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Italy set to support China’s Belt and Road program, FT report says

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Railway workers inspect a Kenya Railways Corp. freight train before departure from the port station in Mombasa, Kenya, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. 

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Railway workers inspect a Kenya Railways Corp. freight train before departure from the port station in Mombasa, Kenya, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. 

Italy is planning to officially announce its support for China‘s Belt and Road Initiative this month, the Financial Times reported Wednesday. It would be the first endorsement by a G-7 nation, the report pointed out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping‘s regional infrastructure investment program is widely seen as Beijing’s attempt to expand its influence globally through the construction of a network of land and maritime routes across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Critics say that through the project, China forces developing nations to take on high debt burdens while benefiting Chinese companies which are often state-owned.

In the last few months, Malaysia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone have either canceled or stepped back from their prior commitments to Belt and Road projects.

Italy’s undersecretary in the economic development ministry, Michele Geraci, told the Financial Times his country is in negotiations to sign a memorandum of understanding in support of the program. The plan is to sign in time for Xi’s visit by the end of March, Geraci said in the article.

“We want to make sure that ‘Made in Italy’ products can have more success in terms of export volume to China, which is the fastest-growing market in the world,” he added in the report.

Such public support would come at a critical time in China’s relations with the U.S. and the European Union, of which Italy is a founding member.

Xi is expected to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump by the end of March to clinch a deal to end their trade impasse. This week, the EU Council adopted its first-ever framework of rules on foreign direct investment, amid a rise of Chinese investments in the region and concerns about protection of key technologies.

Garrett Marquis, White House National Security Council spokesperson, told the FT that the U.S. is skeptical of the benefits to Italy from an endorsement of the Chinese initiative, and urged allies and partners to increase the pressure on Beijing to align its global investments with international practices.

A representative from the Italian embassy in Beijing was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Read the full story in the Financial Times here.

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Venezuela crisis: Nonprofits turn to cryptocurrency

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Andreina Cordero started the year skipping meals so her three kids could eat. Her husband, a construction worker, was out of a job. And the family’s savings had been devastated by the nation’s hyperinflation, limiting Cordero’s children to a diet of rice, beans, pasta and fried corn patties.

But the family got a break from their daily struggle to feed themselves this spring when a social worker enrolled them in a program run by a Silicon Valley startup that is donating cryptocurrency to hundreds of Venezuelan families.

Every week from February to April, Cordero received a deposit of EOS tokens through a cellphone app. She then traded the digital money for local currency through online transfers and used the funds to shop in market stalls.

“We finally got to eat chicken” Cordero said. “And there were also vegetables for the kids.”

The three-month trial in crypto transfers is now over, and the family is back to skipping meals and eating mostly beans and rice. But Cordero is thankful for the time that digital currency saved her kids from malnutrition.

“I’m very grateful for what they did for us” Cordero said. “It would be a blessing if something like that were set up again.”

Over the past decade, cryptocurrencies like EOS and bitcoin have become popular among investors looking to make large profits from a new and anonymous form of storing wealth.

But a handful of charities are also now using digital currencies to send relief directly to those in need, circumventing banks and companies that handle remittances. They’ve found the ideal testing ground in Venezuela, where the annual inflation rate by some estimates has soared to a staggering 67,000%, forcing millions to scavenge daily to feed themselves.

“Crypto has the highest likelihood of being helpful to people in places where money is broken” said Joe Waltman, executive director of GiveCrypto, the charity that provided direct transfers to Cordero and more than 100 Venezuelan families in Barquisimeto. “And there’s probably no better example of broken money right now than Venezuela.”

GiveCrypto’s program provided temporary help to vulnerable families by providing them with a weekly deposit worth around $7 — or about the same as Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage. The organization is also aiming to make people familiar with crypto apps so they can transfer their own earnings into digital currency and use it to buy goods, long after they have stopped receiving free deposits.

“We want to show that people who are not techies or investors can also benefit from this technology,” said Efrain Pineda, the project’s manager. “Anyone can use crypto to protect themselves from inflation and make their daily life easier.”

While many middle-class Venezuelans already try to protect their savings from hyperinflation by purchasing U.S. dollars and even gold nuggets, saving in crypto offers a solution to store wealth that may be physically safer than holding on to cash or precious metals in a crime-infested country. Online platforms that allow Venezuelans to buy and hold U.S. dollars provide a similar service.

Storing cryptocurrency presents greater financial risks than holding U.S. dollars, though, due to the wild swings in the value of some crypto assets, including bitcoin. But in Venezuela, where the local bolivar currency has lost two-thirds of its value this year, some merchants are willing to give this technology a shot.

