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Venezuela skirts U.S. sanctions by funneling oil sales via Russia

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President Nicolas Maduro is funneling cash flow from Venezuelan oil sales through Russian state energy giant Rosneft as he seeks to evade U.S. sanctions designed to oust him from power, according to sources and documents reviewed by Reuters.

The sales are the latest sign of the growing dependence of Venezuela’s cash-strapped government on Russia as the United States tightens a financial noose around Maduro, who it describes as a dictator.

With its economy reeling from years of recession and a sharp decline in oil production, Venezuela was already struggling to finance imports and government spending before Washington imposed tough restrictions on state oil company PDVSA in January.

Oil accounts for more than 90 percent of exports from the OPEC nation and the lion’s share of government revenues. Maduro has accused U.S. President Donald Trump of waging economic war against Venezuela.

Since January, Maduro’s administration has been in talks with allies in Moscow about ways to circumvent a ban on clients paying PDVSA in dollars, the sources said. Russia has publicly said the U.S. sanctions are illegal and it would work with Venezuela to weather them.

Under the scheme uncovered by Reuters, Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA has started passing invoices from its oil sales to Rosneft.

The Russian energy giant pays PDVSA immediately at a discount to the sale price avoiding the usual 30-to-90 day timeframe for completing oil transactions and collects the full amount later from the buyer, according to the documents and sources.

“PDVSA is delivering its accounts receivable to Rosneft,” said a source at the Venezuelan state firm with knowledge of the deals, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Major energy companies such as India’s Reliance Industries – PDVSA’s largest cash-paying client – have been asked to participate in the scheme by paying Rosneft for Venezuelan oil, the documents show.

Rosneft, which has heavily invested in Venezuela under President Vladimir Putin, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Venezuela’s oil ministry, its information ministry, which handles media for the government, and PDVSA did not respond to questions.

Asked about the transactions, a spokesperson for Reliance said it had made payments to Russia and Chinese companies for Venezuelan oil. The spokesperson said the payments were deducted from money owed by Venezuela to those countries, but did not provide further details.

“We are in active dialogue with the U.S. Department of State on our dealings on Venezuelan oil to remain compliant with U.S. sanctions,” the spokesperson said.

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Trump says he delayed tariffs because of concerns over Christmas shopping season

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President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he is delaying some tariffs on Chinese imports ahead of the Christmas season to stem their potential impact on holiday shopping.

The Trump administration announced hours earlier that it would delay until Dec. 15 some of the tariffs that were originally scheduled to come into effect Sept. 1.

“We’re doing this for the Christmas season,” Trump told reporters on an airport tarmac around noon Tuesday. “Just in case some of the tariffs would have an impact on U.S. customers.”

“So far they’ve had virtually none,” the president added. “But just in case they might have an impact on people, what we’ve done is we’ve delayed it, so that they won’t be relevant to the Christmas shopping season.”

The acknowledgement that tariffs could harm holiday sales marks a shift for Trump, a self-described “tariff man” who has long claimed that the taxes on imports help the U.S. while applying pressure on China.

The U.S. trade representative said the delay would apply to a wide variety of goods, including certain electronics such as cellphones, laptops and video games.

A slew of Christmas-related products also appeared on the delay list. They include decorations for “Christmas festivities, nativity scenes and figures thereof,” as well as Christmas tree lights and ornaments.

No other items for specific holidays appear to be included in the delay list.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks at the USA Thank You Tour 2016 at the Wisconsin State Fair Exposition Center December 13, 2016, in West Allis, Wisconsin.

Don Emmert | AFP | Getty Images

Trump had announced in early August that he would slap 10% tariffs on the remaining $300 billion worth of Chinese goods that had so far avoided import duties. The White House has already imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of imports from China.

China, which had already put retaliatory tariffs on $110 billion worth of U.S. imports, responded to the most recent threat by canceling all purchases of U.S. agriculture products.

The White House’s move to back off on the hard and fast date for the new tariffs came as a sigh of relief for markets, which have been increasingly on edge amid the intensifying trade war between Beijing and Washington. Major indexes, which had been trading in the red before the market open, shot up on the news.

