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Business

    Stocks logged modest gains Friday in Asia after a lackluster overnight session on Wall Street ended with the market’s third straight drop. Upbeat comments by Chinese officials helped alleviate worries over progress in resolving the tariff war between the two largest economies. Chinese President Xi Jinping told a visiting delegation on Friday that he hoped to work toward a resolution of the dispute, though Beijing was not “afraid” and would “fight back” if necessary. Japan’s Nikkei 225 index gained 0.3% to 23,112.88, while the Hang Seng in Hong Kong picked up 0.2% to 26,522.81. South Korea’s Kospi edged 0.3% higher to 2,101.96 and the S&P ASX 200 in Australia advanced 0.5% to 6,709.80. The Shanghai Composite index lost 0.6% to 2,886.67. The Sensex in India dropped 0.5% to 40,356.73. Shares rose in Bangkok, Singapore and Taiwan but fell in Jakarta. Overnight, stocks closed modestly lower on Wall Street in the third straight day of declines after a mostly listless day of trading. Losses in technology stocks, companies that rely on consumer spending and other sectors outweighed gains elsewhere in the market. Energy sector stocks were the biggest winners, benefiting from another pickup in crude oil prices. Health care and communication services companies also rose. Investors have turned cautious this week amid concerns that the U.S. and China will fail to make a trade deal before the year is over. “This tangled web of trade talk confusion has investors sitting in that all too familiar predicament of trade war limbo,” Stephen Innes of AxiTrader. “It does sound positive on the surface, but equity markets remain cautious given the numerous stops and starts, not to mention dead ends these trade discussions have met with.” The world’s largest economies have been negotiating a resolution to their trade war ahead of new tariffs set to hit key consumer goods on Dec. 15. Investors have been hoping for a deal before that happens, as the tariffs would increase prices on smartphones, laptops and many common household goods. “That Dec. 15 deadline on tariffs still weighs on the market,” said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial. “The market needs a sense that there won’t be an escalation in the trade war.” The benchmark S&P 500 index dropped 0.2% to 3,103.54 and is on track to snap a six-week winning streak. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 0.2% to 27,766.29. The Nasdaq slid 0.2% to 8,506.21 while the Russell 2000 index of smaller company stocks lost 0.5%, to 1,583.96. Stocks are likely to remain choppy and risky as long as the trade war and threat of new tariffs looms over Wall Street, said Barry Bannister, head of institutional equity strategy at Stifel. “We don’t want to see tariffs on consumer goods that get passed on directly to retail purchasers because they’re the last leg on which the economy is standing right now,” Bannister said. Bannister warned that the market could be in for a significant decline before the end of the year if the U.S. and China can’t make progress. He also said the risk of a larger recession has not disappeared. Technology stocks took some of the heaviest losses Thursday. Many chipmakers and companies that make hardware rely on China for sales and supply chains. Advanced Micro Devices slid 3.6% and Lam Research fell 3.7%. Consumer product makers also fell broadly. Kraft Heinz dropped 2.7%. In energy trading Friday, benchmark U.S. crude oil lost 39 cents to $58.19 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It rose $1.57 to settle at $58.58 a barrel on Thursday. Brent crude oil, the international standard, declined 41 cents to $63.56 per barrel. The dollar was flat at 108.61 Japanese yen. The euro rose to $1.1071 from $1.1061 on Thursday. ___ AP Business Writers Damian J. Troise and Alex Veiga contributed.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping said Friday that Beijing wants to work for a trade deal with the United States but is not afraid to “fight back.” Reinforcing the upbeat tone adopted by China in recent days, Xi told a visiting U.S. business delegation that China holds a ‘positive attitude’ toward the trade talks. “As we always said we don’t want to start the trade war but we are not afraid,” Xi said. “When necessary we will fight back but we have been working actively to try not to have a trade war.” “We want to work for a Phase 1 agreement on the basis of mutual respect and equality,' Xi told the group. The delegation from Bloomberg’s New Economy Forum, a conference held in Beijing this week, included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, former U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman and other dignitaries. During the meeting at Beijing’s ornate Great Hall of the People, Xi reiterated to the group China’s stance that a deal requires “mutual respect and equality.” The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that China’s lead negotiator in the talks, Vice Premier Liu He, invited his U.S. counterparts to Beijing for more talks, suggesting hopes for progress. The latest flareup in trade tensions came after President Donald Trump imposed punitive tariffs last year on billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese exports to the U.S., seeking to ramp up pressure for changes in Chinese trade and investment policies. China has retaliated with tariff hikes of its own. After gradual escalations of sanctions and halting progress in trade talks this year, the two sides are working toward what they say will be a preliminary agreement to pave the way for tackling more complex issues. However, the prospects even for such a “Phase 1” deal are uncertain. China has said it wants a promise from the U.S. side to gradually reduce the tariffs already in place. It’s unclear if the U.S. side would be willing to do that. Meanwhile, Trump agreed to hold off on raising tariffs further last month pending the negotiations. But the U.S. side still is due to hike tariffs on $160 billion worth of imports from China next month. That increase would boost prices on smartphones, laptops and many common household goods, right before Christmas.
