‘Leakage’ of Coal From North to South Korea Worries Experts

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Following Seoul’s announcement that South Korean companies have illegally imported North Korean coal, U.S. experts are worried about North Korean trade that contravenes international sanctions.

The Korea Customs Service (KCS) announced earlier this month that three South Korean companies illegally imported North Korean coal that was transshipped at Russian ports, in violation of United Nations resolutions.

The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution on August 5, 2017, banning North Korea from exporting coal, iron, lead and other materials. Another resolution later that year, on December 22, called for U.N. members to seize and inspect vessels suspected of transporting prohibited items. 

According to the KCS, in seven shipments between April and October of last year, three South Korean companies imported a total of 35,038 tons of North Korean coal and pig iron with a combined worth of $5.81 million.

North Korean coal on ships registered under a third country set sail either from its ports of Songlim, Wonsan, Chongjin and Daean, and the cargoes were transshipped via the Russian ports of Kholmsk, Vladivostock and Nakhodka before arriving at the South Korean ports of Dangjin, Pohang, Masan, Incheon and Donghae.

Action by Seoul

The South Korean government is now seeking the prosecution of the three companies for the illicit import of the materials and forging customs documents to state the coal and pig iron were of Russian origin. It also banned four ships – the Sky Angel, Rich Glory, Shining Rich and Jin Long – that transported the coal to South Korea from entering its ports. 

Sanctions experts said South Korea’s illegal import of banned North Korean coal is a major violation of U.N. sanctions and that the U.N. panel of experts on North Korea may want to try to further investigate the ships that transported the coal to South Korea. 

“It’s major in the sense that North Korea is very skilled at getting around sanctions,” said Robert Huish, a sanctions expert at Canada’s Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  “The issue with this is that when sanctions are put in place, they are never simple because the target, which is North Korea, will always have the chance to circumvent them.” 

George Lopez, former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts for monitoring and implementing U.N. sanction on North Korea, said although he does not think the U.S. or U.N. will open a new investigation into the case, the panel of experts “may want to follow their own linkages to other sanctions violations, especially regarding particular ships and their owners and insurers.”

Lopez continued, “Their own connecting of the dots might lead to a critique of the [South Korea] customs service or an encouragement to other nations to follow this case as a model.” 

Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney who helped draft the North Korean Sanctions Enforcement Act for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, thinks the U.S. or U.N. should probe the case further if there is an indication that the South Korean government knowingly committed the illegal acts.

“If the evidence shows South Korea did it willfully or that it stood by after having enough knowledge to know that the coal was North Korean, they should be sanctioned [by the U.S.],” Stanton said. “I think there are things that the U.S. law enforcement and the U.N. panel of experts can investigate and should investigate. And the fact that the South Korean government denies it, is not persuasive to me.” 

Some experts are concerned that South Korea’s illicit import could have a significant impact on the U.S. policy to apply maximum pressure on North Korea. 

“Sanctions leakage does lessen the pressure on Pyongyang,” said Troy Stangarone, senior director at Korea Economic Institute specializing in South Korean trade and North Korea, adding, “North Korea has a long history of working to evade sanctions, and it is unsurprising that some of its efforts are coming to light.”

Length of investigation

The South Korean government faced a criticism that the investigations into this case, which took over 10 months, were overly drawn out, reflecting its reluctance to enforce sanctions. 

In an interview with VOA’s Korean Service last week in Seoul, Cho Hyun, the vice foreign minister of South Korea, said the pace of the investigation reflected nothing other than a desire for accuracy.

“It took time to accurately probe the case, and following the principle of being presumed innocent until guilty, [we] could not inform [the public of the investigation] in the interim period,” he said.

Kim Yung-moon, the commissioner of Korean customs, also told VOA’s Korean Service that it took time to prove the coal was actually from North Korea.

“Because the North Korean coal entered [South Korea] after being transshipped from Russia, taking three months at times, we needed to prove that the coals were, in fact, from North Korea,” he said.

The Trump administration remains cautious about making accusations against the South Korean government for failing to enforce sanctions, stressing the importance of fully implementing U.N. sanctions. 

