Morning Read 5/9: Kushner Co apologizes for reference to White House ties

Kushner Companies apologized Monday after using White House ties as a selling point in a pitch to Chinese investors over the weekend [JP capture via Youtube / Reuters]
Kushner Companies apologized Monday after using White House ties as a selling point in a pitch to Chinese investors over the weekend [JP capture via Youtube / Reuters]

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INTERNATIONAL


NETANYAHU ANGRY LAUDER ADVISED ABBAS

World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week to help prepare him for his meeting with US President Donald Trump, angering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sources close to the prime minister said on Monday.

Politicians who spoke to Lauder at Sunday’s Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York, which Lauder presided over, confirmed that he told them about his meeting with Abbas. Confidants who spoke to Netanyahu about Lauder told The Jerusalem Post that he was furious about the American Jewish leader’s meeting.

“You don’t understand how much influence he has over Trump,” Netanyahu told a confidant in a private conversation Monday. “Out of the people around Trump, he is my biggest challenge to overcome.”

Sources close to Netanyahu were divided over how to attribute Lauder’s help to Abbas. Some saw it as a genuine desire to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East, while others said it might be connected to the personal dispute between Lauder and the prime minister.

Netanyahu and Lauder were once very close, but their ties were harmed by critical reports of Netanyahu that aired on Channel 10 a few years ago when Lauder was one of the channel’s owners. [JPOST]

Abbas told Trump: Peace talks with Israel should resume from where left off in 2008

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has urged U.S. President Donald Trump to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from the offer made by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. Abbas and his staff showed Trump documents and maps from Israel’s talks with the Palestinians near the end of Olmert’s term, explaining the proposal to him.

The differences between the sides on borders narrowed a great deal in the 2008 negotiations, an official from Abbas’ bureau told Haaretz.

At one point in 2008, Abbas rejected an Israeli peace proposal that included a withdrawal from 93 percent of the West Bank because it did not provide for a contiguous Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

It is untrue, as Israel has claimed, that last week’s Trump-Abbas meeting in Washington was confined to marginal issues such as payments to prisoners, incitement and the Palestinian efforts to impose sanctions against Israel by FIFA, the international soccer association, said the Palestinian official. The meeting touched on core issues as well, and borders in particular, he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about retaining control of the Jordan Valley and all of East Jerusalem and continuing to build in the settlements but no agreement can be achieved on these positions, the official continued. Instead, borders are a good place to start, he said.

The Palestinians showed Trump the details of the negotiations with Olmert. “At the time, we presented land swaps of 1.9 percent [of the West Bank] and Olmert offered 6.3 percent, and this is where things ended because Olmert left politics, and we told [Trump] and his staff that the differences are not so great and that is a good starting point for any negotiations on borders, which is a critical issue and which will have implications for all the core issues and the permanent agreement,” said the official.

The Palestinian leadership is interested in making progress but it is impossible to start serious talks when the Israeli government is so far from the positions that had already been agreed to in the past, he said.

“If we achieve accords on the borders, we can bridge all the other gaps,” the official said. “But if the conversation starts at Netanyahu’s opening position, that he isn’t prepared to say what Israel’s borders are, we won’t get anywhere.”

The Palestinian Authority has started preparing for Trump’s visit to Bethlehem, scheduled for May 23. [HAARETZ]

Uneasy Palestinians pleasantly surprised by Trump, adviser says

Palestinian officials were pleasantly surprised by the White House’s warm reception for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week, after worrying over the unpredictable nature of US President Donald Trump, a senior negotiator said Monday.

“There was a positive reaction because people did not know what to expect. It’s difficult to predict Mr. Trump. He was very warm, respectful, gave equal treatment to our president, like he’s given to other heads of state that he’s met,” said Nabil Shaath, a foreign affairs adviser to Abbas.

