Friday, September 30, 2016

Asian banks on 'burning platform'; Commerzbank to cut 9,600 jobs; When India and Pakistan live by hate

1 Asian banks on ‘burning platform’ (Chia Yan Min in Straits Times) Asian banks are on a "burning platform" but the biggest threat does not come from small fintech firms, says DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta.

Instead, large "platform" companies like Alibaba - which offer a range of banking services from lending to wealth management - are a more significant concern. Fintech firms are "attacking" every part of the banking value chain but very few have managed to scale up successfully, he noted. "Even the ones with a good value proposition or seem to be different are not able to hit the ball out of the park."

This is because their solutions have yet to be proven - for instance, many fintech firms specialising in lending make use of credit models that have not been tested through troughs in the economic cycle. In addition, it can be extremely costly for fintech firms to build up a customer base from scratch.

Amid these challenges, small fintech companies are not as significant a threat to banks compared with large "platform" companies which are building ecosystems and tapping their existing customer bases to grow. Chinese tech giant Alibaba, for instance, offers payments, lending, wealth management and insurance services and has been growing these at breakneck pace.

The company gave out about 60 million lines of credit during its Singles' Day shopping festival, Mr Gupta said, adding: "No bank in the world does that in a day. These companies have an installed customer base and so are a far more formidable challenge for banks."

All is not yet lost for banks but they have to be willing to transform. This means there are opportunities for fintech firms to take part in that transformation, Mr Gupta said. "To be able to accelerate their own transformation, it makes sense for banks to work with fintechs... Banks are realising it's not necessary to do everything on their own," he added.

"This transformation will be achieved by only a minority... Some will succeed but many won't. And when many don't, there will be a huge opportunity for platforms and other non-bank companies.”

2 Commerzbank to cut 9,600 jobs (BBC) Germany's second-biggest lender, Commerzbank, is planning to cut 9,600 jobs over the next four years and end dividend payments for the first time. In a statement, the bank said by the end of 2020 it would have "sustainably increased its profitability".

However, the bank also said it aimed to create 2,300 new posts in areas where its business was growing. Last year, it had about 51,300 employees. The announcement comes amid denials that the German government is working on a rescue plan for Deutsche Bank.

Deutsche Bank, Germany's biggest bank, is facing a $14bn (£10.8bn; €12.5bn) fine in the US for mis-selling mortgage-backed bonds before the financial crisis of 2008. Commerzbank's strategy will see it concentrating on its "core" businesses of "private and small business customers" and "corporate clients" and digitising some processes.

Commerzbank is 15% owned by the German government, which took the stake to help the bank in the middle of the financial crisis in 2008. However, critics say that Germany's banks have been far too slow to deal with the consequences of the credit crunch.

3 When India and Pakistan live by hate (IA Rehman in Dawn) To the people of the older generation in Pakistan and India, the present level of confrontation between their countries, especially the war of words between their media persons, sounds like a steep fall from the standards of mutual understanding and decency with which they used to treat one another not long ago.

There were wars between the two countries that did not rob the soldiers of respect for each other’s interest or dignity. We had a full-scale conflict in 1965, but there was no rupture in diplomatic relations. While tanks collided with tanks, soldiers in rival camps recognised each other as normal human beings and many of them treasured memories of days of comradeship.

Today Pakistani poets, actors and sportsmen are being hounded by Indian gangs. Can we ever forget the competition between Indian immigration staff when they noticed Ghulam Ali in the queue at New Delhi airport? How Nusrat Fateh Ali touched the hearts of India’s music lovers reminds one of the homage paid by Tamil Nadu pundits to Roshan Ara Begum by describing her as an incarnation of Saraswati. The way Abida Parveen won the hearts of a big crowd at the Connaught Place is recent history.

Today an Indian is prosecuted for cheering a Pakistani team and a Pakistani boy is sent to prison for applauding Virat Kohli. This change has not come suddenly. The state agencies have worked energetically for it and media has made the mistake of playing along.

What has gone wrong? The rise of politics of exclusion in both countries is a significant factor. The electronic media’s decision to carry the Kargil conflict into the homes of Indian and Pakistani citizens did a good deal of mischief. The media failed to respect the line that separates nationalism from humanism.

From then on, the media on either side has been losing its capacity to respect the other side’s history and interest of the masses. It gloats over the destructive powers of its military and ignores the failure of the two states to feed, clothe and educate nearly half of their populations.

It is time the Indian and Pakistani media realised the great harm to the people of the Sub-continent caused by their war of words, completely oblivious of the fact that the wounds caused by words take longer to heal than the wounds made by swords.

