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US trade deficit rises slightly in December

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US trade deficit rises marginally in December; narrows sharply in 2023
© Reuters. Sea gulls sit on a lamppost beside shipping containers stacked at the Paul W. Conley Container Terminal in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. trade deficit widened slightly in December, but contracted by the most in 14 years in 2023 as imports declined and exports jumped to a record high.

The report from the Commerce Department on Wednesday also showed the United States’ rising status as a major oil producer, with the inflation-adjusted value of petroleum exports surging 15.9% to a record high in December. The nation is now a net oil exporter and has reduced its dependence of foreign oil, helping to shrink the current account deficit.

Economists expected trade, which contributed to gross domestic product growth last year, to remain mostly supportive to the economy in 2024, though Red Sea shipping disruptions and drought in the Panama Canal posed risks.

“We look for net trade to remain a positive contributor to first-quarter growth,” said Matthew Martin, a U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “The largest risk resulting from disruptions to global shipping is likely higher prices for goods, but longer lead times to receive goods could lead to either over- or underbuilding of inventories, which presents risks to our near-term outlook for imports.”

The trade deficit increased 0.5% to $62.2 billion, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis said. Data for November was revised higher to show the trade gap shrinking to $61.9 billion instead of $63.2 billion as previously reported.

December’s trade shortfall was in line with economists’ forecasts. While it was close to the assumptions made by the government in its advance fourth-quarter GDP estimate published last month, November’s data was revised higher. Economists said the inflation adjusted or so-called real trade deficit was now smaller than the government had assumed.

They expected that trade’s contribution to GDP would be raised from the 0.43 percentage point estimated last month. On the bases of the December trade report, they anticipated that overall fourth-quarter GDP growth would be boosted to about a 3.6% annualized rate from the 3.3% pace reported in January when the government publishes its second estimate later this month.

“On the whole, the trade data for the fourth-quarter now look stronger than was anticipated with respect to GDP that quarter,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

RECORD HIGH EXPORTS

The trade gap narrowed 18.7% in 2023, the largest drop since 2009, to $773.4 billion. It represented 2.8% of GDP, down from 3.7% in 2022. Trade added more than half a percentage point to the economy’s 2.5% growth last year.

Exports increased 1.2% to a record $3 trillion last year, propelled by capital goods, automotive vehicles, parts and engines as well as consumer and other goods. Imports slumped 3.6% to $3.8 trillion amid decreases in industrial supplies, which include petroleum, and consumer goods.

Exports ended the year on a strong note, rising 1.5% to $258.2 billion in December. Goods exports shot up 1.8% to $171.2 billion. Industrial supplies and materials exports increased $3.3 billion, amid rises in nonmonetary gold, other petroleum products and .

Consumer goods exports advanced as did those of foods, feeds and beverages. Services exports climbed $0.8 billion to a record $87.0 billion, lifted by travel, transport and financial services.

Imports picked up, increasing 1.3% to $320.4 billion in December. Goods imports rose 1.5% to $260.3 billion. There were gains in imports of consumer goods, mostly pharmaceutical preparations, and cell phones and other household goods.

Industrial supplies and materials imports also rose, but capital goods fell as did imports of automotive vehicles, parts and engines. Imports of services increased $0.5 billion to $60.1 billion amid a rise in transport. Travel services declined. The services surplus in December was the highest on record.

Economists were not too concerned about the decline in capital goods imports, which on face value would suggest weaker business investment and is over time associated with recession.

“Recessions are normally marked by sharp contractions in import volumes and, as yet, there is no sign that this is unfolding,” said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York.

The real goods trade deficit declined 1.4% to $82.8 billion in December. Real dollar exports of petroleum rose to a record $17.3 billion from $15.0 billion in November.

Real dollar exports of foods, feeds and beverages were the highest since June 2022, while those of automotive vehicles, parts and engines hit a 1-1/2-year low.

“The outlook for trade flows going forward is likely one of moderation given expectations of slower demand and growth going forward, both domestically and abroad,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York.

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Wendy’s, blasted over CEO’s pricing comment, vows no price hikes at busy times

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Wendy's, blasted over CEO's pricing comment, vows no price hikes at busy times
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A Wendy?s restaurant displays a “Now Hiring” sign in Tampa, Florida, U.S., June 1, 2021. REUTERS/Octavio Jones/File Photo

By Waylon Cunningham and Deborah Mary Sophia

DALLAS (Reuters) -Wendy’s said on Wednesday it has no plans to raise menu prices at times of peak demand, after the burger chain weathered heavy criticism on social media since its CEO said earlier this month it would start testing “dynamic pricing”.

CEO Kirk Tanner told investors on a call this month that starting as early as 2025, Wendy’s (NASDAQ:) would begin testing features including “dynamic pricing and daypart offerings”. Dynamic pricing refers to surge pricing based on demand, especially during peak hours of the day.

This practice often raises prices at busy times, similar to how Uber (NYSE:) adjusts ride fares.

Tanner’s comment this week sparked an online backlash. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren in a post on the social media platform X on Wednesday called it “price gouging plain and simple.”

