Former Trump Hotel in Panama City Rebranded as JW Marriott

A luxury hotel in Panama City that used to bear the Trump name has formally been rebranded after a bitter dispute over control.

The 70-story, sail-shaped tower is now the JW Marriott. It’s operated by U.S. hotelier Marriott International, which took over management.

Owners and administrators unveiled the new name Tuesday on a granite wall at the entrance where the Trump name was removed in March.

After a hotly-contested legal fight, majority investor Orestes Fintiklis was able to evict managers from the U.S. president’s family company this year.

The company had appealed to Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela to intervene, raising ethical concerns over possible mingling of Trump’s business and government interests.

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American Expands Inflight Food Options on Domestic Routes

American Airlines is expanding its inflight food options with the addition of a light and healthy Mediterranean menu.

The world’s largest carrier on Monday announced an agreement with the restaurant chain Zoe’s Kitchen.

 

American, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas, says the new Zoe’s Kitchen menu will be sold on most domestic flights longer than three hours beginning Dec. 1. Options will include hummus topped with olives, a turkey sandwich with specialty cheese and crunchy Mediterranean slaw, and a chicken wrap with roasted tomatoes, arugula and artichokes.

 

American currently serves cookies and mini pretzels for free during flights over 250 miles (400 kilometers). Sandwiches, wraps and snack boxes are also available for sale on most domestic flights.

 

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Argentina’s Central Bank Chief Resigns Amid IMF Negotiations

Argentina’s central bank chief resigned Tuesday amid negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.

The surprise resignation of Luis Caputo was announced in a bank statement that said he was leaving for personal reasons. But it comes as the government is pushing for a new financing deal with the IMF.

Caputo had only been in the job since June and will be replaced by former economic policy secretary Guido Sandleris.

Argentina’s weak economy has been hit by one of the world’s highest inflation rates and a sharp depreciation of its currency, which has lost more than half its value against the dollar so far this year. That has forced the government to reach out to the IMF for help.

“This resignation is due to personal reasons, with the conviction that a new deal with the IMF will reestablish trust in the fiscal, financial, monetary and exchange rate situation,” the bank said.

President Mauricio Macri has asked the IMF for an early release of funds from a $50 billion deal agreed earlier this year to ease concerns that Argentina will not be able to meet its debt obligations next year.

Most Argentines have bad memories of the IMF and blame the international lending institution for encouraging policies that led to the country’s worst economic crisis in 2001-2002.

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Trump and Moon Sign Revised Trade Agreement

U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in signed a revised free trade agreement between the two countries Monday afternoon in New York, following their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

“I’m very excited about our new trade agreement,” Trump said during a joint press conference with Moon. “This is a brand new agreement. This is not an old one rewritten. … I’m very excited about that for the United States, and I really believe it’s good for both countries.” 

Trump called the signing “a historic milestone in trade” and “something that most people thought was not going to be happening.”

Speaking through an interpreter, Moon called the revision of the free trade agreement “significant, in the sense that it expands the ROK-U.S. alliance to the economic realm, as well.”

“With the swift conclusion of the negotiations for the revision, uncertainty surrounding our FTA (Free Trade Agreement) have been eliminated,” he said, adding that “as a result, companies from both countries will now be able to do business under more stable conditions.”

The new deal contains amendments to the 2012 U.S.-South Korea free trade deal known as KORUS, which Washington and Seoul agreed to revise in March. 

Trump had previously blamed KORUS, signed during the Obama administration, for increasing U.S. trade deficits with South Korea. 

The amendments include provisions to ease customs barriers for U.S. agricultural goods and pharmaceutical exports. It will increase the number of cars the U.S. can export to South Korea, from 25,000 to 50,000, without being subject to the country’s more stringent safety regulations.

Seoul also accepted a quota on its steel exports to the U.S. to avoid the tariffs Trump has imposed on other countries.

The new deal, however, does not include a currency agreement as members of the Trump administration had previously indicated.

