Science & Health

Obamacare Enrollment Down From Last Year, But Higher Than Expected

U.S. federal officials say more than 9.2 million people signed up for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act during open enrollment from November to January, despite Republican efforts to repeal the program then replace it with an alternative health care plan.

The total number of enrollees was down a half-million from the open enrollment period for last year. Yet, in the turmoil over the future of the program widely known as Obamacare, the decline was smaller than predicted.

Of the 9.2 million enrollees this year, about 3 million were new clients while the rest were continuing their coverage from last year, according to government figures.

The open enrollment is seen as a test of the popularity of the federal health care program, which offers programs in 39 states. The remaining states run their own health care exchanges.

One of the major critiques of Obamacare is its cost. Average premiums for one of the lowest-cost plans rose 25 percent compared with the previous year.

November’s presidential election placing Republican Donald Trump in the White House further threw the future of Obamacare into jeopardy. Republicans, including Trump, have vowed to make a repeal of Obamacare a top priority.

Economy & business

Trump Takes Aim at Financial Industry Regulations

President Donald Trump has taken steps aimed at rolling back key financial industry regulations, including the Dodd-Frank Act meant to prevent another banking industry meltdown and a measure requiring financial advisers to act in their clients’ best interest.

“Today, we are signing core principles for regulating the United States financial system,” Trump said Friday. “Doesn’t get much bigger than that.”

The Obama administration implemented the measures to reform Wall Street following the 2008 financial crisis. But the Trump administration has criticized the regulations, saying they do not protect consumers as intended, and are excessively burdensome and counterproductive.

The administration will be “cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank because frankly I have so many people, friends of mine that have nice businesses. They can’t borrow money,” Trump said.

“The Dodd-Frank Act is a disastrous policy that’s hindering our markets, reducing the availability of credit, and crippling our economy’s ability to grow and create jobs,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.

Trump also signed a presidential memorandum directing the Department of Labor to review its so-called fiduciary rule, which was to go into effect in April. The regulation legally requires financial advisers to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own.

“The rule is a solution in search of a problem,” Spicer said. “The rule’s intent may be to have provided retirees and others with better financial advice, but in reality its effect has been to limit the financial services that are available to them.”


The White House promised to overhaul financial regulation in a way that promotes job growth and protects consumers.

Earlier on Friday, Trump met with a group of economic experts and corporate executives to discuss a range of issues, including ways to promote job growth and lower taxes.

The reaction was swift.

“Donald Trump talked a big game about Wall Street during his campaign — but as president, we’re finding out whose side he’s really on,” Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said.

The American Bankers Association (ABA) lauded the measures.

Rob Nichols, ABA president and CEO, called the financial regulations “highly prescriptive,” causing the industry to face “tremendous headwinds” while trying to meet customers’ needs.

“We appreciate the administration’s support for pro-growth policies so banks can go even further in helping communities and our economy thrive,” Nichols said.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Silicon Valley May Face New Hurdles to Attracting Foreign Labor

The tech industry is bracing itself for an expected Trump administration executive order that will most likely limit U.S. employers’ use of a set of visas for skilled foreign workers.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump criticized visa programs that allow U.S. employers to bring skilled foreign workers into the country. He promised to make changes to ensure more of those jobs go to Americans, not foreigners.

The tech industry has relied on temporary visas such as the H-1B to bring in workers with skills it says are hard to find in the U.S. Each April 1, the U.S. holds a lottery for 65,000 of these visas and 20,000 additional visas for foreign students with master’s degrees. Last year, there were requests for more than 200,000, a record figure.

But critics say skilled-worker visa programs have hurt American workers. Companies have used them, they say, to hire foreign workers who are not highly skilled and who are paid lower than market rate wages. The biggest users of the H-1B program have been outsourcing firms that do IT consulting.

Leaked draft order

A draft executive order that has been circulating among tech firms would not immediately impose new requirements. Many of the changes would rely on specific agencies and Congress.

For example, one draft document seen by VOA says the secretary of homeland security will have 90 days to review all regulations allowing foreign workers to come to the U.S., and the Department of Homeland Security shall consider ways that the visas could be better allocated. “It’s vague,” said one person who works for a tech industry group.