Modern states are becoming less and less amenable to public opinion. The media alone cannot determine what the states should do, but the world will be a much poorer place for everyone if it surrendered its right to tell them what they should not do.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

China markets face worst year since 2011; Global economy in a trap, needs creative destruction; World's biggest bank IPO

1 China markets face worst year since 2011 (Straits Times) This year is seen going down as the worst since 2011 for China's stock investors as the memory of last summer's rout lingers and speculative buying switches to the housing market.

The Shanghai Composite Index will end the year at 3,075, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg poll of 10 strategists and fund managers. That implies a 13 per cent drop over the 12-month period, the steepest in five years. Fading prospects for monetary easing, a slowing economy and the risk of higher US borrowing costs spurring yuan weakness were among factors weighing on the nation's shares, the survey showed.

Turnover on the world's second-largest stock market has collapsed to a two-year low as China's army of investors, unnerved by 2015's plunge in equity values, charged into other assets. After a frenzied bet on commodities futures soured, they have set their sights on a bigger target - property. With new home prices now jumping the most in six years, analysts are scaling back projections for interest-rate cuts.

"The property market and the stock market are like a seesaw," said Li Lifeng, a strategist at Sinolink Securities Co. in Shanghai. "If the 'fever' in the property market doesn't cool down, funds will flow from equities into real estate." Small-cap technology stocks are the least preferred by analysts in the survey because of stretched valuations, while building companies are favored thanks to government efforts to boost infrastructure investment.

2 Global economy in a trap, needs creative destruction (Hans Werner-Sinn in The Guardian) Almost eight years ago, the Lehman Brothers collapse plunged the global economy into recession. Though central banks have maintained ultra-low interest rates, the crisis hasn’t yet been fully overcome. On the contrary, numerous economies simply aren’t making any headway. And Japan has been on the ropes for a quarter of a century.

I find it plausible that behind the post-2008 stagnation lies what I refer to as “self-inflicted malaise”. This hypothesis is best understood in the context of the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of the business cycle. Faulty expectations on the part of market participants regularly cause credit and asset-price bubbles.

Investors, expecting prices and incomes to rise, purchase residential and commercial properties, and they take chances on new business ventures. Real estate prices start to rise, a construction boom occurs, and a new phase of rapid expansion begins, partly sustained by the revitalisation of the domestic economy, including services. The growth in incomes increasingly emboldens borrowers, which further heats things up.

Then the bubble bursts. Investment collapses and real estate prices fall; businesses and banks go bankrupt; factories and residential buildings are vacated; and employees are laid off. Once prices and wages have fallen, new investors step in with new business ideas and establish new firms. After this “creative destruction”, a new phase of rapid expansion sets in.

In the current crisis, however, monetary policy pre-empted the creative destruction that could have formed the basis for a new upswing in growth. Asset holders talked central bankers into believing that Schumpeter’s economic cycle could be overcome by large-scale bond purchases financed via the printing press, and by corresponding interest-rate reductions.

The only way out of the trap is a hefty dose of creative destruction, which in Europe would have to be accompanied by debt relief and exits from the eurozone, with subsequent currency devaluations. The shock would be painful for the incumbent wealth owners, but, after a rapid decline in the dollar values of asset prices, including land and real estate, new businesses and investment projects would soon have room to grow, and new jobs would be created.

The natural return on investment would again be high, meaning that the economy could expand once again at normal interest rates. The sooner this purge is allowed to take place, the milder it will be, and the sooner Europeans and others will be able to breathe easy again.

3 World’s biggest bank IPO (Matein Khalid in Khaleej Times) China's economic malaise has led to a rise in non-performing loans (Beijing estimates 1.5 per cent NPL, Wall Street estimates 12-15 per cent NPL) in the Chinese banking system and a slowdown in financial sector profits. Despite this, I am convinced the $7 billion IPO of the Postal Savings Bank of China (PSBC) in Hong Kong will be a winner. Why?

PSBC is a state owned megabank with 500 million clients and 50,000 branches. This bank's only comparables are ICBC, Bank of China, CCB and the Agricultural Bank of China. This fact alone means Beijing will ensure the deal is a success. Two, the deal is largely presold to strategic shareholders at $0.61.

Three, the euphoria that once made China's Big Four banks the largest financial institutions on the planet is long gone. Chinese state banks now trade below book value. This does not mean the IPO will be a failure. Note China shipbuilding alone bought $2 billion of shares.

Five, the bank has priced the IPO offer price at 4.76 Hong Kong dollars. I expect at least a 10 per cent rise when the bank breaks syndicate and is listed on the stock exchange next week. This is the best money making opportunity in Chinese IPO since Jack Ma led Alibaba in New York all those years ago.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Eurozone growth at 20-month low; Helicopter money is back in the air; UPS tests drones for package delivery

1 Eurozone growth at 20-month low (Gulf News) Eurozone economic growth has slowed to its weakest pace since January 2015, a closely watched survey has shown. Data monitoring company IHS Markit said its September report was “disappointing,” with the underlying performance sluggish and the authorities needing to do more to bolster activity.

