Stage Set for Complete and Total Economic Collapse

Important Takeaways:

  • We Have Never Been More Vulnerable, And The Stage Has Now Been Set For A Complete And Total Economic Collapse
  • In these tough financial times, a new study finds it’s getting harder and harder for people to save any of their money. In fact, seven in 10 Americans say they’re living paycheck to paycheck.
    • Most people do not have a sizable financial cushion to fall back on.
  • In fact, the head commodity strategist for Goldman Sachs just publicly admitted that the world is now facing shortages of virtually all major commodities…
    • “I’ve been doing this 30 years and I’ve never seen markets like this,” Currie told Bloomberg TV in an interview on Monday. “This is a molecule crisis. We’re out of everything, I don’t care if it’s oil, gas, coal, copper, aluminum, you name it we’re out of it.”
  • Tyson Foods just announced that it will be raising prices yet again…
    • According to the report, beef prices jumped by 32% in the quarter, with chicken up ~20% and pork 13%.

Read the original article by clicking here.

Grocery stores are struggling to stock up

Rev 6:6 NAS And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine.”

Important Takeaways:

  • Here’s why grocery stores are struggling to stock their empty shelves
  • Much of the Midwest and Northeast has recently been grappling with severe weather and hazardous commuting conditions. Not only are people stocking up on more groceries, that level of high demand coupled with transportation challenges is making it more difficult
  • One strategy: Fanning out products. They’re doing this by putting out both limited varieties and limited quantities of each product in an attempt to prevent hoarding and stretch out their supplies between deliveries.
  • The ongoing record-high level of congestion at the nation’s ports. “Both of these challenges are working in tandem to create shortages”

Read the original article by clicking here.

U.S. economy gaining steam as manufacturing forges ahead; shortages still a constraint

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. manufacturing activity picked up in November amid strong demand for goods, keeping inflation high as factories continued to struggle with pandemic-related shortages of raw materials.

Signs that the economy was gathering momentum halfway through the fourth quarter were underscored by other data on Wednesday showing private employers maintained a strong pace of hiring last month. But there are fears that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 could hurt demand for services as well as keep the unemployed at home, and hold back job growth and the economy.

“Manufacturing should continue to contribute positively to GDP growth over the next year as businesses replenish inventories and supply-chain issues improve,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “There are risks, including the potential for businesses overbooking orders now and the Omicron variant magnifying price and supply chain issues.”

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said its index of national factory activity increased to a reading of 61.1 last month from 60.8 in October.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion in manufacturing, which accounts for 12% of the U.S. economy. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the index rising to 61.0.

“The U.S. manufacturing sector remains in a demand-driven, supply chain-constrained environment, with some indications of slight labor and supplier delivery improvement,” said Timothy Fiore, ISM chair of the manufacturing business survey committee.

Global economies’ simultaneous recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, fueled by trillions of dollars in relief money from governments, has strained supply chains, leaving factories waiting longer to receive raw materials.

The Federal Reserve’s Beige Book on Wednesday described economic activity as growing at “a modest to moderate pace” during October and early November, but noted that “growth was constrained by supply chain disruptions and labor shortages.”

All of the six largest manufacturing industries in the ISM survey, including computer and electronic products as well as transportation equipment, reported moderate to strong growth.

Makers of computer and electronic products said “international component shortages continue to cause delays in completing customer orders.” Transport equipment manufacturers reported “large volume drops due to chip shortage.” Furniture producers said “business is strong but meeting customer demand is difficult due to a shortage of raw materials and labor.”

But there are some glimmers of hope. Prices for steel plate and hot-rolled coil appear to be nearing a plateau, according to manufacturers of fabricated metal products. Supply of plastic resins is improving, accounts from electrical equipment, appliances and components, as well as plastics and rubber products manufacturers suggested.

The ISM survey’s measure of supplier deliveries slipped to 72.2 from 75.6 in October. A reading above 50% indicates slower deliveries.

The long delivery times kept inflation at the factory gate bubbling. The survey’s measure of prices paid by manufacturers fell to a still-high 82.4 from 85.7 in October.

Factories are easily passing the increased production costs to consumers and there are no signs yet of resistance.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers on Tuesday that “the risk of higher inflation has increased,” adding that the U.S. central bank should consider accelerating the pace of winding down its large-scale bond purchases at its next policy meeting in two weeks.