Wendy’s, in a statement to Reuters, said on Wednesday it “would not raise prices when our customers are visiting us most.”

Its initiative to add digital menuboards to certain stores would instead allow Wendy’s to offer discounts to customers more easily, “particularly in the slower times of day,” it added.

“We said these menuboards would give us more flexibility to change the display of featured items. This was misconstrued in some media reports as an intent to raise prices when demand is highest … We have no plans to do that,” the company said.

Warren’s post on X, previously Twitter, said Wendy’s plan “means you could pay more for your lunch, even if the cost to Wendy’s stays exactly the same. It’s price gouging plain and simple, and American families have had enough.”

“I guess I won’t be eating at Wendy’s anymore,” one Reddit user said in a post, while others on X called for boycotts.

Analysts and consultants were skeptical of the idea of surge pricing at restaurants.

Wendy’s “dynamic pricing” was a hot topic at a restaurant conference in the Dallas area, with several executives saying customers – already skittish after recent price increases – would likely be scared off by unpredictable prices.

“I don’t see it taking off any time soon,” said Victor Fernandez, a senior analyst at restaurant analytics firm Black Box Intelligence.

Michael Lukianoff, CEO of SignalFlare.ai, who has consulted with restaurants about pricing for years, said that “dynamic pricing” is a great success in other industries such as airlines, but would not work in restaurants.

“Customers will shop elsewhere,” he said.

Wendy’s sales have already slowed. Placer.ai data showed visits to Wendy’s outlets declined in all three months of the fourth quarter of 2023.

Wendy’s shares, which dropped about 14% in 2023, were up 1% on Wednesday. The company also recently issued a profit forecast for this year below Wall Street estimates, hurt by higher commodity and labor costs.

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Apple shareholders reject AI disclosure proposal

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Apple to disclose AI plans later this year, CEO Tim Cook says
© Reuters. Apple logo is seen in this illustration taken, August 22, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By Stephen Nellis

(Reuters) -Apple plans to disclose more about its plans to put generative artificial intelligence to use later this year, Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook said during the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday.

Cook said that the iPhone maker sees “incredible breakthrough potential for generative AI, which is why we’re currently investing significantly in this area. We believe that will unlock transformative opportunities for users when it comes to productivity, problem solving and more.”

Apple (NASDAQ:) has been slower in rolling out generative AI, which can generate human-like responses to written prompts, than rivals such as Microsoft (NASDAQ:) and Alphabet (NASDAQ:)’s Google, which are weaving them into products.

On Wednesday, Cook argued that AI is already at work behind the scenes in Apple’s products but said there would be more news on explicit AI features later this year. Bloomberg previously reported Apple plans to use AI to improve the ability to search through data stored on Apple devices.

“Every Mac that is powered by Apple silicon is an extraordinarily capable AI machine. In fact, there’s no better computer for AI on the market today,” Cook said.

Apple shareholders on Wednesday rejected a measure asking the company to disclose more information about how it uses artificial intelligence in its business and its ethical guidelines for the technology.

The proposal, which was defeated at the company’s annual shareholder meeting, was put forth by the pension trust of the AFL-CIO, the largest American labor union federation, which has also proposed AI measures at other technology companies.

A similar proposal will be heard at Walt Disney (NYSE:)’s annual meeting in April.

At Apple, the AFL-CIO asked for a report on the company’s use of AI “in its business operations and disclose any ethical guidelines that the company has adopted regarding the company’s use of AI technology.”

In its supporting statement in Apple’s proxy materials, the AFL-CIO wrote that “AI systems should not be trained on copyrighted works, or the voices, likenesses and performances of professional performers, without transparency, consent and compensation to creators and rights holders.”

Apple opposed the measure, saying that disclosures could tip its hand on strategy as it competes against rivals in the fast-moving AI field.

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UMG to generate 250 million euros in savings by 2026, flags job cuts

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UMG to generate 250 million euros in savings by 2026, flags job cuts
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Universal Music Group logo is seen displayed in this illustration taken, May 3, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

(Reuters) – Universal Music Group (AS:) will cut jobs and streamline its operations with the aim of generating 250 million euros ($271.03 million) in run-rate savings by 2026.

In the first phase of the plan, which will be introduced immediately, the group plans to save 125 million euros in 2025, including 75 million euros in 2024, the company said.

“Our organizational redesign achieves efficiencies in targeted cost areas while providing our labels with unprecedented capabilities to deepen artist and fan connections via new experiential, commerce, and content offerings,” the group said in a statement.

UMG also posted a 9.2% year-on-year increase in adjusted core profit (EBITDA), to 677 million euros in the fourth quarter, as its revenue rose to 3.21 billion euros, up 9.0% from previous year.

It proposed a year-end dividend of 0.27 euros per share, bringing total dividend payout in 2023 to 0.51 per share.

($1 = 0.9224 euros)

(This story has been refiled to add ‘euros’ in the headline)

(Reportin by Dagmarah Mackos, editing by Tassilo Hummel)

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