IHS Markit said its preliminary September Composite Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) for the Eurozone fell to 52.6 points from 52.9 points in August. The PMI measures companies’ readiness to spend on their business and so gives a good idea of how the underlying economy is performing. Any reading above 50 points indicates the economy is expanding.

Senior IHS Markit Economist Rob Dobson said the report showed the “Eurozone economy ended the third quarter on a disappointing note.” Underlying growth was sluggish at about 0.3 per cent for the quarter, Dobson said, and “it remains clear that the economic upturn is still fragile and failing to achieve any real traction.”

The Eurozone economy has been bumping along for years in a subdued recovery from the 2008 global crash and ensuing debt crisis. Governments adopted tough austerity policies to ease debt but that dampened growth, prompting the European Central Bank to step into the breach with massive stimulus programmes. The results so far have been disappointing, with the ECB under pressure to do more.

2 Helicopter money is back in the air (Robert Skidelsky in The Guardian) Fiscal policy is edging back into fashion, after years, if not decades, in purdah. The reason is simple: the incomplete recovery from the global crash of 2008.

Europe is the worst off in this regard: its GDP has hardly grown in the last four years, and GDP per capita is still less than it was in 2007. Moreover, growth forecasts are gloomy. Fiscal policy has been effectively disabled since 2010, as the slump saddled governments with unprecedented postwar deficits and steeply rising debt-to-GDP ratios. Austerity became the only game in town.

This left monetary policy the only available stimulus tool. The Bank of England and US Federal Reserve injected huge amounts of cash into their economies through quantitative easing (QE) – massive purchases of long-term government and corporate securities. In 2015, the ECB also started an asset-buying programme.

QE has not been a magic bullet. While it helped stop the slide into another Great Depression, successive injections of money have yielded diminishing returns. Moreover, QE has undesirable distributional consequences, because it gives money to those who already have it, and whose current spending is little influenced by having more.

The logic of current economic conditions implies that governments should be taking advantage of ultra-low interest rates to invest in infrastructure projects, which would both stimulate demand and improve the structure of the economy. The problem is the climate of expectations. As the Oxford economist John Muellbauer says, treasuries and central banks have been “hammering into the consciousness of the private sector the importance of reducing gross government debt relative to GDP”.

Helicopter money comes in two forms, which could (and should) be dropped together. The first is to put purchasing power directly into the hands of consumers – for example, by issuing each voter or citizen with smart cards worth $1,000 each.

Alternatively, helicopter money could be used to finance infrastructure spending. The advantage of such “monetary financing” is that such spending, while adding to the deficit and leading to a permanent increase in the money supply, would not increase the national debt, because the government would “owe” the money only to its own banker. This would eliminate the offsetting negative expectation of higher taxes. Like it or not, unconventional fiscal policy could well be the next game in town.

3 UPS tests drones for package delivery (San Francisco Chronicle) One of the world's largest package delivery companies is stepping up efforts to integrate drones into its system. UPS has partnered with robot-maker CyPhy Works to test the use of drones to make commercial deliveries to remote or difficult-to-access locations.

The companies began testing the drones when they launched one from the seaside town of Marblehead. The drone flew on a programmed route for 3 miles over the Atlantic Ocean to deliver an inhaler at Children's Island. "I thought it was fantastic," said John Dodero, UPS vice president for industrial engineering.

CyPhy Works founder Helen Greiner, who previously co-founded robot-maker iRobot, said the drone tests with UPS allow her company to gather engineering and cost information and then work with UPS to look at where drones can add the most value to UPS' extensive network.

Still, the robot-maker doesn't see drones replacing delivery trucks, bikes, buggies or gondolas anytime soon. "Drones aren't going to take the place of all delivery, but there are places where you have an emergency situation where the infrastructure is down, you want or need the package quickly — these are the areas where drones will be the best way to get a package to a location," Greiner said.

It's not all clear skies for drones, though. Newly revised federal aviation regulations don't permit commercial drones to fly over people not involved in their operations and require them to remain within line of sight of their operators at all times, effectively rendering commercial deliveries impossible.

But those restrictions aren't keeping drone-makers and their partners from racing to develop technology suitable for commercial deliveries while they work with regulators to tweak existing rules. Wal-Mart is testing drones it says will help it manage its warehouse inventory more efficiently, and is testing them for home delivery.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

US Fed keeps interest rates unchanged; Zuckerberg and Chan aim to tackle all diseases; Learning and unlearning at Unilever

1 US Fed keeps interest rates on hold (Gulf News) The US Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged on Wednesday but strongly signaled it could still tighten monetary policy by the end of this year as the labor market improved further.

