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U.S.-China Feud Gets Nasty With Red Tape as Stealth Weapon

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(Bloomberg) — The U.S. and China are moving beyond bellicose trade threats to exchanging regulatory punches that threaten a wide range of industries including technology, energy and air travel.The two countries have blacklisted each other’s companies, barred flights and expelled journalists. The unfolding skirmish is starting to make companies nervous the trading landscape could shift out from under them.“There are many industries where U.S. companies have made long-term bets on China’s future because the market is so promising and so big,” said Myron Brilliant, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s head of international affairs. Now, they’re “recognizing the risk.”China will look to avoid measures that could backfire, said Shi Yinhong, an adviser to the nation’s cabinet and a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. Any sanctions on U.S. companies would be a “last resort” because China “is in desperate need of foreign investment from rich countries for both economic and political reasons.”Nevertheless, pressure is only expected to intensify ahead of the U.S. elections in November, as President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden joust over who will take a tougher line on China.Trump has blamed China for covering up the coronavirus pandemic he has mocked as “Kung Flu,” accused Beijing of “illicit espionage to steal our industrial secrets” and threatened the U.S. could pursue a “complete decoupling” from the country. Biden, likewise, has described President Xi Jinping as a thug, labeled mass detention of Uighur Muslims as unconscionable and accused China of predatory trade practices.And on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats have found rare unity in their opposition to China, with lawmakers eager to take action against Beijing for its handling of Covid-19, forced technology transfers, human rights abuses and its tightening grip on Hong Kong.“China is going to be a punching bag in the campaign,” said Capital Alpha Partners’ Byron Callan. “But China is a punching bag that can punch back.”China has repeatedly rejected U.S. accusations over its handling of the pandemic, Uighurs, Hong Kong and trade, and it has fired back at the Trump administration for undermining global cooperation and seeking to start a “new cold war.” Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month said China had no interest in replacing the U.S. as a hegemonic power, while adding that the U.S. should give up its “wishful thinking” of changing the country.Both sides have already taken a series of regulatory moves aimed at protecting market share.The U.S. is citing security concerns in blocking China Mobile Ltd., the world’s largest mobile operator, from entering the U.S. market. It’s culling Chinese-made drones from government fleets and discouraging the deployment of Chinese transformers on the power grid. The Trump administration has also tried to constrain the global reach of China’s Huawei Technologies Co., the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer.Meanwhile, China prevented U.S. airline flights into the country for more than two months and, after the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on Chinese journalists, it expelled American journalists. It has stepped up its scrutiny of U.S. companies, with China’s state news agency casting one probe as a warning to the White House. China also has long made it difficult for U.S. telecommunications companies to enter its market, requiring overseas operators to co-invest with local firms and requiring authorization by the central government.One of the most combustible flash points has been the Trump administration’s campaign to contain Huawei by seeking to limit the company’s business in the U.S. and push allies to shun its gear in their networks.The U.S. Federal Communications Commission moved to block devices made by Huawei and ZTE Corp. from being used in U.S. networks. And the Commerce Department has placed Huawei on blacklists aimed at preventing the Chinese company from using U.S. technology for the chips that power its network gear, including tech from suppliers Qualcomm Inc. and Broadcom Inc.After suppliers found work-arounds, Commerce in May tightened rules to bar any chipmaker using American equipment from selling to Huawei without U.S. approval. The step could constrain virtually the entire contract chipmaking industry, which uses equipment from U.S. vendors such as Applied Materials Inc., Lam Research Corp. and KLA Corp. in wafer fabrication plants.The curbs also threaten to cripple Huawei. Although the company can buy off-the-shelf or commodity mobile chips from a third party such as Samsung Electronics Co. or MediaTek Inc., going that route would force it to make costly compromises on performance in basic products.Huawei was on a list the Pentagon unveiled last week of companies it says are owned or controlled by China’s military, opening them to increased scrutiny. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing accused the Trump administration of “violating the very market economy principle the U.S. champions.”“We are strongly opposed to this,” the foreign ministry said Sunday of the Pentagon’s designation. “China urges the U.S. to stop suppressing Chinese companies without reason and provide a fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for Chinese companies to operate normally in the U.S.”After the new restrictions, the editor of the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper tweeted that China would retaliate using an “unreliable entities list” that it first threatened at the height of the trade war last year. Although China didn’t identify companies on the list, the Global Times has cited a source close to the Chinese government as saying U.S. bellwethers such as Apple Inc. and Qualcomm could be targeted.The fallout could extend to companies heavily reliant on Chinese supply chains, as well consumer-facing brands eager to expand sales in Asia. Boeing Co., which recorded $5.7 billion of revenue from China in 2019, and Tesla Inc., the biggest U.S. carmaker operating independently in China, are among companies most exposed if relations sour further.