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure surged by the most in nearly 31 years on an annual basis in October.

Stocks on Wall Street rebounded after Tuesday’s sell-off. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. Prices for longer-dated U.S. Treasury prices rose.

STRONG ORDERS

The ISM survey’s forward-looking new orders sub-index climbed to 61.5 last month from 59.8 in October. Customer inventories remained depressed.

With demand robust, factories hired more workers. A measure of manufacturing employment rose to a seven-month high.

Strengthening labor market conditions were reinforced by the ADP National employment report on Wednesday showing private payrolls increased by 534,000 jobs in November after rising 570,000 in October. That was broadly in line with expectations.

This, combined with consumers’ robust perceptions of the labor market last month suggest job growth accelerated further in November. First-time applications for unemployment benefits declined between mid-October and mid-November.

But a shortage of workers caused by the pandemic is hindering faster job growth. There were 10.4 million job openings at the end of September.

Workers have remained home even as companies have been boosting wages, school reopened for in-person learning and generous federal government-funded benefits ended.

“Overall, the risk remains that renewed health concerns will keep workers, especially those with caregiving responsibilities, from returning to the labor force, preventing a return to pre-pandemic strength,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York.

According to a Reuters survey of economists nonfarm payrolls probably increased by 550,000 jobs in November. The economy created 531,000 jobs in October.

The Labor Department is scheduled to publish its closely watched employment report for November on Friday.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

Stretched global supply chain means shortages on summer menus

By Lisa Baertlein and Hilary Russ

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) – In the United States, it’s iced green tea. In South Korea, it’s fries.

At least nine fast-food chains and restaurant companies surveyed by Reuters said some of their locations have been grappling with changing lists of brief shortages of key ingredients and products, as supply bottlenecks plague eateries.

The list of hard-to-find items has included summertime staples such as wieners and chicken wings, and non-food items like plastic packing material and paper bags.

On June 14 the web site of South Korea’s No. 1 fast-food chain, Lotteria, alerted customers that its eateries would substitute cheese sticks for its popular french fries, after snarls in ocean shipping and pandemic-related product inspections spawned an outage.

French fry shipments to the burger and fried chicken chain were delayed due to a dearth of shipping containers and longer health-related customs checks, a spokesman for Lotteria operator Lotte GRS told Reuters.

Supply bottlenecks could continue “well into 2022,” St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard said on Thursday, with reopenings in the United States followed by Europe and then emerging markets.

The problem is not typically a scarcity of the product itself. Rather, networks of cargo ships, trains and trucks are buckling under the ongoing stress from the pandemic – which also caused facility closures and reduced labor at farms, factories and warehouses and contributed to shortages of everything from meat and cooking oil to plastic and glass packaging.

Similarly, the quick ramp-up of COVID-19 vaccines unleashed a surge in demand for meals at restaurants, ball parks and other venues that caught food producers and suppliers off guard.

If restaurants run short on core products for long enough, they “risk disappointing customers in large numbers, and that licenses them to go somewhere else,” said Barry Friends, a partner at food industry consultant Pentallect.

On Thursday, a Wendy’s franchisee in the southern United States said he received only half of the lettuce he ordered, while a Subway location in New York City was missing roast beef, rotisserie chicken, ketchup and spicy mustard. Some locations of Yum Brands Inc’s KFC have occasionally run out of paper bags, one franchisee source said.

Darden Restaurants Inc, parent of Olive Garden Italian Kitchen, on Thursday cited a “few spot outages… related to warehouse staffing and driver shortages, not product availability.” A spokesperson declined to say what items were temporarily missing but said the outages were at “pockets of restaurants, not our system, and we were able to quickly recover.”

Shortages are temporary and vary by market and store, Starbucks said. A Starbucks in Poughkeepsie, New York, said it had been short many different items for months, most recently iced green tea, cinnamon dolce syrup and spinach, feta and egg white wraps.

“We continue to work closely with our supply chain vendors to restock items as soon as possible,” the company said in a statement. “We recommend customers use the Starbucks app to check item availability.”

A Chipotle location in New Jersey was out of barbacoa and carnitas at lunchtime on Thursday, but another nearby location was not. The company said some spot outages could last a “a few hours” but that its network is not having supply problems.