Abbas visited Trump at the White House on May 4, with the two leaders exchanging smiling pleasantries and high hopes for restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

According to Shaath, PA officials‘ optimism in the aftermath of the meeting wasn’t due to specific content discussed, or concrete details of how to move forward.

“People were not very much concerned with every word said or phrase mentioned. People were judging the general atmosphere, the music of the meeting,” he told The Times of Israel during an interview at the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah.

“What was discussed in Washington was getting ready to start the negotiations,” he added.

He noted the key players in Trump’s administration took part in the luncheon with the Palestinian team, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Jared Kushner. [ToI]


NATIONAL


Bumble Bee tuna to pay $25 million in U.S. price-fixing case

Bumble Bee Foods LLC has agreed to plead guilty to one count of fixing the prices of canned tuna sold in the United States and to pay a criminal fine of $25 million, the Justice Department said on Monday.

Two Bumble Bee executives agreed to plead guilty in December in connection with the price fixing. They are on paid leave from the company.

The canned tuna market in the United States has long been dominated by three companies. Thai Union’s Chicken of the Sea is the largest, followed by Bumble Bee and StarKist. In December 2015, the Justice Department stopped Thai Union Group from buying Bumble Bee.

In its complaint, the Justice Department said that executives from Bumble Bee and unnamed other companies held “discussions and attended meetings” from 2011 to 2013 “to fix, raise, and maintain the prices of packaged seafood.”

Bumble Bee said in a statement that it had “fully cooperated” with the Justice Department.

“We have established strong guidelines and new internal policies for our path forward, which is being overseen by a chief compliance officer that we hired last fall,” said General Counsel Jill Irvin in a statement.

The Justice Department said that the probe was ongoing. [REUTERS]

U.S. anti-Muslim bias incidents increased in 2016, group says

When the Masjid Al-Kareem mosque in Providence, Rhode Island, received a threatening letter in November calling Muslims a “vile and filthy people,” its members were frightened enough they asked for and got extra police protection.

The 42-year-old mosque was far from alone. The letter it received was one of 2,213 anti-Muslim bias incidents in the United States last year, according to a report released Tuesday by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The report found a 57 percent increase in the number of incidents in 2016, up from 1,409 in 2015. Incidents increased 5 percent from 2014 to 2015.

While the group had been seeing a rise in anti-Muslim incidents prior to Donald Trump’s stunning rise in last year’s presidential primaries and November election victory, it said the acceleration in bias incidents was due in part to Trump’s focus on militant Islamist groups and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

CAIR officials decided in September to start what they intend to be quarterly reports after noticing a pickup in complaints beginning in 2014, following the rise of Islamic State killings in the Middle East and attacks inspired by the group in Europe and the United States.

“There was this widespread sense that we were going right back to how it was after 9/11,” when al Qaeda hijackers launched coordinated attacks on New York and Washington, sparking a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, said Corey Saylor, director of the CAIR department on monitoring and combating Islamophobia. “We wanted to be able to put something factual out there.”

The accounting includes a wide variety of bias incidents, from assaults and street harassment, to employment discrimination, to what the group considers unwarranted contact by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It also shows a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes to 260 in 2016, up 44 percent from 180 a year earlier. That includes all crimes recorded where CAIR saw evidence of anti-Muslim bias, not just those where hate crime charges were brought, Saylor said.

Muslims are not alone in experiencing an uptick in bias. A report released last month by the Anti-Defamation League recorded a 34 percent rise in anti-Semitic acts in 2016. “The 2016 presidential election and the heightened political atmosphere played a role in the increase,” the ADL concluded in its report. [REUTERS]


LOCAL


Traffic signal would allow pedestrians to cross in all directions

The City Council is looking into installing a new kind of traffic signal at intersections throughout the Big Apple that would stop all cars, buses and bikes for a certain amount of time — so that pedestrians could walk wherever they want.

The signal — known as the Barnes dance, or the “pedestrian scramble” — is already in use in a couple of intersections in the city and is more widely used in places including London, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, officials said. One of the intersections is around Union Square.

