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Facebook Inc. shares rose Wednesday after the social network reported a surprisingly strong 63 percent rise in profit and an increase in users, with no sign that business was hurt by a scandal over the mishandling of personal data.

After easily beating Wall Street expectations, shares traded up 7.1 percent after the bell at $171, paring a month-long decline that began with Facebook’s disclosure in March that consultancy Cambridge Analytica had harvested data belonging to millions of users.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, affecting up to 87 million users and prompting several apologies from Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, generated calls for regulation and for users to leave the social network, but there was no indication advertisers immediately changed their spending.

“Everybody keeps talking about how bad things are for Facebook, but this earnings report to me is very positive, and reiterates that Facebook is fine, and they’ll get through this,” said Daniel Morgan, senior portfolio manager at Synovus Trust Company. His firm holds about 73,000 shares in Facebook.

Facebook’s quarterly profit beat analysts’ estimates, as a 49 percent jump in quarterly revenue outpaced a 39 percent rise in expenses from a year earlier. The mobile ad business grew on a push to add more video content.

Facebook said monthly active users in the first quarter rose to 2.2 billion, up 13 percent from a year earlier and matching expectations, according to Thomson Reuters.

The company reversed last quarter’s decline in the number of daily active users in the United States and Canada, saying it had 185 million users there, up from 184 million in the fourth quarter.

Resilient business model

The results are a bright spot for the world’s largest social network amid months of negative headlines about the company’s handling of personal information, its role in elections and its fueling of violence in developing countries.

Facebook, which generates revenue primarily by selling advertising personalized to its users, has demonstrated for several quarters how resilient its business model can be as long as users keep coming back to scroll through its News Feed and watch its videos.

It is spending to ensure users are not scared away by scandals. Chief Financial Officer David Wehner told analysts on a call that expenses this year would grow between 50 percent and 60 percent, up from a prior range of 45 percent to 60 percent.

Spending on security

Much of Facebook’s ramp-up in spending is for safety and security, Wehner said. The category includes efforts to root out fake accounts, scrub hate speech and take down violent videos.

Facebook said it ended the first quarter with 27,742 employees, up 48 percent from a year earlier.

“So long as profits continue to grow at a rapid rate, investors will accept that higher spending to ensure privacy is warranted,” Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said.

It has been nearly two years since Facebook shares rose 7 percent or more during a trading day. They rose 7.2 percent on April 28, 2016, the day after another first-quarter earnings report.

Net income attributable to Facebook shareholders rose in the first quarter to $4.99 billion, or $1.69 per share, from $3.06 billion, or $1.04 per share, a year earlier.

Analysts on average were expecting a profit of $1.35 per share, according to Thomson Reuters.

Total revenue was $11.97 billion, above the analyst estimate of $11.41 billion.

Some details secret

The company declined to provide some details sought by analysts. It has not shared the revenue generated by Instagram, the photo-sharing app it owns, and it declined to provide details about time spent on Facebook. Facebook also owns the popular smartphone apps Messenger and WhatsApp.

Tighter regulation could make Facebook’s ads less lucrative by reducing the kinds of data it can use to personalize and target ads to users, although Facebook’s size means it could also be well positioned to cope with regulations.

Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google together dominate the internet ad business worldwide. Facebook is expected to take 18 percent of global digital ad revenue this year, compared with Google’s 31 percent, according to research firm eMarketer.

The company said it was increasing the amount of money authorized to repurchase shares by an additional $9 billion. It had initially authorized repurchases up to $6 billion.


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ConocoPhillips says it won a $2 billion arbitration award against Venezuela’s state oil company over the seizure a decade ago of investments in two projects in the OPEC nation.

The award represents the equivalent of more than 20 percent of the cash-strapped Venezuelan government’s foreign currency reserves.

The Houston-based company said in a statement the ruling against PDVSA was made by an international tribunal constituted under the rules of the International Chamber of Commerce.

It said the award is final and binding and that it intends to seek financial recovery of the award to the full extent of the law.

ConocoPhillips is pursuing a separate legal against Venezuela’s government under the auspices of the World Bank’s investment dispute mechanism.


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The World Bank has disputed U.S. government findings that billions of dollars of donor funds flowing into Afghanistan are at risk due to lack of oversight and transparency.