The Fed said US economic activity had picked up and job gains were “solid” in recent months. “The case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened,” the US central bank said. The Fed has held its target rate for overnight lending between banks in a range of 0.25 percent to 0.50 percent since December, when it raised borrowing costs for the first time in nearly a decade.

The Fed also projected a less aggressive rise in interest rates next year and in 2018, and cut its longer-run interest rate forecast to 2.9 percent from 3.0 percent. But in a sign of growing confidence, the Fed said the near-term risks for the economic outlook “appear roughly balanced.” That means 
policymakers think the economy is about as likely to outperform forecasts as to underperform them.

2 Zuckerberg & Chan aim to tackle all diseases (Leo Kelion on BBC) Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged $3bn to fund medical research over the next decade. They said their ultimate goal was to "cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century".

The funds will be distributed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which they created in December 2015. Tech leaders are increasingly turning their attention to health. Earlier in the week, Microsoft said it intended to "solve" cancer by using artificial intelligence tools.

Google's DeepMind unit is working with the NHS to find a way to use computers to more accurately diagnose diseases. And IBM and MIT announced a tie-up earlier this week to develop AI-based systems that could help clinicians improve the care of elderly and disabled patients.

Even so, the Chan Zuckerberg plan is marked by its ambition. Mr Zuckerberg said that at present 50 times more money was spent on treating people who are sick than on curing the diseases that would stop them getting ill in the first place, and added that this needed to change.

Ms Chan said they had already committed $600m to creating a new research centre called the Biohub, which will bring together engineers, computer scientists, biologists, chemists and other innovators.

The Biohub will initially work on two projects. The first is the Cell Atlas, a "map" that describes the different types of cells that control the body's major organs. The second is the Infectious Disease Initiative, which will try to develop new tests and vaccines to tackle HIV, Ebola, Zika and other new diseases. Mr Zuckerberg predicted that by 2100 the average life expectancy would be beyond 100 years.

Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Chan announced in December 2015 that they planned to give away 99% of their shares in Facebook to fund good causes following the birth of their daughter. The organisation's stated mission is to make long-term investments in work that advances human potential and promotes equality.

3 Learning and unlearning at Unilever (Chia Yan Min in Straits Times) Only "paranoid" companies prepared to innovate aggressively will survive in this era of disruptive technologies, Unilever global chief executive Paul Polman said.

The British-Dutch multinational consumer goods giant sells a vast array of food, personal care and other brands, such as Dove soap, Lipton tea and ice cream brands Ben & Jerry's and Wall's.

The digital revolution and the ubiquity of mobile devices have permeated every segment of the company's business, from manufacturing to marketing, said Mr Polman. He said Unilever was exploring new frontiers, such as predicting consumer behaviour with data analytics, making use of virtual reality in retail, and using robotics and sensors in its manufacturing facilities.

"We're growing nicely in South-east Asia, but in order to get that growth, we had to work twice as hard as we did five years ago. The trends are changing incredibly fast," he said. The company is looking to partner start-ups around the world to stay at the forefront of these changes. It launched The Foundry - a global platform to connect its brands with innovative start-ups - in May 2014.

There is need to develop a company culture where people are receptive to "learning and unlearning" - by no means an easy feat.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The two sides of China's debt; UK financial fraud soars 53%; Architect finds inspiration in snakes, peanuts

1 The two sides of China’s debt (Karishma Vaswani on BBC) A full blown banking crisis for China in three years' time. The warning from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) certainly sounds dire, and it should be taken seriously - but don't forget China's banking system is still relatively well protected because it is largely state controlled.

That means that in the event that some Chinese banks face massive defaults, the Chinese government could and very likely would bail them out. The way the BIS's risk instrument is calculated is also worth taking a look at: the credit to GDP gap is basically a measure of how much banks are lending, compared to the size of the country's economy.

What that means is if banks lend too much, and the economy is shrinking, the gap widens - and that's where the risk of a banking crisis is created. Individuals and companies won't be able to pay back their loans at a time when economic growth is sluggish.

But China needs this debt, because it is helping the economy to grow. China's economy has been slowing down, and one of the ways that growth has been propped up is through debt, which is now thought to be worth 225% of GDP, according to, amongst others, the International Monetary Fund.

The key figure to look at is corporate debt. While household debt is still considered to be within global norms, the IMF warns that potential losses from bad debts in China's corporate sector could be worth some 7% of GDP.

Both the BIS and IMF have urged China to act fast to address this, but other China-watchers have said the government will be able to manage any impending crisis because of its deep pockets.

2 UK financial fraud soars 53% (Rupert Jones in The Guardian) Fraud in the UK payments industry has soared by 53% in a year as criminals resort to increasingly sophisticated tactics to trick people out of their personal details and steal their money.