The U.S. Treasury Department said in an email sent to VOA last week, the “Treasury strictly enforces OFAC (Office of Foreign Asset Control) sanctions and U.N. Security Council Resolutions prohibiting illicit transactions with North Korea and works closely with our South Korean partners to continue to implement existing sanctions.” It further stated that the department does not speculate publicly on possible violations. 

In July, the State Department issued a “North Korea Sanctions and Enforcement Actions Advisory” warning that businesses “should be aware of deceptive practices employed by North Korea,” emphasizing that the OFAC has “authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to … have sold, supplied, transferred, or purchased, directly or indirectly, to or from North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of the government of North Korea.” The advisory was distributed in five foreign languages, including Korean.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two Russian individuals, three companies, and six Russian-flagged ships for doing business with North Korea.

Christy Lee of the VOA Korean Service contributed to this report.

‘Leakage’ of Coal From North to South Korea Worries Experts

All, Business, News

Following Seoul’s announcement that South Korean companies have illegally imported North Korean coal, U.S. experts are worried about North Korean trade that contravenes international sanctions.

The Korea Customs Service (KCS) announced earlier this month that three South Korean companies illegally imported North Korean coal that was transshipped at Russian ports, in violation of United Nations resolutions.

The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution on August 5, 2017, banning North Korea from exporting coal, iron, lead and other materials. Another resolution later that year, on December 22, called for U.N. members to seize and inspect vessels suspected of transporting prohibited items. 

According to the KCS, in seven shipments between April and October of last year, three South Korean companies imported a total of 35,038 tons of North Korean coal and pig iron with a combined worth of $5.81 million.

North Korean coal on ships registered under a third country set sail either from its ports of Songlim, Wonsan, Chongjin and Daean, and the cargoes were transshipped via the Russian ports of Kholmsk, Vladivostock and Nakhodka before arriving at the South Korean ports of Dangjin, Pohang, Masan, Incheon and Donghae.

Action by Seoul

The South Korean government is now seeking the prosecution of the three companies for the illicit import of the materials and forging customs documents to state the coal and pig iron were of Russian origin. It also banned four ships – the Sky Angel, Rich Glory, Shining Rich and Jin Long – that transported the coal to South Korea from entering its ports. 

Sanctions experts said South Korea’s illegal import of banned North Korean coal is a major violation of U.N. sanctions and that the U.N. panel of experts on North Korea may want to try to further investigate the ships that transported the coal to South Korea. 

“It’s major in the sense that North Korea is very skilled at getting around sanctions,” said Robert Huish, a sanctions expert at Canada’s Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  “The issue with this is that when sanctions are put in place, they are never simple because the target, which is North Korea, will always have the chance to circumvent them.” 

George Lopez, former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts for monitoring and implementing U.N. sanction on North Korea, said although he does not think the U.S. or U.N. will open a new investigation into the case, the panel of experts “may want to follow their own linkages to other sanctions violations, especially regarding particular ships and their owners and insurers.”

Lopez continued, “Their own connecting of the dots might lead to a critique of the [South Korea] customs service or an encouragement to other nations to follow this case as a model.” 

Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney who helped draft the North Korean Sanctions Enforcement Act for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, thinks the U.S. or U.N. should probe the case further if there is an indication that the South Korean government knowingly committed the illegal acts.

“If the evidence shows South Korea did it willfully or that it stood by after having enough knowledge to know that the coal was North Korean, they should be sanctioned [by the U.S.],” Stanton said. “I think there are things that the U.S. law enforcement and the U.N. panel of experts can investigate and should investigate. And the fact that the South Korean government denies it, is not persuasive to me.” 

Some experts are concerned that South Korea’s illicit import could have a significant impact on the U.S. policy to apply maximum pressure on North Korea. 

“Sanctions leakage does lessen the pressure on Pyongyang,” said Troy Stangarone, senior director at Korea Economic Institute specializing in South Korean trade and North Korea, adding, “North Korea has a long history of working to evade sanctions, and it is unsurprising that some of its efforts are coming to light.”

Length of investigation

The South Korean government faced a criticism that the investigations into this case, which took over 10 months, were overly drawn out, reflecting its reluctance to enforce sanctions. 

In an interview with VOA’s Korean Service last week in Seoul, Cho Hyun, the vice foreign minister of South Korea, said the pace of the investigation reflected nothing other than a desire for accuracy.