But Ron Hira, an associate professor at Howard University and a critic of the foreign worker visa programs, said that the draft executive order he has seen would be a good first step.

“If we got good reform, it would save and create tens of thousands of jobs and it would increase the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of American workers,” he said. “And it would free H-1B visas for the true best and brightest.”

The first place where the effects of the order could be felt will be the annual H-1B application window on April 1. At the moment, the visas are issued by a lottery system, but the Trump administration could choose to favor visas for positions that offer to pay higher wages, Hira said.

Unintended consequences

Some in the tech industry say that some reform has long been needed, but dramatically tightening down on the visas, or restricting U.S. immigration laws, could have unintended consequences.

Jonathan Nelson, chief executive of Hackers/Founders, a tech startup accelerator in San Jose, said he has worried about whether the H-1B visa program has been used to bring in cheap engineering labor, suppressing wages.

But he said most of the entrepreneurs he works with are foreign-born, some waiting for years to get a H-1B or stand in line for a green card. If there are new limits on visas or regulations that lengthen the time workers must wait for one, he said he would open up centers in places such as Vancouver or Guadalajara, Mexico.

“If they can’t come to Silicon Valley, let’s get them in the same time zone,” he said. “I’ll invest in them there instead of here.”

Others in the tech industry argue that barriers to visas, already so scarce, could hurt the U.S.’s competitive edge as an innovation center.

“We should harness the talents of foreign-born entrepreneurs and students to benefit our economy and our communities, rather than pushing them to other countries to compete against us,” said Leezia Dhalla, a spokesperson with, an issues advocacy group funded by tech industry leaders that focuses on immigration.

Economy & business

In Avocado Country, Mexicans Not Afraid of Trump Tariff Threats

Avocado farmers in the rolling hillsides of Mexico’s Michoacan state are not worried for now by U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to tear up a trade deal which could make the favorite snack of Super Bowl viewers more expensive.

Americans will chomp through huge amounts of avocados mashed into guacamole during the Super Bowl on Sunday, and 80 percent of those fruits will come from Mexico’s ever-larger expanse of orchards, thanks to a free market created by the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

It is peak season for guacamole, a word that means avocado sauce in Mexico’s native Nahuatl language. Some 100,000 tons of the green fruit, or 12 percent of annual U.S. demand, will be consumed on Sunday and in the days before and after the New England Patriots game against the Atlanta Falcons, exporters say.

With such market dominance and demand, growers like Adrian Iturbide doubt Trump’s eagerness to impose duties on Mexican goods will dent exports. They feel they have little to fear from proposals by the Republican such as a 20 percent blanket tariff on U.S. imports from Mexico, that would affect sales of “green gold” to the northern neighbor.

“If Michoacan decided for whatever reason…to stop exporting, there is nowhere else in the world that could provide the quantity of avocados that U.S. markets are consuming,” said Iturbide.

Luckily for growers like Iturbide, U.S. consumers do not significantly reduce the amount of avocados they buy when prices go up, a 2013 study found, even though they do increase purchases when prices go down. Of course, that could change if avocados became unreasonably expensive.

While Mexican producers are confident they can ride out price hikes, Trump has another weapon to threaten the avocado industry if he chooses to use it.

Rules allowing the United States to clamp down on imports citing health concerns limited Mexican exports for the first 13 years of NAFTA in what Mexico considered veiled protectionism.

Within Mexico, the world’s largest avocado producer, Michoacan is by far the biggest grower, and one of only two states whose avocados are certified to export to the United States under strict rules to limit the spread of diseases.

Iturbide, who now exports up to 90 percent of his production, nearly sold his orchards before NAFTA made exports possible and prices rose. He is not immune from the nerves that have spread through Mexican companies about a possible shut down under Trump.

“We hope that everything stays as it is, for the good of the avocado, for the gringos and for us,” he said.

Avocado Fever

Native to Mexico, the avocado is an apt symbol for closer Mexico-U.S. ties under NAFTA.

Mexican imports of avocados to the United States were fully opened up 10 years ago, just as reports about health benefits pushed the fruit’s popularity to unimagined highs.

Avocado fever has since gripped Michoacan, with sprawling avocado orchards replacing pine forest, a trend that worries environmentalists but has also provided a decent income for thousands of people in a region known for migration to the United States and drug-trafficking gangs.