“We’re playing in a much wider field now,” said Jim Lucier, managing director of research firm Capital Alpha Partners. “We’re not simply talking about ‘you tariff me’ and ‘I tariff you.’ The playing field is virtually unlimited.”Planes and AutomobilesU.S. automakers have also been singed. In June, China fined Ford Motor Co.’s main joint venture in the country for antitrust violations, saying Changan Ford Automobile Co. had restricted retailers’ sale prices since 2013.Aviation has been another source of tension, as both countries squabble over access to their skies. China’s decision to limit U.S. airlines operations to those services scheduled as of March 12 hurt carriers such as United Airlines Holdings Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc, and American Airlines Group Inc. that had suspended passenger flights to and from China because of the coronavirus pandemic.The U.S. responded earlier this month by initially threatening to ban all flights from China, then relenting to allow two flights weekly once Chinese officials eased their restrictions. Now, in what appears to be a staged de-escalation, China gave U.S. passenger carriers permission to operate four weekly flights to the country and earlier this month, the Trump administration matched the move by also authorizing four flights from Chinese airlines.It’s happening outside of aviation too. Consider the U.S. government’s decision to seize a half-ton, Chinese-made electrical transformer when it arrived at an American port last year and divert the gear to a national lab instead of the Colorado substation where it was supposed to be deployed. That move — and a May executive order from Trump authorizing the blockade of electric grid gear supplied by “foreign adversaries” of the U.S. in the name of national security — have already sent shock waves through the power sector.The effect has been to dissuade American utilities from buying Chinese equipment to replace aging components in the nation’s electrical grid, said Jim Cai, the U.S. representative for Jiangsu Huapeng Transformer Co., the company whose delivery was seized. Although Cai said the firm has supplied parts to private utilities and government-run grid operators in the U.S. for nearly 15 years without security complaints, at least one American utility has since canceled a transformer award to the company, Cai said.Trump’s directive is tied to a broader effort to bring more manufacturing to the U.S. from China. “This is a part of the administration’s efforts to impair China’s supply chains into the United States,” said former White House adviser Mike McKenna.Escalating tensions could jeopardize the U.S. economic recovery as well as China’s trade commitment to buy $200 billion in American goods and services over the next two years. The country’s purchase of U.S. goods increased last month as the economy continued its recovery from the coronavirus shutdowns, but imports are still far behind the pace needed to meet the terms of the phase one trade deal, according to Bloomberg calculations based on data from China’s Customs Administration.U.S.-China struggles also may factor into the November presidential election. Former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton alleges in a new book that Trump asked Xi to help him win re-election by buying more farm products — a claim the White House has dismissed as untrue.“I don’t expect one single blow to send this relationship in a tailspin,” the chamber’s Brilliant said. “Each side will calibrate their reactions in a way that will not tip the scales too far.”Take the recent spat over media access. After the U.S. designated five Chinese media companies as “foreign missions,” China revoked press credentials for three Wall Street Journal staff members over an article with a headline describing China as the “real sick man of Asia.”Then the Trump administration ordered Chinese state-owned news outlets to slash staff working in the U.S. Beijing responded in March by effectively expelling more than a dozen U.S. journalists working in China.Both the U.S. and China have ample opportunities to ratchet up regulatory pressure. A bill passed by the Senate last month could prompt the delisting of Chinese companies from U.S. stock exchanges if American officials aren’t allowed to review their financial audits.And last week, as the U.S. State Department imposed visa bans on Chinese Communist Party officials accused of infringing the freedom of Hong Kong citizens, a senior official made clear the move was just an opening salvo in a campaign to force Beijing to back off new restrictions on the city.China, similarly, can slow licensing decisions and regulatory approvals, launch investigations under its anti-monopoly law and squeeze financial firms that want to do business in the country. For instance, the country could rescind pledges to let U.S. financial firms take controlling stakes in Chinese investment banking joint ventures, according to a Cowen analyst.“China will not make any significant compromise and will retaliate whenever and wherever possible,” said Shi, the Renmin University professor.Companies are still lured to China and its massive local market — and tensions with the U.S. don’t overcome the Asian superpower’s appeal. Just one-fifth of companies surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce in China late last year said they had moved or were considering moving some operations outside of the country, part of a three-year downward trend.But the coronavirus pandemic has subsequently pushed more companies to reckon with the risks of relying too heavily on any single country for their supply chains, amid existing concerns about forced technology transfers, cost and rising tensions that could damp investment in China.China is no longer the lowest-cost manufacturer, and companies are more reluctant to invest there, said James Lewis, director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.“Everyone would like to be in the China market — everyone wants it to be like 2010 — but things are changing.”(Updates with trade data in 28th paragraph)For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.