Suzanne Rajczi, CEO of family-owned Ginsberg’s Foods in upstate New York, scrambled to fill orders for hot dogs, Canadian bacon and other popular menu items as restaurants, cafeterias and other venues reopened or expanded service with easing COVID-19 restrictions.

The upheaval affected almost “every single product we sell,” said Rajczi, who is seeing sporadic shortfalls as suppliers catch up.

In the UK, the pandemic and a crackdown on immigration following Brexit contributed to unpredictable supplies of fruits, vegetables and prepared foods in stores and restaurant chains, said Shane Brennan, chief executive at the Cold Chain Federation.

The return of immigrant workers to their home countries created thousands of unfilled jobs across the supply chain. Restaurant reopenings are amplifying the impact, said Brennan, whose group represents UK companies that move and store refrigerated and frozen goods.

“We’ve coped with the panic-buy phase, we’ve coped with the uncertainties of the lockdown. Now, we’re trying to do the job without the people,” Brennan said.

(Additional reporting by Joyce Lee in Seoul and Joyce Philippe in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler)

U.S. consumer spending takes breather amid shortages; inflation rises

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer spending paused in May as shortages hurt motor vehicle purchases, but the supply constraints and increased demand for services helped to lift prices, with the Federal Reserve’s main inflation measure rising by the most in 29 years.

There was, however, some good news on inflation. Consumers this month perceived higher inflation to be temporary, a survey showed on Friday, aligning with the views of Fed Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Consumers’ inflation expectations are key as they can influence households’ behavior.

With at least 150 million Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which is allowing the economy to reopen and people to travel, dine out and engage in other activities that were restricted during the pandemic, consumer spending is expected to pick up in the coming months. Trillions of dollars in excess savings and rising household wealth due to gains in stock prices and home values are expected to provide a powerful tailwind.

“Spending growth will shift to services from goods, and drive a strong economic recovery throughout the rest of 2021 and all of 2022,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial in Pittsburgh. “The biggest drags are higher prices for some goods and services and shortages due to production bottlenecks.”

The unchanged reading in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, followed an upwardly revised 0.9% jump in April, the Commerce Department said. Consumer spending was previously reported to have increased 0.5% in April. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast consumer spending would rise 0.4% in May.

Motor vehicles and some household appliances are scarce because of supply bottlenecks stemming from the pandemic. A global shortage of semiconductors is hampering motor vehicle production. Spending is also starting to shift back to the services part of the economy, which accounts for two-thirds of consumer spending, though the pace last month was insufficient to offset the drag from goods.

Spending on services rose 0.7%, led by recreation, restaurants and hotels as well as housing and utilities. Spending on goods fell 1.3%, with outlays of long-lasting goods like motor vehicles tumbling 2.8%. Goods spending surged as the pandemic confined people to their homes.

The personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, excluding the volatile food and energy components, increased 0.5% after advancing 0.7% in April. In the 12 months through May, the so-called core PCE price index shot up 3.4%, the largest gain since April 1992. The core PCE price index rose 3.1% on a year-on-year basis in April.

The core PCE price index is the Fed’s preferred inflation measure for its flexible 2% target. Year-on-year inflation is accelerating in part as last spring’s weak readings drop from the calculation.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading largely higher, with the S&P 500 index hitting a record high as investors focused on the moderation in the monthly inflation reading. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mostly lower.

NO RUNAWAY INFLATION

Though the so-called base effects likely peaked in May, inflation will probably remain high in the near term because of the supply constraints and worker shortages, which are boosting wage growth.

“While we foresee increased inflation stickiness, with core PCE inflation hovering around 3.0% in the second half (of the year), we don’t foresee runaway inflation,” said Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.

Consumers seem to agree. The University of Michigan consumer survey’s one-year inflation expectation dropped to 4.2% in June from a decade-high 4.6% in May. The survey noted that “consumers also believed that the price surges will mostly be temporary.”

The five-to-10-year inflation expectation fell to 2.8% this month from 3.0% in May. Fed officials put more emphasis on the five-to-10-year series.

Powell acknowledged this week that “inflation has increased notably in recent months,” but told lawmakers that the U.S. central bank “will not raise interest rates preemptively because we fear the possible onset of inflation.”