More than $1.5 billion worth of Mexican avocados are sold in the United States yearly.

Guacamole has become so synonymous with Super Bowl parties that the marketing organization Avocados from Mexico ran prime time commercials during the game for in 2015 and 2016, and will again this year – a high-profile challenge to Trump’s verbal volleys about a $60 billion U.S. trade deficit with Mexico.



Avocados for Mexico is a venture between Mexican exporters group APEAM with the U.S.-based Mexican Hass Avocados Importers Association, MHAIA.

Avocado demand has soared and last year prices spiked after the El Nino weather phenomenon affected harvests in Peru and elsewhere. U.S. restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill  said in January that rising avocado prices had dented profits. Last year the chain said it would not pass on higher prices to customers.

Mexico is now targeting the 2018 soccer World Cup as the next event where thousands of tons could be sold, and Agriculture Minister Jose Calzada last year announced a new avocado marketing office in Russia. Last year Mexico ran an avocado ad in Japan.

“We have been working for some time on diversifying the market, and a tariff could make it more interesting for us to reach other markets, because prices would be more competitive,” said Ramon Paz, spokesman for APEAM.

Mexico exports 1 million tons of its annual 1.8 million-ton output, more than $2 billion in total, with 860,000 tons of that going to the United States. Japan and Canada are the next most important markets.

“The market growing the fastest is China. It’s still not big, but it is doubling consumption every year,” Paz said.

Economy & business

Crackdown on Bush Refineries Unsettles Nigeria’s Oil Heartland

Listening for the engines of navy boats hunting illegal refineries in the swamps of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, workers heat up crude oil in a tank next to a waterway.

The young men are ready to abandon their bush refinery at a moment’s notice. Nerves are on edge now that the military has started sending boats, jeeps and helicopters to destroy hundreds of such facilities in the country’s main oil region.

The government wants to prevent theft from oil company pipelines and so has turned its attention to shutting down the illicit refineries – makeshift, blackened structures of pipes and metal tanks hidden in oil-soaked clearings – that process the stolen crude.

But the security crackdown risks driving hundreds of young men from the refineries into the militant groups that have been attacking legitimate oil facilities in an attempt to force the government to allocate more money to the impoverished region.

Authorities have spent the last eight months holding peace talks with the militants, whose attacks in the Delta temporarily reduced Nigeria’s oil output by a third last year.

But community leaders say the talks will go nowhere unless the government legalizes the bush refineries, which support tens of thousands of people locally.

“The refinery is the only job I can find to feed my family,” said a father of three in his early 20s, standing next to a tank being filled with refined petrol.

“It’s very likely that we’ll end up as criminals if the army closes us down,” he said, asking not to be named as his business is illegal.

Reuters was given exclusive access to several makeshift refineries in Ogoniland in the Niger Delta on condition that their exact location was not disclosed.

In this area alone, the military has shut down more than 50 mini refineries in recent weeks, making hundreds of youths jobless. Some have threatened to burn down the houses of community leaders in revenge.

The Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ibas, said the navy had destroyed a total of 181 illegal refineries last year, arrested 748 suspects, and confiscated crude oil and diesel worth 420 billion naira ($1.3 billion).

Delta Avengers

The oil pipelines that criss-cross the Delta suffer from being broken into by thieves who steal the crude, and also from destructive attacks by militant groups trying to make a political point.

Locals see the crackdown as a recruiting opportunity for the militants, who pay young men to blow up pipelines to force the government to meet their demands. A major group, the Niger Delta Avengers, has threatened to call off a truce unless the government does more to end poverty in the region.

“My youths have found a way of surviving with crude [refining]. It’s very difficult to ask them to stop this,” said Saturday Nuate, head of the Kegbara Dere community in Ogoniland. “People are very hungry.”

Officials have promised more spending and job training but projects gave been delayed because the government is suffering from a slump in the oil revenues on which it depends.

Unemployment in the swamps has shot up in the last few months as oil companies have responded to low prices by firing hundreds of workers, according to labor unions.

“It’s a time bomb,” said Annkio Briggs, an environmental activist. “The government should legalize the modular refineries so young people can make a living.”

