Author: Jeremiadus

World trade order in a wobble as Washington snubs WTO status quo (U.S.)

World trade order in a wobble as Washington snubs WTO status quo

http://reut.rs/2yMrD5d

BERLIN (Reuters) – The frustration of Roberto Azevedo was evident when, as director general of the World Trade Organization, he summed up the results of a three-day ministerial conference in Buenos Aires in the past week. There were simply none.

The delegates of more than 160 countries from around the globe failed to reach any new agreements in the face of stinging U.S. criticism of the WTO and vetoes from other countries. At the end, they were not even able to agree on a joint communique.

And a further blow could strike in the coming week when Republican U.S. lawmakers aim to pass sweeping changes to the tax code which may introduce protectionist measures critics say are at odds with WTO rules.

“In retrospect, 2017 could mark the beginning of the end of the rules-based free trade order and the system unraveling,” said Andre Sapir, senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. He called it a “big worry”.

U.S. President Donald Trump, propelled to power by his election promise to put “America First” and protect U.S. workers against what he views as unfair trade practices from China and others, has weakened the WTO as a forum to settle disputes.

In the past months, Washington has blocked the appointment of several WTO appeals judges, a move which could paralyze the body’s dispute settlement system for years to come.

“The new U.S. administration does not want to work within multilateral frameworks. It wants bilateral deals,” Sapir said.

As a critic, he says, “This would lead to a system in which the stronger ones outplay the smaller ones, it would be the law of the jungle.”

This apparent change of course in Washington is puzzling for free trade advocates who argue that the United States for decades supported and benefited from multilateral decision-making and rules-based arbitration enshrined in the WTO statutes.

THREAT TO GROWTH

For them, Trump’s protectionist rhetoric is a threat to global growth and prosperity since tariffs and other trade barriers such as import restrictions, registration formalities or state aid for domestic suppliers push up costs for everyone.

The slow dismantling of the international trade order could also hurt mid-term export prospects for European countries and Germany in particular at a time when the euro zone economy is benefiting from a surge in demand for its manufactured goods.

A rebound in exports is one of the key drivers of Germany’s economic upswing as they still account for more than 40 percent of its gross domestic product. The United States is Germany’s most important single export destination after the bloc of European Union countries.

FILE PHOTO: Container ships are seen at a loading terminal at the Elbe river in the harbour in Hamburg, Germany February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer/File Photo

But the combat lines have also become blurry.

In a sign that other countries share Trump’s concerns about Chinese trade practices, the European Union and Japan joined Washington in the past week in vowing to combat market-distorting policies that fuel excess industrial capacity, including subsidies for state-owned enterprises and technology transfer requirements.

Following the fruitless WTO meeting, the U.S. tax overhaul could now be another nail in the coffin of free trade. The European Union and the finance ministers of Europe’s five biggest economies have sounded an alarm over elements of the plan.

In a letter sent to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain said that the inclusion of “certain less conventional” tax provisions would contravene WTO rules and violate double taxation treaties.

In a separate letter, the European Commission warned Mnuchin the planned overhaul contained elements that risk seriously hampering trade and investment flows between the world’s two biggest economic blocs.

Some of the provisions would discriminate against foreign business in the United States, the Commission said, while the Federation of German Industries (BDI) – the biggest lobby group for manufacturers in Europe’s largest economy – was more blunt.

“Clearly protectionist,” it said of some proposed excise taxes.

What actually emerges from Washington remains unclear, but even if U.S. lawmakers decide to delete some of the disputed measures in their final bill, Trump is still wedded to a unilateral approach to trade that does not require consultations with Congress.

So far, he has not fulfilled campaign threats such as withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or imposing steep import tariffs on imported goods such as German and Japanese cars manufactured abroad.

But Trump has ordered the U.S. Commerce Department to conduct an investigation into whether steel imports threaten U.S. national security and whether broad import restrictions should be imposed.

European allies have warned Trump that such a move could trigger a global trade war since trading partners could retaliate and impose trade barriers on certain U.S. goods that they label as a threat to their national security.

Chad P. Bown, senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, said Trump’s approach may not end up targeting China, but will hit partners such as Canada, Germany, Japan, Mexico and South Korea – most of which have little to do with the concerns the U.S. has with China.

In a research note entitled “Trump Is A New Kind of Protectionist – He Operates in Stealth Mode”, Bown warned that Trump’s version of protectionism could result in higher costs for U.S. industries that use steel and aluminum.