NAFTA deal

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Canada are still trying to work out a deal on a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Montreal on Sunday that negotiators are “very likely” to hold informal talks on the sidelines of the UNGA. 

Trump struck a side deal on the three-nation trade agreement with Mexico last month and has threatened to exclude Canada. His administration wants to reach an agreement by the end of September.

Canada says it does not feel bound by any deadlines. Trudeau reiterated his position that he would not sign a bad NAFTA deal.

In a blog for the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, economist Tori Whiting wrote that under the new KORUS agreement, Washington “failed to fully achieve the goal of eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers.” She added that protectionist tariffs “should remain dormant under a new NAFTA.”

US-China tariffs

Also on Monday, a new round of U.S.-imposed duties on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, and a retaliatory set of tariffs imposed by Beijing on $60 billion worth of U.S. goods took effect.

The new U.S. duties cover thousands of Chinese-made products, including electronics, food, tools and housewares. The new tariffs begin at 10 percent, and will rise to 25 percent on Jan. 1, 2019. 

In a policy statement, Beijing accused Washington of using tariffs as a means of intimidating other countries to submit to U.S. wishes on economic matters.

“We have now reached a stalemate,” Eswar Prasad, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, said in his podcast, “where neither side can be seen as caving in to each other’s demands, potentially signaling that we could be in for a long-standing trade war.”

Prasad added that it seems clear Trump “wants nothing less than total capitulation by the Chinese side on all American demands.”

This includes, he said, not just measures by China to reduce the trade deficit, but also other issues that the U.S. has long been concerned about, such as “better protection of intellectual property rights of American companies, better access to Chinese markets for American investors, as well as American manufacturers.” 

The U.S. has already imposed tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods, and China has retaliated on an equal amount on U.S. goods. 

Earlier this month, Trump threatened more tariffs on Chinese goods — another $267 billion worth of duties that would cover virtually all the goods China imports to the United States.

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Iran’s Currency Hits Another Record Low, With Six Weeks to US Sanctions

Iran’s currency has hit another record low against the dollar, six weeks before the United States is due to reimpose sanctions on Iranian oil exports that are Tehran’s main revenue source.

The Bonbast.com website, which tracks Iran’s unofficial exchange rates, showed a new low of 16,000 tomans, or 160,000 rials, to the dollar Monday.

The rial has weakened to a series of record lows against the U.S. currency in recent weeks. Bonbast.com displayed the rial at a record low of 128,000 to the dollar on Sept.  3.

Iran’s official exchange rate, set by its central bank, has stood at 42,000 to the dollar since April.

The Trump administration has vowed to reinstate sanctions on Iranian oil exports on Nov. 4, in a bid to pressure Tehran to give up what the U.S. says is its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons. Washington reimposed a first set of economic sanctions on Iran last month as part of the pressure campaign. The moves reverse the previous U.S. administration’s suspension of those sanctions under terms of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers.

Speaking to VOA Persian last Friday in an interview broadcast Monday, U.S. economist Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University said Iranians should expect more of the same with their currency.

“The Iranian people already have anticipated the problems that will befall them after the sanctions go back on, and they react much more rapidly, of course, than anyone,” Hanke said. “That is why the rial has been plummeting and inflation has been soaring.”

A weakening rial makes dollar-denominated imports more expensive for Iranians.

In a Monday tweet, Hanke said Iran’s annual inflation rate has hit a record high of 293 percent.

In a graphic posted with the tweet, Hanke said he calculated the rate using data from Bonbast.com, Iran’s central bank and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

“It is impossible to predict how low the Iranian currency will go,” Hanke said. “We just know it is dying. And when currencies die, inflation goes up, the economy tends to be completely destabilized, and society in general becomes destabilized because [people] can’t trust their own money.”

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.

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Senegalese Chef Puts Supergrain on New York Menus to Boost African Farmers

A gluten-free grain that grows in Africa’s impoverished and semi-arid Sahel region is taking off as a health food in New York, the Senegalese chef who masterminded its revival said Monday, outlining plans to almost double production by 2023.