In Barquisimeto, Leticia Luque, an informal merchant, said she began to accept crypto payments two months ago at the request of a social worker collaborating with GiveCrypto’s direct transfer scheme. She said the technology has helped her gain time to barter for better prices with suppliers and plan what she will buy next.

“We used to be in a rush to purchase goods before our bolivars lost their value” said Luque, whose husband travels every week to Colombia to stock up on packaged foods and basic goods that the couple re-sells out of their home. “Now we can take our time and we know that our earnings are in a safe place.”

Waltman said the Barquisimeto experiment was the first stage of a larger effort to promote the use of cryptocurrency in Venezuela, using “stable” currencies whose values have less fluctuation than bitcoin.

A similar initiative, known as an “airdrop,” is being developed by AirTM, a currency exchange platform based in Mexico City that plans to donate small amounts of cryptocurrency to 100,000 people in Venezuela this summer. So far, it has raised $300,000 from donations toward its $1 million goal.

The one-time payment of no more than $10 a person will provide only momentary relief. But the goal is also to encourage Venezuelans to engage with the AirTM platform.

“We want to show Venezuelans how to hold money outside their local currency,” said Joshua Kliot, the organization’s co-founder. “The biggest impact this could have is to crypto-ize the country.”

And it’s not just in Venezuela where nonprofits are attempting to help vulnerable people by introducing them to digital currency platforms. In Europe, Bitnation, a humanitarian agency, has enabled hundreds of refugees without bank accounts to receive direct donations through bitcoin accounts. In Jordan the World Food Program delivers aid to 100,000 Syrian refugees by creating digital currency accounts for each recipient, using blockchain technology but official currencies. To pay for goods, refugees only need to have their iris scanned in participating stores.

Paul Lamb, a nonprofit management consultant based in California, says the idea of distributing funding directly to people in need is becoming increasingly popular among humanitarian groups, because in some contexts it is cheaper than organizing the logistics required to physically hand out food or medicine. Usually these money transfers are made through debit cards in the local currency. But humanitarian groups are also starting to look at cryptocurrency.

“It’s harder for someone to steal cryptocurrency,” said Hugh Aprile, the Colombia country director for Mercy Corps, a nonprofit that has handed out debit cards to 7,000 Venezuelan refugees. “And in situations where you have high inflation, it can ensure the stability of the funds being transferred.”

But aid programs that distribute cryptocurrency also face several challenges.

In Venezuela, power cuts, like the one that recently left much of the country in the dark for days, knock out the internet connection needed to use cryptocurrency. And connections for many are iffy even when there is power. A tightly controlled currency system that punishes financial crimes with jail time has also discouraged some merchants from accepting cryptocurrency.

“Merchants who accept crypto and are public about it risk being inspected by the government,” said Randy Brito, the founder of Bitcoin Venezuela, a cryptocurrency education group.

Poverty is another barrier. Ariany Jaimes, a social worker who recruited participants for GiveCrypto’s project in Barquisimeto, said she had to keep some of the neediest people out of the program because they didn’t own smartphones with modern operating systems.

“We realize that this technology is not going to become widespread overnight,” Jaimes said. “But I do hope that these programs continue, because they make our life a little easier.”

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May’s last-ditch effort to save her Brexit deal looks doomed to fail

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Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech detailing a new Brexit deal on May 21, 2019 in London, England. The Prime Minister announced that MPs will be able to vote on another referendum if they back the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

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British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to make a final attempt at persuading lawmakers to back her “new” Brexit deal on Wednesday but the agreement — and May’s leadership — are already looking dead in the water.

On Tuesday, May made a last-ditch effort to save her Brexit deal by offering changes to an agreement that has already been rejected three times. But opposition parties have already said they oppose the new plan and members of her own party appear skeptical too.

She promised Tuesday to give lawmakers a vote on whether to hold a second Brexit referendum if they approve her withdrawal agreement. She also offered new guarantees on workers’ rights, environmental standards, the Irish backstop and a “compromise” over a temporary customs union.

May said her revised deal “will deliver on the result” of the June 2016 referendum and said voting against the bill would mean “voting to stop Brexit.” “Reject this deal and leaving the EU with a negotiated deal any time soon will be dead in the water,” she said in speech.

May is due to present her arguments for her new “Withdrawal Agreement Bill” to Parliament later on Wednesday but the sharks are already circling with prominent members of her party and rivals to the leadership saying they’ll oppose it.

