Hello there from Washington, where we still eagerly await the appointment of Joe Biden’s new USTR. In other news, Donald Trump’s legal efforts to block Biden’s victory by challenging the election results in several states are winding up — on Tuesday the US Supreme Court rejected a request by Pennsylvania Republicans to undo certification of Biden’s victory in the state.
Our main piece today is on the latest episode of the Airbus-Boeing dispute, but this time it’s a Brexit edition. Our person in the news is Christopher Waller, the Trump administration’s likely last appointment to the Fed’s board.
UK’s unusual tariffs move
Just when we thought the decades-long dispute between the US and several European countries over how to fairly subsidise aircraft manufacturing was settling down, the UK throws a Brexit curveball.
Firstly, a brief recap. The UK, as part of the EU, was given permission to put tariffs on US goods of up to $4bn in retaliation for US state aid for Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer. The delayed WTO decision left Europe feeling aggrieved — the US was given permission to put tariffs on European goods of up to $7.5bn last year over European subsidies for Airbus. The US has since hit French wine, Italian cheese, and Scotch whisky with charges.
The UK and others had hoped to be able to negotiate away the US tariffs once the WTO had given them the authority to impose their own tariffs on US goods. The US tariff on Scotch whisky, a proud national industry, is particularly irksome to British officials who see it as inflaming political tensions in the increasingly fragile United Kingdom, stoked by the growing popularity of the Scottish National Party.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the UK declared that one of its first trade actions as a country free of the shackles of the EU would be to not put the Boeing tariffs on the US. This, the UK says, is to help improve the trade relationship between the UK and the US — who are trying to come up with a trade deal — and to “de-escalate tensions”. It wants to show the US — as well as Airbus and Boeing — that it’s serious about reaching a negotiated outcome on aircraft subsidies.
It’s worth noting that it’s extremely unusual, in trade negotiations, for any one party to remove tariffs, or give up the right to impose tariffs, without securing something concrete in return. Making this even stranger is the fact that the US has already imposed tariffs on the UK over the parallel part of this dispute (state subsidies for European aircraft maker Airbus), so the UK is effectively choosing not to retaliate.
While the UK is trying to present itself as magnanimous, one possible explanation for its stance is the legal uncertainty surrounding the UK’s position once it leaves the EU.
When filing its complaint, the US lodged its case against the EU, UK, France, Germany and Spain. When the European countries filed their counterpart case, however, they filed it together as the European Union — meaning it is the EU, which the UK is about to leave, that is allowed to put those tariffs on the US, and not the UK as a member state. By this interpretation, which is held by officials in Brussels, the US can continue with its tariffs on whisky and the UK cannot retaliate.
This is an unprecedented situation, but it could be possible for the UK to still apply a portion of the EU’s tariffs on the US if it could reach an agreement with the EU. The US would also have to recognise any EU-UK agreement as legitimate. The UK might have decided not to pursue this option, fearing it would be seen as overly aggressive. But now, by declining to apply retaliatory tariffs, the UK has given the US a gift and secured nothing in return.
Meanwhile, the US-UK relationship is hardly improving. The US is currently busy probing the UK over its digital services tax and is widely expected to come out and conclude that London is engaging in unfair trade practices that could lead to more tariffs on UK goods. On Airbus-Boeing, where the US and Europe (and the UK) are supposed to be negotiating an agreement on state subsidies, there is now little incentive for US trade representative Robert Lighthizer, who is famously transactional, to seriously engage with the UK. London has surrendered its leverage and hopes Washington will play nice in return.
Presumably, it has faith that the Biden administration will take this olive branch and reciprocate by removing its tariffs on UK goods, including whisky. That seems unlikely.
More likely, the UK will be expected to make offers to secure the removal of the US’s Airbus-Boeing tariffs — and it just lost a bargaining chip.