Transportation advocates think the system would keep pedestrians much safer and help them get around more quickly.

“A pedestrian-scramble crossing can ensure the complete safety of pedestrians without any turning cars, while getting people where they need to go faster,” said city Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Washington Heights/Inwood), head of the council’s Transportation Committee. This is about making our city more walkable and a more enjoyable place to live.” [NYP]

Non-union builders group push for drug tests for all NYC construction workers

A group of non-union contractors is pushing to mandate drug and alcohol testing for all city construction workers.

Associated Builders and Contractors wrote to the City Council asking for the requirement to be added to a controversial package of construction safety legislation the Council is considering.

“The reality is that drugs and alcohol are likely among the leading causes of injury to construction workers. It would be strange to pass worksite safety legislation while ignoring such a major negative factor in the industry,” Brian Sampson, president of the group’s New York chapter, wrote in a letter to Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Jumaane Williams, chair of the buildings committee.

Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, countered that none of the 33 construction worker deaths since the beginning of 2015 involved evidence of alcohol or drug use.

“There has never been even one allegation of drug or alcohol use related to any of the dozens of fatalities on worksites across New York City,” he said. “This letter is nothing more than a diversionary attempt by irresponsible developers and nonunion contractors to scapegoat workers, shift the blame to victims, and cover up for their own poor safety record which puts profits over worker safety.”

The Council is weighing legislation, backed by construction unions, to require workers to go through apprenticeships and training programs, along with a number of other safety bills.

“Let us not forget that this kind of testing is commonly found in other fields – many of which are far less dangerous than the construction industry. If individuals like baseball players and customer service representatives are screened for drug use, why would we not apply at least the same standard to construction workers?” Sampson wrote.

Mark-Viverito’s spokeswoman said she’d review the proposal. [DN]

New York City Agencies Battle Over Surveillance

New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, already under attack for his personal use of a city vehicle, told the City Council on Monday that senior correction officials had “inadvertently” conducted surveillance of the city agency that investigates fraud and corruption.

“I was aware of what was happening, yes,” Mr. Ponte said during a City Council hearing, when asked whether he knew about the surveillance. Mr. Ponte said correction officials stopped listening to phone calls between city investigators and confidential informants when they realized they involved the Department of Investigation.

Hours earlier, DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said in a written statement that correction officials had “deliberately targeted DOI investigators for surveillance,” and were unable to offer any reasonable explanation for their conduct. Correction staff listened to calls during several months this year, Mr. Peters said.

The surveillance was overseen by Gregory Kuczinski, deputy commissioner for the Investigation Division, who served under Mr. Ponte.

Mr. Peters said there was a “renewal” of the surveillance after the DOC staff learned that his investigators were preparing a report on DOC vehicle use. “Our investigation provided no alternative explanation that would suggest this timing was coincidental,” he added.

Mr. Peters said the DOI had sent a letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio about its findings. The letter included recommendations such as terminating Mr. Kuczinski from his job and retraining DOC staff who listen to inmate calls. Mr. de Blasio said in an interview on NY1 Monday night that he planned to follow the recommendations.

Mr. Kuczinski was relieved of his duties Monday morning before the hearing, but hasn’t been fired, Mr. Ponte said. Mr. Kuczinski couldn’t be reached for comment. [WSJ]

Chelsea bombing suspect will have to face justice in New York

A Manhattan federal judge on Monday rejected accused Chelsea bomber Ahmad Rahimi’s request to move his high-profile trial from New York to a state where publicity over the bombings was less pronounced, like Vermont.

New York City hosts a population that “is vastly if not more than sufficient to find fair and impartial jurors,” Judge Richard Berman said in rejecting Rahimi’s change-of-venue request.

“This court has little or no doubt that a fair and impartial jury can be found in this case and that the defendant Rahimi will receive a fair trial,” Berman said in his ruling from the bench.