There are also reports that some Conservative lawmakers could ask for rule changes that would allow May’s leadership to be challenged in a no-confidence vote. May survived such a vote in December and current rules state a leader cannot be challenged for another 12 months.

Sterling fell on Wednesday to $1.2663, its lowest point since mid-January.

All change or no change?

May’s offer of a vote on whether to hold a second referendum comes after months of refusing to counter such an idea, despite pressure from opposition parties to hold a so-called “People’s Vote.”

Labour has been more ambivalent over holding a second referendum and on Tuesday, leader Jeremy Corbyn said that his party would not be supporting May’s new deal, calling it a “rehash” of the government’s previous position. Corbyn and May held six weeks of cross-party talks in a bid to break an impasse over Brexit but those ended without any agreement on Friday.

Meanwhile, May’s ruling Conservative Party is split with Remain and pro-Brexit members vying for influence over the direction of the EU withdrawal, and the party leadership itself.

May had offered her resignation if her lawmakers backed the deal, but it seems most don’t want the deal and want May out sooner rather than later, putting a leadership contest and snap election on the cards.

Boris Johnson, a contender for the party leadership, tweeted on Tuesday that he would not support May’s new proposals despite his support for her deal at the third “meaningful vote” (known as MV3) that was held earlier in the year.

A re-ignition of the Brexit drama comes ahead of European Parliament elections this week. The U.K. has to take part because it was granted an extension to its EU departure date (currently set for October 31).

The latest polling shows that the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage (the U.K. Independence Party’s former leader and a chief promoter of euroskepticism that led up to the 2016 referendum) is clearly in the lead ahead of the vote.

Polls show Labour in second, followed by the staunchly remain Liberal Democrats, and then trailed by May’s Conservative Party.

Ben Habib, a candidate in the election for the Brexit Party, told CNBC that Parliament was “slip-sliding towards either a second referendum or a revocation or a general election.”

“It’s not just a matter of the Tories (Conservatives) getting their act together, Parliament itself is in the contempt of the people. What the Labour party want is not Brexit, what the Conservatives want is not Brexit,” he told CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick on Wednesday.

Eroded authority

Parliament is due to be given a fourth vote on the Brexit withdrawal bill in early June, a busy time in the U.K. with President Donald Trump making a state visit to the country. May’s plan is still likely to fail and may not even be voted on, according to some experts, and she could also face another vote of no confidence.

“By now, her authority is so eroded that her latest attempt to finally resolve Brexit will likely fail. Instead, her proposal will probably extend the infighting in Parliament that has led to the Brexit impasse in the first place,” Kallum Pickering, senior economist at Berenberg Bank, said in a note Tuesday.

“The House of Commons (the lower House of Parliament) has long been divided about whether the U.K. should remain in the Customs Union while past votes to hold a second referendum have fallen short of a majority. Even if May wins over some Labour MPs who want to push for a second referendum, she will lose Conservatives who fear that a second vote could reverse Brexit.”

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The Walking Robot That Could Soon Be Delivering Your Packages

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It’s not fast and may be years from visiting your neighborhood, but a walking robot is part of Ford’s vision for how its autonomous vehicles deliver packages and goods in the future.

The robot known as Digit, designed and built by Agility Robotics, walks upright on two legs, goes up and down stairs and can carry packages weighing up to 40 pounds.

The robot known as “Digit” is designed and built by Agility Robotics.

Courtesy of Ford and Agility Robotics

So why is Ford interested in a walking robot?

Digit may be how Ford solves one of the biggest issues confronting the self-driving vehicles it’s developing for companies like Dominos and the food delivery firm Postmates: How to get deliveries from cars to the front door.

“As we’ve learned in our pilot programs, it’s not always convenient for people to leave their homes for packages or for businesses to run their own delivery services,” said Dr. Ken Washington, Ford’s Chief Technology Officer in a post on Medium.

“If we can free people up to focus less on the logistics of making deliveries, they can turn their time and efforts to things that really need their attention.”

Ford envisions a future where Digit the robot is part of an autonomous vehicle that could be delivering pizzas, packages or other items.

Designed to fold up when not deployed, Digit could be programmed to carry deliveries from the autonomous vehicle to the front door or exact location of the final destination.

Ford and Agility Robotics are still researching exactly how Digit would work with the autonomous vehicles. For example, Digit and the car will be able to communicate with each other if there is an obstacle blocking the door or a change in the delivery.

The automaker is targeting rolling out autonomous vehicles by 2021.

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