There would also be less pollution if the bush refiners bought oil legally instead of relying on crude stolen by breaking into pipelines, she said.

The mini refineries have been tolerated by local politicians, oil workers and army officers, who all benefit from their activities.

Those working at the makeshift refineries are often trained by friends working for oil firms, who also advise on how to build the equipment.

In addition, the refiners ease local fuel shortages, part of daily life due to Nigeria’s inefficient state-owned refineries.

War on Oil Theft

That climate of acceptance changed when President Muhammadu Buhari was elected in 2015, declaring war on oil theft as part of an anti-corruption drive.

The military campaign has intensified in recent weeks, forcing refiners to work at night so the smoke from the crude oil they process is harder to detect as it rises over the mangrove swamps.

At one clandestine facility, a dozen men pumped crude into a tank from a boat moored nearby. Its owner had taken to the bush on a motorbike – without lights to avoid detection – to check for military patrols.

A navy boat could be heard later, but after listening for a moment one worker said: “It’s cruising a different waterway.”

Two weeks ago soldiers had destroyed a barge at the same spot.

Refinery owners say they make 2 million naira ($6,500) a month from producing petrol and diesel – the latter sought by hotels and shops forced to rely on generators during Nigeria’s frequent power cuts.

The refiners buy crude oil from gangs that drill into pipelines or from corrupt oil workers. A tank of 200 liters of oil costs around 500,000 naira ($1,600).

“We can process 1,000 liters a night,” said a refinery owner, watching his workers siphon freshly produced petrol into cans to be taken by motorcycle to traders who will sell it on.

He accepts he will have to pay bribes to the authorities.

Buhari has made it more difficult for soldiers to profit from the illicit trade but some still manage to do so.

“I twice got workers freed who had been detained in raids by paying 100,000 naira [$330] each time,” he said. After work is over at dawn, the workers dump the waste crude, adding to the massive pollution in the creeks.

“We could dispose of the waste better or even turn it into more products if this was legal,” he said. “But since we are on the run we just dump it.”

Economy & business

Finance Minister: Chile’s Forest Fires Will Cost Government $333M

Chile’s massive forest fires that have killed 11 people and destroyed nearly 1,500 homes will cost the government $333 million, Finance Minister Rodrigo Valdes told reporters on Friday.

The government will reallocate $100 million from the current budget to mitigate the effects of the blazes, while another $233 million will be taken out of a rainy day fund that the government maintains for such situations, Valdes said at a press conference.

“Those are the costs that the state will have to assume in the preliminary estimate that we’re doing,” Valdes said. “That situation can change when we have more information, and it will depend on how the wildfires evolve.”

According to official figures, the fires have so far consumed over 580,000 hectares (1,433,000 acres).

Foreign firefighters and specialists from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, France, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Portugal, Spain, the United States and Venezuela have teamed up with local rescue teams to fight the 41 active fires.

Forest fires are a regular feature of Chile’s hot, arid summers, but a nearly decade-long drought combined with historically high temperatures have created tinder-like conditions in the nation’s central regions.

Valdes said the estimates do not include damages to small and medium sized producers, nor private donations.

Losses for Chile’s private sector have been significant in some cases. Chile’s forestry industry, one of the country’s main export sectors, reported $350 million in losses as of Monday.

Valdes said that the government would not need to issue debt to help with the aid effort and added that they are still calculating the potential impact on economic growth.

Economy & business

From Recycling to #MadeinDakar, Senegal’s Capital Maps Route to Resilience

Senegal’s capital Dakar aims to boost its ability to weather floods, disease, unemployment and other shocks through a wide-reaching strategy for urban resilience unveiled on Thursday.

The rapidly growing city, which juts out into the Atlantic, is Africa’s first to publish such a strategy in partnership with the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) network, a global initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation.

By anticipating disasters, creating more green spaces to help curb climate change, and tackling problems like waste,  Dakar is aiming to craft a model for other cities facing similar challenges on the continent.

“[Dakar] is a city where there is no more green… where we live everywhere and in every which way,” said Mayor Khalifa Sall at a ceremony marking the publication of the plan.

