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Money
Huge Siberian pipeline binds Russia and China as gas flows for the first time

MOSCOW — When Russian gas flowed into northern China on Monday, as Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping ordered the taps open, it sent geopolitical ripples across the globe.

On one side of the border, Russian gas workers, clad in gray and blue, stood at attention in the Atamanskaya gas compressor station near Blagoveshchensk, close to the Chinese border, waiting for Putin’s order to start the flow. Across the border, their Chinese counterparts in bright red overalls stood ready to receive the gas.

The moment was captured on a video link between the two presidents, depicting the gas as little white arrows on the screen, flooding through a blue pipe. The $55 billion pipeline, Power of Siberia, runs almost 1,865 miles from gas fields in Irkutsk and Yakutsk in Siberia to the Chinese border. It represents the latest powerful symbol of the growing ties between Moscow and Beijing, even as China and the United States are engaged in an escalating trade war.

The pipeline enables Russia to tap into China’s vast, expanding market for gas as part of a 30-year, $400 billion gas supply contract that promises to soften the impact of Western sanctions on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea. In China, the pipeline will run 3,175 miles from Heilongjiang province in the northeast to Shanghai, well southeast of Beijing.

The contract between state-owned Russian gas giant Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corp. allows Moscow to diversify its markets away from Europe, where most of its gas has flowed in the past.

Russia and China have been moving closer, determined to counter U.S. global power. At a June meeting in St. Petersburg, where the two countries signed a flurry of trade deals, Xi called Putin his “best and bosom friend” and announced that Beijing would send two pandas to Moscow, always a sign of Chinese diplomatic warmth.

In a symbol of the strengthening military ties between Moscow and Beijing, Russia and China staged their first joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific in July, scrambling Japanese and South Korea air defenses.

Russian supplies to the Chinese gas market could create obstacles for suppliers of pricier U.S. gas and help strengthen Beijing’s hand in trade talks with Washington.

The Russia-China gas pipeline launch comes as Russia races to finish Nord Stream 2, a western pipeline via the Baltic Sea to Germany. That pipeline would allow Russia to pipe gas to Europe while bypassing Ukraine.

Russia has 20% of the world’s gas reserves and accounts for 17.3% of global gas production, supplying nearly 21% of Europe’s pipeline gas imports.

Alexander Gabuev, an analyst on China-Russia relations at Carnegie Center Moscow, said that the pipeline sent a message to Europe and the United States about closer ties between Beijing and Moscow but that eventually China could use it to exert pressure for lower gas prices.

“The deal is a symbol of Putin’s pivot to China,” he said.

“In the longer term, cheap pipeline gas from Russia will be in competition with American gas,” Gabuev said, but since the Russian pipeline has just one customer — China — Beijing could exert pressure on Russia, pushing gas prices down.

Energy analyst Andrew Hill, head of the S&P Global Platts gas and power analytics team for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, wrote in a recent blog post that Russia’s position in global gas supplies has never been more dominant.

“This privileged position of resource endowment gave Russia a strength it has had no hesitation using to further its own political, geopolitical and strategic aims over the years,” he said. “By positioning itself between the European markets to the west, and the rapidly growing gas-hungry Chinese markets to the east, Russia is not only creating new income streams, but hedging its bets and bolstering its position strategically.

Hill added: “The deal with China is very much a marriage of convenience. Russia has the gas that China wants, with Russia willingly accepting all the associated geopolitical advantages and the increase in its status.” It also gives Russia the ability to play one market off against the other, he said.

Putin said the 2014 gas-supply contract with China was the biggest agreement in the history of Russia’s gas industry.

Xi said the pipeline was a milestone in energy cooperation that underscored the deep integration between the two countries.


Articles
Impeachment to shadow Trump at NATO summit in London
HEARING SET FOR WEDNESDAY

LONDON (AP) — Crying foul over timing, President Donald Trump on Monday accused Democrats of scheduling this week's impeachment hearing to undercut him during his trip abroad for a NATO leaders' meeting playing out at a crucial moment for the 70-year-old military alliance.