Official industry data shows that a total of 1,007,094 cases of financial fraud – involving online and phone banking, debit and credit cards, and cheques – occurred between 1 January and 30 June this year. That compares with the 660,308 cases reported during the same six-month period in 2015.

This means that an incident is happening every 15 seconds, according to Financial Fraud Action UK (FFA UK), whose members include the major banks and card issuers, and which issued the data. FFA UK and major banks and financial services providers have come together for the first time to launch a national campaign to combat financial fraud called Take Five.

Among the biggest growth areas are impersonation and deception scams, which involve criminals duping victims into disclosing their details. Fraudsters have increasingly been hacking into email accounts and then posing as the builder, solicitor or other tradesperson that the consumer has legitimately employed.

In 2015, fraud in the UK payments industry totalled £755m. The new campaign is designed to remind people “that it pays to stop and think” before they respond to any financial requests and share any personal details. Its launch came a day after separate research claimed that one in 10 people have been the victim of a cyber-attack on their credit or debit card in the last year.

3 Architect finds inspiration in snakes, peanuts (San Francisco Chronicle) Architect Javier Senosiain looks out over his sinuous snake's nest of a building, which seems to writhe amid a green and tranquil vista on the very edge of Mexico City's urban sprawl, and reflects on over 30 years of building egg- and cocoon-like dwellings that are quite literally out of the box.

"When a child is born we put him an incubator, which is a box," said Senosiain, 68. "Then we put him a playpen. The child is placed in a succession of boxes throughout his life, and then when he dies, he is put In another box."

"The idea here is to break with the box," he said, pointing to the 10-apartment complex that looks like a snake with eyes in its body — architectural homage to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec "feathered serpent" god of light and knowledge.

At the project known as the "Nest of Quetzalcoatl," enormous snakes are conformed into passageways, bridges, fountains and walls. The people who live here have to get used to passing through gigantic snakes' mouths to reach surprisingly spacious if cave-like dwellings filled with soft angles and curves.

Senosiain isn't offended by cave comparisons; in fact he kind of likes his homes to look caves. Or wombs. Anything but boxes. He's used whales, snails, sharks and mushrooms as inspiration for previous projects. The buildings often merge into the landscape, sometimes half buried.

He has just opened a retrospective exhibition of his work at Mexico's premiere cultural venue, the capital's Palace of Fine Arts, and the display includes a proposal for prefabricated, low-income housing in a shape that can be compared to an organic Airstream trailer made of concrete or, as he describes it, a peanut.

Given the super-light spray-concrete-over-metal-frame design, the homes can just be picked up and placed on a footing with a crane. "You just hook up the light, water and sewer lines, and it's ready," Senosiain said.

He proposes placing about 60 of these 300-square foot (28-square-meter) micro-homes (they're modular and can be combined into bigger houses) together in a neighborhood, where no house is more than an eight-minute walk from urban services like schools or stores.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Fears rise over likely China banking crisis; Robot taxis approaching fast; Global education as civil rights struggle of our time

1 Fears rise over likely China banking crisis (BBC) Risks of a Chinese banking crisis are mounting, according to a warning indicator from the banking industry's global watchdog. A key gauge of stress in the banking sector is now more than three times above the danger level, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) says in its latest quarterly review.

China's credit-to-GDP gap hit 30.1 in the first quarter of 2016, it said. The BIS considers a credit-to-GDP gap of 10 to be a sign of potential danger. A year ago the BIS quarterly review put the figure for China at 25.4.

The BIS calculates the gap by looking at borrowing in relation to the size of the economy, and comparing that with the long-term trend of that ratio. When the two start to diverge, the BIS argues, a banking crisis could be on the way.

The health of China's banking sector has long been a source of concern for financial markets. Since the financial crisis of 2007-2008 there has been a boom in credit as the Chinese government has attempted to spur flagging growth.

But some of that lending has not been productive and the IMF estimates that loans worth $1.3 trillion are at risk of default. However, as the Chinese banking system is largely owned or controlled by the government, analysts say it would bail out the banking sector if necessary.

2 Robot taxis approaching fast (Carolyn Said in San Francisco Chronicle) Transportation and cities are about to be revolutionized by autonomous vehicles, which will make private car ownership in cities obsolete in less than a decade, according to John Zimmer, Lyft president and co-founder.

“By 2025, owning a car will go the way of the DVD,” he wrote in an essay published on Medium. From Tesla’s Elon Musk to Uber’s Travis Kalanick to Ford’s Mark Fields, that’s a view widely shared by executives in the tech and automotive industries.

But Zimmer wants to get the point across that it’s time now to focus on how autonomous cars will change the world around them, with unneeded parking spots freeing up space for parks, pedestrians and new places for people to connect.