Rising shares of tech companies, tech distributors and other retailers carried the market higher. Apple shares jumped nearly 5% higher on the news and Best Buy soared more than 8%. Chip stocks also moved out of correction territory with the semiconductor ETF down 8% from its July high.

Trump has long given full-throated support to tariffs. He regularly claims that China, not the U.S., bears the burden of the duties, and says that the U.S. is taking in “billions” from China.

Most economists are quick to point out that U.S. importers are the ones who directly pay the taxes, though tariffs can hurt China by making its goods more expensive for Americans to buy.

Trump’s comments Tuesday came just before traveling from his New Jersey golf resort to the Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex, where he will deliver remarks about U.S. energy and manufacturing.

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Google, Facebook, Amazon to testify in US against French digital tax

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Alphabet Google unit, Facebook and Amazon are among the companies that will testify Monday at a U.S. government hearing on the French government’s digital services tax.

In July, the French Senate approved a 3% levy that will apply to revenue from digital services earned in France by companies with more than 25 million euros in French revenue and 750 million euros ($838 million) worldwide.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office in July opened a probe into the new tax it called “unreasonable.” The office could issue new tariffs on French goods or other trade restrictions after the public comment period closes on Aug. 26.

Amazon’s international tax policy director Peter Hiltz said in written testimony for the USTR hearing that more than 10,000 French-based small- and medium-size businesses are selling on Amazon’s online stores and notified them that certain fees will increase by 3% for sales made on Amazon.fr starting Oct. 1.

He added that “U.S. products and services sold through Amazon’s online store in France will cost more as a result” of the tax.

Facebook global tax policy head Alan Lee’s testimony said the tax “poses difficulties for Facebook’s business model and will hinder growth and innovation in the digital economy” and would require a re-engineering of its systems.

He added that “while we may have the necessary data to calculate the tax, it would require additional time and resources to capture this data and maintain it for these new tax and audit purposes.”

Google trade policy counsel Nicholas Bramble said in written testimony France’s tax is “a sharp departure from long-established tax rules and uniquely targets a subset of businesses” and is “likely to generate disputes on whether specific digital activities were ‘supplied in France’ or in another region.”

Jennifer McCloskey, vice president for policy at Information Technology Industry Council, which represents Amazon, Facebook, Apple Inc, Google and many others, will testify Monday that the tax “represents a troubling precedent, unnecessarily departs from progress toward stable long-lasting international tax policies and may disproportionately impact U.S.-headquartered companies.”

The group added “there is a high likelihood that the cost of the tax will be passed down the supply chain.”

A group of companies including Airbnb, Amazon, Expedia Group, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter said in joint written comments to USTR the tax “is unjustifiable in that it infringes international agreements, and unreasonable in that it is discriminatory, retroactive and inconsistent with international tax policy principles.”

Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to tax French wines over the tax. The White House has said “France’s unilateral measure appears to target innovative U.S. technology firms that provide services in distinct sectors of the economy.”

Other EU countries, including Austria, Britain, Spain and Italy, have also announced plans for their own digital taxes.

They say a levy is needed because big, multinational internet companies such as Facebook and Amazon book profits in low-tax countries like Ireland, no matter where the revenue originates.

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China’s Anbang said to plan sale of Japanese property portfolio

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People entering the office of Anbang Insurance Group in Beijing, China, February 23, 2018.

Thomas Peter | Reuters

China’s troubled Anbang Insurance Group has started a sale of its entire $2.4 billion Japanese property portfolio and previous owner Blackstone Group is bidding, two people said, after the insurer failed to sell some of the assets last year.

Beijing has been speeding up asset disposals at the government-controlled insurance group, previously one of the most aggressive Chinese buyers of foreign assets.

Anbang is aiming to sell the entire residential portfolio it bought from the U.S. private equity firm, said the people, declining to be identified because the deal is not public.

The price for the portfolio has not been set and the process is still at an early stage, they said.

Anbang paid Blackstone around 260 billion yen ($2.4 billion) for the assets in 2017, in what was Japan’s biggest property deal since the global financial crisis.

Representatives for Anbang and Blackstone declined to comment.

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