Trump, who arrived in London late Monday for two days of meetings, called the trip "one of the most important journeys that we make as president" and said Democrats had long known about it.

Trump's trip to the U.K. comes amid ongoing quarrels over defense spending by NATO allies and widespread anxiety over the president's commitment to the alliance.

The president said his trip would be focused on "fighting for the American people." But in the more than two months that the impeachment inquiry has been underway, he has constantly drifted back to what he frames as the Democrats' unfair effort to overturn the results of his 2016 election.

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday on the constitutional grounds for impeachment before Trump wraps up at the NATO meeting.

Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House counsel Pat Cipollone and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway all complained about the timing, with Pompeo saying the hearings would "distract America's president from his important mission overseas."

Trump insists that he's solely focused on scoring domestic and foreign policy wins, including revamping NATO so that allies spend more on defense. But he has often appeared consumed by the day-today battle against impeachment.

In recent days he's repeatedly lashed out about the "impeachment hoax" and the "scam" inquiry, even delving into impeachment at a ceremony to celebrate NCAA athletes and at last week's annual turkey pardon.

White House aides say the summit offers Trump an opportunity to counter the impeachment narrative in Washington and demonstrate to voters that he's keeping a business-as-usual approach while Democrats concentrate on the probe.

But soon after Air Force One departed, Trump took to Twitter to slam "Do Nothing Democrats" for scheduling the hearing during the NATO meeting as "Not nice!"

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in Madrid for a U.N. conference on climate change, declined to comment about the impeachment inquiry, saying, "When we travel abroad, we don't talk about the president in a negative way. We save that for home."

Trump is only the fourth U.S. president in history to face an impeachment inquiry. The gravity of impeachment is likely to play into the calculus of how other global leaders engage with the president going forward, in the view of some analysts.

"In one sense impeachment is weakening his hand diplomatically," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. "For a normal president, it would be seen as a substantial problem. For Donald Trump, he's going to try to blow right through it and act is if that's not a relevant factor."

The NATO summit is a complicated backdrop for Trump to make his first extended overseas visit — he made a quick Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan — since Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry.

Trump has repeatedly criticized fellow NATO members and complained that too few nations are on track to meet the alliance goal of spending at least 2% of GDP on defense by 2024. French President Emmanuel Macron recently lamented that a lack of U.S. leadership was causing the "brain death" of the alliance.

Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton has said the president could move to leave the alliance if he wins reelection.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has warned that a second Trump term could mean NATO's effective dissolution, jokingly said Monday that he'd "say a prayer" as the president heads to London.

"There's time for redemption," Biden told reporters as he campaigned in Emmetsburg, Iowa. "But so far he's treated NATO like it's a protection racket."

In the lead-up to the summit, White House aides sought to soften Trump's past criticism of member nations as deadbeats.

White House officials noted that before Trump took office only four NATO members had reached the 2% benchmark that was set in 2014. Now there are nine countries that have reached the threshold, according to the White House. Eighteen of the 29 members of the alliance are projected to meet the 2% threshold by 2024.

Trump isn't the first U.S. president to attend a NATO summit with impeachment looming.

In June 1974, President Richard Nixon faced criticism when he headed to Brussels as NATO commemorated its 25th anniversary. He met with fellow alliance leaders and tried to convey a message that he remained fully in power even as the Watergate investigation gained steam. By summer's end, Nixon resigned.

In contrast, Trump heads to NATO confident that there aren't the votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to convict him should the House vote to impeach him. Even so, he still might not be able to resist throwing attention back to the impeachment inquiry in Washington.

"While Nixon remained determined to rise above the swirl of impeachment and pretend he wasn't distracted, Trump can't help himself," said Derek Chollet, executive vice president for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "Moreover, for Trump, being in charge hardly means projecting steady confidence — it means proving that he can keep everyone off balance and nervous about what's coming next."

"In one sense impeachment is weakening his hand diplomatically. For a normal president, it would be seen as a substantial problem. For Donald Trump, he's going to try to blow right through it and act is if that's not a relevant factor."

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.