“It took time to accurately probe the case, and following the principle of being presumed innocent until guilty, [we] could not inform [the public of the investigation] in the interim period,” he said.

Kim Yung-moon, the commissioner of Korean customs, also told VOA’s Korean Service that it took time to prove the coal was actually from North Korea.

“Because the North Korean coal entered [South Korea] after being transshipped from Russia, taking three months at times, we needed to prove that the coals were, in fact, from North Korea,” he said.

The Trump administration remains cautious about making accusations against the South Korean government for failing to enforce sanctions, stressing the importance of fully implementing U.N. sanctions. 

The U.S. Treasury Department said in an email sent to VOA last week, the “Treasury strictly enforces OFAC (Office of Foreign Asset Control) sanctions and U.N. Security Council Resolutions prohibiting illicit transactions with North Korea and works closely with our South Korean partners to continue to implement existing sanctions.” It further stated that the department does not speculate publicly on possible violations. 

In July, the State Department issued a “North Korea Sanctions and Enforcement Actions Advisory” warning that businesses “should be aware of deceptive practices employed by North Korea,” emphasizing that the OFAC has “authority to impose sanctions on any person determined to … have sold, supplied, transferred, or purchased, directly or indirectly, to or from North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of the government of North Korea.” The advisory was distributed in five foreign languages, including Korean.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two Russian individuals, three companies, and six Russian-flagged ships for doing business with North Korea.

Christy Lee of the VOA Korean Service contributed to this report.

Chile’s Pinera Promises to Spur Investment with Tax Reform

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Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said on Tuesday that his overhaul of the country’s tax structure would “modernize” Chile’s revenue system and stimulate investment by local and foreign companies.

The conservative leader said in a televised address that reform would, among other proposals, calibrate taxes paid by conventional companies with those paid by digital technology companies. The reform aims “to create a simpler and more equitable and fully integrated tax system for all Chilean companies.”

Digital commerce companies with local operations like Netflix and Uber are likely to be affected under the reform.

E-commerce is gaining traction in Latin America after a slow start. Last month, an Amazon Web Services vice president met with Pinera to discuss Amazon investing in the country as part of a longer-term regional expansion plan.

Pinera, a billionaire second-term president, whose first term as president was marred by protests over rising inequality, in June detailed a $26 billion spending plan and called for unity as Chile continues its “vigorous march towards development.”

Chile’s Pinera Promises to Spur Investment with Tax Reform

All, Business, News

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said on Tuesday that his overhaul of the country’s tax structure would “modernize” Chile’s revenue system and stimulate investment by local and foreign companies.

The conservative leader said in a televised address that reform would, among other proposals, calibrate taxes paid by conventional companies with those paid by digital technology companies. The reform aims “to create a simpler and more equitable and fully integrated tax system for all Chilean companies.”

Digital commerce companies with local operations like Netflix and Uber are likely to be affected under the reform.

E-commerce is gaining traction in Latin America after a slow start. Last month, an Amazon Web Services vice president met with Pinera to discuss Amazon investing in the country as part of a longer-term regional expansion plan.

Pinera, a billionaire second-term president, whose first term as president was marred by protests over rising inequality, in June detailed a $26 billion spending plan and called for unity as Chile continues its “vigorous march towards development.”

IATA: Mexico’s New Airport Crucial for Passenger Growth

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Mexico risks losing long-term passenger growth and billions of dollars if it fails to go through with building a new hub in the capital to alleviate congestion, an executive with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said on Tuesday.

Mexico’s incoming government last week postponed a decision on whether to complete a partially constructed new airport in Mexico City, saying the public should be consulted on the fate of the $13-billion hub, which the next president initially opposed.

President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the project was tainted by corruption prior to his July 1 landslide election victory, and had pressed for an existing military airport north of the capital to be expanded instead.

Without the new airport, around 20 million fewer passengers would fly to Mexico City starting in 2035, year over year, said Peter Cerda, regional vice president in the Americas for IATA.

It would also mean a long-term loss of $20 billion from Mexico’s GDP and cost the country 200,000 jobs, according to an airline-industry study on the financial impact of not building the new airport, Cerda said.

IATA, the Montreal-based trade association, has 290 member airlines which together transport about 82 percent of global air traffic.

Passenger traffic is expected to double by 2035 on a global basis, including Latin America, Cerda said in an interview.