But for Trump the drive is a matter of “America First” whether the international trade order established after World War Two gets in the way or not.

Reporting by Michael Nienaber; additional reporting by Gernot Heller and Tom Koerkemeier in Berlin and by David Morgan and Susan Cornwell in Washington Editing by Jeremy Gaunt

via U.S.

December 17, 2017 at 01:27PM

Campus gun rules approved by panel (state legislation – Google News)

Campus gun rules approved by panel

http://bit.ly/2CrwVoD

Arkansas State Police rules for an “enhanced” concealed-carry licensing program cleared their last legislative hurdle Friday, bringing the state one step closer to allowing gun owners to take their weapons onto public college campuses and into bars and other public buildings.

Nearly two hours of debate saw two unusual allies try to defeat the rules and spike the implementation of Arkansas’ so-called campus-carry law, Act 562 of 2017, which lawmakers passed in the spring toward the end of a regular legislative session.

Democrats raised concerns during the debate that the rules were written to allow guns inside dormitory rooms, which they said violated the legislative intent of the law. Some Republicans, on the other hand, said the rules weren’t needed at all under a plain reading of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

But the Legislative Council, in a 24 to 12 vote with ayes cast by Republicans and some centrist Democrats, overcame the opposition and approved the rules, allowing the state to move toward issuing the enhanced-carry licenses. Those who want enhanced licenses will have to take additional training and meet marksmanship requirements to prepare them for active-shooter situations.

The extra training can begin once instructors take their additional tests required by the rules, according to a state police spokesman.

Some concealed-carry license instructors have said they don’t like the enhanced-license rules, which require them to offer both the regular and additional courses.

Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, attempted to alleviate those concerns, promising that lawmakers would return during the fiscal session early next year to amend the law and make the courses optional for instructors.

But opposing Republicans said implementing rules could have immediate consequences if gun instructors stopped offering the training altogether.

“If you pass this today, the clock starts ticking,” said Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, who successfully moved to table consideration of the rules at a committee meeting earlier in the week.

Had the Legislative Council failed to approve the rules, state police would not have been able to enforce them, effectively blocking the state from issuing any enhanced licenses, said Marty Garrity, the director of the Bureau of Legislative Research. The Legislative Council is a body of lawmakers that meets between legislative sessions to watch over state government actions.

Failing to approve the rules also could have opened up the state or the Legislature to a lawsuit by someone hoping to force them to implement the rules, which were required by Act 562, she told lawmakers who inquired about the consequences of voting down the rules.

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, summed up the opposition to the rules as “buyer’s remorse on the vote taken in the session.”

Some of the opponents had strong feelings about the way the campus-carry law was passed earlier this year.

Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, called the legislation a “debacle,” while Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said the continued squabbles “prove how quickly and haphazardly [Act 562] was approved.”

Before Act 562 was passed in the spring, supporters had to pull it out of a committee where the members were at a stalemate. After giving the bill final approval, lawmakers had to make changes after officials from several collegiate athletics conferences complained about the possibility of guns being allowed at sporting events.

The chief concern voiced by Leding and other Democrats was that the rules skirted language in the law making it illegal to store a handgun in a college dormitory.

Under the state police rules, storage does not include when the gun is within arm’s reach of the licensee. Mary Claire McLaurin, an attorney for the agency, said it was a “difficult process” to tailor the rules specifically to the law, and that the law did not prohibit carrying inside dormitories.

“A lot of people would say, ‘Well, I sleep with it under my pillow, I sleep with it in my bedside table, it’s readily acceptable for use,'” McLaurin said. “All of those things are what we consider possession.”

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said any rule that would allow guns inside dormitories was inconsistent with the legislative intent of Act 562. She objected to approving the rules on that ground.

That prompted Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, to raise his own objection on the grounds that the rules violated the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which he said trumps whatever the state Legislature has to say about where gun owners can carry.

The Second Amendment states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

What followed Stubblefield’s objection was a quagmire of motions and questions about what the Legislative Council was actually asked to vote on. At one point, Elliott and Stubblefield tried to merge their objections into one, before deciding to move on with two separate votes about whether either senator had grounds to object to the rules being approved.

Stubblefield’s motion sank on a voice vote. Faced with no other way to oppose the rules, he and several other Republicans then voted in support of Elliott’s objection, which failed by a vote of 24 to 12.