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Fannie-Freddie Profit Sweep Draws U.S. Supreme Court Review

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(Bloomberg) — The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether investors can challenge the 2012 agreements that let the federal government collect hundreds of billions of dollars of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s profits.The justices said they will hear an appeal by President Donald Trump’s administration of a ruling that would force the government to defend against a shareholder lawsuit. The investors say the agreements exceed the authority of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates the two mortgage giants.Fannie jumped 5.7% to close at $2.22 in New York trading, while Freddie rose 6.7% to $2.23.A ruling in the investors’ favor would give them a chance to collect a massive settlement. Fannie and Freddie have paid more than $300 billion in dividends to the Treasury under the so-called net-worth sweep.The administration told the court the dispute “is of immense practical importance.” The justices will hear the case in the nine-month term that starts in October.The Supreme Court on Thursday also agreed to hear an appeal from shareholders challenging the profit sweep under a different legal theory.Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac keep the U.S. housing market humming by buying mortgages from lenders and packaging them into bonds that are sold to investors with guarantees of interest and principal.‘Cloud of Uncertainty’After the housing market cratered in 2008, the companies were put into federal conservatorship and sustained by taxpayer aid. They have since returned to profitability and paid $115 billion more in dividends to the Treasury than they received in bailout funds. Since 2013, most of their profits have been sent to the Treasury under the net-worth sweep.The administration contends the 2008 law that set up the FHFA precludes lawsuits that challenge the profit sweep. The law bars courts from doing anything to “restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of the agency as a conservator.”A splintered New Orleans-based federal appeals court let the lawsuit go forward, saying the FHFA wasn’t acting as a conservator when it agreed to the net-worth sweep.The suing shareholders said the appeals court reached the right conclusion. But they nonetheless urged the Supreme Court to hear the Trump administration appeal, saying all sides would benefit from clarity.“So long as there is a credible threat that litigation will invalidate the net-worth sweep, a cloud of uncertainty will hang over the companies’ capital structure,” the shareholders told the Supreme Court. “Investors will not be willing to supply the tens of billions of dollars in new capital that are essential to Treasury’s reform plan.”Shareholders in the New Orleans court said that the FHFA, which has a single director who can’t be fired without cause, has an unconstitutional structure, making its decision to enter the profit sweep invalid. While the divided New Orleans court agreed with shareholders that the FHFA’s structure is unconstitutional, it said that fact alone could not invalidate the sweep, leading to the shareholder appeal.“FHFA looks forward to the U.S. Supreme Court taking up” the case and clarifying the issues involved, the agency said in a statement.Trump administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, have long stated that they want to end federal control by releasing Fannie and Freddie from conservatorship. Wall Street analysts have said they are skeptical of that happening before the November election, meaning the administration’s goal largely depends on Trump winning a second term.The government’s appeal is Mnuchin v. Collins, 19-563, and the shareholders’ appeal is Collins v. Mnuchin, 19-422.(Closes shares, adds FHFA statement starting in 3rd paragraph)For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.comSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.