“If you don’t build an airport that’s able to meet the needs of the next 50 years you just cannot continue to grow,” Cerda said on the sidelines of the International Aviation Forecast Summit in Denver. “And that has financial implications for the country.”

Work began on the new airport, which is a few miles northeast of the current one, in 2015. The present airport, located in the east of Mexico City, has become increasingly saturated by rising air traffic and has no room to expand.

“This is an airport that was built for 32 million passengers a year and currently we have 45 million passengers traveling through,” Cerda said.

Cerda urged Mexico to make any decision on “technical justifications” rather than “public outcry that may not fully understand the consequences.”

IATA: Mexico’s New Airport Crucial for Passenger Growth

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Mexico risks losing long-term passenger growth and billions of dollars if it fails to go through with building a new hub in the capital to alleviate congestion, an executive with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said on Tuesday.

Mexico’s incoming government last week postponed a decision on whether to complete a partially constructed new airport in Mexico City, saying the public should be consulted on the fate of the $13-billion hub, which the next president initially opposed.

President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the project was tainted by corruption prior to his July 1 landslide election victory, and had pressed for an existing military airport north of the capital to be expanded instead.

Without the new airport, around 20 million fewer passengers would fly to Mexico City starting in 2035, year over year, said Peter Cerda, regional vice president in the Americas for IATA.

It would also mean a long-term loss of $20 billion from Mexico’s GDP and cost the country 200,000 jobs, according to an airline-industry study on the financial impact of not building the new airport, Cerda said.

IATA, the Montreal-based trade association, has 290 member airlines which together transport about 82 percent of global air traffic.

Passenger traffic is expected to double by 2035 on a global basis, including Latin America, Cerda said in an interview.

“If you don’t build an airport that’s able to meet the needs of the next 50 years you just cannot continue to grow,” Cerda said on the sidelines of the International Aviation Forecast Summit in Denver. “And that has financial implications for the country.”

Work began on the new airport, which is a few miles northeast of the current one, in 2015. The present airport, located in the east of Mexico City, has become increasingly saturated by rising air traffic and has no room to expand.

“This is an airport that was built for 32 million passengers a year and currently we have 45 million passengers traveling through,” Cerda said.

Cerda urged Mexico to make any decision on “technical justifications” rather than “public outcry that may not fully understand the consequences.”

Small Firms Thrive as Customers Seek More Unique Clothing

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Claudio Belotti knows he cut the denim that became the jeans Meghan Markle wore on one of her first outings as the fiancee of Britain’s Prince Harry.

 

That’s because he cuts all of the fabric for Hiut Denim Co., a 7-year-old company that makes jeans in Cardigan, Wales. Belotti is a craftsman with 50 years of experience that gives his work a personal touch — something that’s not quite couture but not exactly mass-produced either.

 

“There’s a story behind each one,” Belotti said. “You’re paying for the skill.”

 

Customer demand for something unique is helping small companies like Hiut buck the globalization trend and set up shop in developed countries that had long seen such work disappear. While international brands like H&M and Zara still dominate the clothing market, small manufacturers are finding a niche by using technology and skill to bring down costs and targeting well-heeled customers who are willing to pay a little more for clothes that aren’t churned out by the thousands half a world away.

 

Profits at smaller national clothing firms grew 2 percent over the last five years, compared with a 25 percent decline at the top 700 traditional multinationals, according to research by Kantar Consulting.

 

Their success comes from promoting their small size and individuality, said Jaideep Prabhu, a professor of enterprise at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School.

 

“It’s a different kind of manufacturing,” he said. “They are not the Satanic mills. These are very cool little boutiques.”

 

Hiut, which makes nothing but jeans, employs 16 people in Cardigan and makes 160 pairs a week. Women’s styles range from 145 pounds ($192) to 185 pounds ($244), men’s go for 150 pounds to 235 pounds. Each is signed by the person who sewed it, known in the company as a “Grand Master.” By contrast, Primark says it sources products from 1,071 factories in 31 countries and keeps costs down by “buying in vast quantities.” The most expensive pair of jeans on the company’s website sells for 20 pounds.

 

Many of these small manufacturers also try to stand out by embracing social issues, from reducing waste to paying a living wage.