China has drastically curtailed the overseas lending programme of its two largest policy banks, after nearly a decade of ambitious growth which at its peak rivalled that of the World Bank. Lending by the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China collapsed from a peak of $75bn in 2016 to just $4bn last year, according to data compiled by researchers at Boston University and seen by the Financial Times.
Person in the News
Donald Trump’s nominee to the Federal Reserve Board of governors, Christopher Waller, was confirmed by the US Senate last week by a razor-thin margin, a reflection of the political tension over the president’s final picks for the central bank.
An economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, Mr Waller was confirmed by a senate vote of 48 to 47, with votes falling largely along party lines. His term will run through to the end of January 2030.
Boris Johnson warned last year that a no-deal Brexit would represent “a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible”. On Wednesday, over dinner in Brussels with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, that statecraft will be put to the ultimate test. The political and economic stakes could hardly be higher.
Honda is drawing up emergency plans to fly components into the UK to bypass a port logjam that caused the Japanese carmaker to shut its Swindon plant on Wednesday. Production at the site was cancelled after the plant ran short of vital parts that were due to arrive on long-haul ships.
China has replaced France as Germany’s second largest export market this year, underlining how the coronavirus pandemic has made Europe’s biggest economy more reliant on the Chinese market to support its export-focused manufacturers. Exports to China from Germany in October were up 0.3 per cent from the same period last year, in contrast to the 10.5 per cent drop in exports to the US — which is Germany’s largest export market — and the 11.4 per cent decline in exports to France.
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Japan has ratified its trade deal with the UK, a move to position Japanese auto companies, railcar makers and other industrial groups for Brexit.
Demand for iron ore is offsetting Beijing’s penalties on Australian exports, as overall export volumes to China have stayed strong even as coal and agricultural products feel the pinch.
Ransomware attacks rise despite US call for clampdown on cybercriminals
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In mid-June, US president Joe Biden held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss a recent scourge of cyber attacks against the US, including by Russian-based criminal ransomware hackers.
Biden has said he told Putin in no uncertain terms that “certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to cyber attack — period”. Nevertheless, data show that ransomware attacks continue apace, including in sectors such as healthcare and education. It is unclear whether Biden will take further action in light of this.
Ransomware, which usually involves hackers seizing an organisation’s data or computer systems and only releasing access if a ransom is paid, has long plagued businesses large and small. The first known ransomware virus, PC Cyborg, was recorded in 1989, with victims infected via floppy disk and told to send a $189 cheque to an address in Panama.
Today, these financially motivated hacks are far more sophisticated — and are proliferating fast. Attacks have quadrupled during the pandemic, SonicWall data show, partly because the shift to remote working has left staff more vulnerable than if they were connecting to more secure corporate networks.
Additionally, hackers have swapped demanding cheques for requesting hard-to-track cryptocurrencies, meaning that as the price of bitcoin has risen during the past year, the business of ransomware has become all the more lucrative. It is also easier to launch attacks with little to no technical knowhow, given the growing market for “ransomware-as-a-service”, where hackers maintain their ransomware code but rent it out to others and take a cut of any extortion payouts.
While known attacks have reached unprecedented levels, the story of what we do not know — given that there are few rules around disclosure — may be far worse. Earlier this week, Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI Cyber Division and other cyber agency officials called for mandatory reporting rules around attacks, so that accurate data can be gathered and analysed by the US government.
Small businesses with little spare resources have tended to be the hardest hit by ransomware attackers. But the matter was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after several audacious attacks on critical infrastructure such as the Colonial Pipeline, which led to fuel shortages for several days on the US east coast, the Irish health system and Brazilian meat supplier JBS. All of these attacks were believed to originate from Russia-based ransomware hackers, although the US government has accused Chinese state-backed groups of also orchestrating attacks.
The number of ransomware gangs stretches into the dozens and continues to proliferate as the economics remain so profitable. Vorndran said the FBI tracked 100 gangs, using an algorithm to rank them and the effect that each has on the economy. The largest one rakes in an estimated $200m a year in revenues, he said.