Pierre Thiam began exporting fonio to New York last year, hoping to help smallholder communities in the Sahel, which stretches from Mauritania and Mali in the west to Sudan and Eritrea in the east and is home to more than 100 million people.

The grain is now on the menus of more than 60 New York restaurants and will soon be in all the city’s Whole Foods stores, according to an executive at Yolele Foods, the company he co-founded.

“It’s a grain that could play an important role in some of the poorest regions in the world. The Sahel, nothing grows in that region, but fonio grows abundantly,” Thiam said at the international Slow Food festival in the Italian city of Turin.

“It’s also great for the environment. It matures in 60 days and grows with very little water. There’s even a nickname they have for fonio — the lazy farmers’ crop,” he said.

Thiam told Reuters he hoped to expand annual production from 600,000 tons to a million tons over the next five years.

He wants to have 7,000 families in Senegal producing the crop by 2020, and also plans to expand production to Burkina Faso.

Yolele Foods describes fonio as a “gluten-free, nutrient rich, ancient grain that takes just 5 minutes to cook.” Its website includes recipes for everything from fonio breakfast cereal to kimchi with fonio.

“When we rolled out at Whole Foods Harlem they built a display for us within the first couple weeks because we were selling out so quickly,” said the company’s director of business development Claire Alsup.

Thiam, who opened his first restaurant in New York in 1997, said changing weather patterns had hit the crops commonly grown in the Sahel, but fonio grew quickly even in poor soil and dry conditions.

The crop was largely abandoned under French rule when local farmers were made to grow peanuts and grains such as wheat were imported, but is now being rediscovered, he said.

Thiam said he was aware that popular demand for traditional grains such as fonio and millet could push up prices, putting them out of reach of local consumers.

“We’re conscious of that. We definitely want the first beneficiaries to be the smallholder communities of West Africa,” he said.

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Comcast Outbids Fox With $40B Offer for Sky

Comcast beat Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox in the battle for Sky after offering 30.6 billion pounds ($40 billion) for the British broadcaster, in a dramatic auction to decide the fate of the pay-television group.

U.S. cable giant Comcast bid 17.28 pounds a share for control of London-listed Sky, bettering a 15.67 offer by Fox, the Takeover Panel said in a  statement shortly after final bids were made Saturday.

Comcast’s final offer was significantly higher than its bid going into the auction of 14.75 pounds, and compares with Sky’s closing share price of 15.85 pounds on Friday.

Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive of Comcast, coveted Sky to expand its international presence as growth slows in its core U.S. market.

Owning Sky will make Comcast the world’s largest pay-TV operator with around 52 million customers.

“This is a great day for Comcast,” Roberts said on Saturday. “This acquisition will allow us to quickly, efficiently and meaningfully increase our customer base and expand internationally.”

Comcast, which also owns the NBC network and movie studio Universal Pictures, encouraged Sky shareholders to accept its offer. It said it wanted to complete the deal by the end of October.

Comcast, which requires 50 percent plus one share of Sky’s equity to win control, said it was also seeking to buy Sky shares in the market.

A spokesman for Fox, which has a 39 percent holding in Sky, declined to comment.

The quick-fire auction marked a dramatic climax to a protracted transatlantic bidding battle waged since February, when Comcast gate-crashed Fox’s takeover of Sky.

It is a blow to media mogul Murdoch, 87, and the U.S. media and entertainment group that he controls, which had been trying to take full ownership of Sky since December 2016.

It is also a setback for U.S. entertainment giant Walt Disney, which agreed on a separate $71 billion deal to buy the bulk of Fox’s film and TV assets, including the Sky stake, in June and would have taken ownership of the British broadcaster following a successful Fox takeover.

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UK PM’s Team Makes Plans for Snap Election

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s aides have begun contingency planning for a snap election in November to save both Brexit and her job, the Sunday Times reported.