The project in question is called Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, or ARTF, and is being administered by the World Bank. It is one of the largest sources of funding to Afghan government operations outside the security sector.

The U.S. has paid about $3 billion of the total $10 billion in direct assistance to Kabul since 2002, making it the largest contributor.

On Wednesday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, released its audit of the project, saying that once the U.S. or any donor provides its contributions to the fund, neither the World Bank nor USAID can account for where and how the funds are being spent.

SIGAR noted in its audit report that the World Bank is unable to accurately measure ARTF sector-level performance.

“Without an accurate, reliable evaluation, the World Bank will be unable to determine the impact the roughly $10 billion in donor funding has had in improving Afghan development,” said the U.S. government watchdog.

SIGAR is tasked with auditing U.S.-funded reconstruction programs and providing recommendations for preventing waste and corruption. In its quarterly reports submitted to the U.S. Congress, the agency has been critical of the mismanagement of reconstruction funds, and it disclosed massive corruption in certain areas, including Afghanistan’s security sector.  

While the World Bank swiftly questioned the report, it welcomed the watchdog’s recommendations an opportunity to strengthen the focus on the fund’s results and accountability.

“Most of the findings, however, are somewhat anecdotal, and do not fully take into account measures taken to improve the reporting on how funds are used,” the Bank noted in a statement sent to the media on Wednesday.

The program focuses on improving and expanding access to health care and education, developing rural infrastructure, and improving farmers’ crops and incomes.

 

“We are proud of the tangible results Afghanistan has achieved with the support of ARTF for Afghans in the past 15 years and continues to deliver,” the World Bank asserted.

The United States has spent about $1 trillion overall to secure and stabilize Afghanistan. Most of the funds have been devoted to creating and training Afghan National Defense and Security Forces so they could tackle the Taliban-led insurgency.

Security has deteriorated in recent years, though, with the insurgents controlling or contesting more than 44 percent of the country.

SIGAR has routinely identified and blamed corrupt practices by Afghan security institutions and forces for battlefield setbacks.

 


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The humble pecan is being rebranded as more than just pie.

 

Pecan growers and suppliers are hoping to sell U.S. consumers on the virtues of North America’s only native nut as a hedge against a potential trade war with China, the pecan’s largest export market.

 

The pecan industry is also trying to crack the fast-growing snack-food industry.

 

The retail value for packaged nuts, seeds and trail mix in the U.S. alone was $5.7 billion in 2012, and is forecast to rise to $7.5 billion by 2022, according to market researcher Euromonitor.

 

The Fort Worth, Texas-based American Pecan Council, formed in the wake of a new federal marketing order that allows the industry to band together and assess fees for research and promotion, is a half-century in the making, said Jim Anthony, 80, the owner of a 14,000-acre pecan farm near Granbury, Texas.

 

Anthony said that regional rivalries and turf wars across the 15-state pecan belt — stretching from the Carolinas to California — made such a union impossible until recently, when demand for pecans exploded in Asian markets.

Until 2007, most U.S. pecans were consumed domestically, according to Daniel Zedan, president of Nature’s Finest Foods, a marketing group. By 2009, China was buying about a third of the U.S. crop.

 

The pecan is the only tree nut indigenous to North America, growers say. Sixteenth-century Spanish explore Cabeza de Vaca wrote about tasting the nut during his encounters with Native American tribes in South Texas. The name is French explorers’ phonetic spelling of the native word “pakan,” meaning hard-shelled nut.

 

Facing growing competition from pecan producers in South Africa, Mexico and Australia, U.S. producers are also riding the wave of the Trump administration’s policies to promote American-made goods.

 

Most American kids grow up with peanut butter but peanuts probably originated in South America. Almonds are native to Asia and pistachios to the Middle East. The pecan council is funding academic research to show that their nuts are just as nutritious.

 

The council on Wednesday will debut a new logo: “American Pecans: The Original Supernut.”

Rodney Myers, who manages operations at Anthony’s pecan farm, credits the pecan’s growing cachet in China and elsewhere in Asia with its association to rustic Americana — “the oilfield, cowboys, the Wild West — they associate all these things with the North American nut,” he said.

 

China earlier this month released a list of American products that could face tariffs in retaliation for proposed U.S. tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods. Fresh and dried nuts — including the pecan — could be slapped with a 15-percent tariff, according to the list. To counter that risk, the pecan council is using some of the $8 million in production-based assessments it’s collected since the marketing order was passed to promote the versatility of the tree nut beyond pecan pie at Thanksgiving.