To help victims fight the gangs, a cottage industry for “ransomware negotiators” has emerged. These middlemen are tasked by victims with haggling down the ransom payments. As go-betweens, they also collect data on attacks, learning the playbooks of various groups in order to best know how to speak to them.
According to data from Coveware, the average ransom payment has fallen in the second quarter to $136,576, from more than $200,000 in the first quarter, amid an emergence of smaller ransomware groups. But in the majority of attacks — about 80 per cent — hackers are using the newer tactic of threatening to leak data as extra leverage in extorting victims. About half of these “leak threat” victims paid out in the second quarter, Coveware said.
Unfortunately, the negotiators’ services continue to be in high demand. According to data on reported attacks collated by Recorded Future, in the US there have been 10 attacks on healthcare, nine on schools and 10 on public state and local government groups during June and July this year. Despite Biden urging Putin last month to crack down on the criminal groups and warning against attacks on 16 critical entities, attacks on many of these key sectors have continued.
“The volume of targeted attacks on government organisations and enterprises that impact civilians, countries and the global economy will not end without a change in approach,” said Bill Conner, the chief executive of SonicWall.
France delays EDF reforms after failure to agree terms with Brussels
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France has been forced to delay the restructuring of state-owned utility EDF after it failed to agree the terms with the EU, a setback to a major economic reform promised by President Emmanuel Macron.
“Significant progress has been made in our discussions with the European Commission, but to date we have not reached an overall agreement,” said a government official. “Therefore it is not possible to submit a draft law to parliament if the principle points of the reform have not been agreed to in advance.”
Jean-Bernard Lévy, EDF chief executive, on Thursday declined to provide a specific timetable for when the reform could be completed, but analysts said it would likely prove difficult at least until after the French presidential elections next April.
“I regret that this reform that is indispensable to EDF cannot happen now,” said Levy. “Our short term [prospects] are guaranteed, but our medium and long term are not if we want to play in the big leagues, which is what is expected of EDF.”
Dubbed Project Hercules, the planned overhaul of EDF was meant to give it the financial firepower to invest in both nuclear and renewable energy in the coming decades.
An important element would be changing the mechanism and regulated prices at which EDF sells nuclear power, which provides 70 per cent of France’s electricity. France wanted to push through higher regulated prices for nuclear power, so EDF could pay down heavy debts and absorb the high costs of maintaining its nuclear reactors.
But Brussels would have to approve such a change because of its remit to ensure free competition in the energy sector and to prevent member states from unfairly bailing out companies.
The plan would effectively split up EDF by creating a government-owned mother company, EDF Bleu, containing the nuclear assets as well as a hydroelectric subsidiary. Another subsidiary, EDF Vert, would house renewable assets, the networks and services businesses, and would be publicly listed with about a third sold to raise funds to boost EDF’s green energy investments.
Macron has argued that the changes are vital for EDF to flourish and keep up with rivals. Given that France owns almost 84 per cent of the group, the government had also hoped the reforms would lighten the state’s financial burden.
But the overhaul has been caught in wrangling with the commission. Le Monde reported that the key sticking point was how the relationship between the newly created entities would work and whether cash could freely flow between them as if the company were still fully integrated.
The French finance ministry, which has piloted the talks, and the Elysée Palace declined to comment further on the details.
EDF’s powerful labour unions had opposed the plan as a prelude to the group being broken up or privatised, and have also raised concerns that it would pave the way for nuclear energy to be marginalised.
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“We celebrate the knockout punch delivered to Hercules,” the far-left CGT union said. “The only aim of these manoeuvres is to pull off juicy financial transactions at the expense of consumers and EDF employees.”
EDF shares fell as much as 4 per cent on Thursday as the reform’s failure overshadowed strong second-quarter financial results that showed the utility rebounding as economic activity picked up despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
Barclays analysts wrote in a note that investors were being too pessimistic on the outlook for the reform even if its timing was hard to predict.