Rahimi requested that his trial be moved to Vermont or Washington, D.C. earlier this year after his lawyers surveyed New Yorkers and determined that Manhattanites have an “overwhelmingly negative view of Mr. Rahimi.” [NYP]


POLITICS


Report: Comey’s testimony on amount of Clinton emails on laptop was misleading

FBI Director James Comey last week reportedly misstated the number of Hillary Clinton’s emails that Huma Abedin forwarded to her husband, Anthony Weiner, to print out, ProPublica reported.

Comey told a Senate Judiciary Committee last week that Abedin forwarded “hundreds of thousands” of Clinton’s emails to her husband. But two unnamed sources familiar with the matter told ProPublica that Abedin only forwarded a handful of those emails.

The sources told Pro Publica that it was more likely that most of the emails appeared on Weiner’s laptop as a result of backups of her Blackberry device. The FBI said it would correct the record by sending a letter to Congress later this week, but that plan appeared to be on hold for now, the website reported.

Comey said that it appeared Abedin made a “regular practice of forwarding emails to (Weiner)” so he could print them out and deliver them to Clinton.

However, when the emails were obtained, they turned out to be mostly duplicates of emails that federal authorities had already received earlier in their investigation, Pro Publica reported.

Comey’s testimony before the committee members was his most extensive public explanation of the events that unfolded 11 days before the November 2016 presidential election. [FOXNEWS]

Yates Warned of Flynn Russia-Blackmail Risk

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates told Congress on Monday she had warned a top White House official that then-national security adviser Mike Flynn had misled the vice president and others about his conversations with a top Russian diplomat, and that it had put him at risk of blackmail.

“Logic would tell you that you don’t want the national security adviser to be in a position where the Russians have leverage over him,” Ms. Yates said.

Although she spoke cautiously, Ms. Yates offered a dramatic airing of details about a controversial early chapter of the Trump administration, its relations with the Russian government and a secretive Justice Department investigation. She painted a striking picture of one of the nation’s top security officials, a former general, making himself vulnerable to blackmail by a major adversary. [WSJ]

Five takeaways from Yates’s dramatic Senate testimony

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified to a Senate Judiciary Committee panel on Monday in one of the most hotly anticipated hearings of the Trump era to date.

Yates’s testimony was a huge media event, commanding hours of live cable news coverage.

She came before the committee following several media reports that she had warned the White House that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had been compromised almost three weeks before he resigned. However, nothing had been heard on the record from Yates herself.

Yates was fired over a separate matter days after delivering the warning about Flynn. She declined to order the Department of Justice to defend President Trump’s controversial executive order that sought to temporarily bar most travelers and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations, as well as indefinitely halt the admission of Syrian refugees.

Yates’s testimony is trouble for the White House
The drama and detail of Yates’s testimony amounted to bad news for the White House.

The core of her account was that she held two meetings with White House counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 26 and Jan. 27 warning about the dangers pertaining to Flynn. The former lieutenant general would not resign until Feb. 13, after the shortest-ever tenure as national security adviser.

As Yates portrayed it, she was clear with McGahn that Flynn was compromised. She believed — correctly, as it turned out — that Flynn had misled senior figures in the administration, including Vice President Pence, about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, during the transition period.

The battle over Trump’s ‘travel ban’ has not ended
The issue central to Yates’s firing still generates political heat — as was shown during one of the most spectacular clashes of the hearing.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) needled Yates over her decision to refuse to defend the travel ban. The Texas senator asked her if she was familiar with a certain part of the Immigration and Nationality Act that gives the president broad authority to decide who can enter the United States.

Yates, who seemed prepared for that line of attack, shot back that she was equally familiar with another statue that outlaws discrimination in immigration matters on the basis of race or nation of birth, among other things.

Yates held her own against similar questioning from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who complained that she had “countermanded an executive order of the president of the United States because you disagreed with it as a policy matter.”