With the objections voted down, the rule was approved.

After the meeting, Ballinger reiterated that he wanted use the fiscal session in February to “clean up” language in the gun law to allow instructors to forgo teaching the enhanced courses. He said that because those instructors have six months to get certified to teach the enhanced course, none of them should be affected if they decide against doing so before the fiscal session.

Fiscal sessions are held to consider only appropriations bills. Two-thirds of each house must agree to consider a nonappropriation bill during the fiscal session. The next fiscal session starts Feb. 12 and is to last 30 calendar days unless extended by three-fourths vote by both houses.

Democrats will look to bring up their own changes to the campus-carry legislation, namely the issue of carrying in dorm rooms, during the fiscal session, said Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock.

Both he and Leding said they would need to do more research before deciding where they stand on the concerns Republicans raised regarding what courses instructors have to teach.

A Section on 12/16/2017

State Legislation

via state legislation – Google News http://bit.ly/2hk9QQ4

December 16, 2017 at 03:53PM

Key Words: New Jersey Republican: Watch for GOP ‘no’ votes in House on tax-overhaul bill (MarketWatch.com – Top Stories)

Key Words: New Jersey Republican: Watch for GOP ‘no’ votes in House on tax-overhaul bill

http://on.mktw.net/2CrwTNx













MSNBC


Rep. Leonard Lance explaining his opposition to his party’s tax bill Saturday on MSNBC.









Republican House member Leonard Lance explained Saturday on MSNBC that he remains a “no” vote on the Republican bill overhauling the tax code, even though there are certain elements of the bill that he likes. The big issue is the bill’s significant curtailment of the deductibility from federal taxes of state and local taxes, including property taxes, effectively driving a wedge between states where those taxes are traditionally higher and ones where they are lower.



















‘I don’t want winner states and loser states.’



Rep. Leonard Lance







Instead, he said, if the U.S. tax code is being reworked to this degree, “we should make sure that all Americans benefit.”

See: Republican tax reform is simply red states stealing from blue states, argues Brett Arends

Lance said deductibility of state and local taxes has been in the tax code since 1913, “since the advent of the modern tax code,” and should have remained intact as a matter not only of fairness — “I don’t think you should have to pay taxes on taxes” — but federalism.

He said as recently as this week, he and New Jersey Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer were arguing before the House and Senate conferees crafting the final bill that full “SALT” deductibility should be retained. “[T]hat did not eventuate.” (The deduction for state and local taxes is set to be capped at $10,000.)

See: What’s in the final version of the Republican tax bill?

Asked by anchor Alex Witt whether it was a public-relations nightmare for Republicans that only 30% of the population is said to support the tax bill, according to a Marist College poll, Lance said, “I believe each of us will be judged next November.”

He said 11 of 12 members of the New Jersey delegation, Democrats and Republicans alike, would be likely to vote against the bill. He also predicted that Republicans from other high-”SALT” states — which, in addition to New Jersey, include New York, Connecticut, Illinois and California — would join him in voting against the bill and across party lines.






























Business

via MarketWatch.com – Top Stories http://on.mktw.net/2w6i9Ah

December 16, 2017 at 04:10PM

9% Yield In Renewable Energy, 9 Straight Quarterly Hikes, Pullback Presents A Great Buying Opportunity (SA Most Popular)

9% Yield In Renewable Energy, 9 Straight Quarterly Hikes, Pullback Presents A Great Buying Opportunity

http://bit.ly/2CJCKPh

This research report was jointly produced with High Dividend Opportunities co-author Philip Mause.

Enviva Partners (NYSE:EVA) is the largest manufacturer of wood pellets in the world with roughly 14% of the total market. The stock traded recently at $27.20. Its latest quarterly dividend was 61.5 cents, which is $2.46 annually, and it generates a yield of 9.0% on the current price.

The Business

EVA’s basic business is the production of wood pellets, a form of solid biomass product, for use as fuel in electric generating facilities. In Europe, pellets are classified as a form of renewable energy. Wood pellets have a number of advantages over raw wood, including dryness which makes them burn more efficiently. They generate nearly 70% more energy per pound as compared with raw wood. They are also easier to transport and have greater energy density. Wood pellets can be transported in standard dry bulk vessels and do not require specialty fleet vessels. They have become the preferred source of wood generated electric power.