When adjusted for inflation, consumer spending fell 0.4% last month after rising 0.3% in April. Despite May’s drop in the so-called real consumer spending, consumption is running higher than its pace in the first quarter.

Gross domestic product growth estimates for this quarter are around a 9% annualized rate, which would be an acceleration from the 6.4% pace logged in the first quarter. Economists believe the economy could achieve growth of at least 7% this year. That would be the fastest growth since 1984. The economy contracted 3.5% in 2020, its worst performance in 74 years.

In addition to the supply squeeze, the ebbing boost from government stimulus checks likely restrained consumer spending last month. Transfer payments from the government dropped 11.7%. That resulted in personal income falling 2.0% after declining 13.1% in April.

But there is ample fuel to drive spending. Wages gained 0.8% after rising 1.0% in April. The saving rate fell to a still-lofty 12.4% from 14.5% in April. Households accumulated at least $2.5 trillion in excess savings during the pandemic.

From July through December some households will receive income under the expanded Child Tax Credit program, which will soften the blow of an early termination of government-funded unemployment benefits in 26 states.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

Pent-up demand, shortages fuel U.S. inflation

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer prices surged in April, with a measure of underlying inflation blowing past the Federal Reserve’s 2% target and posting its largest annual gain since 1992, because of pent-up demand and supply constraints as the economy reopens.

The strong inflation readings reported by the Commerce Department on Friday had been widely anticipated as the pandemic’s grip eases, thanks to vaccinations, and will have no impact on monetary policy. Fed Chair Jerome Powell has repeatedly stated that higher inflation will be transitory.

The U.S. central bank slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero last year and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. It has signaled it could tolerate higher inflation for some time to offset years in which inflation was lodged below its target, a flexible average.

The supply constraints largely reflect a shift in demand towards goods and away from services during the pandemic. A reversal is underway, with Americans flying to vacation destinations and staying at hotels among other activities. Year-on-year inflation is also accelerating as last spring’s weak readings drop from the calculation.

“Many goods are in short supply amid very strong demand and supply chain disruptions, and some services prices are up sharply as consumers start to go out again,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Shortages of labor in some industries are also contributing to higher prices. But many of these factors will prove transitory, and inflation will slow in the second half of 2021.”

Consumer prices as measured by the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, excluding the volatile food and energy components, increased 0.7% last month amid strong gains in both goods and services. That was the biggest rise in the so-called core PCE price index since October 2001 and followed a 0.4% gain in March.

In the 12 months through April, the core PCE price index vaulted 3.1%, the most since July 1992, after rising 1.9% in March. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the core PCE price index rising 0.6% in April and surging 2.9% year-on-year.

The core PCE price index is the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher, though gains were capped by the rising price pressures. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were higher.

“Inflation is up, but real yields are still low,” said Jamie Cox, managing partner at Harris Financial Group in Richmond, Virginia. “This is basically the transitory sweet spot.”

INCOME PLUNGES

Some economists are not convinced that higher inflation will be temporary.

A survey from the University of Michigan on Friday showed consumers’ one-year inflation expectations shot up to 4.6% in May from 3.4% in April, hurting household sentiment. Their five-year inflation expectations rose to 3.0% from 2.7% last month.

“Concerns about the future can cause households to become more conservative in their spending,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economics in Holland, Pennsylvania. “The Fed is guessing that the rise in inflation will be temporary, and it better be correct.”

Though consumer spending moderated last month as the boost to incomes from stimulus checks faded, households have accumulated at least $2.3 trillion in excess savings during the pandemic, which should underpin demand. Wages are also rising as companies seek to attract labor to increase production.

Generous unemployment benefits funded by the government, problems with child care and fears of contracting the virus, even with vaccines widely accessible, as well as pandemic-related retirements have left companies scrambling for labor.

That is despite nearly 10 million Americans being officially unemployed. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, rose 0.5% last month. Data for March was revised higher to show spending surging 4.7% instead of 4.2% as previously reported.

The rise in spending was in line with expectations. Spending was held back by a 0.6% drop in outlays on goods. Though purchases of long-lasting goods such as motor vehicles rose 0.5%, spending on nondurable goods tumbled 1.3%. Outlays on services increased 1.1%, led by spending on recreation, hotel accommodation and at restaurants.