  • Google spinoff Waymo is trying to educate emergency responders on how to deal with its autonomous vehicles. Waymo released a training video on YouTube Thursday geared toward guiding public safety officials responding to incidents involving their self-driving cars. The 14-minute instructional video advises how to put a car in manual mode and what precautions firefighters should take. The video was done in conjunction with Waymo engineers and suburban Phoenix police and firefighters. Waymo is among several companies that has been testing autonomous vehicle programs in Arizona. The video comes two days after the National Transportation Safety Board found a distracted human safety driver caused a fatal crash of an autonomous Uber car. The NTSB also condemned a lack of state and federal regulation of testing on public roads.
  • China’s economy was 2.1% bigger than earlier estimated, the government said Friday, revising the gross domestic product for 2018 to 91.93 trillion yuan ($13.1 trillion) based on results of a census. The National Bureau of Statistics said Friday the revision reflects more complete measures of the services sector and assets. It raises the possibility China’s communist leaders will attain their target of doubling the country’s GDP between 2010 and 2020. The government also plans to issue revised GDP growth estimates for the world’s second largest economy but did not say when. The earlier estimate put the GDP in 2018 at 90.03 trillion yuan ($12.8 trillion). That’s still well below the U.S. GDP in 2018 of $20.5 trillion. But the U.S. economy expands at a much slower pace — 2.9% in 2018 — than China’s. China’s economy expanded at an annual pace of 6.0% in the July-September quarter, the slowest growth since 1992, as a tariff war with the U.S. and slowing global demand hammered its manufacturing sector. Businesses and consumers unnerved by the uncertain outlook for jobs and growth also have reined in spending in another drag on growth. But given China’s still faster growth and population of 1.4 billion people, it’s expected to soon overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. Chinese economic data are subject to more than the usual caveats about the reliability of statistics given past examples of officials distorting information for political reasons. Though it’s part of the long-term plan to restructure the economy, slowing growth runs counter to the ruling Communist Party’s plan, adopted in 2012, to double the size of the economy between 2010 and 2020. “The census revisions will also attract skepticism, but to a lesser degree, and should at least give NBS (the statistics bureau) more room to acknowledge downward pressure on growth in the coming quarters,” Capital Economics economists Julian Evans-Pritchard and Martin Rasmussen said in a commentary.
  • Iranian authorities slowly eased up their sweeping blockage of internet access on Friday, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for Iranians to send the U.S. videos “documenting the regime’s crackdown” on protesters. “The U.S. will expose and sanction the abuses,” Pompeo tweeted early Friday, as pockets of Iran saw internet over landlines restored. Authorities have said the internet may be entirely restored soon, suggesting Iran’s government put down the demonstrations that began Nov. 15 over government-set gasoline prices rising. Amnesty International said Tuesday that protest unrest and a subsequent security crackdown killed at least 106 people. Iran disputes that figure without offering its own. A U.N. office earlier said it feared the unrest may have killed “a significant number of people.” The jump in gasoline prices represents yet another burden on Iranians who have suffered through a painful currency collapse. That’s a result of the reimposition of crippling U.S. economic sanctions as part of President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Tehran, following his unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Iran’s relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani has promised the fuel price increase will fund new subsidies for poor families. Rouhani declared victory Wednesday in the unrest, blaming “the Zionists and Americans” for the violence. Abolhassan Firoozabadi, the secretary of Iran's Supreme Cyberspace Council, told journalists Thursday that he believed the internet would be turned on “within the next two days.” Authorities restored internet service Thursday in Iran’s Hormozgan province, home to the port city of Bandar Abbas, the state-run IRNA news agency report. Semiofficial news agencies said service was being restored in other parts of the country on Thursday afternoon, something the internet watchdog NetBlocks also noted. “At the current time national connectivity has risen further to 10%,” NetBlocks said in a tweet. Iran’s state TV said Friday that air defense exercises were being carried out as part of its annual military drills. State TV showed footage of air defense missile systems being fired and a patrol by jet fighters in the northern Semnan province. Iran operates a domestically built air defense system alongside the sophisticated S-300 defense system from Russia. In June, Iran shot down an unmanned U.S. drone over the strategic Strait of Hormuz for alleged violation of its airspace. Meanwhile, activists said Thursday that six conservationists working to save the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah have been sentenced to prison on internationally criticized espionage charges in Iran. The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said Thursday that the convicted members of the nonprofit Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation face six to 10 years in prison for “contacts with the U.S. enemy state.” The conservationists found themselves arrested over their use of camera traps to track the cheetahs, a common tool of wildlife experts.