 

While Chinese demand pushed up prices it also drove away American consumers. By January 2013, prices had dropped 50 percent from their peak in 2011, according to Zedan.

U.S. growers and processers were finally able in 2016 to pass a marketing order to better control pecan production and prices.

 

Authorized by the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, federal marketing orders help producers and handlers standardize packaging, impose quality control and fund research, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees 28 other fruit, vegetable and specialty marketing orders, in addition to the pecan order.

 

Critics charge that the orders interfere with the price signals of a free, unfettered private market.

 

“What you’ve created instead is a government-sanctioned cartel,” said Daren Bakst, an agricultural policy researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

 

Before the almond industry passed its own federal marketing order in 1950, fewer almonds than pecans were sold, according to pecan council chair Mike Adams, who cultivates 600 acres of pecan trees near Caldwell, Texas. Now, while almonds appear in everything from cereal to milk substitutes, Adams calls the pecan “the forgotten nut.”

 

“We’re so excited to have an identity, to break out of the pie shell,” said Molly Willis, a member of the council who owns an 80-acre pecan farm in Albany, Georgia, a supplement to her husband’s family’s peanut-processing business.


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Volkswagen and Nissan have unveiled electric cars designed for China at a Beijing auto show that highlights the growing importance of Chinese buyers for a technology seen as a key part of the global industry’s future. 

General Motors displayed five all-electric models Wednesday including a concept Buick SUV it says can go 600 kilometers (375 miles) on one charge. Ford and other brands showed off some of the dozens of electric SUVs, sedans and other models they say are planned for China. 

Auto China 2018, the industry’s biggest sales event this year, is overshadowed by mounting trade tensions between Beijing and U.S. President Donald Trump, who has threatened to hike tariffs on Chinese goods including automobiles in a dispute over technology policy. 

The impact on automakers should be small, according to industry analysts, because exports amount to only a few thousand vehicles a year. Those include a GM SUV, the Envision, and Volvo Cars sedans made in China for export to the United States. 

China accounted for half of last year’s global electric car sales, boosted by subsidies and other prodding from communist leaders who want to make their country a center for the emerging technology. 

“The Chinese market is key for the international auto industry and it is key to our success,” VW CEO Herbert Diess said on Tuesday. 

Volkswagen unveiled the E20X, an SUV that is the first model for SOL, an electric brand launched by the German automaker with a Chinese partner. The E20X, promising a 300-kilometer (185-mile) range on one charge, is aimed at the Chinese market’s bargain-priced tiers, where demand is strongest. 

GM, Ford, Daimler AG’s Mercedes unit and other automakers also have announced ventures with local partners to develop models for China that deliver more range at lower prices. 

On Wednesday, Nissan Motor Co. presented its Sylphy Zero Emission, which it said can go 338 kilometers (210 miles) on a charge. The Sylphy is based on Nissan’s Leaf, a version of which is available in China but has sold poorly due to its relatively high price. 

Automakers say they expect electrics to account for 35 to over 50 percent of their China sales by 2025.

First-quarter sales of electrics and gasoline-electric hybrids rose 154 percent over a year earlier to 143,000 units, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. That compares with sales of just under 200,000 for all of last year in the United States, the No. 2 market. 

That trend has been propelled by the ruling Communist Party’s support for the technology. The party is shifting the financial burden to automakers with sales quotas that take effect next year and require them to earn credits by selling electrics or buy them from competitors. 

That increases pressure to transform electrics into a mainstream product that competes on price and features. 

Automakers also displayed dozens of gasoline-powered models from compact sedans to luxurious SUVs. Their popularity is paying for development of electrics, which aren’t expected to become profitable for most producers until sometime in the next decade. 

China’s total sales of SUVs, sedans and minivans reached 24.7 million units last year, compared with 17.2 million for the United States. 

SUVs are the industry’s cash cow. First-quarter sales rose 11.3 percent over a year earlier to 2.6 million, or almost 45 percent of total auto sales, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. 

On Wednesday, Ford displayed its Mondeo Energi plug-in hybrid, its first electric model for China, which went on sale in March. Plans call for Ford and its luxury unit, Lincoln, to release 15 new electrified vehicles by 2025. 