No break from partisanship

In his opening remarks, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) emphasized his hope that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election could transcend party lines.

“When a foreign power interferes in our election, it doesn’t matter who they targeted, we are all in the same boat,” Graham argued.

But the questioning of Yates and Clapper did not fulfill that hope.

GOP senators spent much of their time trying to excoriate Yates for her conduct on the executive order or raising concerns about leaks that were damaging to the White House.

Democrats, meanwhile, sought to paint the Trump administration’s actions in the most negative light possible. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) called Flynn “a danger to this Republic.”

Bad for Trump, but no smoking gun
While it was not a good day for the White House overall, there was no surprise “smoking gun” uncovered to inflict unexpected damage on Trump himself.

The Trump-specific controversy during the day was mostly engendered by his morning tweet encouraging people to “ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Counsel.”

Some liberals on social media accused Trump of engaging in de facto witness intimidation. Spicer, during his daily White House press briefing, parried that the tweet “speaks for itself.”

But it was McGahn, not Trump, who was the most central administration figure during the hearing. Yates said the White House counsel had not told her during their second meeting whether he had informed Trump of the issues raised in their first encounter.

Speculation about Yates running for office could get louder
The liberal reaction on social media to Yates’s testimony was exuberantly positive.

The praise was focused particularly on her clash with Cruz and on the bluntness of her words regarding the seriousness of the Flynn matter.

Yates seemed to relish even the harshest exchanges during the hearing, and she never came close to losing her poise.

There is sure to be speculation that Yates could seek, and win, political office — if she wants it. [THEHILL]

President Trump Nominates 10 for Federal Courts

President Donald Trump began to make his mark on the lower federal courts on Monday with 10 judicial nominations that drew praise from conservative legal groups and concern from their liberal counterparts.

The five federal appellate nominees in the batch include state supreme court justices, former law clerks to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, corporate lawyers and law professors.

Mr. Trump nominated Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen, a former Scalia clerk, to the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati; David Stras, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice and former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, to the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis; Louisville, Ky., lawyer John Bush to the Sixth Circuit; Amy Coney Barrett, a University of Notre Dame law professor and former Scalia clerk, to the Seventh Circuit in Chicago; and Birmingham, Ala., lawyer Kevin Newsom, a former clerk to Justice David Souter, to the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Monday that Mr. Trump chose the nominees “for their deep knowledge of the law and their commitment to upholding constitutional principles.” [WSJ]

KUSHNER EMERGED AS CONDUIT FOR CANADA ON NAFTA TALKS

WASHINGTON (AP) — On the day the White House threatened to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, emerged as a key conduit between the United States and Canada.

But Kushner’s role has sparked a cross-border game of telephone tag and conflicting accounts about who called who first.

According to a White House official, aides to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Kushner urgently on April 26 after seeing news reports that Trump was considering signing an executive order withdrawing from NAFTA.

But accounts of Kushner’s involvement differed Monday in Canadian media reports. According to The Canadian Press news agency, it was Kushner who first reached out to Trudeau’s chief of staff to suggest a call between the two leaders. [AP]

KUSHNER FIRM APOLOGIZES FOR REFERENCE TO WHITE HOUSE TIES

Revelations that the sister of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, promoted a program offering a path to U.S. citizenship to Chinese backers in a Kushner family project bring new scrutiny to a foreign investor visa program. The Kushner Companies apologized Monday, saying it had not meant to lure investors by using Jared Kushner’s name at an investment promotion event held Saturday at a Ritz Carlton in Beijing. Marketing materials for the event promoted Nicole Kushner Meyer as Jared’s sister, and cited the Kushner family’s “celebrity” status.

The project promoted by Meyer in Beijing is a 79-story apartment building in Jersey City, New Jersey, called Kushner 1. The company is seeking 300 aspiring U.S. residents to invest a total of $150 million, and it follows other Kushner family projects using the investment program known as EB-5, including a nearby Trump-licensed building promoted as “Trump Bay Street.”