Plus
OPS board votes to change abuse reporting policy so it matches state law

The Omaha Public Schools board voted Monday to alter the district’s child abuse and neglect policy to emphasize that suspected abuse should be reported immediately.

The board voted 7-0 to make the changes. The item was on the consent agenda and was approved without comment.

In past meetings, board member Ben Perlman has talked about wanting to make changes to the policy.

Perlman, who is a prosecutor in Sarpy County, said last month that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with the old version of the policy but that some thought it allowed a grace period for reporting child abuse.

“I don’t think the old policy did that in any way, shape or form, but I think it’s best that we have a policy that tracks and mirrors the state statute for reporting as clearly as possible,” he said. “And that’s what this does.”

The district last updated its written policy on reporting abuse in 2012, after OPS officials were criticized for conducting their own investigation instead of contacting police to look into allegations that a teacher sexually abused students.

That teacher, Shad Knutson, was convicted of enticing a former student into an illicit sexual relationship and sentenced to nine to 14 years in prison.

The language in the policy passed in 2012 first says an employee should tell the principal of suspected abuse and then states that authorities should also be notified.

The policy says employees shall “report such incident or cause a report of child abuse or neglect to be made to the principal and shall also personally assure that the matter has been reported to Child Protective Services or the appropriate law enforcement agency within 24 hours of receipt of such allegation.”

The policy changes approved Monday make the language more straightforward.

“Any employee who has reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse or neglect, or observes such child being subjected to conditions or circumstances which reasonably would result in child abuse or neglect, shall report that abuse or neglect to Child Protective Services by calling 1.800.652.1999 or the appropriate law enforcement agency,” the new policy says.

The policy also now says the report should be made “immediately or as soon as practicable.” It says the employee should make the report within 24 hours of becoming aware of the possible abuse.

After calling the proper authorities, the employee is then instructed to tell the principal or their supervisor. That person is then instructed to contact the district’s human resources department.

Last school year, a first grade teacher at Fontenelle Elementary School, 3905 N. 52nd St., and the school’s principal were arrested.

The teacher, Gregory Sedlacek, was sentenced earlier this year to 50 to 100 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting three students.

He was accused of sexually assaulting a total of six students, ages 6 and 7, but prosecutors dropped additional charges in exchange for his guilty pleas.

Eric Nelson, who was principal of the school at the time of Sedlacek’s arrest, is awaiting trial on a child abuse charge on allegations that he failed to report Sedlacek’s behavior. Nelson no longer works for the district.

Perlman said that as a prosecutor, he see cases in which staff, students, principals and counselors in OPS handle abuse reports appropriately and help law enforcement in successfully prosecuting cases.

“And those are the stories that you never see on TV or reported in the news, but it happens all the time,” he said.

“I’ve had those cases where children are removed from very dangerous situations, and it’s in thanks in large part to the quick response of teachers.”


Money
Nebraska Furniture Mart or 'NFM'? Omaha-based store rolls out new logo

The iconic Nebraska Furniture Mart is slowly introducing a sleeker and decidedly shorter logo — “NFM.”

It’s not an official name change, just a logo update, Nebraska Furniture Mart spokesman Andy Shefsky said.

“We sell a lot more than just furniture, and we’re in a lot more than just Nebraska,” he said. “It’s simply modernizing, reflective of who we are as a company, but not forgetting that Nebraska is our everything.”

Customers already call the Omaha-based furniture giant by a variety of nicknames: “The Mart,” “the Furniture Mart” or simply “Nebraska.”

But the retailer is phasing in the new “NFM” logo and branding, and at some point will replace the “Nebraska Furniture Mart” exterior signage on its Dallas-area store with a new NFM sign, according to a report in the Dallas Morning News. (The Morning News said the signage will change around April 2020, but Shefsky said Monday that there’s no specific timeline.)

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“The last time the company had a new logo was 20 years ago,” Nora Gomez, chief merchandising officer, told the Dallas newspaper, adding, “what does Nebraska mean to Texans anyway?”

Shefsky said customers will notice the new logo alongside the original Nebraska Furniture Mart name on social media, the retailer’s website, advertisements, in-store signs and new credit cards. But there’s no time frame for switching out exterior signs, a sure-to-be-costly endeavor.