EVA has substantial pellet manufacturing facilities in proximity to its raw material forest products – primarily in North Carolina and Southern Virginia – and uses mostly pine and mill residue as feedstock. It uses the parts of trees which are not usable for other purposes and therefore has low feedstock costs. EVA has been acquiring its own port terminal facilities. It has structured its business so that transportation costs for pelletizing plant to port terminal are very low.

Almost all sales are for export. At this time, exports go to Europe (the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium), but EVA is about to ship on a large scale basis to Japan and South Korea. More than 40% of renewable energy production in the European Union is from solid biomass, while Japan is targeting 6.0 to 7.5 gigawatts of biomass-fired generation capacity by 2030.

Demand is growing for several reasons. The market countries are all committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and the use of wood pellets is scored favorably for this purpose because trees which replace those are taken down to generate pellets capture carbon. Wood pellet power plants operate with less interruption than wind or solar plants and generally achieve higher capacity factors. Wood pellet incineration produces much lower local pollution than the combustion of coal. Wood pellets can be mixed with coal in certain plants to alleviate pollution and allow the plant to continue operation. Wood pellet plants have become one of the lowest cost sources of electricity and are competitive with other sources – even disregarding their substantive advantage in producing less net carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The Business Structure

EVA’s business is structured to minimize risk. Its sales are under long-term contracts which generally are set up to guarantee cost recovery. EVA is the largest player in the pellet business, and pellets can be produced in the United States at a much lower cost than in Europe or Asia so that EVA is in a strong negotiating position. This is especially true because its customers appear to be committed to large-scale expansion of wood pellet powered generating facilities.

EVA also operates with relatively low leverage. Depending upon how you measure it, EVA’s debt to adjusted EBITDA ratio is in the neighborhood of 3.

EVA has a sponsor corporation which develops new facilities and then effectuates “drop down” transactions when EVA locks in long-term sales contracts to absorb the new production.

Performance

EVA has been growing steadily and should continue to grow.

  • Demand for pellets in Europe is expected to grow at a 13% annual growth rate.
  • Demand for pellets in Asia is expected to grow at a 35% annual growth rate.
  • On a year-over-year basis, revenue is up 18.7% and adjusted EBITDA is up 14%.
  • EVA is projecting distributable cash flow (DCF) of between $69.5 and $71.5 million. Using a midpoint of $70.5 million, this works out to a per diluted unit DCF of $2.57.
  • At a DCF of $2.57/share, the current dividend of $2.46 is covered at 105%. EVA’s long-term target dividend coverage ratio is at 115% but has dipped slightly during 2017 due to reasons we will explain below.

Valuation: EVA is now trading at a modest price to DCF ratio of less than 10.5.

Recent Price Pullback

EVA’s stock price has pulled back over 13% in the past 2 months:

There are 3 reasons that can be attributed to the pullback:

1 – Temporary and transitional operational issues: Perhaps the most important reason for the pullback is that the company has added many new customers this year and made efforts to ensure production was ramped up safely in advance of delivery dates. In addition, EVA has made some changes to its production process which improve efficiency, but the transition temporarily reduced output and resulted in lower than expected earnings and dividend coverage in the 2nd and 3rd quarter. According to management:

We’re serving an increasing customer set. We started the year serving three customers in addition to doing some smaller single contract deliveries. But we’re exiting the year with five or six new customers, and we took the opportunity to get ahead of it. It certainly took us a bit longer at some of our facilities than we had originally expected. But we took the opportunity, because this is important to maintaining our market leadership.”

Based on management last earnings call, these issues seem to be behind it, and EVA should ramp up sales nicely in Q4 and into 2018. This is what management said in its Q3 earnings call:

The fourth quarter is shaping up to be stronger than any quarter we’ve ever had driven by the strong operating performance of our facilities so we continue to expect to deliver a per unit distribution for full year 2017 of at least $2.36 …. We expect the fourth quarter to be strong driven by the strong operating performance of our plants and favourable contract mix.

2 – Expiry of tax credit for renewable energy: Wind and solar are two of the fastest-growing sources of power in the United States. During the past few weeks, most renewable energy stocks have been seeing weakness because of news that the new tax plan could include a series of provisions that scale back incentives for wind and solar power while bolstering older energy sources like oil and gas production. It seems EVA also sold off along with other renewable energy stocks, even though EVA does not benefit from U.S. tax credits and has 100% of its sales in Europe and East Asia where renewable energy is still in high demand and growing.

