New York Clothing Store Sells Gender Neutral Lifestyle

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New shops appear in New York City every day, but Phluid Project, which recently opened its doors on Broadway, is different. One of the first gender-fluid boutiques in the world, Phluid Project sells clothing for men, women and everyone in between. Both the clothes and the mannequins here are gender-neutral, and as an added selling point, its store owners say the prices are more than affordable. Elena Wolf visited the one-of-a-kind store, where no one feels out of place.

Russia, Turkey OK Pipeline Deal, End Gas Dispute

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Russian state gas giant Gazprom said Saturday it had signed a protocol with the Turkish government on a planned gas pipeline and agreed with Turkish firm Botas to end an arbitration dispute over the terms of gas supplies. 

The protocol concerned the land-based part of the transit leg of the TurkStream gas pipeline, which Gazprom said meant that work to implement it could now begin.

Turkey had delayed issuing a permit for the Russian company to start building the land-based parts of the pipeline, which, if completed, would allow Moscow to reduce its reliance on Ukraine as a transit route for its gas supplies to Europe.

A source said in February the permit problem might be related to talks between Gazprom and Botas about a possible discount for Russian gas.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said earlier Saturday that Turkey and Russia had reached a retroactive agreement for a 10.25 percent discount on the natural gas Ankara buys from Moscow.

Gazprom said in the Saturday statement, without elaborating, that the dispute with Botas would be settled out of court.

 

Italy’s President Pressured to Accept Euroskeptic Minister

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Italy’s would-be coalition parties turned up the pressure on President Sergio Mattarella on Saturday to endorse their euroskeptic pick as economy minister, saying the only other option might be a new election.

Mattarella has held up formation of a government, which would end more than 80 days of political deadlock, over concern about the desire of the far-right League and anti-establishment 5-Star Movement to make economist Paolo Savona, 81, economy minister.

Savona has been a vocal critic of the euro and the European Union, but he has distinguished credentials, including in a former role as an industry minister.

Formally, Prime Minister-designate Giuseppe Conte presents his cabinet to the president, who must endorse it. Conte, a little-known law professor with no political experience, met the president on Friday without resolving the

deadlock.

“I hope no one has already decided ‘no,’ ” League leader Matteo Salvini shouted to supporters in northern Italy. “Either the government gets off the ground and starts working in the coming hours, or we might as well go back to elections.”

Later, 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio said he expected there to be a decision on whether the president would back the government within 24 hours.

5-Star also defended Savona’s nomination. “It is a political choice. … Blocking a ministerial choice is beyond [the president’s] role,” Alessandro Di Battista, a top 5-Star politician, said.

Mattarella has not spoken publicly about Savona, but through his aides he has made it clear he does not want an anti-euro economy minister and that he would not accept the “diktat” of the parties.

Jittery markets

Savona’s criticism of the euro and German economic policy has further spooked markets already concerned about the future government’s willingness to rein in the massive debt, worth 1.3 times the country’s annual output.

The League and 5-Star have said Savona should not be judged on his opinions, but on his credentials. Savona has had high-level experience at the Bank of Italy, in government as industry minister in 1993-94, and with employers lobby Confindustria.

On his new Facebook page, Conte said he had received best wishes for his government in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron.

European Commissioner for Economic Affairs Pierre Moscovici was not hostile when asked about Savona in an interview with France’s Europe1 radio, saying he would work with whomever Italy named.

“Italians decide their own government,” Moscovici said. “Italy is and should remain a country at the heart of the eurozone. … What worries me is the debt, which must be contained.”

The prospect of Italy’s government going on a spending spree on promised tax cuts and welfare benefits roiled markets last week.

On Friday, the closely watched gap between the Italian and German 10-year bond yields, seen as a measure of political risk for the eurozone, was at its widest in four years at 215 basis points.

The chance that the new government will weaken public finances and roll back a 2011 pension reform prompted Moody’s to say — after markets had closed Friday — that it might downgrade the country’s sovereign debt rating.

Moody’s has a Baa2 long-term rating with a negative outlook on Italy. A downgrade to Baa3 would take the country’s debt to just one notch above junk.

Despite the recent surge, Italian yields are well below the peaks they reached during the eurozone crisis of 2011-12, thanks mainly to the shield provided by the European Central Bank’s bond-buying program.

Kenya Moves to Regulate Digital-Fueled Lending Craze

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Kenya built a reputation as a pioneer of financial inclusion through its early adoption of a mobile money system that enables people to transfer cash and make payments on cellphones without a bank account.

Now, a proliferation of lenders are using the same technology to extend credit to the banked and unbanked alike, saddling borrowers with high interest rates and leaving regulators scrambling to keep up.