  • Agrochemicals company Monsanto on Thursday pleaded guilty to spraying a banned pesticide on research crops on the Hawaii island of Maui in 2014, prosecutors said. Monsanto, now owned by the pharmaceutical company Bayer of Germany, has also agreed to pay $10 million for charges it unlawfully stored the pesticide, which was classified an acute hazardous waste. The money includes a $6 million criminal fine and $4 million in community service payments. Prosecutors have agreed not to prosecute Monsanto if it abides by the agreement, which requires the company comply with U.S. environmental laws. U.S. attorneys in Los Angeles handled the case after their counterparts in Honolulu were recused. Bayer said in a statement that it didn't live up to its own standards or applicable laws. “As stewards of the land, it is our responsibility to use agriculture products safely and to manage our waste correctly. We take this very seriously and accept full responsibility for our actions,” said Darren Wallis, Bayer’s vice president of communications in North America. The banned pesticide was methyl parathion, the active ingredient in Penncap-M, which the company used on corn seed and research crops in Kihei. Monsanto admitted it sprayed Penncap-M even though the company knew the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prohibited its use after 2013. The company also admitted it told employees to re-enter the fields seven days after the spraying, even though Monsanto knew that workers should have been prohibited from entering the area for 31 days.
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk is taking on the workhorse heavy pickup truck market with his latest electric vehicle. The “cybertruck,” an electric pickup truck, will be in production in 2021, Musk said at the Los Angeles Auto Show Thursday. The pickup, which Musk said will cost $39,900 and up, will have an estimated battery range of between 250 miles (402.3 kilometers) to more than 500 miles. With the launch, Tesla is edging into the most profitable corner of the U.S. auto market, where buyers tend to have fierce brand loyalty. Many pickup truck buyers stick with the same brand for life, choosing a truck based on what their mom or dad drove or what they decided was the toughest model, said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. “They’re very much creatures of habit,” Gordon said. Getting a loyal Ford F-150 buyer to consider switching to another brand such as a Chevy Silverado, “it’s like asking him to leave his family,” he said. Musk unveiled in the truck in a punk-show styled reveal event, showing off the truck’s stainless steel body and super-strong “armor glass” windows. A sledgehammer did not make a dent in the car’s doors. But the event went slightly awry while testing the window’s strength. Metal balls hurled at the car cracked two windows — though the glass did not completely shatter into pieces. “Well, maybe that was a little too hard,” Musk joked of the throw. The cybertruck starts at $39,900 for a single motor model, with a base price of $69,900 for a tri motor all-wheel drive model. Production will take place in late 2021, Tesla said, though production for the tri motor model will start in late 2022. Tesla’s pickup is more likely to appeal to weekend warriors who want an electric vehicle that can handle some outdoor adventure. And it could end up cutting into Tesla’s electric vehicle sedan sales instead of winning over traditional pickup truck drivers. “The needs-based truck buyer, the haulers, the towers at the worksites of the world, that’s going to be a much tougher sell,” said Akshay Anand, executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book. However, it will help Musk fill out his portfolio and offer a broader range of electric vehicles. “Elon Musk is trying to not be one-dimensional when it comes to automotive,” said Alyssa Altman, transportation lead at digital consultancy Publicis Sapient. “He doesn’t want to look like he only has a small selection. He wants to build a brand with a diverse offering and in doing that he wants to see where he could enter in the market.” Musk stands to face competition when his truck hits the market. Ford, which has long dominated the pickup truck landscape, plans to launch an all-electric F-150 pickup. General Motors CEO Mary Barra said its battery-electric pickup will come out by the fall of 2021. Rivian, a startup based near Detroit, plans to begin production in the second half of 2020 on an electric pickup that starts at $69,000 and has a battery range of 400-plus miles (643.7-kilometers). The Rivian truck will be able to tow 11,000 pounds (4,989.5 kilograms), go from zero to 60 mph (96.6 kph) in three seconds and wade into 3 feet (0.91 meters) of water, the company said. Ford said in April it would invest $500 million in Rivian. Tesla has struggled to meet delivery targets for its sedans, and some fear the new vehicle will shift the company’s attention away from the goal of more consistently meeting its targets. “We have yet to see Tesla really make good on some of the very tight deadlines they imposed on themselves, and this has the added challenge of having architecture that is going to be challenging because we haven’t seen an EV pickup before,” said Jeremy Acevedo, manager of industry analysis at Edmunds.