3 – Dispute between the U.S. and Canada over lumber exports: Another factor that could have affected the price of EVA is news that the United Stated Department of Commerce has accused Canada of dumping Lumber in the U.S. and recently imposed high tariffs on Canadian Lumber exports. This is also should not have any impact on EVA: First, EVA sources its products from the Southeastern parts of the U.S. (not Canada). Second, EVA does not rely on grade Lumber in its wood pallets. EVA produces wood pallets from the following sources:

  • Low-grade wood fiber: Wood that is unsuitable for or rejected by the saw-milling and lumber industries because of small size, defects (e.g. crooked, knotty, etc.), disease, or pest-infestation
  • Tops and limbs: The parts of trees that cannot be processed into lumber;
  • Commercial thinnings: Harvests that promote the growth of higher value timber by removing weaker or deformed trees to reduce competition for water, nutrients, and sunlight; and
  • Mill residues: Chips, sawdust, and other wood industry by-products.

Therefore, any increase in the price of grade lumber should not affect the production cost of EVA.

Balance Sheet

EVA’s gross debt is $343 million. Backing out balance sheet cash of $9 million, EVA’s net debt is $334 million. EVA is guiding to adjusted EBITDA of between $104 million and $106 million for fiscal and calendar year 2017 so that the debt/adjusted EBITDA ratio is slightly more than 3.

Investors should be aware that – like many commodity producers owning their own terminal facilities, EVA carries substantial inventory as an asset. EVA’s combined accounts receivable and inventory is booked at $93 million while its accounts payable is booked at only $23 million. This $70 million difference between the sum of inventory and accounts receivable on the one hand and accounts payable on the other hand should arguably be offset against debt which would have the effect of reducing the above ratio considerably.

Risks

  • Execution risk: EVA is seeing large growth in its customer base, and it is possible that it may face similar execution issues as it has faced earlier this year.
  • Counter-party Risk: EVA’s primary industrial customers are located in the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Belgium. Three customers accounted for 96% of the product sales for the year 2017. Should one of its large customers face financial problems such as bankruptcy, it could significantly affect EVA’s profitability. It is worth to note here than EVA is currently increasing its customer base, and this will reduce counter-party risk.

Dividend Performance

EVA has increased its dividend for 9 straight quarters and has signaled that it will increase the third quarter level of 61.5 cents to 62 cents in the fourth quarter, as it guided its 2017 dividends to be at least $2.36. Below is a table showing EVA’s dividend history.

Source: EVA website

What is worth to note in the table above is that the dividend has increased a whopping 40% over the past 2 years (since Q3 2015).

The company has also indicated that it plans to continue increasing its dividend throughout 2018. In view of the current fast growth, EVA is likely to keep implementing steady quarterly dividend increases over the next two years at least.

Bottom Line

After pulling back over 13% for reasons we believe are unjustified, EVA provides an excellent buying opportunity. EVA has restructured to minimize risk and will be able to produce steady growth due to growing demand and a business strategy designed to generate reliable cash flow. The current low price is unlikely to last. We recommend EVA as an investment for high-yield income seekers, as this stock provides long-term growth potential, in addition to an increasing dividend. The current yield of 9.0% is very attractive!

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Note: All images/tables above were extracted from the Company’s website, unless otherwise stated.

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Disclosure: I am/we are long EVA.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Business

via SA Most Popular http://bit.ly/2pToV9f

December 16, 2017 at 04:12PM

New, $1 billion program will bring rooftop solar to California renters (climate change legislation – Google News)

New, $1 billion program will bring rooftop solar to California renters

http://bit.ly/2yLMOnX








SACRAMENTO >> Over the next decade, roughly 150,000 low-income renters in California will see their apartment buildings outfitted with solar panels — and their electricity bills drop.

Regulations approved this week cleared the way for the state to spend $1 billion for 10 years — using proceeds from the state’s landmark climate-change program — on incentives for landlords to install rooftop solar panels on apartment buildings housing low-income residents.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about why we can’t get rooftop solar in the communities that need it most,” said Shana Lazero, legal director for the Richmond-based Communities for a Better Environment, which was part of a coalition that co-sponsored the solar legislation. “One of the hardest nuts to crack is the rental market. It’s a huge step to solving one of the biggest pieces of the problem.”