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TikTok teens target the Trump campaign, again

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The TikTok-tivists are at it again.

Thousands of users of the popular video app flocked to the Apple App Store in the last few days to flood President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign app with negative reviews. On Wednesday alone 700 negative reviews were left on the Official Trump 2020 app and 26 positive ones, according to tracking firm Sensor Tower.

TikTok fans are retaliating for Trump’s threats of banning the app, which is owned by China’s Bytedance Ltd. and is hugely popular in the U.S., especially among teens. The thought of taking away a key social and entertainment hub in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to outrage.

“For Gen Z and Millennials, TikTok is our clubhouse and Trump threatened it,” said Yori Blacc, a 19-year-old TikTok user in California who joined in the app protest. “If you’re going to mess with us, we will mess with you.”

Blacc said the movement gained steam Wednesday when a popular TikTok user, DeJuan Booker, called on his 750,000 followers to seek revenge. He posted a step-by-step primer on how to degrade the app’s rating, notching 5.6 million views. “Gen Z don’t go down without a fight,” said Booker, who goes by @unusualbeing on TikTok. “Let’s go to war.”

The efforts to push the app low enough so that Apple will remove it from the app store may be misguided. Apple doesn’t delete apps based on their popularity. The App Store may review those that violate its guidelines or are outdated, but not if their ratings sink. A similar tactic was tried in April to protest Google Classroom by kids frustrated with quarantine home-schooling.

But young people are looking for ways to make their voices heard, even if some of them can’t yet vote. Last month, many young people organized through TikTok to sign up to attend Trump’s first post-shutdown campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but then didn’t show up. The Trump campaign denied the online organizing effort contributed to lower-than-expected attendance.

The Trump campaign and Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. TikTok was experiencing connectivity issues on Thursday, according to Downdector, which measures web traffic.

Trump’s re-election smartphone app is a big part of the president’s unrivaled digital operation and was meant to circumvent tech companies like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. and give the campaign a direct line to supporters. The app has helped the campaign engage Trump’s die-hard supporters, especially in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, by feeding them his latest tweets and promoting virtual events. Supporters can donate to the president’s campaign or earn rewards for recruiting friends like VIP seats to rallies or photos with the president.

The Official Trump 2020 app has been downloaded more than 500,000 times on Google’s Android store as of June 15. Apple doesn’t publish information on downloads.

Reviews with titles such as “Terrible App” or “Do Not Download!” have been flooding the App Store since late June. Official Trump 2020 now has more than 103,000 one-star reviews for an overall rating of 1.2.

But the uptick of activity has also caused the app to rise in rankings. Users have to download the app to review it, vaulting it to second place on the Apple store from No. 486 on Tuesday, according to Sensor Tower.

“Do I think that this is going to fundamentally change the election? No,” said Tim Lim, a veteran Democratic digital strategist. “But it goes to show that they are just as susceptible to these mass actions as anyone else. Trump is starting to see what it feels like to have a massive online army committed to defeating him.”

Trump earlier this week said his administration is considering banning TikTok as one way to retaliate against China over its handling of the coronavirus. Trump’s comments came after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told Americans not to download the app unless they want to see their private information fall into “the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” Bytedance is also facing a U.S. national security review for its acquisition of startup Musical.ly. It has denied allegations that it poses a threat to U.S. national security.

Trump didn’t offer specifics about a potential decision and Pompeo seemed to walk back the idea of a ban in a later statement, saying that the U.S. efforts to protect American consumers’ data don’t relate to any one particular company.

Many TikTok users say they care less about potential Chinese snooping and more about Trump taking away their digital hangout. In the U.S., TikTok has been downloaded more than 165 million times, according to Sensor Tower.