  • Automakers sue each other on occasion, but no one in Detroit can remember one accusing another of bribing union officials to get an unfair labor cost advantage. Yet that’s what happened Wednesday when General Motors filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. It’s based on a widening federal investigation into corruption involving officials of the United Auto Workers union, and shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the union’s president Gary Jones stepped down. The 95-page complaint could affect ongoing contract talks between the union and Fiat Chrysler, the lone automaker of Detroit’s big three that’s still in negotiations. It also could cause jitters with French automaker PSA Peugeot, which has reached an agreement to merge with the Italian-American automaker. Here are some questions and answers about the lawsuit and its impact: WHY DID GM SUE FIAT CHRYSLER? GM alleges that Fiat Chrysler senior executives, including now-deceased CEO Sergio Marchionne, paid $1.5 million in bribes to UAW officials for nearly a decade and corrupted the bargaining process with the union in the 2009, 2011 and 2015 contracts to gain advantages over General Motors. The lawsuit says that because of the bribes, which were funneled through a joint UAW-Fiat Chrysler training center, the union allowed Fiat Chrysler to use more lower-paid temporary workers. Also, FCA in 2015 did not have to limit the number of newly hired workers who make less and get lower-cost benefits than older workers hired before 2007. GM contends it couldn’t negotiate similar union concessions that FCA was able to get through bribery. GM could only hire a limited number of temporary and lower-paid new workers, called “second tier” workers, which unfairly increased its labor costs by billions of dollars. It alleges the higher labor costs had another purpose — to force GM into a merger with FCA that Marchionne wanted. GM did wind up with higher labor costs, which until the lawsuit had not been linked to the federal corruption probe. Before contract talks with all three automakers began last summer, the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank, determined Fiat Chrysler’s total hourly labor costs including wages and benefits were about $55 per hour, $8 less per hour than GM and $6 lower than Ford. At a Wall Street conference in New York on Thursday, GM CEO Mary Barra said her company can compete on a level playing field. “So when we saw facts that indicated that was not the case, we felt it was in the best interest of all of our stakeholders in the company, our employees, our dealers, our suppliers and our owners, many of you, that we had to take action,” she said. J.P. Morgan analyst Ryan Brinkman estimated in a note to investors that GM could seek $6 billion to $15 billion in damages. In a racketeering case, a plaintiff can get triple the actual damages, Brinkman wrote. WHAT IS FIAT CHRYSLER’S RESPONSE? The company’s chairman, John Elkann, told reporters in Italy Thursday that Fiat Chrysler is not worried about the lawsuit and would fight it in court. FCA issued a strongly worded statement Wednesday calling the case “meritless.” CEO Mike Manley, in a letter to employees Thursday, said the lawsuit rehashes allegations and “at first review, beyond unsupportable speculation, does not include any new factual allegations.” Manley urged employees to keep their performance up “as it has clearly got some of our competitors worried.” WILL THE LAWSUIT AFFECT FIAT CHRYSLER’S PROPOSED MERGER WITH PSA? The two companies announced the merger late last month that, if finalized, would create the world’s fourth-largest auto company worth $50 billion. FCA accused GM of trying to disrupt the merger, and Elkann was quoted by Italian news agency ANSA as saying there would be a memorandum of understanding with PSA by the end of the year, as previously announced. PSA wouldn’t comment. WHAT IMPACT WILL THE LAWSUIT HAVE ON CURRENT CONTACT TALKS? Fiat Chrysler is the last of Detroit’s big three automakers still working out a new contract. Ford workers ratified theirs last week, while the union settled with General Motors last month after a 40-day strike by 49,000 workers that shut down the company’s U.S. production. Workers already were suspicious of the UAW’s leadership because of the federal corruption probe, which has resulted in charges against 13 people thus far. Norwood Jewell, a union vice president who negotiated a contract with FCA, is in prison. Prosecutors alleged that the company paid off a $262,000 home mortgage for another vice president, General Holiefield, who also was responsible for negotiating with Fiat Chrysler. He died in 2015. “They’ve been selling us out every contract,” said Mike Booth, president of a UAW local at an axle plant in Marysville, Michigan, north of Detroit. The local has sued Fiat Chrysler and the union, alleging that FCA bribed union officials so it could get the plant’s ownership transferred to a parts company that would pay lower wages. Still, Booth doesn’t think workers will go on strike against Fiat Chrysler. Union members, he said, usually go along with the pattern agreement negotiated with the first company to bargain.