At a press briefing, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Jared Kushner has no involvement in the project. An attorney for Jared Kushner said he had sold his stake to a trust benefiting other members of the Kushner family, and would recuse himself from related policy matters while serving as an adviser to Trump.

Though the foreign investor immigration program has become a source for cheap real estate financing for projects like the Kushner family’s, questions about its fairness and national security implications have made it a political briar patch for years. One recent scandal involved Hillary Clinton’s brother.

Created in 1990 as a way to encourage investment during a recession, the program requires foreigners to invest $1 million in a business that sustainably employs 10 people anywhere or $500,000 in rural areas or those with high unemployment.

The smaller investment is done through a regional center, a collection point for multiple investments that can be used for a variety of projects. The regional center is at the root of many complaints about the program.

As part of such deals, investors – who in recent years have been overwhelmingly from China – typically accept below-market investment returns to qualify for a visa, allowing the developer to pocket the savings on financing costs. After as little as two years, participants can apply for a fast-track green card and later U.S. citizenship. With permanent residency in hand, the foreign investors can then sponsor additional visas to bring in family members.

Critics have faulted the program for failing to bring investment into downtrodden communities as intended. By gerrymandering together rich geographic areas with poor ones, developers have managed to win approval from economic development authorities for luxury projects in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and Miami’s South Beach.

Beyond the question of whether the program encourages development as intended lie allegations of political favoritism and national security risks.

President Barack Obama’s choice for the No. 2 official at the Homeland Security Department nearly had his appointment derailed in 2013 amid allegations that he provided special treatment to a company run by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s brother and others. Alejandro Mayorkas was accused of intervening in three visa cases involving prominent Democrats, including Clinton’s brother.

The Homeland Security Department inspector general concluded in 2015 that Mayorkas’ intervention created the appearance of favoritism and special access. Mayorkas denied wrongdoing. He said at the time that while he disagreed with the inspector general’s report, he would “certainly learn from it and from the process.”

U.S. officials have raised concerns about the vetting of investors, too. A 2013 Homeland Security Department investigation cited risks that Iranian intelligence operatives may have exploited the program, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services found numerous fraudulent documents when it audited a sampling of investors’ green card applications.

In an unclassified State Department report from June 2012, officials said that Chinese applicants to the program are “usually coached and prepped for their interviews, making it difficult to take at face value applicant claims regarding income” or membership in the Communist Party.

In 2015, the Government Accountability Office warned that the program could not reliably catch fraud by visa applicants who bought into the program with money obtained through drug trade, human trafficking, or other criminal activities. [AP]

US Embassy in Saudi Arabia posts video editing out Israel from Trump’s trip

A video posted by the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia edited out President Donald Trump mentioning his trip to Israel, but the State Department said it was “an inadvertent mistake” and not deliberate.

The video, in which Trump’s speech last week announcing the trip was edited to cut mention of Israel, has since been removed from the embassy’s social media. Another video with the complete speech was uploaded to the embassy’s YouTube account on Monday.

A State Department official told JTA in a statement that the embassy had taken the video from the social media account of a private Saudi citizen without realizing that Israel had been edited out.
“Upon learning this, the US Embassy immediately corrected the error, took down the video, and loaded the correct version to its social media accounts,” the official said. “The Embassy expresses its regret for this inadvertent mistake.”

Senior House Democrat Eliot Engel blasted the video, saying in a letter sent Monday to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the embassy’s alleged editing implies the United States accepts Saudi Arabia’s refusal to recognize Israel as a state.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal diplomatic relations, but have reportedly developed close security ties behind closed doors in the face of mutual distrust of an ascendant Iran.