This week, the finance ministry published a draft bill on financial regulation that covers digital lenders for the first time. A key aim is to ensure that providers treat retail customers fairly, it said.

“We have a lot of predatory lending out here, which we want to regulate,” Geoffrey Mwau, director general of budget, fiscal and economic affairs at the treasury, told reporters Thursday.

Test case for lending

As it was for mobile cash, Kenya is something of a test case for the new lending platforms. Several of the companies involved, including U.S. fintech startups, have plans to expand in other frontier markets, meaning Kenya’s regulation will be closely watched.

From having had little or no access to credit, many Kenyans now find they can get loans in minutes.

George Ombelli, a salesman for a company importing bicycles who also owns a hair salon and cosmetics shop with his wife, has borrowed simultaneously from four providers over the past year.

He took small loans from two Silicon Valley-backed U.S. fintech firms, Branch and Tala, to see what rates he would get, as well as from a new mobile app launched by Barclays Kenya in March and a business loan from Kenya’s Equity Bank.

Citing a slowdown in his business because of elections-related political turmoil last year, Ombelli said he has fallen behind on some of his payments. He fears he will be reported to one of Kenya’s three credit bureaus, jeopardizing his chances of being able to borrow more to grow his business.

​‘Too many loans is a problem’

“I’ve realized having too many loans is a problem,” the 38-year-old father of three said in an interview in a coffee shop in Nairobi’s business district.

He is not alone. In the last three years, 2.7 million people out of a population of around 45 million have been negatively listed on Kenya’s Credit Reference Bureaux, according to a study by Microsave, which advises lenders on sustainable financial services.

For 400,000 of them, it was for an amount less than $2.

Global implications

Some of the fintech lenders are expanding into other African countries and into Latin America and Asia, saying their aim is to help some of the billions of people who lack bank accounts, assets or formal employment climb the economic ladder.

Tala says it has granted more than 6 million loans worth more than $300 million, mainly in Kenya, since it launched in Kenya in 2014. It is expanding its newer businesses in Mexico, Tanzania and the Philippines and is piloting in India.

Tala and Branch argue that their technology, which relies on an algorithm that builds a financial profile of customers, minimizes the risk of default. They say they strive to play a helpful role in planning for tighter regulation.

“We believe that credit bubbles and over-indebtedness will be a challenge over the next decade. (Credit Reference) Bureaus and regulation will be a big part of the solution,” said Erin Renzas, a Branch spokeswoman.

Branch says it expects to grant about 10 million loans worth a total of $250 million this year in Kenya and its other markets, Nigeria and Tanzania.

High interest rates

The current status of the sector, outside the direct remit of the central bank, allows providers, both banks and others, to skirt a government cap on interest of four points above the central bank’s benchmark interest rate, which now stands at 9.5 percent.

Market leader M-Shwari, Kenya’s first savings and loans product introduced by Safaricom and Commercial Bank of Africa in 2012, charges a “facilitation fee” of 7.5 percent on credit regardless of its duration.

On a loan with a month’s term, this equates to an annualized interest rate of 90 percent. The shortest loan repayment period is one week. A Safaricom spokesman referred Reuters to the CBA for comment. Calls to their switchboard and an email were not answered on Thursday.

Tala and Branch, number four and six in a ranking based on usage data by FSD Kenya, offer varying rates depending on the repayment period.

Their apps, downloaded by Reuters, each offered a month’s loan at 15 percent, equating to 180 percent over a year. Both companies say rates drop dramatically as people pay back successive loans.

Barclays Kenya launched an app in March offering 30-day loans with an interest rate of just less than 7 percent, still a hefty 84 percent annual equivalent rate. Reuters was unable to reach their spokespeople by telephone.

The new draft bill says digital lenders will be licensed by a new Financial Markets Conduct Authority and that lenders will be bound by any interest rate caps the Authority sets. But it is not clear if digital lenders are subject to such caps and the current government cap on banks’ interest rates is under review.

Introduced in 2016 to stop banks charging high interest rates, the cap has stifled traditional bank lending and the International Monetary Fund has conditioned Kenya’s continued access to balance of payments support on its removal.

But members of parliament say the public has had enough of high interest rates and the draft does not say the cap will be lifted. The finance ministry will come up with a final version of the bill in the next few weeks before sending it to parliament.

Markets Disrupted as Italy’s Populists Negotiate Cabinet

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Italy’s prime minister-designate, Giuseppe Conte, a political novice and obscure law professor accused of padding his resume, put the finishing touches to his cabinet lineup Friday. And initial reaction from financial markets was far from approving.

