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Import surge widens the US trade gap; Bitcoin has been on a big run as it passes $40,000

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Nation's trade deficit jumps in Nov.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. trade deficit jumped to $68.1 billion in November, the highest monthly deficit in 14 years, as a surge in imports overwhelmed a smaller increase in exports.

The November gap between what America buys from abroad compared to what it sells abroad rose by 8 percent from the October deficit of $63.1 billion, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

The increase reflected a 2.9 percent increase in imports of goods and services to $252.3 billion on a seasonally adjusted basis. That jump swamped a 1.2 percent rise in exports which totaled $184.2 billion in November.

Through the first 11 months of 2020, the gap stood at $604.8 billion, 13.9 percent higher than the same period in 2019. President Donald Trump has insisted that his get-tough trade policies with the rest of the world would shrink the deficit and bring back American jobs.

The deficit with China rose 1.9 percent to $30.7 billion in November and totaled $283.6 billion for the first 11 months of 2020. That was a drop of 11.5 percent from the same period in 2019, reflecting in part tariffs the Trump administration imposed on Chinese goods as the world's two largest economies engaged in a tit-for-tat trade war.

Bitcoin doubles to past $40K in under 1 month

CHARLOTTE — First it went through $20,000. Then 10 days later, it broke through $25,000, and then, with barely taking a breath, it crossed $30,000. Now only a few days into 2021, the price of bitcoin has crossed $40,000.

Nothing's new with the digital currency in the month since it crossed $20,000 — there's been no major change in how it can be used. Although some investors are now using the notoriously volatile currency as a "store of value," which is traditionally a title saved for safe haven investments like gold and other precious metals.

"Will you be able to buy a cup of coffee with bitcoin? Probably not with the current version of Bitcoin. It's largely become a store of value," said Mike Venuto, a co-portfolio manager of the Amplify Transformational Data Sharing ETF, a $391 million exchanged-traded fund that focuses on blockchain technologies and companies that deal with cryptocurrencies.

Media attention to its rise has only added fuel to the rally. But investors in digital currencies and companies that trade or "mine" them are warning people to be skeptical of Bitcoin's recent rise and to be braced for a lot of volatility.

It's been a wild ride for bitcoin the last three years. The digital currency made its big Wall Street debut in December 2017, when the major futures exchanges rolled out bitcoin futures. The attention drove Bitcoin to roughly $19,300, a then-unheard of price for the currency.

Then it all evaporated. The currency's value plunged sharply in 2018, and by December of that year Bitcoin was worth less than $4,000 a coin. Up until this most recent rally which started in October, Bitcoin generally floated between $5,000 and $10,000.

US services sector grew again in Dec.

SILVER SPRING, Md. — The U.S. services sector, where most Americans work, grew for the seventh straight month in December even as coronavirus cases surged through the holidays.

The Institute for Supply Management reported Thursday that its index of services activity slowed slightly to a reading of 57.2 last month, from a reading of 55.9 in November. Readings above 50 represent expansion in services industries such as restaurants and bars, retail stores and delivery companies.

Respondents to the December ISM survey continued to express anxiety about the current business climate.

Thursday's report showed that business activity and new orders both grew more quickly but the index measuring employment fell into contraction.

Walgreens tops 1Q forecasts amid virus

NEW YORK — Walgreens Boots Alliance lost $308 million in its first fiscal quarter on a big charge tied to its stake in the drug wholesaler AmerisourceBergen.

COVID-19 also continued to eat away at its business, particularly in the United Kingdom. But the drugstore chain's overall performance topped expectations and shares climbed after markets opened.

Overall, it booked adjusted earnings of $1.22 per share in the quarter that ended Nov. 30. Revenue grew nearly 6 percent to $36.31 billion. Analysts expected, on average, earnings of $1.02 per share on $34.93 billion in revenue, according to Zacks Investment Research.

Walgreens executives told analysts Thursday that the ongoing pandemic delivered a hit of between $290 million to $325 million to the company's adjusted operating income in the quarter. That's a lower amount than in the two previous quarters, and company officials have said they expect the pandemic's impact to subside in the second half of the fiscal year.

"We remain cautiously optimistic for the year as a whole," CEO Stefano Pessina said.

In its fiscal first quarter, Walgreens booked a $1.5 billion charge tied to its ownership share of AmerisourceBergen. Walgreens has a roughly 30% stake in the company, and the charge accounted for Walgreens' portion of a recent AmerisourceBergen quarterly loss, a spokeswoman said.

Walgreens runs more than 21,000 stores mainly in the United States and United Kingdom. Its drugstores and the stores of other retailers were hit hard last year, particularly in the spring, by a global pandemic that kept customers away.

Home loan rates have never been lower

WASHINGTON — U.S. long-term mortgage rates declined this week to new record lows for the first week of 2021.

The year opens against the continuing backdrop of damage from the coronavirus pandemic on the U.S. and global economies, which suppressed home loan rates through most of 2020.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac reported Thursday that the average rate on the benchmark 30-year fixed-rate home loan slipped to 2.65 percent from 2.67 percent from last week. By contrast, the rate stood at 3.64 percent a year ago.

The average rate on 15-year fixed-rate loans, popular among homeowners seeking to refinance their mortgages, ticked down to 2.16 percent from 2.17 percent.

Mortgage rates are set to rise modestly this year as economic factors shift, according to Freddie Mac chief economist Sam Khater. The record-low lending rates have helped push buyers into the housing market, but a lack of available homes has left many would-be homebuyers empty-handed. The lack of supply has pushed prices up even before the pandemic struck last March. A continued rise in home prices could intensify the squeeze on potential purchasers during the spring homebuying season, Khater say

Plant to start making new Jeep soon

DETROIT — A revamped version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV with three rows of seats will roll off the assembly line this spring at a restored Detroit factory.

Fiat Chrysler unveiled the Grand Cherokee L on Thursday and said production would start by the end of March.

The company invested $1.6 billion to revamp two engine plants so they could build new versions of the SUV. It also hired 3,850 workers at its first new Detroit factory in nearly three decades.

Current versions of the Grand Cherokee are now being built at FCA's Jefferson North plant in Detroit. Once Detroit Assembly is up and running, Jefferson North will be converted to build the new versions, FCA said.

The new three-row version can seat seven people. It has all new underpinnings and a new suspension, a more spacious interior and a new body style with better aerodynamics. Gas mileage and price figures were not announced.

Associated Press

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