Grim reality of NAFTA talks sets in after tough US demands

Former US trade representative Robert Zoellick said he thought there was a 50-50 chance Donald Trump would quit NAFTA. (Reuters)
Updated 15 October 2017
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Grim reality of NAFTA talks sets in after tough US demands

ARLINGTON, Virginia: Negotiators from Canada and Mexico grappled with US demands to drastically alter the North American Free Trade Agreement on Saturday, as talks over renewal of the pact vilified by President Donald Trump ran through a fourth straight day.
Some downcast participants said the demands, unveiled this week in line with Trump’s “America First” agenda, have increased the odds of NAFTA’s demise. At the very least, they could make it impossible to reach a deal renewing the treaty before a year-end deadline.
“The atmosphere is complicated,” one trade official told reporters, adding that his fears about some “pretty harsh, pretty horrible” demands from the US side of the negotiating table were coming true.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential, the official added the US stance “has a clear protectionist bias, a bias that is trying to eradicate, minimize, eliminate the mechanisms that existed in NAFTA in the last 20 years.”
Trump, who blamed NAFTA for shifting US manufacturing jobs to Mexico during his election campaign last year, has repeatedly vowed to scrap the treaty unless it can be renegotiated on more favorable terms.
At the mid-point of seven scheduled negotiating rounds, many of the US proposals appear aimed at turning back the clock on changes in the global economy since NAFTA took effect 23 years ago. Collapse of the deal could reverberate well beyond North America, where trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico has more than quadrupled since 1994.
Former Mexican Trade Minister Jaime Serra, who was responsible for negotiating the original trade pact, said there was no economic logic to the US demands.
“Issues are being put on the table that are practically absurd,” he told Reuters. “I don’t know if these are poison pills, or whether it’s a negotiating position or whether they really believe they’re putting forward sensible things.”
Some officials from NAFTA governments said they knew all along the negotiations would be tough, but vowed to soldier on through the three remaining scheduled rounds of talks.
“We said from the beginning that this was never going to be easy,” Canadian Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told CBC radio. “We want to be at the table, be constructive, offering alternative proposals.”
One of the US proposals unveiled this week would require that 50 percent of the value of all NAFTA-produced cars, trucks and large engines come from the United States, people briefed on the negotiations said.
The same proposal calls for a sharp increase in NAFTA’s regional automotive content requirement, boosting it to 85 percent from the current 62.5 percent. The existing level is already the highest local content requirement of any trading bloc in the world.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s call for a so-called NAFTA sunset clause would effectively trigger a renegotiation of the pact every five years. Serra said the US content requirements would distort NAFTA trade with “pure protectionism” while the sunset clause would choke off investment decisions with uncertainty.
US negotiators also want to end a trade dispute settlement system that has deterred US anti-dumping cases while erecting new protective barriers for seasonal fruit and vegetable growers. And though Canada and Mexico had sought more access to US government procurement contracts, they were met this week with a proposal that would effectively grant them less.
Even before the current round of negotiations got underway in a suburban Washington hotel, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said NAFTA was “lopsided” in favor of Mexico and Canada and needed major changes to rebalance it.
“The president has vowed to bring jobs and investment back to the United States,” Lighthizer said. “We will do no less.”
One of Lighthizer’s predecessors, Robert Zoellick, said he thought there was a 50-50 chance Trump would quit NAFTA.
“He’s trying to go back to make trade agreements fix the bilateral trade deficit. I don’t believe he can be successful in doing that,” Zoellick, now non-executive chairman of AllianceBernstein, told a banking conference in Washington on Saturday.


Walmart, Microsoft team up to take on Amazon

Updated 17 July 2018
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Walmart, Microsoft team up to take on Amazon

  • The move is aimed at helping Walmart compete better against Amazon
  • Walmart is already using Microsoft services for some applications

WASHINGTON: Walmart said Tuesday it was entering into a strategic partnership with Microsoft on “digital transformation” for the onetime retail industry leader.
The move is aimed at helping Walmart compete better against Amazon, which is taking a growing share of retail sales in the United States and globally.
The two firms said the partnership was focused on using artificial intelligence and other technology tools to help manage costs, expand operations and innovate faster.
“Walmart’s commitment to technology is centered around creating incredibly convenient ways for customers to shop and empowering associates to do their best work,” said Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon, Walmart CEO.
Microsoft’s business cloud computing platform known as Azure will help Walmart manage operations ranging from refrigeration and air conditioning to improving its supply chain and transportation.
“The world’s leading companies run on our cloud, and I’m thrilled to partner with Walmart to accelerate their digital transformation with Microsoft Azure and Microsoft 365,” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft.
Walmart is already using Microsoft services for some applications and will expand that to tap into Microsoft’s machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data platform, according to the statement.
Earlier this month, the research firm eMarketer said Amazon’s surging growth would enable it to capture 49.1 percent of US online retail sales this year, up from 43.5 percent.
Amazon is far ahead of online rivals like eBay, with 6.6 percent of ecommerce, and Apple, at 3.9 percent, according to eMarketer, which estimated Walmart’s share at 3.7 percent.
According to the research, Amazon now controls nearly five of the total US retail market, including online and offline.