When adjusted for inflation, consumer spending slipped 0.1% after jumping 4.1% in March. Despite last month’s dip in the so-called real consumer spending, March’s solid increase put consumption on a higher growth trajectory in the second quarter.

Personal income plunged 13.1% after surging 20.9% in March. With spending exceeding income, the saving rate dropped to a still-high 14.9% from 27.7% in March. Wages increased 1.0% for a second straight month.

Consumer spending powered ahead at a 11.3% annualized rate in the first quarter, contributing to the economy’s 6.4% growth pace. Most economists expect double-digit growth this quarter, which would position the economy to achieve growth of at least 7% this year, which would be the fastest since 1984. The economy contracted 3.5% in 2020, its worst performance in 74 years.

Growth prospects for the second quarter were bolstered by another report from the Commerce Department showing the goods trade deficit narrowed 7.3% to $85.2 billion in April, with exports rising and imports declining.

But inventory at retailers fell 1.6%, pulled down by a 7.0% plunge in automobile stocks as the sector struggles with a global semiconductor shortage.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Chizu Nomiyama)

‘Want the COVID-19 vaccine? Have a U.S. visa?’ Latinos travel north for the shot

By Anthony Esposito, Cassandra Garrison and Marco Aquino

MEXICO CITY/LIMA (Reuters) – “Want the COVID-19 vaccine? Have a U.S. visa? Contact us,” reads a travel agency advertisement, offering deals to Mexicans to fly to the United States to get inoculated.

From Mexico to far-flung Argentina, thousands of Latin Americans are booking flights to the United States to take advantage of one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns, as rollouts in their own countries sputter.

Latin America is one of the regions worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with the death toll set to pass 1 million this month, and many do not want to wait any longer for their turn to get vaccinated.

Some people are going it alone, while others have tapped travel agencies, which have responded by offering packages that arrange the vaccine appointment, flights, hotel stay and even offer extras such as city and shopping tours.

Gloria Sanchez, 66, and her husband, Angel Menendez 69, traveled in late April to Las Vegas to get Johnson & Johnson’s single dose vaccine.

“We don’t trust the public health services in this country,” said Sanchez, now back in Mexico. “If we hadn’t traveled to the United States where I felt a little more comfortable I wouldn’t have gotten vaccinated here.”

A travel agent in Mexico City organized the trip for them and an associate in Las Vegas handled things on the U.S. side, Sanchez said.

The U.S.-based associate signed them up for a vaccine appointment, then drove them to a Las Vegas convention center where they presented their Mexican passports and received their shots.

“We decided to make it a vacation and we went for a whole week, walked like crazy, ate really expensive but good food, and did some shopping,” said Sanchez.

As demand has boomed, flight prices from Mexico to the United States have risen an average of 30%-40% since mid-March, said Rey Sanchez, who runs travel agency RSC Travel World.

“There are thousands of Mexicans and thousands of Latin Americans who have gone to the United States to get vaccinated,” he said, adding that the top destinations have been Houston, Dallas, Miami and Las Vegas.

Reuters was unable to find official data on how many Latin Americans are traveling to the United States to get vaccinated. Travelers do not generally state vaccination as a reason to travel.

But U.S. cities have caught on to the trend, which is ushering much needed business into cash-strapped hotels, restaurants and other service activities.

“Welcome to New York, your vaccine is waiting for you! We’ll administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at iconic sites across our city,” New York City’s government announced on Twitter on May 6.

The U.S. embassy in Peru recently advised residents on Twitter that travelers could visit the United States for medical treatment, including vaccinations.

Latin Americans who had traveled on a U.S. tourist visa that Reuters spoke to said they were able to obtain shots with IDs from their home countries.

As far south as Argentina, travel agencies are selling vaccination tourism trips.

An advertisement in Buenos Aires details the estimated cost of getting vaccinated in Miami: air ticket $2,000, hotel for a week $550, food $350, car rental $500, vaccine $0. For a total of $3,400.

NO HOPE OF A VACCINE SOON

While initially it was mostly wealthy Latin Americans looking to travel, increasingly people with more modest means are making bookings. For many, the cost of lengthy flights makes it a major undertaking.

“I’m getting money together to travel to California in June,” said a worker at a car parts store in Lima, who asked not to be named for fear it could jeopardize his travel plans. “Considering how things are going here, there’s no hope of a vaccine shot soon.”