Zimmer said that autonomous vehicles will account for the majority of Lyft rides in five years. He expects that robot cars will be primarily accessed through ride-hailing networks like Lyft, differing from Musk, who predicts that they will be privately owned.

Transportation expert Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of North Carolina said Zimmer’s timeline for autonomous vehicles aligns with his own and those of many others. “There won't be just one approach to automated driving,” Smith said. “We could ultimately see everything from networks of robotaxis to individually owned driverless mobile homes.”

3 Global education as civil rights struggle of our time (The Guardian) Gordon Brown has described funding education in the world’s poorest countries as “the civil rights struggle of our generation”.

Almost half of the world’s children face the prospect of growing up without proper schooling unless there is a transformation in education funding, UK’s former Labour prime minister said. Brown, who heads the international commission on financing global education opportunity, said the shortage of schooling represented a ticking timebomb that could trigger new protest movements among a generation frustrated by a lack of life chances.

Presenting the commission’s findings at the UN, Brown said $30bn in additional funding was needed if the goal of ensuring every child receives a full primary and secondary education by 2030 is to be achieved.

Much of the funding will have to come from within the countries concerned, but he acknowledged more would also be needed from the international community, including institutions such as the World Bank and donor governments.

The commission estimates that by 2030, 800 million of the world’s 1.6 billion children will not get a full education, of whom 200 million children will receive no formal schooling at all. “This is the civil rights struggle of our generation. At the moment we are betraying half our future,” Brown said. “A timebomb is ticking. These young children denied an education will be a source of massive discontent in years to come.

Brown said that low and middle income countries, which spend an average of 2% of annual GDP on education, needed to raise the figure to about 5%. He also called on donor governments to divert a greater proportion of their international aid to education projects, which currently account for just 10% of expenditure.

Friday, September 9, 2016

US, Russia reach Syria deal; MasterCard faces $19bn lawsuit; Robot operates inside the eye

1 US, Russia reach Syria deal (James Landale on BBC) Russia and the US have announced an agreement on Syria starting with a "cessation of hostilities" from sunset on Monday. Under the plan, the Syrian government will end combat missions in specified areas held by the opposition. Russia and the US will establish a joint centre to combat so-called Islamic State and al-Nusra fighters.

The announcement follows talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The opposition had indicated it was prepared to comply with the plan, he said, provided the Syrian government "shows it is serious".

The accord also provides for humanitarian access. Seven days after the start of the cessation of hostilities, Russia and the US will establish a "joint implementation centre" to fight the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda-allied Nusra fighters.

The deal is hugely complex. It requires an awful lot of people to do an awful lot of things at the right time at the right place. The United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the agreement and said the UN would exert all efforts to deliver humanitarian aid.

UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien said conditions in Aleppo had become appalling: "Eastern Aleppo is at the apex of horror, where anyone of us if we were there would find life barely possible, let alone tolerable."

The US and Russia support opposite sides in the conflict that began in 2011: Washington backs a coalition of rebel groups it describes as moderate, while Moscow is seen as a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

2 MasterCard faces $19bn lawsuit (San Francisco Chronicle) MasterCard is being sued for 14 billion pounds ($18.6 billion) on behalf of British consumers for allegedly charging excessive fees on millions of transactions over a 16-year period.

The suit, which is the latest in a string of legal cases around the world over card companies' fees, could bring a payout to 46 million British MasterCard users, the law firm filing it says. The firm, Quinn Emanuel, says the claim is the largest in British legal history.

The suit alleges that MasterCard charged stores unlawfully high fees on credit and debit card transactions between 1992 and 2008, which were passed on to consumers in the form of inflated prices for goods and services.

MasterCard and its larger competitor Visa have been embroiled in legal battles with merchants over their fees for decades. A $6 billion class-action lawsuit in the US, which involves merchants suing Visa and MasterCard, is currently being appealed in US courts. There's also a legal battle between Visa and retail giant Wal-Mart, which involves what are known as "chip and sign" transactions.

MasterCard Inc., based in Purchase, New York, said in a statement that "we continue to firmly disagree with the basis of this claim and we intend to oppose it vigorously." The tribunal will rule late this year whether the case can proceed, the law firm said. If so, it is expected to go to court in 2018.

3 Robot operates inside the eye (The Guardian) British surgeons have successfully performed the world’s first robotic operation inside the eye, potentially revolutionising the way such conditions are treated. The procedure was carried out at John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, where surgeons welcomed its success.
On completing the operation, Professor Robert MacLaren said: “There is no doubt in my mind that we have just witnessed a vision of eye surgery in the future. “Current technology with laser scanners and microscopes allows us to monitor retinal diseases at the microscopic level, but the things we see are beyond the physiological limit of what the human hand can operate on.

