Weekend News Items.
3 August 2019. By John Ellis.
1. President Trump’s threat Thursday to put 10% tariffs on the remaining $300 billion of Chinese imports that aren’t subject to his existing levies sent markets tumbling from Asia to Europe and in the U.S. on Friday. The new tax would hit American consumers, and businesses are going to face even more supply disruptions. China has already vowed to retaliate if Trump follows through. Bloomberg Economics’ initial estimate of the additional costs of U.S. tariffs and Chinese retaliation sees both economies taking a 0.2% hit to GDP by 2021.
2. The standoff between Washington and Beijing has cost China its position as the U.S.’s top trading partner, a shift that could accelerate as President Trump moves to ratchet up tariffs even more. Data released Friday showed that Mexico was the top trading partner for the first half of the year, followed by Canada. Imports from China dropped by 12%, and U.S. exports to China fell 19%, as tit-for-tat tariffs and other barriers imposed by Washington and Beijing took their toll.
3. Steady U.S. hiring growth continued into the second half of 2019, providing a solid foundation for the decade-long economic expansion at a time of global headwinds. Non-farm payrolls rose by 164,000 in July, the Labor Department said yesterday. The jobless rate last month held steady at 3.7%, near a 50-year low. Through the first seven months of 2019, employers added 165,000 jobs a month, on average, below last year’s average monthly pace of 223,000. Job growth for May and June was revised down by 41,000.
4. U.S. household sentiment ticked slightly higher in July, holding at a high level despite trade uncertainties. The University of Michigan said Friday its final index of consumer sentiment for July was 98.4, up slightly from June’s reading of 98.2.
5. Investors spooked by a revival of trade tensions piled into safe assets on Friday, pushing 30-year German government yields into negative territory for the first time. The move meant that at one point on Friday effectively all of Germany’s debt—considered the safest in Europe—would require investors to lose money on any bond bought and held to maturity. It reflects deep pessimism about the ability of the economy to generate growth over the coming decades and the expectations of more extreme monetary policy to come.
6. Thousands of civil servants were on the streets of Hong Kong last night in a rare expression of defiance against Beijing. The public servants, who define themselves by their political neutrality, joined crowds of mothers with prams, bankers and pensioners to protest against a law that would allow dissidents to be extradited to mainland China. Over the past six weeks millions have marched as fears that Beijing will curtail the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kongers have grown.
7. India has deployed 25,000 troops to Kashmir only days after dispatching an extra 10,000 soldiers to the restive Himalayan region, stoking fears of renewed conflict with Pakistan in the disputed territory. The huge security drive follows days of cross-border shelling between Indian and Pakistani forces and reports of an impending terrorist attack have raised fears of a repeat of the crisis earlier this year, when military clashes brought the tow countries to the brink of an all-out war.
8. The United Nations has warned that a recent pause in international terrorist violence may soon end, with a new wave of attacks possible before the end of the year. In a report, specialist monitors at the UN security council paint a worrying picture of a global Islamist extremist movement that continues to pose a significant threat despite recent setbacks. The authors raise concerns about up to 30,000 foreigners who travelled to the “caliphate” to fight and who may still be alive. “Their future prospects will be of international concern for the foreseeable future,” the report says.
9. In the race to build a machine with human-level intelligence, it seems, size really matters. “We think the most benefits will go to whoever has the biggest computer,” said Greg Brockman, chairman and chief technology officer of OpenAI. The San Francisco-based AI research group, set up four years ago by tech industry luminaries like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman, has just thrown down a challenge to the rest of the AI world. Late last month, it raised $1 billion from Microsoft to speed its pursuit of the Holy Grail of AI: a computer capable of so-called artificial general intelligence, a level of cognition that would match its makers, and which is seen as the final step before the advent of computers with superhuman intelligence. According to Mr Brockman, that money — a huge amount for a research organization — will be spent “within five years, and possibly much faster”, with the aim of building a system that can run “a human brain-sized [AI] model."