The slow rollout of vaccinations in most Latin American countries was a common reason cited for traveling to the United States, said Sanchez.

With little to no infrastructure to make vaccines domestically, campaigns in Latin America have been hampered by supply delays and shortages. The United States has administered nearly 262 million vaccine doses, some 2.3 times the number of shots given in all of Latin America, which has roughly twice the population, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Our World in Data.

Distrust in vaccination campaigns in Latin America is also a factor, said Sanchez.

Reports of batches of fake doses being seized by authorities or the required second dose not being available when it was time are some of the reasons Latin Americans gave for their distrust.

Vaccine tourism has fueled a jump in air travel to the United States, with fares for some last-minute flights doubling or even tripling since January, even as airlines increase capacity, according to Rene Armas Maes, commercial vice president at MIDAS Aviation, a London-based consultancy.

LATAM Airlines Group, the region’s largest carrier, said on Thursday it was seeing increased demand from South Americans seeking to travel to the United States to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Aeromexico said passenger traffic between Mexico and the United States increased 35% from March to April.

And American Airlines also said it had seen demand growing rapidly from parts of Latin America in recent months and it had increased capacity, particularly to Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico.

“We’re matching the increased demand in many of these markets, with additional frequencies, new routes or with the use of widebody aircraft, resulting in more capacity,” said American Airlines.

For 29-year-old Giuliana Colameo, the chance to get vaccinated was a relief after she and her boyfriend in Mexico City were both infected by the coronavirus in 2020.

They traveled to New York City where they got vaccinated at a pharmacy last month. She said they were the only two people getting the shots.

“When they give you the vaccine it’s like you almost cry. It’s a relief: it gives you hope,” said Colameo. “I feel very happy I did it and hopefully more people can do it.”

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Cassandra Garrison in Mexico City and Marco Aquino in Lima; Additional reporting by Carolina Mandl in Sao Paulo and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. may see blood shortages as coronavirus cancels office blood drives

Reuters
By Michael Erman

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. blood banks are concerned about potential shortages as Americans concerned about catching the new coronavirus avoid donation sites and companies with employees working from home cancel blood drives.

There have already been shortages over the past week in Washington that required other blood banks to move blood in from outside the region, according to Brian Gannon, who runs the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center and chairs a disaster task force for AABB, formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks. Supplies in New York were also low because of blood drive cancellations, he said.

“I’m concerned. This is different than most of the types of pandemics we’ve had in the past or the other types of disasters that I’ve been involved with because it has to do with people social distancing themselves,” Gannon said. “Blood has a short shelf life, so it’s not like we can stockpile it.”

Most blood centers try to keep an inventory of a three-day supply, according to the AABB.

The disease has so far sickened more than 800 in the United States and killed 28, mostly in Washington state.

Blood supply in Seattle started to dwindle at the beginning of the month, according to Bloodworks Northwest, which collects and distributes blood around the Northwest U.S.

“Last week was really bad and we were at critical and emergency levels,” said Vicki Finson, executive vice president of blood services at Bloodworks Northwest.

Finson said 60% of Bloodworks Northwest’s blood is from mobile blood drives, and the push to have people work from home has resulted in many being canceled.

“If this gets worse, people will quit responding and then we will be in a very difficult situation,” Finson said.

The AABB task force led by Gannon sent 600 units of blood to Seattle over the weekend, he said.

He is encouraging individuals and sponsors of blood drives to schedule appointments and keep their commitments, and that blood banks around country can continue to shift supply to where it is needed.

China saw sharp shortages in blood donations as quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the virus took its toll on inventories around the country.

Coronavirus is not transmissible via transfusion, according to the American Red Cross.

“There is absolutely no evidence that the coronavirus or any respiratory viruses are transmitted via blood transfusion,” said Dr. Pampee Young, chief medical officer of the American Red Cross.

Still, the Red Cross and AABB said their donation centers are asking that sick people wait until they are healthy to donate in order to protect staff and other donors. People who have recently traveled to China, Iran or Italy are also being asked to wait to donate.

Young said that cancer patients who need platelets, people in trauma who need emergent transfusions and newborns with critical need for blood are all particularly vulnerable if supplies dip.

In Seattle, Finson said donations picked up over the weekend, but on Tuesday, Bloodworks Northwest was around 140 short of its 1,000 donor-per-day target.