From costly solar panels to costlier Teslas, renewable energy is often associated with environmentally conscious elites — not poor families who live near factories and crowded freeways, suffering the most from the side-effects of a fossil fuel economy. In fact, a common criticism of California’s early climate-change approach was that the poor and working class were paying more to subsidize the electric vehicles and solar panels of the wealthy — “and there was some truth to that,” said Ethan Elkind, a UC Berkeley law professor who directs the school’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.


But in recent years, Elkind said, the state Legislature has tried to democratize its climate-change initiatives by investing more in those hit hardest by pollution.

“There are strong moral reasons to do that. There are strong economic reasons, too,” he said. “We want more people in California, particularly low-income people in disadvantaged communities, to feel a stake in the state’s climate programs and receive benefits from them.”

To qualify for the program, an apartment building must include at least five subsidized units for low-income tenants. It also must either be located in a disadvantaged area or be inhabited mostly by families earning 60 percent of the area’s typical income. Landlords will apply for the incentives.


By law, at least 51 percent of the utility savings must go back to the tenant — a key aspect of the program.

The timeline for the new solar program also provides a window into the speed of bureaucracy: The bill creating the program — carried by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton — was signed into law in 2015. Since then, it has undergone a halting regulatory process at the Public Utilities Commission, which this week approved the final regulations.

Lazero said she hoped that the first panels would be installed in the fall of 2018.





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Co-sponsoring Eggman’s bill was the California Solar Energy Industries Association, which notes the challenge of installing solar panels on any multi-unit apartment building is far greater than on a single-family home, especially for a building housing low-income tenants.

But there is good news: As they become more common, solar panels have steadily gotten cheaper to install, said Kelly Knutsen, a senior policy adviser for the association. The cost per watt — $4.10 in 2015 — was $11.20 in 2000, according to data by the trade group.


“We’re excited it’s got momentum,” he said, “and we want to keep this going.”


Climate Change

via climate change legislation – Google News http://bit.ly/2zvGkhw

December 16, 2017 at 04:20PM

Radical reboot (climate change legislation – Google News)

Radical reboot

http://bit.ly/2yKCJaS

Radical reboot

Nothing short of major reform will address the problems our society faces, says Ruairí McKiernan — and that has to start at the grassroots

After a major illness, Ruairí McKiernan realised life was preciousBRYAN MEADE

An advocate for change across a wide range of areas, Ruairí McKiernan’s curiosity around political conflicts, history, colonisation and injustices developed as he was growing up in a small Co Cavan border town.

“At university, I suffered a major illness and I think that made me realise that life is short and precious and we need to live it as fully as possible,” he says. “After university, I travelled the world and was exposed to different cultures and ways of thinking and saw the commonality of struggles and injustices. This led me to getting involved in campaigns and volunteering and to later abandon plans to work in business and instead get involved with community work.”

He started out in the health service, where he says…

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December 16, 2017 at 04:20PM

The French apprentices thriving on medieval roots (BBC)

The French apprentices thriving on medieval roots

http://bbc.in/2yL7oVh

Compagnons studying in their Dijon hostel

Image caption

Over the centuries the Compagnons have won a reputation for quality

Can an institution set up in the early Middle Ages have any relevance to the great employment questions of today?

Ask anyone who works for France’s Compagnons du Devoir (Companions of Duty), and you will get a resounding “Yes!”

Their roots may be medieval, but today the Compagnons continue to offer apprenticeships in the trades to thousands of young French men and women.

And in a direct link back to the early days of journeymen masons and carpenters – the cathedral-builders of the past – many of today’s apprentices still go on a Tour de France. They travel the country over several years to pick up new techniques and perfect their skills.

Growing influence

Scoffed at by some for their traditional image and at times secretive practices, the Compagnons are gaining in favour under President Emmanuel Macron, who has co-opted their help for a new government initiative on apprenticeships.

They are also beginning to expand abroad, with more compagnons seeking placements overseas – and some foreign apprentices joining the Tour de France.

Visiting a hostel of the Compagnons du Devoir, one understands quickly that this is not some classic publicly-funded employment scheme. There is a way of life here all of its own.

The hostel in the Burgundy capital, Dijon, is typical. An ugly modern building just off the ring-road (thus convenient for out-of-town industrial zones), it houses 60 or so young apprentices in all the trades from carpentry to tiling, landscape gardening to pastry cookery.

