2014-01-15

We begin today’s headlines close to home with Al Jazeera America:

North California drought threatens farmers, ag workers, cities – and you

Driest conditions in 100 years could hit the nation’s food basket hard, affecting half of US fruits and vegetables

Water shortages are affecting urban areas too. Voluntary and mandatory water restrictions are in effect in Northern California cities and counties. Mendocino declared a state of emergency. The city of Folsom’s 72,000 residents are under mandatory water restrictions: Limit lawn watering to twice a week, use a shutoff valve on hoses when washing cars.

Meanwhile, in Santa Cruz, residents can’t wash paved surfaces and may be cited if they water their yards between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Local restaurants may serve water only on request, and swimming pools may not be drained and refilled. If the drought continues, restrictions will get tighter, said Eileen Cross, the city’s community-relations manager.

The Globe and Mail delivers a blow:

Internet neutrality rules struck down by U.S. appeals court

A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday struck down the government’s latest effort to require internet providers to treat all traffic the same and give consumers equal access to lawful content, a policy that supporters call net neutrality.

The Federal Communications Commission did not have the legal authority to enact the 2011 regulations, which were challenged in a lawsuit brought by Verizon Communications Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said in its ruling.

“Even though the commission has general authority to regulate in this arena, it may not impose requirements that contravene express statutory mandates,” Judge David Tatel said.

MIT Technology Review parses consequences:

Net Neutrality Quashed: New Pricing Schemes, Throttling, and Business Models to Follow

Depending on who you ask, a court loss for “net neutrality” will mean either a new era of innovation or preferential treatment and higher costs.

The Internet was built on the principle that all packets of data should be treated equally, which shaped the products and companies built on top of it.

A decision issued today by a U.S. federal appeals court struck down parts of the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet, or “net neutrality,” rules issued in 2010. Accepting much of a challenge by Verizon, the court killed the FCC’s policies that aimed to prevent data-discrimination or data blocking. But the ruling does require carriers to disclose when they block, slow, or expedite various kinds of traffic in the future.

The results could be far-reaching. Consumers may see new offerings such as free content from companies willing to pay carriers extra for delivery; app companies could find themselves charged a fee to ensure that their videos get glitch-free performance; and e-commerce companies could be asked to pay to make sure their bits go through quickly enough to close a sale.

Quartz stays:

Jamie Dimon says he has no plans to step down as CEO after $22 billion in fines

A feisty Jamie Dimon said that he’s not planning on resigning in the wake of a raft of fines that has plagued JP Morgan over the past year. Asked if he would consider resigning on a conference call this morning to discuss the bank’s fourth-quarter results with reporters, the chairman and CEO fired off: “No, no and no.” He qualified his comments in the same breath, “And it’s all up to the board.”

JP Morgan has faced a litany of legal fines related to its business practices—resulting, last quarter, in its first-ever loss under Dimon’s tenure. Most recently, the firm was fined $2.6 billion for charges that it had turned a blind eye to signs of fraud in the massive Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. That fine, the firm reported today, drove down quarterly profits for the latest quarter by 7.3%. Overall, the sprawling firm has been hit with $22 billion in fines and penalties in the past year.

Sources have also told Quartz that Dimon has no intention of stepping down. So far both of directors of the firm and investors have expressed support of the 57-year old exec, who took the helm of the bank in 2005, the sources say.

From Salon, academia vanquished:

GOP’s Enron-esque higher ed plan: Fire tenured faculty to fund student dorms

In Gov. Tom Corbett’s Pennsylvania, if it’s public and it’s education, burn it down!

The tenure system in American higher education is a limitless source of debate: Critics say it leaves younger scholars to publish or perish, or decaying professors to cash in on mediocrity; advocates note its importance in protecting academic freedom, risk-taking and, insofar as professors are workers, job security.

In Pennsylvania, it’s all moot. Now, under the stewardship of Jeb Bush’s former sidekick, tenured faculty are being laid off in droves. The response has been student sit-ins, faculty mobilization and investigations of Enron-style accounting. It’s a real-time, rolling image of higher education shock therapy — and a threatening signal to public universities nationwide.

TheLocal.no invests:

Oil fund in $480m San Francisco office deal

Norway’s Oil Fund has struck a $480m deal to buy stakes in office blocks in San Francisco and Washington DC, as it continues its push to increase the proportion of property investments in its portfolio.

Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM), which manages Norway’s Government Pension Fund or Oil Fund, teamed up for the deal with the US insurer MetLife, with whom it did a deal to buy stakes in a financial centre in Boston in December.

“With these two investments, we are expanding our joint venture with MetLife in line with our strategy and original intent,” Karsten Kallevig, chief investment officer for real estate at Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM), said.

“Our growing partnership with NBIM speaks to our strong capabilities in the asset-management business,” said Robert Merck, global head of real estate investments at New York-based MetLife.

On to Canada with the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Canadian home prices return to record high

Canadian home prices ticked back up to a record high in December, thanks entirely to Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto, according to the Teranet-National Bank house price index.

The 0.1-per-cent rise in home prices in December reversed a 0.1-per-cent decline in November, and returned the index to its all-time high.

But the majority of the 11 cities that the index tracks have seen prices edge down in recent months. Winnipeg, Calgary, Ottawa-Gatineau, Quebec City, Montreal, Hamilton, Halifax and Vancouver each saw prices decrease from November to December.

On to Europe, first with a tussle from EUbusiness:

Euro-MPs take ‘Troika’ to task

EU lawmakers took the ‘Troika’ to task Tuesday, seeking answers about how the controversial trio of international creditors ran painful eurozone debt bailouts which encouraged austerity instead of growth.