“We need people every day,” she said. “This will continue and if this virus is weeks, if not months, we’ll have to be diligent every single day, because the patient usage has not decreased at all.”

(Reporting by Michael Erman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Shortages plague Cuba as U.S. sanctions sharpen economic woes

FILE PHOTO: People buy chicken in a supermarket in Havana, Cuba May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Sarah Marsh

By Sarah Marsh

HAVANA (Reuters) – Israel Hidalgo and his wife left home around 7:30 a.m. to reach a supermarket across Havana, Cuba because they heard it might be selling chicken, a staple of the Cuban diet increasingly scarce on the shortage-plagued island.

After Cuba started limiting sales this month, partly blaming tightened U.S. economic sanctions on the Communist-run island, the couple wanted to buy as much as possible and lined up for three hours under the Caribbean sun to get tickets guaranteeing them their rations.

Inside, they lined up again to collect two bags of chicken thighs each, as fellow shoppers elbowed one another in pursuit of their own rations, and headed for the checkout feeling like they had won the lottery.

“We were born in this revolution and are used to rough times,” said Hidalgo, a 61-year old blacksmith. “We are bracing ourselves for it to get worse.”

Long lines outside shops with mostly bare shelves are increasingly common in Cuba, and the government has indeed signaled that things are going from bad to worse.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, in a speech last month, accused the Trump administration of engaging in an “asphyxiating financial persecution that makes the import of goods and resources of primary necessity particularly difficult.”

The degree to which new U.S. sanctions, due in part to Cuba’s support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, have compounded its economic woes is open to debate.

The economy had already stagnated in recent years in tandem with the implosion of strategic ally Venezuela, resulting in cuts in fuel and energy use by state entities and this year shortages of basic goods such as bread, chicken and eggs.

But the increase in sanctions, which have hit the key tourism sector and added to investor and bank jitters about dealing with Cuba, has some economists predicting the economy will slip from stagnation into a full-blown recession later this year.

The economy has averaged 1% annual growth over the last three years, compared with the 5% to 7% rate economists say is needed to recover fully from the depression caused by the fall of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union, in 1991.

“While the crisis will not be as bad as in the 1990s, it will have a worrying social impact on the most vulnerable households, which are already on subsistence salaries,” said Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank economist who teaches at Colombia’s Universidad Javeriana Cali.

Bracing for harder economic times, the government has resorted to what it knows best to manage the crisis and prevent social unrest: more control.

Interior Commerce Minister Betsy Diaz said two weeks ago the government would “temporarily” ration sales of a handful of basic products like eggs on a monthly basis, using ration books distributed after the 1959 Revolution, and limit the sale of others like chicken to ensure everyone gets their fair share.

“A CRITICAL MOMENT”

Some Cuban economists say the developing crisis stems fundamentally from an inefficient centrally-planned economy that imports more than two thirds of its food needs. Calling rationing little more than a short-term solution, they say the government must open up to a series of market-oriented economic reforms before the crisis deepens.

“This could be a critical moment that generates the consensus necessary to apply changes,” said Vidal. “The government needs to give more space to the private sector and investment.”

Cuba has enacted some economic reforms in recent years, including expanding the private sector from 2010 onward and introducing a new foreign investment law that cut taxes by around 50% in 2014.

But local economists like Omar Everleny say the reforms undertaken have been too cautious so far. The government has backtracked on overhauls of areas like agriculture and the dominant public sector remains deeply inefficient.

Cuba was already behind on an estimated $1.5 billion (£1.1 billion) in short-term commercial debt and warning of austerity before U.S. President Donald Trump started the latest round of tightening of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

Aid from Venezuela, in the form of subsidized oil, had long masked the true extent of Cuba’s economic problems, but it started to fall from 2015 when a drop in oil prices roiled that OPEC nation’s economy.

Venezuela’s crude shipments to Cuba are now about half what they were four years ago, and they could soon fall further. Last month, the United States also began targeting vessels and companies that ship oil to the island from Venezuela for sanctions, threatening the energy grid and transportation.

U.S. sanctions against its old Cold War foe are also hitting the two bright spots in the otherwise glum economy: tourism and foreign investment. Both had boomed briefly after the announcement of a Cuba-U.S. detente in 2014.