Italian government bond prices slumped and the country’s ailing banks saw their stock prices hit an 11-month low. Italy’s outgoing economy minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, warned the incoming coalition government of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and far-right League not to underestimate the power of the markets.

“The most worrying aspect of the program, which this government is working on, is its underestimation of the consequences of certain choices,” Padoan told the Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper.

M5S and the League unveiled their government agreement a week ago, after more than 70 days of tortuous talks, following the country’s inconclusive parliamentary elections in March. The polls saw establishment parties trounced.

The coalition partners’ program includes massive tax cuts favoring the rich — a League demand — additional spending on welfare for the poor, and job-seekers and a roll-back of pension reforms that helped Italy weather the multi-year-long eurozone debt crisis which bankrupted Greece.

Investors — domestic and foreign — are expressing alarm about what the next few months may hold for an Italy governed by unlikely political partners. Fears include a public sector spending spree that will put Rome not only on a collision course with the European Union over budget rules. It also will weaken the already perilous state finances of Italy, the third largest economy in Europe and the second most indebted.

Some financial analysts say investors are becoming wary about European equities in general, fearing political and economic unpredictability in Italy could trigger contagion, prompting a new eurozone crisis. European markets were on track Friday to record collectively their first weekly decline since March — and investors last week withdrew the most money in nearly two years from western European funds.

“Investors should take caution as far as European equities go,” Boris Schlossberg, managing director of FX Strategy at BK Asset Management, told CNBC’s cable TV show Trading Nation this week.

Immigration

EU officials in Brussels and Italy’s half-a-million migrants are as anxious as investors. They are bracing for confrontations with the incoming populist government, whose two halves agree about very little, except when it comes to euro-skepticism and disapproval of migrants. M5S itself is split sharply between liberals and conservatives.

Earlier this week Italian President Sergio Mattarella approved Giuseppe Conte, aged 54, as the coalition’s nominee for prime minister — despite evidence that the academic had padded his resume with stints at New York University, Girton College, Cambridge and France’s prestigious Sorbonne. None of them had any record of his official attendance, although he was granted a visitor’s library card by NYU.

Conte also claimed in his resume to have founded a prominent Italian law practice, but was only an external contributor, according to the firm.

A figurehead?

Few here in Rome believe Conte, who was born in the southern region of Puglia, will be anything but a figurehead. The mutually antagonistic party leaders, M5S’ Luigi Di Maio and the League’s Matteo Salvini, weren’t prepared to give way to each other and let the other have the job — hence Conte’s nomination, which still has to be approved by parliament.

The Economist magazine suggested he might end up as the fictional valet Truffaldino, a character in an 18th century Italian comedy entitled “Servant of Two Masters.” Whether he will be able to bridge disagreements between Di Maio and Salvini is unclear — and a testimony to that, say analysts, is the party leaders’ decision to set up a “conciliation committee” to adjudicate disputes.

“Nobody knows what will happen, because this is a government without precedent and the two parties are virtually incompatible,” said Sergio Fabbrini, director of the LUISS School of Government in Rome.

Economy

The parties were locked in dispute Friday with no agreement about who should occupy the key position of economy minister. The League has been pushing for 82-year-old economist Paolo Savona, a former industry minister who wants Italy to drop the euro as its currency, which he describes as “a German cage.” Savona opposed Italy signing in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty, a key document that started the process of closer EU political integration.

Even if the League fails in its bid to secure the economic portfolio for Savona, there are plenty of likely policy clashes ahead between the EU and Western Europe’s first all-populist government, despite the fact the League is no longer demanding Italy drop Europe’s single currency and M5S is no longer pushing for a referendum on Italy’s future EU membership.

Both party leaders now talk about reforming the EU from within.

Trouble ahead

Nonetheless, flashpoints are on the near horizon. Salvini, a hardline migrant opponent, is likely to become interior minister and will oversee the coalition’s agreed to anti-immigration plans, many of which are in violation of EU law. They include truncating asylum procedures, the forcible detention of irregular migrants and the repatriation of half-million migrants, most from sub-Saharan Africa, to their countries of origin.

Next month, EU leaders are due to extend the European bloc’s sanctions on Russia, but Italy’s coalition partners are opposed, viewing Moscow as a partner, rather than foe. Both M5S and the League want the sanctions lifted that were imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Some analysts predict the new government’s slim majority — only seven in the Senate — as well as fiscal realities, will constrain the revolutionary fervor of Italy’s populists. But others envision instability and unpredictability in the weeks and months ahead.