Image caption

Communal meals: Sharing is very much part of the Compagnons’ ethos

Aged between 16 and 25, mainly men but with a growing number of women, the apprentices live as a community. They share bedrooms, study together in the evenings and on Saturdays and sit together at long tables for meals.

Some (but not all) are on a Tour de France, meaning they will stay in Dijon for just six months or a year, before moving on to another town, another apprenticeship in another firm, and another Compagnons hostel.


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Formal dress

On the first Thursday of every month there are group meetings, where community tasks are allocated, upcoming events discussed and disciplinary issues raised.

It is evident that the community places a strong emphasis on rules, values and tradition.

Smart clothes are to be worn at mealtimes, and suits at the group assemblies.

Image caption

A model windmill: Compagnons’ skills are showcased in the hostel

There is a special in-house vocabulary. The word “gâche” for example, here and only here, means job or chore. Apprentices are given personal designations that are incomprehensible to the outside world.

A job rota might include the name: “Pays Lambou Compagnon Chaudronnier du Devoir Percheron La Gaieté du Tour de France”.

This would mean an apprentice whose family name is Lambou, who works in the field (Pays) as opposed to a workshop, who is a boilermaker (chaudronnier), who has completed his Tour de France, who comes from the Perche region, and whose most noted characteristic is gaiety!

There are other quirks. In every hostel there is a woman designated as the maîtresse (mistress) or mère (mother), who looks after the wellbeing of the inmates (some of whom have just left home).

And in every hostel, there are odd structures cluttering the halls and passageways: a scale model of a timbered roof; a motorcycle made of plumber’s piping; a vast eccentrically-upholstered pram.

These are chef-d’oeuvres (masterworks), which apprentices produce at the end of their Tour in order to earn their rank as compagnon.

Idiosyncrasies like this have given the Compagnons a mixed reputation.

Image caption

Traditions and archaic language help to bond the Compagnons

On the one hand, no-one disputes the high quality of the training they give. In addition to finding placements for those on the Tour de France, they provide courses in the manual trades that lead to recognised qualifications. Employers regard compagnons as a sure bet.

But outsiders are sometimes struck by the oddity of it all. Is there not, they ask, something boy-scoutish about all these clean-cut young men and women living in a community?

Why are there pictures on the dining-room wall of King Solomon and the mythical founding father Père Soubise?

Image caption

Père Soubise: A mythical figure revered as a master craftsman

Why do apprentices on the Tour wear a sash and carry a symbolic cane? And why are their initiations held behind closed doors?

Inevitably a connection with freemasonry springs to mind. Both movements see their roots in the journeymen of the Middle Ages; both use the builder’s compass as a symbol; both set great store by values such as self-knowledge, dedication and commitment to the community.

British connection

But the Compagnons insist that any similarity with the freemasons is purely historical. They share certain origins, but that is all.

“We are often accused of being secretive, of conducting mysterious rituals, but it’s silly,” says Jacob Hunt, from Yorkshire, who is the Compagnons’ first ever representative in the UK.

“Yes, there are certain moments which we prefer not to share with the media. But that is all about creating a bond between people. The apprentices love the notion that they are joining something special. It is a carrot.”

Jacob, 29, completed his Tour de France as a cabinet-maker. In becoming a full compagnon, he pledged to continue the task of “transmission” – in other words, handing on his own expertise to new generations. So now his job is finding French apprentices placements at UK firms, and vice versa.

“The Tour can be daunting. Every six months you pitch up at a place you have never been to before, and start all over again,” he says.

“But you pick up new skills, new techniques, new materials. You have to adapt and be resourceful. And after five or six years of the life, you have become extremely resourceful indeed.”

Vocational skills

In France the Compagnons are only a small part of the overall effort to provide apprenticeships. As in the UK, these are increasingly seen as part of the answer to problems of training, productivity and employment.

But also as in the UK, apprenticeships in France suffer from a poor public image. The Compagnons are a recognised elite. More widely apprenticeships are not an option of choice.

“It needs to change,” says Jacob Hunt. “The middle classes send their children to universities. But it must be obvious by now that that is a diminishing asset. Many teenagers are not academic.

“With a Compagnons-style apprenticeship they can build a long-term investment in their own future.”

General

via BBC http://bbc.in/2mFqMgR

December 16, 2017 at 04:21PM