 

Hiut, for example, highlights its efforts to put people back to work in a small town that was devastated when a factory that employed 400 people and made 35,000 pairs of jeans a week shut down. Underscoring the years of craftsmanship that go into each pair of jeans, the company offers “free repairs for life.”

 

This kind of customer service helps form a “personal relationship” between a brand and the shopper that is valuable, says Anusha Couttigane of Kantar Consulting.

 

Customers notice. Laura Lewis-Davies, a museum worker who from Wales, says she wants to support independent businesses when she can and bought a pair of Hiut jeans after seeing a story about Markle wearing the brand.

 

“Well-crafted things bring more joy,” she said. “I’d rather buy fewer things but know they’re good quality [and] made by people who are working in good conditions for a fair salary.”

 

The rise of small clothing makers reflects a broader shift in consumer preferences away from big brands — as evident, say, in the boom in craft beers. In fashion, technology is fueling the trend.

 

The internet provides a cheap way to reach customers, while off-the-shelf artificial intelligence programs allow companies to accurately forecast demand and order materials so they can make small batches and avoid unwanted stock. That makes it possible to produce clothes that are more customized.

 

“Data is the backbone for this and the trigger,” said Achim Berg, a senior partner at McKinsey & Co. in Frankfurt who advises fashion and luxury goods companies.  “It’s not custom-made, but it gives the consumer the opportunity to be more individual.”

 

A survey of 500 companies by McKinsey and The Business of Fashion, an influential industry news website, identified personalization as this year’s No. 1 trend. Consumers are willing to hand over personal information to get more customized products and services, according to a 2016 survey by Salesforce.com, which provides online sales and marketing tools for businesses.

 

Established brands have recognized the trend and offering to customize products, too. Adidas, for example, offers the chance to mix and match colors and materials on things like the sole and laces on some of its shoes.

 

But making clothes on a smaller scale has also gained a moral tinge after scandals about sweatshops, child labor and unsafe working practices hit global brands in recent years. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, which killed 1,100 and injured 2,500 others, highlighted the grim conditions in factories that export to the United States and Europe.

 

Jenny Holloway, who employs 100 people at Fashion Enter in London, said she’s not interested in making as many garments as possible and selling them as fast as she can.

 

“I’d like to say we’ve done a massive business plan and we refer to it. We don’t,” Holloway said. “We sit down and have a cup of tea and we have a chat and we evaluate how things sit with us. How does that client fit our ethics? … It isn’t about money and making that big buck. It’s about sustainability.”

 

Prabhu sees this as part of a bigger shift away from the model of outsourcing production to low-cost countries like China. “You’re trying to constantly keep up with your customers. Your competitive advantage is to give them something closer to their needs.”

 

Hiut Denim is an example of this backlash.

 

The company is based in a town of some 4,000 people where 10 percent of the population once made jeans. Then, a decade ago, the factory shut down as the owners moved production to Morocco and later to China.

 

When David and Clare Hieatt decided to start making jeans again, they were determined to take advantage of the years of professional experience going to waste. They hoped that would give their products a “story” to market.

 

Markle’s decision to wear Hiut jeans in Wales boosted that effort. The company now has a waiting list of three months.

 

“For the town it’s been incredible because it gives people a confidence to go, ‘Wow. This town makes a world-class product,'” David Hieatt said. “We lost our mojo when we lost 400 jobs, but now we’re getting it back. That’s a very cool story.”

South Africa’s Land Bank: Land Expropriation Could Trigger Default

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South Africa’s state-owned Land Bank said on Monday a plan to allow the state to seize land without compensation could trigger defaults that could cost the government 41 billion rand ($2.8 billion) if the bank’s rights as a creditor are not protected.

Land Bank is a specialist bank providing financial services to the commercial farming sector and other agricultural businesses.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Aug. 1 that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is forging ahead with plans to change the constitution to allow the expropriation of land without compensation, as whites still own most of South Africa’s land more than two decades after the end of apartheid.

Land Bank Chairman Arthur Moloto said in the company’s 2018 annual report that the bank has approximately 9 billion rand of debt, which includes a standard market clause on “expropriation” as an event of default.

Moloto said if expropriation without compensation were to materialize without protection of the bank’s rights as a creditor, it would be required to repay 9 billion rand immediately.