On Friday, the European Commission’s vice-president for the euro, Valdis Dombrovskis, issued a stark warning to Italy: “Our message from the European Commission is very clear: that it is important Italy continues to stick with responsible fiscal and macro-economic policies.”

Discharged and Jobless: US Veterans Seek Change in Hiring Rules

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Military veterans who were discharged for relatively minor offenses say they often can’t get jobs, and they hope a recent warning to employers by the state of Connecticut will change that.

The state’s human rights commission told employers last month they could be breaking the law if they discriminate against veterans with some types of less-than-honorable discharges. Blanket policies against hiring such veterans could be discriminatory, the commission said, because the military has issued them disproportionately to black, Latino, gay and disabled veterans.

At least one other state, Illinois, already prohibits hiring discrimination based on a veteran’s discharge status, advocates say, but Connecticut appears to be the first to base its decision on what it deems discrimination by the military. Regardless of the state’s reasons, veterans say, the attention there could at least educate employers.

“You may as well be a felon when you’re looking for a job,” said Iraq War veteran Kristofer Goldsmith. Goldsmith said the Army gave him a general discharge in 2007 because he attempted suicide.

An honorable discharge is the only type that entails full benefits. A dishonorable discharge is given after a court-martial for serious offenses, which can include felonies. Other types of discharges in between — known by veterans as “bad paper” — are issued administratively, with no court case, and can stem from behavior including talking back, tardiness, drug use or fighting.

The commission says its guidance focused on that middle class of discharges.

Sometimes such discharges are given to veterans whose violations stemmed from post-traumatic stress disorder, like Goldsmith’s, or brain injuries. Many private employers may not be aware of those extenuating circumstances or understand the differences between discharges, critics say.

And they either won’t hire bad-paper veterans or won’t give them preferences an honorably discharged veteran would get, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School told the Connecticut commission.

The clinic, acting on behalf of the Connecticut chapter of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, showed the commission job postings that require applicants who have served in the military to have been honorably discharged.

It also cited a 2017 report by the advocacy organization Protect Our Defenders that found black service members were more likely to be disciplined than white members. And the commission’s guidance to employers notes thousands of service members have been discharged for their sexual orientation.

Employers might require an honorable discharge as an easy way to narrow the pool and get strong applicants, said Amanda Ljubicic, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

“At face value it seems like a simple, logical cutoff to make as an employer,” she said. “Certainly this new policy forces employers to think about it differently and to think about the complexities.”

The Vietnam Veterans of America asked for a presidential pardon for bad-paper veterans. President Barack Obama didn’t respond as he was leaving office, nor did President Donald Trump as he was entering, said John Rowan, the organization’s president. He was unsure whether activists would ask Trump again.

PTSD

More than 13,000 service members received a type of discharge for misconduct, known as other than honorable, between 2011 and 2015, despite being diagnosed with PTSD, a traumatic brain injury or another condition associated with misconduct, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, under an order from Congress, expanded emergency mental health coverage to those veterans for the first time last year.

Passing new laws to address the effects of bad paper is probably not the best solution, said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who pushed for the changes; rather, he said, the military should stop issuing bad-paper discharges to injured veterans.

Goldsmith, 32, said he developed PTSD after his first deployment to Iraq. He was set to leave the military and go to college when the Army extended his active-duty service and ordered him back in 2007. Goldsmith said he attempted suicide shortly before he was due to deploy.

Because of his general discharge, Goldsmith lost his GI Bill benefits. He didn’t know how he’d find a job. If he didn’t mention his military service, he would have a four-year gap on his resume. But if he did, he would have to disclose medical information to explain why he left.

A friend eventually hired him to work at a photo-booth company, and Goldsmith began contacting members of Congress to press for health care for veterans with bad paper.

“Things like addressing employment discrimination on the national level are so far from possible,” he said, “I don’t think any of us in the advocacy community has put enough pressure on Congress to handle it.”

Broadcom’s Tan, CBS’s Moonves Among Highest-Paid CEOs

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Here are the highest-paid CEOs for 2017, as calculated by The Associated Press and Equilar, an executive data firm.

The AP’s compensation study covered 339 executives at S&P 500 companies who have served at least two full consecutive fiscal years at their respective companies, which filed proxy statements between January 1 and April 30.

Compensation often includes stock and option grants that the CEO may not receive for years unless certain performance measures are met. For some companies, big raises occur when CEOs get a stock grant in one year as part of a multi-year grant.

1. Hock Tan

Broadcom

$103.2 million

Change from last year: Up 318 percent

2. Leslie Moonves

CBS

$68.4 million

Change: flat

3. W. Nicholas Howley

TransDigm

$61 million

Change: Up 223 percent

(Howley left the CEO position last month.)