GM plans to launch 10 electrics or hybrids in China from through 2020. 

VW is due to launch 15 electrics and hybrids in the next two to three years as part of a 10 billion euro ($12 billion) development plan announced in November. 

Nissan says it will roll out 20 electrified models in China over the next five years. 

New but fast-growing Chinese auto trail global rivals in traditional gasoline technology but industry analysts say the top Chinese brands are catching up in electrics, a market with no entrenched leaders. 

BYD Auto, the biggest global electric brand by number sold, debuted two hybrid SUVs and an electric concept car. 

The company, which manufactures electric buses at a California factory and exports battery-powered taxis to Europe, also displayed nine other hybrid and plug-in electric models. 

Chery Automobile Co. showed a lineup that included two electric sedans, an SUV and a hatchback, all promising 250 to 400 kilometers (150 to 250 miles) on a charge. They include futuristic features such as internet-linked navigation and smartphone-style dashboard displays. 

“Our focus is not just an EV that runs. It is excellent performance,” Chery CEO Chen Anning said in an interview ahead of the show. 

Electrics are likely to play a leading role as Chery develops plans announced last year to expand to Western Europe, said Chen. He said the company has yet to decide on a timeline. 

Chery was China’s biggest auto exporter last year, selling 108,000 gasoline-powered vehicles abroad, though mostly in developing markets such as Russia and Egypt. 

“We do have a clear intention to bring an EV product as one of our initial offerings” in Europe, Chen said. 


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A steep drop in U.S. travelers to Cuba after a tightening of travel restrictions by President Donald Trump helped drive a 7 percent slide in foreign visitors to the Caribbean island in the first three months of 2018, Cuban official data showed on Tuesday.

The U.S. restrictions and warning on travel to the Communist-run island were to blame for the lower number of U.S. arrivals from the same period a year ago, the Cuban Tourism Ministry’s commercial director, Michel Bernal, told a news conference in Havana.

Another issue affecting Cuba’s tourism sector is unjustified worries about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma last September, he said, given that the country had long since fixed its tourist installations.

“The total of U.S. clients is only 56.6 percent of what it was in 2017,” Bernal said. The state-run Cuban News Agency published the percentage decline in overall foreign visits separately, citing tourism authorities.

The number of Americans traveling to Cuba surged after former U.S. President Barack Obama reached a landmark detente with then-Cuban President Raul Castro in 2014 and eased travel restrictions while maintaining a ban on tourism.

Increased U.S. arrivals to Havana in particular fostered the rapid growth of the country’s fledgling private sector, with many Cubans rushing to open bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants.

Tourism became one of the few bright spots in an economy struggling with heavy state controls, a difficult market reform process, a decline in aid from ally Venezuela and lower global commodity prices.

But Trump last year made it harder again for individual Americans to travel to Cuba, as part of his tougher stance on the country.

A few months later, his administration issued a warning on travel there because of a mysterious spate of illnesses among U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana.

Cuban officials and many foreign tourism experts maintain Cuba is one of the safest destinations in the world.

The government still hopes the number of foreign visitors will reach the 5 million mark this year, Bernal said. It rose 16.2 percent to a record 4.7 million in 2017.

The number of Cubans living abroad who traveled back to the island jumped 21 percent in the first three months of the year, he said, and was showing steady growth. Other top markets were Russia and Mexico, which grew 32 and 23 percent respectively.

Bernal said Canadians still made up the largest group of visitors to Cuba by far, although he did not give any specifics.


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U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that a new NAFTA trade deal could be completed quickly, as ministers from Canada, Mexico and the United States prepared to meet later in the day to try to work out their differences and hash out an agreement.

“NAFTA, as you know, is moving along. They (Mexico) have an election coming up very soon. And it will be interesting to see what happens with that election,” Trump said at a cabinet meeting briefly attended by reporters.

“But we’re doing very nicely with NAFTA. I could make a deal really quickly, but I’m not sure that’s in the best interests of the United States. But we’ll see what happens,” he added.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo are pressing for a quick deal to avoid clashing with Mexico’s July 1 presidential election. That will entail overcoming major differences on several U.S. demands.

Guajardo said that flexibility will be needed to reach an agreement on a revamped North American Free Trade Agreement deal.

