Sunday, April 30, 2017

China economy cools; Oil glut isn't shrinking; Robotic fruit pickers

1 China economy cools (Katie Allen in The Guardian) China’s economy has shown more signs of cooling with key barometers from its manufacturing and services sectors dipping in April. The latest data comes as Beijing attempts to rein in a booming property market and rapid credit growth.

Two surveys have suggested activity in the world’s second largest economy eased back in April. Manufacturing slowed more than expected as demand was hit by government moves to curb risks associated with a run of high borrowing in China.

The National Bureau of Statistics’ official purchasing managers’ index (PMI) of factory activity fell to a six-month low of 51.2 in April from a multi-year high of 51.8 in March. That was above the 50-mark separating growth from contraction but missed forecasts for a reading of 51.6 in a poll of economists by Reuters.

Economists are hopeful that the news on growth will remain positive enough so that Chinese authorities are not tempted to ease back on the pace of reform or reach for once-favoured ways of propping up the economy, such as spending on big infrastructure projects and relying on the booming property market.

2 Oil glut isn’t shrinking (Gulf News) Excess crude oil inventories in the US are finally and clearly in retreat as OPEC’s output agreement nears the end of its fourth month. But those oil bulls looking for higher prices shouldn’t get too excited just yet — the surplus may just be moving elsewhere.

True, the crude stockpile fell in each of the first three weeks of April, and the 3.64 million-barrel decline in the last of those was the biggest weekly drop of the year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

US refineries are helping to drain the glut. The amount they processed has soared as plants have come back into operation after normal seasonal maintenance. This all ought to be good news for the bulls, but we need to look deeper. If the products being produced are not consumed, the glut is simply being transferred from crude to refined products.

In the most recent week’s data, the volume of gasoline and middle distillates in storage rose, more than offsetting the draw down in crude stockpiles. In order to really clear the glut, crude must first be processed into products and then those products need to be consumed.

Oil bulls should worry that, far from easing, the US oil glut is just being shifted downstream and overseas. Opec has more work to do to get the market back into balance, and at the very least will need to extend its current accord when it meets May 25.

3 Robotic fruit pickers (San Francisco Chronicle) Harvesting Washington state's vast fruit orchards each year requires thousands of farmworkers, and many of them work illegally in the US. That system eventually could change dramatically as at least two companies are rushing to get robotic fruit-picking machines to market.

The robotic pickers don't get tired and can work 24 hours a day. "Human pickers are getting scarce," said Gad Kober, a co-founder of Israel-based FFRobotics. "Young people do not want to work in farms, and elderly pickers are slowly retiring."

FFRobotics and Abundant Robotics, of Hayward, California, are racing to get their mechanical pickers to market within the next couple of years. Harvest has been mechanized for large portions of the agriculture industry such as wheat, corn, green beans and tomatoes for some time.

But for more fragile commodities like apples, berries, table grapes and lettuce — where the crop's appearance is especially important — harvest is still done by hand. Members of Washington's $7.5 billion annual agriculture industry have long grappled with labor shortages, and depend on workers coming up from Mexico each year to harvest many crops.

Advocates for farmworkers say robot pickers will have a negative effect. The eventual loss of jobs for humans will be huge, said Erik Nicholson of Seattle, an official with the United Farm Workers union.
FFRobotics is developing a machine that has three-fingered grips to grab fruit and twist or clip it from a branch. The machine would have between four and 12 robotic arms, and can pick up to 10,000 apples an hour, Kober said.

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