Saudi Arabia will be Trump’s initial stop on his first foreign trip as president later this month, followed by visits to Israel and the Vatican. [ToI]


CULTURE


Ban on kosher slaughter in Belgium is “assault on Jewish rights”

Kosher meat has been banned in the Belgian region of Walloon, after the region’s politicians outlawed the slaughter of unstunned animals.

Community leaders have condemned the move as “scandalous” and the “greatest assault on Jewish religious rights in Belgium since the Nazi occupation”.

If approved by the parliament’s plenary later this month, the law will take effect in September 2019, according to the Belgian newspaper De Morgen. The motion, which will also put an end to the supply of halal meat, gained unanimous support from the environment committee of southern Belgium’s Walloon Parliament

Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC), told the Independent: “This decision, in the heart of Western Europe and the centre of the European Union, sends a terrible message to Jewish communities throughout our continent that Jews are unwanted.

“It attacks the very core of our culture and religious practice and our status as equal citizens with equal rights in a democratic society. It gives succour to antisemites and to those intolerant of other communities and faiths.”

He added: “We call on legislators to step back from the brink of the greatest assault on Jewish religious rights in Belgium since the Nazi occupation of the country in the Second World War.”

Under kashrut and halal rituals, butchers are required to swiftly slaughter the animal without stunning it. Animal rights campaigners have condemned the processes as inhumane.

Similar moves have already been taken by other countries, including Denmark, Switzerland and New Zealand. [JC]


FINANCE


Trump review of Wall Street rules to be done in stages

The U.S. government’s review of a landmark 2010 financial reform law will not be complete by early June as originally targeted, and officials will now report findings piece-by-piece, with priority given to banking regulations, sources familiar with the matter said on Monday.

President Donald Trump has pledged to do a “big number” on the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, which raised banks’ capital requirements, restricted their ability to make speculative bets with customers’ money and created consumer protections in the wake of the financial crisis.

In February, Trump ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to review the law and report back within 120 days, saying his administration expected to be cutting large parts of it.

But the Treasury Department is still filling vacancies after the transition from the Obama administration and there are not enough officials to get the full review done by early June, three sources said.

A Treasury spokesperson dismissed the idea the report that would be broken up because the department is short-handed, saying the reach of the project could require several separate reports, as permitted under the executive order.

“Treasury has an entire team dedicated to reviewing the financial regulatory rules and will begin reporting our findings to the president in June,” the department spokesperson said.

“Given the volume and scope of the issues we are reviewing that involve potential changes to the financial regulatory system, we are carefully considering the best options to begin rolling them out in the most effective and responsible manner,” the spokesperson said.

The Treasury Department will first report back on what banking rules could be changed, including capital requirements, restrictions on leverage and speculative trading.

Examinations of capital markets, clearing houses and derivatives as well as the insurance and asset management industries and financial innovation and banking technology will come later, the sources said. [REUTERS]

China has now become the biggest fear for markets

Stocks are at record highs, the VIX is at a 10-year low, and while investors are relieved the French presidency did not go to an anti-euro candidate, new risks are filling the void.

Topping the list of market worries is China, which has been on the back burner for months now. Some weaker-than-expected data, however, has put spotlight on the country’s economy.

Last week, PMI manufacturing data showed signs of slowing, and China’s trade data overnight was weaker than expected, with misses both on imports and exports. Chinese inflation data was due Tuesday.

“I’m more concerned about the risks stemming from a China slowdown,” said Jeff Kleintop, Charles Schwab chief global investment strategist.

Commodities have sold off on concerns. Copper was down about 3 percent last week amid concerns about China, and off another 1.4 percent Monday.

“Some of this might be some warning signs that China could be the next thing that would throw the market a curve ball,” he said. If the Chinese economy loses so much steam that its currency weakens a lot, and commodities continue to sell off, it could be a negative for other markets

“The government has slowed down on infrastructure spending, thinking private sector spending would pick up and offset it. I’m just worried rising interest rates, tighter conditions and some new down payment requirements could nip that in the bud,” Kleintop said.