Patient Father William Beaver, 70, an associate priest at St Mary the Virgin church in Oxford, said his eyesight was returning following the procedure, having previously experienced distorted vision similar to “looking in a hall of mirrors at a fairground”.

The procedure was necessary because the patient had a membrane growing on the surface of his retina, which had contracted and pulled it into an uneven shape. The membrane is about 100th of a millimetre thick and needed to be dissected off the retina without damaging it.

Surgeons normally attempt this by slowing their pulse and timing movements between heart beats, but the robot could make it much easier. Experts said the robot could enable new, high-precision procedures that are beyond the abilities of the human hand.

This is the first time a device has been available that achieves the three-dimensional precision required to operate inside the human eye. The robotic eye surgery trial involves 12 patients undergoing operations with increasing complexity. Experts said this could lead to use of the robot in retinal gene therapy, a new treatment for blindness which is currently being trialled in a number of centres around the world.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

ECB interest rate stays at zero; North Korea nuclear test suspected; Tenth of wilderness destroyed in 25 years

1 ECB interest rate stays at zero (BBC) The European Central Bank has kept its main interest rate on hold at zero for another month. The eurozone central bank's 25-member governing council left its benchmark borrowing rate at zero. The rate on deposits from commercial banks was also unchanged at minus 0.4%.

The ECB decided against extending the duration of its two-year bond-buying stimulus scheme under which it has been making purchases of €80bn a month. The central bank faces stubbornly low annual inflation of just 0.2% despite pumping €1 trillion in newly printed money into the banking system through bond purchases since March 2015.

Mario Draghi, president of the ECB, said he expected inflation rates to remain low for the next few months, adding: "We are monitoring developments in inflation expectations very closely and stand ready to act."

The Bank anticipates annual inflation at 0.2% in 2016, 1.2% in 2017 and 1.6% in 2018, which it said remained broadly unchanged from previous projections. Nick Kounis, head of macro and financial markets research at ABN Amro, said: "If the ECB waits too long, markets could get nervous."

2 North Korea nuclear test suspected (San Francisco Chronicle) South Korea's Yonhap news agency says Seoul believes North Korea has conducted its fifth nuclear test explosion. The agency's report cited an unidentified government official. South Korea's Defense Ministry couldn't immediately confirm the report.

Monitors earlier reported an earthquake near North Korea's northeastern nuclear test site, a strong indication of a nuclear test. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that "artificial seismic waves" from a quake measuring 5.0 were detected near the Punggye-ri test site, and officials were analyzing whether it was a nuclear test.

North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test earlier this year, part of its push for a nuclear-armed missile that could one day reach the US mainland.

3 Tenth of wilderness destroyed in 25 years (Adam Vaughan in The Guardian) Humans have destroyed a tenth of Earth’s remaining wilderness in the last 25 years and there may be none left within a century if trends continue, according to an authoritative new study.

Researchers found a vast area the size of two Alaskas – 3.3m square kilometres – had been tarnished by human activities between 1993 and today, which experts said was a “shockingly bad” and “profoundly large number”.

The Amazon accounted for nearly a third of the “catastrophic” loss, showing huge tracts of pristine rainforest are still being disrupted despite the Brazilian government slowing deforestation rates in recent years. A further 14% disappeared in central Africa, home to thousands of species including forest elephants and chimpanzees.

“Without any policies to protect these areas, they are falling victim to widespread development. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around,” said lead author Dr James Watson, of the University of Queensland and Wildlife Conservation Society.

The analysis defined wilderness as places that are “ecologically largely intact” and “mostly free of human disturbance”, though some have indigenous people living within them. The largest chunk of wilderness in the Amazon basin shrank from 1.8m sq km to 1.3m sq km, while the Ucayali moist forests in the west of the Amazon, home to more than 600 bird species and primates including emperor tamarins, was badly affected.

“There are four reasons why we need to protect these places. One is biodiversity, the second is carbon, the third is the poorest of the poor are living in them, and the fourth is this is a reference point for nature, of pre-human environments,” Watson said.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

UK economy is surprisingly stable; Apple iPhone 7 ditches the headphone socket; Serena as the greatest sportsperson

1 UK economy is surprisingly stable (San Francisco Chronicle) Fear of an economic meltdown was the biggest weapon in the campaign to stop Britain from leaving the European Union. Economic and financial experts in the City of London, which has a lot to lose from an EU exit, warned that a decision to leave would hit business so hard as to put the country in or close to recession this year.

Ten weeks after the vote, though, some say the fearmongering was overdone. Though the pound has fallen to a 30-year low, as predicted, people continue to spend and activity in manufacturing and services rebounded last month from a sharp contraction in July. House prices have held up.