“I don’t believe Trump is trying to take TikTok away because of national security, but more to retaliate against activism on the app and all the videos about him that drag him through the mud,” said Darius Jackson, an 18-year-old TikTok user in Champagne, Illinois, who asked his followers Wednesday to give Trump’s app a one-star rating.

“This is the first year I’ll be able to vote and I think activism on TikTok is going to make a big difference,” Jackson said.

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Airport upgrade faces uncertainty

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By Arjay L. Balinbin, Reporter

THE government has revoked the original proponent status given to the consortium seeking to rehabilitate the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), after rejecting the latter’s move to revise the project’s terms in light of the pandemic’s effect on the travel industry.

The consortium claimed it will have difficulty obtaining financing for the P102.12-billion NAIA rehabilitation project under the current approved terms and conditions, the Department of Transportation (DoTr) and the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) said in a statement late Wednesday, citing the group’s July 6 letter submitted to the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).

The DoTr and MIAA said the consortium expressed it could only proceed with the NAIA project if “such terms and conditions are revised in accordance with its proposal as contained in the letter.”

“In view of this, and upon the recommendation of the NAIA Government Negotiating Panel, the MIAA, on 7 July 2020, has terminated negotiations with the NAIA consortium and withdraws/revokes its original proponent status (OPS),” they said.

In a statement issued on July 7, the consortium said “far-reaching and long-lasting consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on airline travel, airline operations and airport passenger traffic necessitated a review of the assumptions and plans to ensure that the NAIA project will be viable in the new normal.”

The proposed changes to the project’s framework would ensure its bankability, the consortium said.

The NAIA consortium is composed of Aboitiz InfraCapital, Inc; AC Infrastructure Holdings Corp.; Alliance Global Group, Inc.; Asia’s Emerging Dragon Corp.; Filinvest Development Corp.; and JG Summit Holdings, Inc.

Antonio A. Ligon, law and business professor at De La Salle University, said the government should be willing to renegotiate the terms of the deal, considering how the pandemic wreaked havoc on the global tourism industry.

“The compelling reason must justify the discontinuance of the negotiations, because it will not be good for the image of the government,” Mr. Ligon said in a phone interview.

“Both parties should consider what’s going on right now. Negotiations should consider the challenges that the world is facing now. It should not be one-sided. The supervening event is global, so it should be easy for both parties to consider based on this supervening event.”

For UnionBank of the Philippines, Inc. Chief Economist Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion, the government should not be faulted for trying to get a “better” deal.

“At this juncture, the government has the right to whom it may choose to deal, and it should, of course, be within the set and fair rules. With the pandemic and its ill-impacts on government revenues and consequently its spending on infrastructure, the government will be on the lookout for smarter and better deals. This is now evidenced by new negotiations they are currently having,” he said in an e-mailed reply to a question on Thursday.

“With international travel saddled with many uncertainties, the government may also be thinking about other issues needing more attention at this point,” he added.

Despite the collapse of talks with the NAIA consortium, the government appears unfazed.

Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III on Wednesday said there are two other proponents interested in the project at the terms the government has indicated.

“We’re not worried about it… We have two other proponents who are very willing to step into the shoes of the consortium,” he said in a virtual briefing.

In September 2018, the NAIA consortium obtained the original proponent status from the DoTr to rehabilitate, upgrade, expand, operate and maintain the country’s main gateway for 15 years.

The original proposal submitted in February 2018 cost P350 billion and included the construction of an additional runway over a 35-year concession period, but this was reduced eventually per the DoTr’s request.

Metro Pacific Investments Corp. was originally part of the consortium, but withdrew from the project due in part to the unresolved issue of tax payments.

The rehabilitation of the NAIA, whose main terminal opened in 1981, is expected to increase its capacity to 47 million passengers a year in the first two years and further expand this to 65 million passengers after four years.

The NAIA, which has four terminals, has been operating beyond its 30.5 million annual passenger capacity. It recorded 45.3 million passengers in 2018.



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