The newspaper said that two senior members of May’s Downing Street political team began “war-gaming” an autumn vote to win public backing for a new plan, after her Brexit proposals were criticized at a summit in Salzburg last week.

Downing Street was not immediately available to comment on the report.

Meanwhile, opposition Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn said Saturday that his party would challenge May on any Brexit deal she could strike with Brussels, and he said there should be a national election if the deal fell short.

The British government said Saturday that it would not “capitulate” to European Union demands in Brexit talks and again urged the bloc to engage with its proposals after May said Brexit talks with the EU had hit an impasse.

“We will challenge this government on whatever deal it brings back on our six tests, on jobs, on living standards, on environmental protections,” Corbyn told a rally in Liverpool, northern England, on the eve of Labor’s annual conference.

“And if this government can’t deliver, then I simply say to Theresa May the best way to settle this is by having a general election.”

Labor’s six tests consist of whether a pact would provide for fair migration, a collaborative relationship with the EU, national security and cross-border crime safeguards, even treatment for all U.K. regions, protection of workers’ rights, and maintenance of single-market benefits.

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US-China Tensions Rise as Beijing Summons US Ambassador

Tensions between China and the United States escalated Saturday as China’s Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to issue a harsh protest against U.S. sanctions set for the purchase of Russian fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles.

The move came hours after China canceled trade talks with the U.S. following Washington’s imposition of new tariffs on Chinese goods.

The statement on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website called the imposition of sanctions “a serious violation of the basic principles of international law” and a “hegemonic act.” The ministry also wrote, “Sino-Russian military cooperation is the normal cooperation of the two sovereign states, and the U.S. has no right to interfere.” The U.S. actions, it said, “have seriously damaged the relations” with China. 

China had earlier called on the U.S. to withdraw the sanctions, and speaking to reporters Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing had lodged an official protest with the United States.

China’s purchase of the weapons from Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport violated a 2017 U.S. law intended to punish the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin for interfering in U.S. elections and other activities. The U.S. action set in motion a visa ban on China’s Equipment Development Department and director Li Shangfu, forbids transactions with the U.S. financial system, and blocks all property and interests in property involving the country within U.S. jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported that China had planned to send Vice Premier Liu He to Washington next week for trade talks, but canceled his trip, along with that of a midlevel delegation that was to precede him.

Earlier Friday, a senior White House official had said the U.S. was optimistic about finding a way forward in trade talks with China.

The official told reporters at the White House that China “must come to the table in a meaningful way” for there to be progress on the trade dispute. 

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while there was no confirmed meeting between the United States and China, the two countries “remain in touch.”

“The president’s team is all on the same page as to what’s required from China,” according to the official.

The Trump administration has argued that tariffs on Chinese goods would force China to trade on more favorable terms with the United States. 

It has demanded that China better protect American intellectual property, including ending the practice of cybertheft. The Trump administration has also called on China to allow U.S. companies greater access to Chinese markets and to cut its U.S. trade surplus.

Earlier this week, the United States ordered duties on another $200 billion of Chinese goods to go into effect on Sept. 24. China responded by adding $60 billion of U.S. products to its import tariff list.

The United States already has imposed tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods, and China has retaliated on an equal amount of U.S. goods.

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Rising Oil Prices Haven’t Hurt US Economy

America’s rediscovered prowess in oil production is shaking up old notions about the impact of higher crude prices on the U.S. economy.

It has long been conventional wisdom that rising oil prices hurt the economy by forcing consumers to spend more on gasoline and heating their homes, leaving less for other things.

Presumably that kind of run-up would slow the U.S. economy. Instead, the economy grew at its fastest rate in nearly four years during the April-through-June quarter.

President Donald Trump appears plainly worried about rising oil prices just a few weeks before mid-term elections that will decide which party controls the House and Senate.

“We protect the countries of the Middle East, they would not be safe for very long without us, and yet they continue to push for higher and higher oil prices!” Trump tweeted Thursday. “We will remember. The OPEC monopoly must get prices down now!”