4. Jeffrey Bewkes

Time Warner

$49 million

Change: Up 50 percent

5. Stephen Kaufer

TripAdvisor

$43.2 million

 

Change: Up 3,400 percent

(Kaufer’s 2017 compensation excludes $4.8 million in incremental fair value relating to the modification of awards granted in 2013.)

6. David Zaslav

Discovery Communications

$42.2 million

Change: Up 14 percent

7. Robert Iger

Walt Disney

$36.3 million

Change: Down 11 percent

8. Stephen Wynn

Wynn Resorts

$34.5 million

Change: Up 23 percent

(Wynn left the CEO position in February.)

9. Brenton Saunders

Allergan

$32.8 million

Change: Up 693 percent

10. Brian Roberts

Comcast

$32.5 million

Change: Down 1 percent

Trump Signs Bill Easing Restraints on Small US Banks

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U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law Thursday a measure that eases rules imposed on banks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession.

The law relaxes regulations and oversight on banks with assets below $250 billion, leaving a handful of the largest U.S. banks that must still comply with the stringent rules and oversight.

Trump said at the signing ceremony the rules and oversight, enacted by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, were “crushing small banks.” Trump lauded the signing as a victory in his administration’s efforts to eliminate regulations to promote economic growth.

Although Trump signed the bill into law, much of Dodd-Frank remains intact. Trump signed the Republican-led measure that was passed by Congress after receiving the support of some Democrats.

Dodd-Frank was signed into law by President Barack Obama in response to a crisis that resulted in the loss of 8 million jobs, 2.5 million home foreclosures and the shuttering of 2.5 million businesses, according to Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.

A federal report prepared by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded economic weaknesses that created the potential for the crisis were “years in the making.” But the report said “it was the collapse of the housing bubble — fueled by low interest rates, easy and available credit, scant regulation and toxic mortgages — that was the spark that ignited a string of events, which led to the full-blown crisis in the fall of 2008.”

Buffalo: City With a Magnificent Past Fallen on Hard Times

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Even though the United States is one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, about 45 million Americans live below the poverty line. In Buffalo, New York, a once-prosperous city that has fallen on hard-times, one-third of its residents live in poverty. As Olga Loginova reports, the city offers an example of what happens when a once-powerful industrial sector declines and well-paying jobs become scarce.

Deutsche Bank to Slash Thousands of Jobs to Control Costs 

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Germany’s struggling Deutsche Bank is slashing thousands of jobs as it reshapes its stocks trading operation and refocuses its global investment banking business on its European base.

The bank said Thursday it would cut its workforce from 97,000 to “well below” 90,000 and that the reductions were underway.

It said headcount in the stocks trading business, mostly based in New York and London, would be reduced by about 25 percent. Those cuts will cost the bank about 800 million euros ($935 million) this year.

Deutsche Bank has struggled with high costs and troubles with regulators. The bank replaced its CEO in April after three years of annual losses and lagging progress in streamlining its operations.

New CEO Christian Sewing has said the bank would refocus on its European and German customer base and cut back on costlier and riskier operations where it doesn’t hold a leading position. Sewing said the bank was committed to its international investment banking operations but must “concentrate on what we truly do well.” The new strategy means stepping back from several decades of global expansion in which the bank sought to compete with Wall Street rivals such as Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase.

Sewing replaced John Cryan in April with a mandate to accelerate the bank’s wrenching restructuring. It has suffered billions in losses from fines and penalties related to past misconduct. But progress in cutting costs has remained elusive. Sewing on Thursday affirmed the bank’s goal to hold costs to 23 billion euros this year and 22 billion next year.

The announcement came hours before Board Chairman Paul Achleitner had to face disgruntled investors at the bank’s annual shareholder meeting. The bank’s share price has sagged and it paid only a small dividend of 11 euro cents per share last year.

Addressing an audience of several thousands in Frankfurt, Achleitner said Cryan had “set the ball rolling for fundamental change” but later displayed “shortcomings in decision-making and implementation.”

“Dear shareholders, you are right to expect the bank and its management to hit the targets it has set itself,” he said. “If there are signs those targets are in jeopardy… then we on the supervisory board have to act swiftly and decisively.”

The bank’s troubles and the turmoil surrounding Cryan’s departure have put pressure on Achleitner as well. Cryan was forced to publicly push back against a media report that Achleitner was looking for a replacement, then left to twist in the wind for days before being shown the door. Achleitner brought Cryan to the bank in 2015 and thus in principle shares responsibility for the bank’s strategy and performance since then.