Tourism revenues dropped by 4.6% in 2018, according to official data released last month. The announcement in 2017 of tighter travel restrictions on U.S. citizens played a role.

“At one point U.S. visits dropped more than 40 percent,” Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told Reuters, adding he still hoped tourism would grow this year.

Meanwhile the Trump administration has activated a long dormant law under which Cuban-Americans can sue foreign companies that profit from their properties nationalized during the first years of the 1959 Revolution.

Western diplomats and businessmen have called the threat of potentially costly U.S. court battles another clear disincentive for banks and outside investors to do business with Cuba.

The United States has also threatened to further tighten restrictions on travel and to impose a cap on cash remittances to Cuba, measures that could hit the economy hard.

SIEGE MENTALITY

Cuba’s government has said it will continue moving down the path toward reform. But it has failed to respond so far to calls from the island’s entrepreneurs for basic changes such as the creation of wholesale markets for the private sector, and the right to import and export.

Instead of opening the economy further, some Western diplomats and analysts say there is risk Cuba’s leadership will adopt a siege mentality in the face of increased U.S. hostility. That could mean turning to allies like Russia, Vietnam and China for help to muddle through while keeping its stranglehold on economic life.

“The U.S. sanctions could be counterproductive,” said one diplomat who asked not to be identified. “Cuba has historically closed up at times like these.”

Cubans are not going hungry like they did during the so-called “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they are increasingly connected to the rest of the world via the internet and foreign travel, and many have grown weary of government attempts to blame the U.S. embargo for the bulk of their country’s woes.

“We are in total freefall,” said Hidalgo’s wife, Carmen Lozano, 55, clinging to her two bags of rationed chicken. “They should have allowed free production and sales from the beginning of the revolution.”

Inequality has risen in recent years in Cuba and many believe the economic crisis could have a more disproportionate impact now than it might have in the past.

In a country where the government’s claim to legitimacy rests to a large extent on ensuring a certain level of equality, the authorities seem well aware that most people lack the cash to stock up on whatever basics they need on the black market.

“The government’s new rationing program is trying to address that simmering discontent by making the small quantities of goods that are in stock more widely available,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University.

“The government understands that discontent over the economy is their biggest political vulnerability so they will do everything they can to maintain supplies of basic goods.”

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

Crowds see off Venezuela convoy headed to Colombia border for aid

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a news conference to mark the 5th anniversary of the arrest of the opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in Caracas, Venezuela February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Angus Berwick and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido left Caracas with some 80 lawmakers on Thursday on a 800-km (500-mile) trip to the Colombian border where they hope to receive food and medicine to alleviate shortages in defiance of President Nicolas Maduro.

Crowds formed alongside a main highway out of the capital, waving Venezuelan flags and whooping in support, as the convoy of buses departed.

Guaido, recognized by dozens of countries as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state, has pledged to bring in the humanitarian aid by land and sea on Saturday. Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency on Jan. 23 and denounces Maduro as an usurper.

“Through this call for humanitarian aid, the population will benefit from the arrival of these goods to the Venezuelan border,” said opposition legislator Edgar Zambrano, as he waited to board a bus in a plaza of eastern Caracas.

Maduro’s beleaguered socialist government denies there is an economic crisis in Venezuela and has said soldiers would be stationed along the country’s borders to prevent potential incursions.

He accuses the Trump administration, which recognizes Guaido and is supporting the relief effort but has levied crippling sanctions against his government, of seeking to force his ouster.

Guaido still has not provided details on how they will bring in the aid. Opposition figures have suggested forming human chains across the Colombian border to pass aid packages from person to person and fleets of boats arriving from the Dutch Caribbean islands.

The United States has sent tons of aid to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, which Maduro has mocked as a “cheap show.” Maduro’s vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, has alleged the aid is poisonous and could lead to cancer.

On Wednesday, Maduro’s socialist administration said it had closed the country’s maritime border with the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire after Curacao’s government said it would help store aid destined for Venezuela.

Colombia expelled five Venezuelans from Cucuta for “carrying forward activities which attack citizen security and social order,” its migration agency said in a statement late on Wednesday.

“We know there is interest by the Maduro dictatorship in affecting national security because of coming events,” agency director Christian Kruger added in the statement.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Bill Trott and Sonya Hepinstall)