Members of The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, who account for about one-third of global oil supplies, are scheduled to meet this weekend with non-members including Russia.

The gathering isn’t expected to yield any big decisions — those typically come at major OPEC meetings like the one set for December. Oil markets, however, were roiled Friday by a report that attendees were considering a significant increase in production to offset declining output from Iran, where exports have fallen ahead of Trump’s re-imposition of sanctions.

OPEC and Russia have capped production since January 2017 to bolster prices. Output fell even below those targets this year, and in June the same countries agreed to boost the oil supply, although they didn’t give numbers.

Rising oil prices

Oil prices are up roughly 40 percent in the past year. On Friday, benchmark U.S. crude was trading around $71 a barrel, and the international standard, Brent, was closing in on $80.

The national average price for gasoline stood at $2.85 per gallon, up 10 percent from a year ago, according to auto club AAA. That increase likely would be greater were it not for a slump in gasoline demand that is typical for this time of year, when summer vacations are over.

The United States still imports about 6 million barrels of oil a day on average, but that is down from more than 10 million a decade ago. In the same period, U.S. production has doubled to more than 10 million barrels a day, according to government figures.

“Because the U.S. now is producing so much more than it used to, [the rise in oil prices] is not as big an impact as it would have been 20 years ago or 10 years ago,” said Michael Maher, an energy researcher at Rice University and a former Exxon Mobil economist.

The weakening link between oil and the overall economy was seen — in reverse — three years ago. Then, plunging oil prices were expected to boost the economy by leaving more money in consumers’ pocket, yet GDP growth slowed at the same time that lower oil prices took hold during 2015.

Other economists caution against minimizing the disruption caused by energy prices.

“Higher oil prices are unambiguously bad for the U.S. economy,” said Philip Verleger, an economist who has studied energy markets. “They force consumers to divert their income from spending on other items to spending on fuels.”

Since energy amounts to only about 3 percent of consumer spending, a cutback in that other 97 percent “causes losses for those who sell autos, restaurants, airlines, resorts and all parts of the economy,” Verleger said.

Pack leader

The federal Energy Information Administration said this month that the U.S. likely reclaimed the title of world’s biggest oil producer earlier this year by surpassing the output of Saudi Arabia in February and Russia over the summer. If the agency’s estimates are correct, it would mark the first time since 1973 that the U.S. has led the oil-pumping pack.

And that has made the impact of oil prices on the economy a more complicated calculation.

When oil prices tumbled starting in mid-2014, U.S. energy producers cut back on drilling. They cut thousands of jobs and they spent less on rigs, steel pipes and railcars to ship crude to refineries. That softened the bounce that economists expected to see from cheaper oil.

Now, with oil prices rising, energy companies are boosting production, creating an economic stimulus that offsets some of the blow from higher prices on consumers. Oil- and gas-related investment accounted for about 40 percent of the growth in business investment in the April-June quarter this year.

Moody’s Analytics estimates that every penny increase at the pump reduces consumer spending by $1 billion over a year, and gasoline has jumped 24 cents in the past year, according to AAA. That is “a clear-cut negative,” but not deeply damaging, said Ryan Sweet, director of real-time economics at Moody’s.

“Usually with gasoline prices, speed kills — a gradual increase [like the current one], consumers can absorb that,” Sweet said. Consumers have other factors in their favor, he added, including a tight job market, wage growth, better household balance sheets, and the recent tax cut.

Sweet said the boon that higher prices represent to the growing energy sector, which can invest in more wells, equipment and hiring, means that the run-up in crude has probably been “a small but net positive” for the economy.

“That could change if we get up to $3.50, $4,” he said.

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US Official ‘Optimistic’ About Resolving Trade Dispute with China 

The United States is optimistic about finding a way forward in trade talks with China, but no date has yet been determined for further talks between the two countries, according to a senior White House official. 