“The fact that NFM still stands for Nebraska Furniture Mart means nothing has changed about who we are or where we come from,” Shefsky said.

The store has been a staple for furniture, flooring and appliances in Omaha for decades. In 1937, founder Rose Blumkin, the beloved “Mrs. B,” used $500 to start Nebraska Furniture Mart in the basement of her husband’s downtown Omaha shop.

Rose Blumkin among the carpets at Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1977.

She expanded it into a retail empire. Today, it’s a sprawling space selling TVs, mattresses, ovens and more across 420,000 square feet on a 77-acre campus on 72nd Street in Omaha.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought a 90% stake in the company in 1983.

Blumkin died in 1998, and her grandson, Irv Blumkin, remains chairman and CEO.

Additional Nebraska Furniture Mart stores have opened in Des Moines, Kansas City and, in 2015, a Dallas suburb called The Colony.

Timothy McMahon is a Creighton University associate professor of practice who led marketing for Godfather’s Pizza, Pizza Hut and Conagra Brands.

For Nebraskans, McMahon said, Mrs. B’s humble origin story and their memories of shopping at the Mart might elicit warm and fuzzy feelings. Shoppers in Texas or Kansas City, though, probably don’t share that same sense of familiarity.

“I don’t know if it’s so much a rebrand as a refresh,” he said, pointing to other companies that have tweaked logos or names, such as Dunkin’ Donuts switching to just plain Dunkin’. Nebraska Furniture Mart has expanded beyond Omaha, and its inventory includes more than furniture, so the new NFM logo is most likely an attempt to appeal to a broader audience, McMahon said.

Still, there’s a risk of alienating your customer base with any change, he said, especially Nebraskans who are both proud of their state and sensitive to any criticism or erasure of it.

“I think they’re being real ginger about let’s not slam-bam this thing, let’s slowly call it ‘NFM,’ ” McMahon said. “We won’t see any stores with anything ‘Nebraska’ on it in five years is my guess.”

And customers who value the store’s large selection, pricing and delivery options may not care about a logo change, he said.

Shefsky declined to share sales figures for any locations, but Berkshire Hathaway’s third-quarter earnings report indicated that revenues for its home furnishings business, which includes Nebraska Furniture Mart, RC Willey, Star Furniture and Jordan’s, were essentially flat in the third quarter, and down about 2% year-to-date.

Z LONG/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Shoppers stroll by a holiday shopping sign at Nebraska Furniture Mart in Omaha.

Shefsky also said there are no immediate plans to build and open additional stores, saying the company takes a “conservative, methodical” approach to expansion. 

“As you can see from our history, we’ve added three stores in 82 years,” he said.

The company has no intention of moving its headquarters from Nebraska, either, he said. Omaha leaders are still reeling from the planned sale of TD Ameritrade to San Francisco-based competitor Charles Schwab, and the loss of its corporate headquarters to suburban Dallas-Fort Worth. 

Nebraska Furniture Mart does appear to be trying to appeal to younger millennial shoppers and apartment dwellers with a new private label line, 37B — an homage to Rose Blumkin and the company’s beginnings in 1937 — and a separate collaboration with A.R.T. Furniture and Bobby Berk, one of the stars of the popular Netflix series “Queer Eye.”

The lines feature furniture for smaller spaces — think condos or lofts versus a suburban McMansion — and clean lines that evoke midcentury modern styles.

“Having this huge showroom ... gives us that flexibility to cater to traditional home style or an urban feel,” Shefsky said.

That’s one way for the Mart to compete with brands such as IKEA and West Elm and online retailers like Wayfair, McMahon said.

“There’s a whole new generation of furniture buyers coming forward,” he said. “Younger people are moving past apartments into homes, and they kind of want to feather their nest the way they want to ... and that’s not going to be your mom and dad’s furniture store.”

The Omaha World-Herald is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.


How Omaha and Nebraska’s Fortune 1000 list has changed since 2015

How Omaha and Nebraska's Fortune 1000 list has changed since 2015