  • The Trump administration will consider a new management plan and expanded oil drilling for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, an Indiana-size area that former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar characterized as an “iconic place on our Earth.” The Bureau of Land Management announced Thursday it will take public comment through Jan. 21 on four alternatives for the reserve in northern Alaska. Two alternatives could allow lease sales on lands previously designated as special conservation areas under the Obama administration. The goal of a new management plan is increased energy production and greater energy security for the nation, BLM Alaska director Chad Padgett said. “With advancements in technology and increased knowledge of the area, it was prudent to develop a new plan that provides greater economic development of our resources while still providing protections for important resources and subsistence access,” Padgett said. The reserve is home to two caribou herds and provides ecologically significant wetlands used for breeding by migratory waterfowl from around the world. Its entire coastline is habitat for threatened polar bears. In 2013, Salazar signed off on the current plan that split the reserve roughly in half between land for petroleum development and conservation areas. Kristen Miller, conservation director at Alaska Wilderness League, said the Interior Department spent years working on the plan with tribal and local governments, conservation organizations, the state of Alaska and others. “Abandoning this science-based, common sense approach in favor of oil and gas interests is recklessly short-sighted and will place at risk local indigenous communities and the region’s diverse wildlife that rely on this vital piece of our nation’s public lands,” she said. The petroleum reserve was created in 1923 by President Warren Harding as the Naval Petroleum Reserve and set aside as an emergency oil supply for the Navy. The reserve covers 35,625 square miles (92,269 sq. kilometers). Congress in 1976 renamed the reserve and transferred administration to the Interior Department. The reserve is south of the northernmost U.S. city, Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow. When the current management plan was put in place, the BLM estimated that lands available for development contained nearly three-fourths of the economically recoverable oil in the reserve. The 2013 plan expanded a special conservation area around Teshekpuk Lake, which provides habitat for shorebirds and migratory waterfowl, including black brant, Canada geese and greater white-fronted geese. The plan also created the Peard Bay Special Area, which contains the highest density of spectacled eider nesting areas in Alaska, according to the Alaska Wilderness League. It enlarged the Utukok River Uplands Special Area, used by the western Arctic caribou herd for calving and relief from summer insects. The most aggressive alternative considered by the BLM would allow leasing and oil drilling infrastructure within the entire Teshekpuk area and parts of the Utukok River Uplands.
  • The Trump administration is scaling back chemical plant safety measures that were put in place after a Texas fertilizer plant explosion in 2013 that killed 15 people. The changes announced Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency include ending a requirement that plants provide members of the public information about chemical risks upon request. The Obama era rules followed a fire at the West Fertilizer Co. plant that caused ammonium nitrate to ignite, triggering a massive explosion that ripped open a large crater. Ten firefighters were among those killed. EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler says the changes do away with “unnecessary administrative burdens.” Chemical manufacturers had pushed for the changes. Environmental groups criticized the decision as one that would put people living near chemical plants at greater risk.