The question is whether this is simply the calm before the storm — before Britain goes through with the decision to leave the EU and negotiates its new relationship — or is the country such a good place to do business that it can weather the dislocation of Brexit.

Among the most crucial questions to be decided is whether Britain will continue to have access to the EU's single, tariff-less market of more than 500 million people and under what conditions. The financial services industry is particularly concerned about maintaining the current system of "passporting," which allows professionals who are registered in one member state to work anywhere in the bloc.

The details of Britain's new relationship with the EU will be determined by negotiations that will last at least two years and won't begin until the government formally notifies European authorities that it intends to leave. Prime Minister Theresa May has signaled that she won't do this before 2017.

One explanation for stabilization in economic indicators is that the Conservative Party chose a new prime minister two months earlier than was expected when David Cameron stepped down following the referendum. Since taking office, May has dismissed calls for early parliamentary elections and, critically, insisted that she won't immediately trigger Article 50, the clause in the EU treaty that sets a departure in motion.

That eliminated some of the political uncertainty that fueled uncertainty after the vote — and bought the country time. The Bank of England also swung into action, launching a range of stimulus measures to bolster confidence in the economy. Economists are now waiting for more data that show what the economy is doing — and where it is going — over the long term.

2 Apple’s iPhone 7 ditches the headphone socket (BBC) The iPhone 7 will not have a traditional headphone socket. Apple said its lightning connector could be used instead, which would make room for other components. It will also promote the use of wireless earphones, and has released a set of its own called Airpods. The firm said it had taken "courage" to take the step.

However, it risks annoying users who will now require an adapter for existing headphones. The company unveiled its latest handsets following a year in which its phone sales and market share shrank.

Other new features include: the home button can now detect how firmly it is being pressed and provide vibration-based feedback, but no longer moves into the phones; the handsets can be submerged in water up to depths of 1m (3.2ft) for 30 minutes at a time; the larger iPhone 7 Plus model gets a two-lens camera on its rear, allowing it to offer a choice of focal lengths.

The launch comes a week after the European Commission demanded Apple pay up to €13bn in back taxes to Ireland - a ruling the firm is appealing. The 3.5mm headphone jack was made popular by Sony's Walkman cassette players, but was first introduced in one of the Japanese company's transistor radios in 1964.

Apple has repeatedly been willing to ditch connectors and other ageing tech from its products earlier than its rivals. However, it was not first in this case. "Lenovo's Moto Z and select models from Chinese manufacturer LeEco have launched without the 3.5mm socket in 2016," noted IHS's Ian Fogg.

Apple said the Airpods would last "up to five hours" on a charge, and come with a recharging case that can extend their life up to 24 hours before a plug socket is required. The iPhone 7 Plus has both a wide angle and telephoto lens on its back, both using their own 12 megapixel sensor.

3 Serena as the greatest sportsperson (Michael Eboda in The Guardian) One look at this list, and it’s pretty easy to see what they each have in common: Muhammad Ali, Diego Maradona, PelĂ©, Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt, Jack Nicklaus, Sir Donald Bradman, Roger Federer. Whenever the topic of who is the greatest sportsperson of all time comes up for discussion, these are the usual suspects.

Of course, there’s something else they all share: gender. Traditionally, when we talk of sporting achievement at this level, no female athlete receives a mention – until, that is, earlier this week. In an advertising campaign timed to coincide with the US Open tennis championships, the sportswear giant Nike threw a new name into the argument: Serena Williams.

Several characteristics define sporting greatness in an individual: domination, longevity, changing the game, and overcoming adversity; and – of course – the person must win the sport’s big prizes. Who can deny that in each of those categories Serena at least equals, and in many ways surpasses, the aforementioned men?

Only two other players have held the No 1 spot more than twice over the past decade, Kim Clijsters and the now disgraced Maria Sharapova. Serena’s head-to-head record against the Belgian: 7-2. Against the Russian, she has been even more destructive: Sharapova hasn’t beaten Serena in 11 years – that’s 18 consecutive matches.

Arguably, only Bolt has proved to be so much better than the opponents he has had to face, and he doesn’t run against them nearly as often as Serena must face her rivals. Longevity? Again, Serena is right there. She first became world No 1 at the age of 20; she’s now 34, and in the intervening years has held top spot an incredible six times, including for the past three and a half years.

And then throw in her unbelievable comebacks from injury, the worst being when she was forced out of the sport for a year, 2010-2011, having suffered from a pulmonary embolism that left her “on her deathbed”. Because of her inactivity on the court, her ranking dropped to 175; a year later she was back at No 1. It’s hard to contest that she doesn’t deserves to be mentioned alongside the absolute best there has ever been.

That she has redefined what normal means in a way that no other athlete ever has is perhaps why Serena Williams can justly be considered the greatest of all time.