The look ahead: Russia to join WTO; US regulators scrutinise conflict minerals

Russia will take a momentous step August 22nd by joining the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The WTO membership for the world’s ninth-largest economy comes with binding trade rules that are expected to alter Russia’s business landscape and lead to a permanent normalisation of trade relations between the US and Russia, former Cold War archenemies.

The prospective changes have Russians heatedly debating the pros and cons of WTO membership.

An opinion poll showed that only about 20% of Russian citizens consider joining the WTO to be beneficial, according to The Voice of Russia. That’s down from about 41% in 2004. The biggest concern of opponents is that WTO membership opens Russia to outside interference.

Media coverage during the recent presidential election campaign stoked this wariness of foreign influences, according to The Voice of Russia.

Russia started the process to join the WTO 18 years ago. The successful conclusion of its efforts will bring the largest independent economy into the WTO fold and make Russia the WTO’s 156th member.

Conflict minerals

A controversial measure on so-called “conflict minerals” that has pitted human rights groups against business interests is among the regulations the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will consider implementing during an open meeting on August 22nd.

The SEC is considering adopting regulations that would implement Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, P.L. 111-203. The regulation is aimed at cutting off funding for warlords in the Congo who commit atrocities against local populations and use forced labour to mine for gold and other minerals used in a variety of products, including jewellry and cell phones.

Section 1502 requires annual reporting on whether US public companies use conflict minerals originating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or neighbouring countries in their products. It would require public companies that use conflict minerals to document their chain of custody. But that section of the law will not go into effect until the SEC adopts rules to implement its requirements.

Human rights groups have said the law will help reduce funding for warlords who force locals into mining labour and commit human rights violations. But some business interests have said it will be difficult and costly to track minerals back to their origins.

Another section of the Dodd-Frank Act that has put human rights groups and big business at odds also is on the SEC’s agenda. Section 1504 requires US public companies to disclose in an annual report how much they pay governments worldwide for access to oil, natural gas and minerals.

In May, anti-poverty advocate Oxfam America filed a lawsuit asking the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts to order the SEC to issue a final rule. Human rights groups have said the regulations would increase transparency and accountability of leaders in resource-rich countries with high poverty rates.

The petroleum industry is among those who have fought the requirements, saying they would be costly and put US public companies at a disadvantage in bidding against foreign competitors.

The SEC will meet at 10am on August 22nd in Washington; a webcast will be available.

UK GDP update

Revised GDP estimates for the UK – to be released August 24th by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – will provide a better idea of how deep the recession in the UK was in the second quarter.

Last month’s preliminary estimates showed a 0.7% contraction in the second quarter compared with the previous quarter. The output of the manufacturing and construction industries dipped lower from the first quarter to the second quarter than it did from the fourth quarter of 2011 to the first quarter, suggesting a decline in economic health.

But numbers the ONS released more recently showed that UK industrial output in June – the last month of the second quarter – fell less than estimated in the preliminary second-quarter GDP data.

Eyes on the Fed

The US Federal Open Markets Committee (FOMC) will release minutes from its most recent meeting. Investors and economists will dig into them, searching for insight as to what the US Federal Reserve might do to support the country’s sluggish economy.

In 2008, the committee cut the benchmark rate target to between 0% and 0.25% in an effort to spur economic activity during the recession. Despite some signs of recovery early in the year, the committee expects to keep the rate low until late 2014.

Meanwhile, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has told lawmakers that the central bank is prepared to take further action if the European debt crisis continues to threaten the US economy.

Economic activity likely has decelerated somewhat over the first half of this year, the FOMC said in an August 1st statement. Growth in employment has been slow, and the unemployment rate remains high. Meanwhile, household spending has been growing slowly, and the housing market is still depressed.

“Strains in global financial markets continue to pose significant downside risks to the economic outlook,” the committee said in the statement.

FASB to discuss financial instruments

The US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) will continue its discussion of impairment of financial instruments during its board meeting on August 22nd.

A decision by FASB last month to address a number of topics and constituent concerns in the joint project with the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) rumblings by IASB Chairman Hans Hoogervorst, who is eager to move forward with the project.

The IASB does not meet this month, and FASB Chairman Leslie Seidman has said FASB’s staff will work expeditiously on the project.

FASB’s meeting, as well as educational sessions on accounting for instruments – classification and measurement; insurance; consolidation policy and procedure; and investment companies will be available by webcast on the board’s site.

—From CGMA Magazine staff reports