China President Xi Jinping is expected to consolidate his power later this year at the party congress in November. “Now that the political hatches are battened down, the main risks in the world today are still deflation, not inflation. A significant slowdown in China could be deflationary,” said Paul Christopher, chief international investment strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

Christopher added, however, that China has responded to signs of weakness and market sell offs, as in August 2015, by easing credit and stepping back from reform, when necessary. [CNBC]

Why Do Gas Station Prices Constantly Change?

ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands—One recent afternoon at a Shell-branded station on the outskirts of this Dutch city, the price of a gallon of unleaded gas started ticking higher, rising more than 3½ cents by closing time. A little later, a competing station 3 miles down the road raised its price about the same amount.

The two stations are among thousands of companies that use artificial-intelligence software to set prices. In doing so, they are testing a fundamental precept of the market economy.

In economics textbooks, open competition between companies selling a similar product, like gasoline, tends to push prices lower. These kinds of algorithms determine the optimal price sometimes dozens of times a day. As they get better at predicting what competitors are charging and what consumers are willing to pay, there are signs they sometimes end up boosting prices together.

Advances in A.I. are allowing retail and wholesale firms to move beyond “dynamic pricing” software, which has for years helped set prices for fast-moving goods, like airline tickets or flat-screen televisions. Older pricing software often used simple rules, such as always keeping prices lower than a competitor.

These new systems crunch mountains of historical and real-time data to predict how customers and competitors will react to any price change under different scenarios, giving them an almost superhuman insight into market dynamics. Programmed to meet a certain goal—such as boosting sales—the algorithms constantly update tactics after learning from experience.

“This is not a matter of stealing more money from your customer. It’s about making margin on people who don’t care, and giving away margin to people who do care,” he said.

Driving the popularity of A.I. pricing is the pain rippling through most retail industries, long a low-margin business that’s now suffering from increased competition from online competitors.

The rise of A.I. pricing poses a challenge to antitrust law. Authorities in the EU and U.S. haven’t opened probes or accused retailers of impropriety for using A.I. to set prices. Antitrust experts say it could be difficult to prove illegal intent as is often required in collusion cases; so far, algorithmic-pricing prosecutions have involved allegations of humans explicitly designing machines to manipulate markets.

Officials say they are looking at whether they need new rules. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said it plans to discuss in June at a round table how such software could make collusion easier “without any formal agreement or human interaction.”

“If professional poker players are having difficulty playing against an algorithm, imagine the difficulty a consumer might have,” said Maurice Stucke, a former antitrust attorney for the U.S. Justice Department and now a law professor at the University of Tennessee, who has written about the competition issues posed by A.I. “In all likelihood, consumers are going to end up paying a higher price.”

In one example of what can happen when prices are widely known, Germany required all gas stations to provide live fuel prices that it shared with consumer price-comparison apps. The effort appears to have boosted prices between 1.2 to 3.3 euro cents per liter, or about 5 to 13 U.S. cents per gallon, according to a discussion paper published in 2016 by the Düsseldorf Institute for Competition Economics.

Makers and users of A.I. pricing said humans remain in control and that retailers’ strategic goals vary widely, which should promote competition and lower prices.

“If you completely let the software rule, then I could see [collusion] happening,” said Faisal Masud, chief technology officer for Staples, which uses A.I.-enabled software to change prices on 30,000 products a day on its website. “But let’s be clear, whatever tools we use, the business logic remains human.”

Online retailers in the U.S., such as Amazon.com Inc. and its third-party sellers, were among the first to adopt dynamic pricing. Amazon.com declined to comment.

Since then, sectors with fast-moving goods, frequent price changes and thin margins—such as the grocery, electronics and gasoline markets—have been the quickest to adopt the latest algorithmic pricing, because they are the most keen for extra pennies of margin, analysts and executives say. [WSJ]

05/09/2017 10:33 AM by David Kinzer
Tags: Morning Read

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