew.

With markets on tenterhooks over Thursday’s “too close to call” vote on Britain’s future in the European Union, the damage an exit vote would deal business activity and world commerce is amplified by the precarious state of the global economy and its inability to absorb any left-field political shocks.

As such, the Brexit vote will not be an open-and-shut case regardless of the outcome. Broader worries about global trade, frail growth and dwindling investment returns have festered since the banking shock of 2007/08 and have mounted this year.

Stalling trade growth has already led the world economy to the brink of recession for the second time in a decade, with growth now hovering just above the 2.0-2.5 percent level most economists say is needed to keep per capita world output stable.

Three-month averages for growth of world trade volumes through March this year have turned negative compared with the prior three months, according to the Dutch government statistics body widely cited as the arbiter of global trade data.

And it’s not a seasonal blip. Last year saw the biggest drop in imports and exports since 2009 and their average annual growth of 3 percent over the intervening seven years was itself half that of the 25 years before, according to Swiss asset manager Pictet. 2016 is set to be the fifth sub-par year in row.

A study published by the Centre For Economic Policy Research shows this paltry pace of trade growth is also below the 4.2 percent average for the past 200 years.

Foreign direct investment growth of 2 percent of world output is also at its lowest since the 1990s, while the hangover from the credit crunch has seen annual growth rates in cross-border bank lending grind to a halt from some 10 pct in the decade to 2008.

Parsing the big investment themes of the next five years, Pictet this month highlighted “globalization at a crossroads” – offering both benign and malignant reasoning and implications.

One of these was that trade deceleration was due in part to the inwards reorientation of the world’s two mega economies, the United States and China — the former due to the shale energy boom and the latter’s planned shift to consumption from exports.

Another factor cited was a shift in the world economy towards services and digital activity that is not captured by statistics on merchandise trade.

But Pictet had little doubt about what brewing developments could swamp all that — rising nationalism on the far right and left of the political spectrum in Europe and the United States.

Britain “threatens to drive a fault line” through one of the world’s biggest free trade blocs, it said, and both presumptive candidates for November’s U.S. presidential election have talked of renegotiating the still-unratified Trans Pacific Partnership binding economies making up 40 percent of world trade.

“If the rising tide of nationalism results in greater protectionism, then the decline in international trade the world has experienced so far could well morph into something more pernicious,” the Swiss firm said, adding that multinationals — particularly banks and tech companies — were most vulnerable.

“1937-38 REDUX?”

Against that backdrop, this year’s market wobbles make total sense — especially as near-zero interest rates limit central banks’ ability to insulate against further shocks.

But echoes of the last major hiatus in trade globalization during and between the World Wars has economists looking again to the 1930s for lessons and policy prescriptions.

In a paper entitled “1937-38 redux?”, Morgan Stanley economists detail the mistakes that saw monetary and fiscal policy tightened too quickly once a recovery from the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Depression started in 1936.

Over-eagerness to reset policy before private sector confidence in future growth and inflation had picked up saw a relapse into recession and deflation by 1938. The devastation of World War Two followed, and with it huge government spending on military capacity, war relief and eventually reconstruction.

Morgan Stanley goes on to draw a parallel with the global response to 2008’s crash and subsequent world recession.

Waves of monetary and fiscal easing by 2009 underpinned economic activity, but government budgets have again tightened quickly and before inflation expectations or private investment spending and capital expenditure have been restored.

The second world recession in a decade is now seen as a threat, but with a heavier starting debt burden, historically low inflation and interest rates, stalled trade and a worsening demographic profile. That could mean another global government spending stimulus is needed to re-energize private firms.

“The effective solution to prevent relapse into recession would be to reactivate policy stimulus,” Morgan Stanley said.

Success in preventing a new recession without the cataclysm of a world war would be a profound lesson learned. Political extremism, isolation and protectionism make the task far harder.

(Editing by Catherine Evans)