The official told reporters Friday at the White House that China “must come to the table in a meaningful way” for there to be progress on the trade dispute. 

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said while there is no confirmed meeting between the United States and China, the two countries “remain in touch.”

“The president’s team is all on the same page as to what’s required from China,” according to the official. 

The Trump administration has argued that tariffs on Chinese goods would force China to trade on more favorable terms with the United States.

It has demanded that China better protect American intellectual property, including ending the practice of cybertheft. The Trump administration has also called on China to allow U.S. companies greater access to Chinese markets and to cut its U.S. trade surplus.

Earlier this week, the United States ordered duties on another $200 billion of Chinese goods to go into effect on September 24. China responded by adding $60 billion of U.S. products to its import tariff list.

The United States already has imposed tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods, and China has retaliated on an equal amount of U.S. goods.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump threatened even more tariffs on Chinese goods — another $267 billion worth of duties that would cover virtually all the goods China imports to the United States.

“That changes the equation,” he told reporters.

China has threatened to retaliate against any potential new tariffs. However, China’s imports from the United States are $200 billion a year less than American imports from China, so it would run out of room to match U.S. sanctions.

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NAFTA Deal Not Yet in Sight, Canada Stands Firm on Auto Tariffs

Canada and the United States showed scant sign on Thursday of closing a deal to revamp NAFTA, and Canadian officials made clear Washington needed to withdraw a threat of possible autos tariffs, sources said.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump wants to be able to agree on a text of the three-nation North American Free Trade Agreement by the end of September, but major differences remain.

“We discussed some tough issues today,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters after meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

Freeland, who has visited Washington four weeks in a row to discuss NAFTA, gave no further details.

Market fears over the future of the 1994 pact, which underscores $1.2 trillion in trade, have been regularly hitting stocks in all three nations, whose economies are now highly integrated.

While multiple deadlines have passed during the more than year-long negotiations to renew NAFTA, pressure on Canada to agree to a deal is growing, partly to push it through the U.S. Congress before Mexico’s new government takes office on Dec. 1.

Canada says it does not feel bound by the latest deadline.

Asked whether time was running out, Freeland said her focus was getting a deal that was good for Canadians.

Trump came to power last year vowing to tear up NAFTA unless major changes were made to a pact he blames for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Trump struck a side-deal on NAFTA with Mexico last month and has threatened to exclude Canada if necessary. He also said he might impose a 25 percent tariff on Canadian autos exports, which would badly hurt the economy.

​Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, who was briefed on the talks by Canada’s negotiating team, said Ottawa insisted that the tariff threat be withdrawn.

“Why would Canada sign a trade agreement with the United States … and then have Donald Trump impose a 25 percent tariff on automobiles?” Dias told reporters.

“That for us is a deal breaker. It doesn’t make a stitch of sense. … We are a small nation, we’re not a stupid nation,” added Dias.

Freeland said she would return to Canada on Thursday ahead of a two-day meeting of female foreign ministers she is co-hosting in Montreal. Early next week she will be in New York for a United Nations session.

Ottawa is under pressure from some sectors to abandon its insistence that a bad NAFTA is worse than no NAFTA.

Jim Wilson, the trade minister of Ontario — Canada’s most populous province and heart of the country’s auto industry — met federal negotiators on Wednesday and tweeted on Thursday, “It is imperative that the feds reach a deal.”

The Globe and Mail newspaper on Thursday reported that U.S. negotiators want Ottawa to agree to capping its auto exports to the United States at 1.7 million vehicles a year, something that Canadian industry sources dismissed as unacceptable.

Separately, a Canadian source directly familiar with the negotiations said, “We have not discussed a cap.”

Reuters and other outlets reported in August that a side letter with Mexico would cap tariff-free or nearly duty-free Mexican imports to the United States at 2.4 million vehicles.

U.S. automakers privately question why the United States would seek to cap Canadian exports to the United States, given that companies are unlikely to expand production in Canada compared with lower-cost Mexico.

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