10. Kevin Werbach: "Will Facebook's crypto-currency, Libra, undermine financial institutions? Given Facebook’s scale and track record, the possibility deserves to be taken seriously. In addition to banking the unbanked, Libra could replace traditional intermediaries in cross-border transactions, such as remittances, which amount to more than $600 billion per year. Libra could also end up reducing the power of central banks in countries with weak currencies or strong capital controls, because it will allow people to move their money out of these countries more easily. If enough funds are pledged to the Libra Reserve, Libra could become a gigantic shadow bank distinct from, yet connected to, the existing financial system." Read the whole thing.
11. Facebook is attaching its name to Instagram and WhatsApp in a rebranding decision aimed at further unifying the company’s apps that had been cultivated as separate consumer services. It said it would add the “From Facebook” tag to its Instagram and WhatsApp brands, and the Facebook name would be visible in its marketing and to users inside the apps--moves that some inside the company oppose. “We want to be clearer about the products and services that are part of Facebook,” spokeswoman Bertie Thomson said in an email to The Wall Street Journal.
12. America's biggest defense contractors are finding a growth market in hypersonic weaponry – missiles that could dodge air defenses by flying five times the speed of sound – as US military leaders have repeatedly described deploying such weapons as a national priority. They are hoping to profit from an international arms race in hypersonic weaponry that has drawn the United States into a cold war-style competition with Russia and China.
13. In a controversial first, a team of researchers have been creating embryos that are part human and part monkey, reports the Spanish daily El País. According to the newspaper, the Spanish-born biologist Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, who operates a lab at the Salk Institute in California, has been working working with monkey researchers in China to perform the disturbing research. Their objective is to create “human-animal chimeras,” in this case monkey embryos to which human cells are added.
14. A blood test that can detect signs of Alzheimer’s as much as 20 years before the disease begins to have a debilitating effect has been developed by researchers in the US. Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis in Missouri believe the test can identify changes in the brain suggestive of Alzheimer’s with 94% accuracy, while being much cheaper and simpler than a PET brain scan. The results of the study, which was published in the journal Neurology on Thursday, represent a potential breakthrough in the fight against the disease.
15. A new model developed at MIT can help predict if patients at risk for Alzheimer’s disease will experience clinically significant cognitive decline due to the disease, by predicting their cognition test scores up to two years in the future. The model could be used to improve the selection of candidate drugs and participant cohorts for clinical trials, which have been notoriously unsuccessful thus far. It would also let patients know they may experience rapid cognitive decline in the coming months and years, so they and their loved ones can prepare.
16. Since the spotted lanternfly was first identified in 2014, it has been devastating vineyards and orchards in the Northeast. Lycorma delicatula, named for the lantern-shaped body of the adult that appears to glow under its dull wings, is used in traditional medicine in China, its native land. In the US, it has quickly become one of the most destructive invasive species in 150 years.17. Dangerous pollutants in England’s waterways have reached their highest levels since modern testing began, The Times of London can reveal, with no river in the country now certified as safe for swimmers. Wild swimming has surged in popularity, with tens of thousands of people bathing in countryside rivers and ponds during the heatwave. Pakistani forces and reports of an impending terrorist attack have raised fears of a repeat of the crisis earlier this year, when military clashes brought the tow countries to the brink of an all-out war.
18. A major melt event on the Greenland ice sheet, the most extreme since 2012, has left its surface transformed. Pools of sapphire melt water have popped up like pimples, while the usual pristine blanket of fresh snow atop the ice sheet has vanished over large areas, replaced by ash-colored ice left behind nearly 20,000 years ago. Video here.
19. The cloistered quads and frescoes of the palazzo of San Salvador near the Rialto bridge in Venice have long been the property of the Italian state — but they will soon have a new owner. In an attempt to chip away at €2.3 trillion in public debt the former monastery, founded in the 12th century on the orders of Pope Alexander III, is up for sale. Rome is cashing in on its valuable portfolio of state-owned assets by holding a fire sale of historic properties, from disused army barracks to forts, monasteries and lighthouses.
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