He emphasized the need to protect Dakar’s beaches against coastal erosion, and to re-think housing policies for the urban hub of around 3 million people, where half-finished buildings are a common sight along highways and in already packed neighborhoods.

The resilience plan includes projects in five priority areas: civic engagement, health and sanitation, private-sector partnerships, energy efficiency and inclusive governance.

One idea is to introduce the concept of resilience in early education, teaching children about environmental responsibility and what it means to be a citizen.

Another is the creation of a brand to promote local crafts and goods with the label “#MadeinDakar,” increasing artisans’ visibility and helping them partner with formal businesses.

“One thing I like about this strategy is that it’s a mix between ambitious things and do-able, funded things,” 100RC President Michael Berkowitz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One of the more ambitious goals is to install a city-wide recycling system. Waste management is a major problem in Senegal, where there are few opportunities for recycling and many citizens are unaware of its importance.

But a relatively low-cost step identified in the strategy is to organize horse-cart drivers, who do informal trash collection, to partner with the city and pick up different kinds of waste.

Dakar was one of the first cities selected in 2013 to join the 100RC network, and is also the first Francophone city to publish its strategy, with Paris and Montreal planning to do so later this year.

Dakar’s Chief Resilience Officer Antoine Faye said the next step would be to instill ownership of the initiative in the local population, working with youth groups, women’s organizations and the media to spread the message.

“When we talk about this city’s capital, the most important is the human one,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We are going to try to impact people’s behavior.”

Economy & business

January Jobs Report Boosts Stocks

U.S. stocks closed in the green this week following a better-than-expected January employment report that handily topped consensus estimates, even though wage growth disappointed slightly.

“This is good for corporations because it shows that they are hiring more people and growing while paying low wages,” said Phil Davis, founder of He said that “0.1 percent wage inflation for the month translates to 1.2 percent per year, which is nothing.”

The Dow Jones industrial average closed back over 20,000 Friday for its best day of 2017, on the back of Visa, which reported blowout earnings after the market close Thursday.

Watch: Workers Must Train for Jobs Computers and Robots Can’t Do

Meanwhile, the Nasdaq Composite Index closed at an all-time high as tech earnings mostly continued to beat estimates this week.


Financials led market gains after reports that President Donald Trump and his administration announced steps to roll back regulatory laws contained in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that was  enacted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Bank of America all rallied on the news by nearly 2 percent.

The administration also wants to delay and review for the next 90 days a regulation designed to force retirement advisers to work in the best interest of their clients. That “fiduciary rule” is set to take effect in April. Gary Cohn, director of the White House’s National Economic Council and a former executive at Goldman Sachs, told CNBC that the rule was “completely misintended.”

Online brokers such as TD Ameritrade, E*Trade and Charles Schwab and mutual fund firms T. Rowe Price and Legg Mason moved higher on the move to repeal the rule.

Investor focus

While financials celebrated the latest executive order on Dodd-Frank, business leaders were increasingly divided on the new administration’s approaches to taxes and immigration, particularly tech companies, which are the most concerned about the travel ban announced last week. Investors were looking for clarity as well.

“Equity investors have been clamoring for specifics on the timing and details of Trump’s tax plans — which simply aren’t available to know just yet and seem likely to remain unknowable for quite some time — and have been struggling to understand the implications of some of the pieces of tax reform being floated for the companies they follow [in particular, border adjustment],” Credit Suisse analysts said in a research report. “Meanwhile, more controversial issues with less clear implications for the broader equity market have moved into the national spotlight, like health care policy, immigration and global trade policy.”

Trading week ahead

The earnings parade marches on with mostly retail, industrial and material companies on tap, as well as Twitter.

While China will begin to report its January 2017 data set after the Lunar New Year holiday, there are few if any potentially market-moving data reports on tap in the U.S., Europe or Japan next week.

A handful of Federal Reserve speakers will be on the circuit, and the U.K. Parliament will continue to debate and then vote next week on whether to trigger Article 50 and start the process of leaving the European Union.

As of now, traders have completely shifted their focus to what Trump and his administration will be doing on a macro level and what specific sectors will be affected.

“You really have to be on your toes to trade this market,” Davis said. “There is the potential for volatility in this market, and you have to be on top of the news and pay attention for what’s coming out of Washington.”