“We continue to believe that ultimately there will be an agreement between the EU and France on EDF’s reorganisation.”
Additional reporting by David Keohane
EU economy chief urges end to ‘muddling through’ with budget rules
EU economy updates
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Brussels cannot afford to carry on fudging the application of its own fiscal rules to blunt their negative impact, the EU’s economics chief said as he called for a far-reaching legislative overhaul to help drive stronger public investment and growth.
Paolo Gentiloni said he wanted “renewed and reviewed” EU budget rules that would provide an incentive to public investment in the green and digital transitions, while fostering stability and durable economic growth.
“It is clear we cannot simply go back to normal,” Gentiloni said in an interview with the Financial Times. “You need common rules that are connected to the economic challenges we have. Otherwise, the risk is that the European Commission will spend the next decade finding creative ways to bypass its own rules, which I think is not the best solution we can have.”
The commission is due to restart this autumn a consultation on how to amend the rules surrounding the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). The budget framework is currently suspended because of the Covid-19 crisis, but the rules are likely to be reimposed in 2023, and there will be a fierce debate ahead of that over how they should be reformed.
Janet Yellen, US Treasury secretary, this month added her voice to those arguing that the SGP restricts governments’ latitude to battle downturns as she called for the EU to reinforce its stimulus efforts. But fiscally conservative northern European member states will chafe against efforts to substantially loosen the rules, reigniting a north-south divide over economic policy.
Gentiloni said he did not see it as the commission’s role to question the EU treaty, which contains the basic goals of keeping public debt at 60 per cent of gross domestic product and deficits to 3 per cent. But he said he wanted the commission to propose reforms to legislation as it seeks to reflect post-pandemic realities, including the surge in average eurozone public debt burdens to 100 per cent of GDP.
He questioned whether the bloc should return to a “‘low for long situation’ — low inflation, low growth, low interest rates? Or should we try to use this crisis . . . to try to have stronger and more sustainable growth?”
He supported several changes, including adjusting the rules governing the mandated path for bringing down public debt ratios, which under the current framework would entail deep and punishing reductions following the debt blowouts over the past year.
The changes would entail a shift to more “simple and observable” criteria to manage fiscal policies, he said, referring to a suggestion from the European Fiscal Board, a commission advisory body, for a budget policy set according to an “expenditure rule” setting a ceiling on the growth rate of nominal public spending.
In addition, the rules would need to be changed to provide an incentive to public investment. This would help avoid repeating the aftermath of the financial crisis, when net investment drifted rapidly lower, stymying growth.
One idea is a “golden rule” excluding some specific growth-enhancing expenditure from the ceiling on spending growth, but Gentiloni stressed he was not wedded to that specific concept. “There are a lot of possible solutions, proposals, if we recognise the need to encourage, to strengthen, public investment in certain sectors.”
To “muddle through” with the budget rules might have previously seemed reasonable, Gentiloni said, but he argued that given the circumstances, legislative changes would be needed. “This is the only way to have real common rules, and not just common rules that are there to be bypassed,” he said.
Gentiloni reiterated the upbeat short-term economic outlook he offered this month when the commission published forecasts predicting the strongest growth in decades, with an expansion of 4.8 per cent this year and 4.5 per cent next.
While the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant presented a “downside risk” to growth, he stressed that the current situation was far more propitious given the rapid rate of Covid vaccinations. The EU, he pointed out, had caught up with the adult vaccination rate of the US.
“We know very well we’re not out of the woods. At the same time we should be very clear we’re in a different situation from the one last summer and the difference is caused by vaccines and vaccination,” Gentiloni said.
Indicators of individual mobility, and the stringency of lockdown measures, continued to point to a recovery “with speed”.
“I think the recovery will proceed. All in all our brighter forecast is still supported by what we see on the ground,” he said.
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