“A cross default clause would be triggered should we fail to pay when these debts fall due because of inadequate liquidity or lack of alternative sources of funding,” Moloto said.

“This would make our entire 41 billion rand funding portfolio due and payable immediately, which we would not be able to settle. Consequently, government intervention would be required to settle our lenders.”

Moloto said the bank was generally funded by the local debt and capital markets, and more recently international multilateral institutions such as the African Development Bank and World Bank.

“A poorly executed expropriation without compensation could result in the main sources of funding drying up as investors might not be willing to continue funding Land Bank in particular, or agriculture in general,” he said.

Some investors are concerned that the ANC’s reforms will result in white farmers being stripped of land to the detriment of the economy, as happened in Zimbabwe, although Ramaphosa has repeatedly said any changes will not compromise food security or economic growth.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the ANC has followed a “willing-seller, willing-buyer” model under which the government buys white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks. Progress has been slow.

($1 = 14.6363 rand)

Born Out of the Financial Crisis, Bull Market Nears Record

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The bull market in U.S. stocks is about to become the longest in history.

 

If stocks don’t drop significantly by the close of trading Wednesday, the bull market that began in March 2009 will have lasted nine years, five months and 13 days, a record that few would have predicted when the market struggled to find its footing after a 50 percent plunge during the financial crisis.

 

The long rally has added trillions of dollars to household wealth, helping the economy, and stands as a testament to the ability of large U.S. companies to squeeze out profits in tough times and confidence among investors as they shrugged off repeated crises and kept buying.

 

“There was no manic trading, there was no panic buying or selling,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Cresset Wealth Advisors. “It’s been pretty steady.”

 

The question now is when the rally will end. The Federal Reserve is undoing many of the stimulative measures that supported the market, including keeping interest rates near zero. There are also mounting threats to global trade that have unsettled investors.

 

For such an enduring bull market, it shares little of the hallmarks of prior rallies.

 

Unlike earlier rallies, individual investors have largely sat out after getting burned by two crashes in less than a decade. Trading has been lackluster, with few shares exchanging hands each day. Private companies have shown little enthusiasm, too, with fewer selling stock in initial public offerings than in previous bull runs.

 

Yet this bull market has been remarkably resilient. After several blows that might have killed off a less robust rally — fears of a eurozone collapse, plunging oil prices, a U.S. credit downgrade, President Donald Trump’s trade fights — investors soon returned to buying, avoiding a 20 percent drop in stocks that by common definition marks the end of bull markets.

 

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted the length and strength of this bull market,” said David Lebovitz, a global market strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management.

One of the market’s biggest winners in recent years, Facebook, wasn’t even publicly traded when the bull market began. Facebook’s huge run-up of more than 350 percent since going public in 2012, Apple’s steady march to $1 trillion in value, and huge gains by other tech companies like Netflix have helped push the broader market higher.

 

Since the rally officially began on March 9, 2009, the Standard and Poor’s 500 has risen 321 percent. In the 1990s bull market, the current record holder for the longest, stocks rose 417 percent.

 

From the start, the Federal Reserve was a big force pushing markets higher. It slashed short-term borrowing rates to zero, then began buying trillions of dollars of bonds to push longer-term rates down, too. Investors frustrated with tiny interest payments on bonds felt they had no alternative but to pile into stocks.

 

Companies moved fast to adapt to the post-financial-crisis world of sluggish U.S. growth.

 

They slashed costs and kept wage growth low, squeezing profits out of barely growing sales. They bought back huge amounts of their own stock and expanded their sales overseas, particularly to China’s booming economy. Profit margins reached record levels, as wages sunk to record lows as measured against the size of economy.

 

“What people missed was how quickly U.S. corporations were restructuring and right-sizing themselves to regain profitability,” said money manager James Abate, who publicly urged investors to start buying stocks in early 2009 when most were dumping them. “It was really a catalyst for turning things around.”

 

China’s surging growth helped the market, too. Its boom drove up the price of oil and other commodities, helping to lift stocks of U.S. natural resource companies — for a while at least.

 

Then came a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating in August 2011, which caused stocks to swoon, and 2013 brought another fall as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke talked of easing off stimulus policies. In the second half 2014, oil plunged 50 percent, which rattled investors again.