He also underscored that Mexico would not accept any U.S. tariffs on aluminum or steel, saying that a revised NAFTA should serve to settle the issue with its northern neighbor.

Asked by reporters if a deal was imminent, Guajardo said: “Any day that you start (to) walk towards a goal nobody can guarantee that you will achieve it, (it) depends on the commitment and flexibilities around the table.”

Negotiators have said a new NAFTA could be possible by early May, and officials hailed progress on the key issue of new automotive sector rules last week.

“In the coming 10 days we can really have a new agreement in principle,” said Moises Kalach, head of the international negotiating arm of the CCE business lobby, which represents the Mexican private sector at the NAFTA talks.

The three sides still need to iron out differences on content rules for autos, dispute resolution mechanisms and other issues.

“As soon as there is political will from the American government to go for a final deal, I think we can close this,” Kalach told Mexican radio. “We’ve had all our (negotiating) teams in Washington for two weeks and we will continue working all this week, the weekend and into next week.”

Guajardo also said there was no need for a separate deal with the United States on steel and aluminum by May 1 when the current exemption on U.S. tariffs expires.

“I think whatever we do has to take into account the kind of commitment that we’re going to do in NAFTA, and definitely, Mexico has been very clear: we will not accept any type of restrictions in aluminum or steel,” he said.

Last month, Trump pressed ahead with import tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent for aluminum but exempted Canada and Mexico and offered the possibility of excluding other allies.


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A new report by Britain’s Growth and Development Commission offered a mix of both good and bad news for poor countries: some of the countries in the report have achieved middle income status, and places once plagued by conflict and instability have shown signs of improvement. But the report also notes that the number of people living in what it calls “fragile states” is growing. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo takes a look at the commissions findings.


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Chinese tech firms pledged on Monday to tackle gender bias in recruitment after a rights group said they routinely favored male candidates, luring applicants with the promise of working with “beautiful girls” in job advertisements.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found that major technology companies including Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent had widely used “gender discriminatory job advertisements,” which said men were preferred or specifically barred women applicants.

Some ads promised candidates they would work with “beautiful girls” and “goddesses,” HRW said in a report based on an analysis of 36,000 job posts between 2013 and 2018.

Tencent, which runs China’s most popular messenger app WeChat, apologized for the ads after the HRW report was published on Monday.

“We are sorry they occurred and we will take swift action to ensure they do not happen again,” a Tencent spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

E-commerce giant Alibaba, founded by billionaire Jack Ma, vowed to conduct stricter reviews to ensure its job ads followed workplace equality principles, but refused to say whether the ads singled out in the report were still being used.

“Our track record of not just hiring but promoting women in leadership positions speaks for itself,” said a spokeswoman.

Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of search engine Google, meanwhile said the postings were “isolated instances.”

HRW urged Chinese authorities to take action to end discriminatory hiring practices.

Its report also found nearly one in five ads for Chinese government jobs this year were “men only” or “men preferred.”

“Sexist job ads pander to the antiquated stereotypes that persist within Chinese companies,” HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement.

“These companies pride themselves on being forces of modernity and progress, yet they fall back on such recruitment strategies, which shows how deeply entrenched discrimination against women remains in China,” she added.

China was ranked 100 out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Gap Report, after it said the country’s progress towards gender parity has slowed.


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Around 16,000 nurses in Zimbabwe resumed work Monday, bringing to an end one week of strikes that affected health services in the country.

Zimbabwe’s health ministry said the situation had “returned to normal” in all hospitals.

“The majority of nurses dismissed have applied for re-engagement, and the government has permitted them to resume duty, pending final approval from the employer,” the health ministry public relations office in Harare said Monday.

Strike lasts week

The nurses went on strike a week ago to press demands for improved allowances and an irregular salary grading system, its union said.

Many of Zimbabwe’s nurses operate in poorly equipped state-run institutions, and patients are expected to supply basics such as drugs and equipment.

Since taking charge of Zimbabwe late last year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has vowed to improve the beleaguered economy and seek foreign investment to improve public services.

Nurses offer free treatment

The nurses were fired last week by Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who said they refused to go back to work after $17 million was released to improve their pay.

Hundreds of the nurses offered free treatment to the public in the country’s parliament to protest their dismissal Friday.

Zimbabwe’s government said at the time that the decision would not be reversed and ordered heads of hospitals to recruit new nurses to replace those who were sacked.


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