 

Profits started falling the next year, but investors kept their nerve and didn’t sell and waited for profits to rise again. In 2016, stocks gained 10 percent then jumped 19 percent the next year. Since the start of 2018, they have risen 6.6 percent, boosted by surging profits following the massive cut in corporate tax rates earlier this year.

 

Several dangers threaten the rally.

 

The Fed has hiked its benchmark lending rate twice since January, and is expected raise it twice more by the end of the year.

 

Stocks could suffer as higher interest on bonds convinces investors to start shifting money into this safer alternative. Higher rates also increase costs for business and make expanding operations more difficult.

More worrisome, rising rates can trigger recessions, which often kill bull markets. Three of the past five recessions were preceded by rate hikes by the Federal Reserve.

 

With stocks richly priced, there isn’t much room for things to go wrong.

 

The prices investors are paying per share for companies are 2.2 times revenue per share, near historic peaks. And prices compared to long-term earnings are much higher than in 2007 before the market crashed.

 

For all its longevity and gains, the final verdict on the bull market won’t be known until it ends.

 

The financial crisis of 2008 that ended the last bull market laid bare just how much debt and risk-taking had fueled gains in the previous seven years. The dot-com bust that ended the 90s rally showed how reckless investors had been.

 

This time, many of the unanswered questions concern the Fed’s monetary stimulus.

 

How much did it help boost stocks, and thus the broader economy? Will the gains it helped manufacture prove ephemeral? What are the long-term costs of its unprecedented economic rescue effort as it faces the tricky task of unwinding its stimulus program?

 

Another question is the wisdom of so many buybacks. Companies have spent trillions in recent years repurchasing their own stock, which has helped lift prices in the short term but does nothing to expand operations, train workers and generally improve their business. Many of the purchases were made with borrowed money, adding to already sizable debts.

 

Abate, the money manager who urged people to buy early in 2009, says stock prices are too high given the threat to profits from higher borrowing costs as rates climb, higher input costs from Trump’s tariffs and, possibly, bigger raises for workers in the future.

 

“Profits are peaking and valuations are extreme,” said Abate, chief investment officer of Centre Asset Management.

 

His prediction is that stocks will plunge by the end of the year and a bear market will begin.

 

Others are more optimistic.

 

JPMorgan’s Lebovitz takes comfort in the fact investors have been skeptical of the rally all along, which he says has allowed none of the excesses of prior bull markets to build up.

 

“This is a bull market that people love to hate,” he said. “Blind exuberance hasn’t been a characteristic.”

 

Asked how much longer the rally will last, he said: “At least another year, but two might be a bit of stretch.”

PepsiCo Buys Israel’s SodaStream for $3.2 Billion

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Beverage giant PepsiCo on Monday purchased Israel’s fizzy drink maker SodaStream for $3.2 billion, a boon for a company that has enjoyed a resurgence after being targeted by anti-Israel boycotters in the past.

PepsiCo said it was acquiring all SodaStream’s outstanding shares at $144 per share, a 32 percent premium to the 30-day volume weighted average price.

 

Earlier this month, SodaStream reported its strongest results in company history, a 31 percent year-over-year jump in revenues to $172 million, an 89 percent leap in operating profit to $32 million and an 82 percent climb by net profit to $26 million.

 

PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi called the companies “an inspired match” since both companies aim to reduce waste and limit their environmental footprint.

 

“Together, we can advance our shared vision of a healthier, more-sustainable planet,” she said.

 

SodaStream produces machines that allow people to make fizzy drinks in their own homes and has positioned itself as a provider of a healthy product in contrast to traditional sugary, carbonated drinks. SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum said the move with PepsiCo marked a “validation of our mission to bring healthy, convenient and environmentally friendly beverage solutions to consumers around the world.”

 

Three years ago, SodaStream shut down its West Bank factory amid international boycott calls and opened a sprawling new factory deep in Israel’s Negev Desert instead. Actress Scarlett Johansson was previously a brand ambassador for the company. She parted ways with the international charity Oxfam because of a dispute over her work with SodaStream.

 

Monday’s sale looks to inject another big tax payout to Israel following previous the sales of Israeli companies such as the mobile navigation app Waze, which was acquired by Google for about $1 billion, and Mobileye, which produces technology for self-driving cars and was gobbled up by Intel last year for $15 billion.