European Parliament deputies asked who among the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund should be held to account for the policies followed since 2010.

They were also keen to hear how economic forecasts, key to the bailout programmes and aid payments, fell short, especially in the case of Greece which required a second massive rescue marked by even more tough austerity provisions.

And a Troikarch spins it, from EUobserver:

Former ECB chief blames governments for euro-crisis

The former head of the European Central Bank (ECB), Jean-Claude Trichet, has blamed EU governments for what he called the “worst economic crisis since World War II” and said the eurozone is still at risk.

Trichet, who led the ECB between 2003 and 2011, spoke out on Tuesday (14 January) at a European Parliament hearing on the “troika” of international lenders which managed bailouts in Cyprus, Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Echoing EU economics commissioner Olli Rehn’s remarks to MEPs ealier this week, Trichet underlined the “extraordinary” and unpredictable nature of the euro-crisis.

A threat assessed with TheLocal.se:

Extreme right ‘biggest threat to EU’: Malmström

An EU push to counter extremism will give member states cash to help defectors, with Sweden’s European Commissioner identifying right-wing extremists as the biggest threat in the union today.

“The biggest threat right now comes from violent right-wing extremism,” Commissioner Cecilia Malmström told Sveriges Radio (SR) on Tuesday. “For example in Greece and in Bulgaria, but also in Hungary.”

Malmström said both right-wing and left-wing extremists were radicalizing in Europe.

On to Britain with an ultimatum from The Independent:

George Osborne to tell EU to ‘reform or decline’ in speech to Tory party’s Eurosceptics

The latest outbreak of infighting over Europe has placed fresh strain on Coalition unity, with one senior Lib Dem figure likening David Cameron to Neville Chamberlain in his willingness to appease

The European Union will be challenged by George Osborne today to “reform or decline”, as backbench pressure intensifies on the Tory leadership to demand the return of widespread powers from Brussels.

The latest outbreak of infighting over Europe has placed fresh strain on Coalition unity, with one senior Liberal Democrat figure provocatively likening David Cameron to Neville Chamberlain in his willingness to appease Eurosceptic critics.

The source claimed that continuing concessions by the Prime Minister echoed his predecessor’s behaviour in negotiating with Hitler ahead of the Second World War.

The Guardian stiffs the poor:

Warning that fund for poorer students faces £200m cutback

Treasury targets cash for disadvantaged students as Labour says coalition is punishing the poorest again

Funds to help disadvantaged students attend university could be slashed by as much as 60% as the Treasury seeks to close the budget deficit of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), according to a group that represents universities.

The student opportunity fund – a £327m programme for disadvantaged students paid to universities through the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) – could be slashed by about £200m, it fears, after wrangling between the Treasury and BIS over the latter department’s shortfall, caused in part by an explosion in course fees paid to private further education providers.

The million+ policy group, which represents many new universities, claimed that the Treasury and the Cabinet Office were pressing for the reductions as part of the cost savings being imposed on BIS.

Ireland next and another no from the Irish Times:

New party seeks euro exit and end to immigration

National Independent Party to run European election candidates in new South constituency

Ireland’s newest political party, the National Independent Party, has said it favours exiting the euro and opposes economic migration.

Formally launched in Dublin today, it has an estimated 120 members and lodged its registration papers as a political party to run a limited campaign in Dublin and Limerick for the local elections.

It then aims to reach a 300-member threshold and run in the 2016 general election.

Austerity to come from the Health Service Executive via the Irish Times:

HSE chief raises prospect of further cutbacks in health service

O’Brien tells Oireachtas committee it will not be possible to meet fully all demands

HSE chief executive Tony O’Brien held out the prospect of further health cutbacks this year given the financial challenge facing the service.

Mr O’Brien said this evening it will not be possible to meet fully all of the growing demands being placed on the health service this year.

Addressing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health, he said that “some service priorities and demographic pressures may not be met”.

On to Germany, with a bonus from EurActiv:

German banks too slow to cap bonuses, says watchdog

Germany’s banks have made little progress on efforts to curb bonuses of top managers ahead of new European rules designed to control the type of risky behaviour that fuelled the financial crisis, the country’s financial watchdog said on Monday (13 January).

Only four of the 15 banks that Bafin examined last year capped bankers’ bonuses at the level of their base salaries, in line with the European Union-wide rule that came into force this year.

“We are not entirely happy with any bank,” Bafin chief Raimund Röseler told journalists.

France next, and another presidential promise evaporates, from TheLocal.fr:

France doubles number of Roma evictions

France’s controversial expulsions of Roma, which has drawn condemnation from the European Commission, hit a record high in 2013. A new report says nearly 20,000 were deported – double the number that were expelled in 2012.

France expelled nearly 20,000 Roma people in 2013, which is not only a record, but more than double the number kicked out of the country the previous year.

Despite President François Hollande’s criticisms of his predecessor’s policy towards the Roma, the number of expulsions has been climbing since he took office in 2012, French newspaper L’Express reported. About 9,400 were expelled in 2012 and 8,400 were forced out in 2011.

“The expulsions are part of a policy of refusal,” of the Roma, “that has got worse since the left-leaning government took power,” the report says. “The authorities want only one thing: send the Roma back to their country of origin.”

Spain next, and class war from El País:

Wage gap in Spain widens hastening the decline of the middle classes

Remunerations of directors rose seven percent last year as middle management salaries fell, according to a study

The salary gap in Spain is getting bigger. While directors saw their remuneration rise by 6.9 percent last year, middle management suffered a fall of 3.8 percent and workers a drop of 0.4 percent.

The figures released Tuesday, in an annual report carried out by Barcelona business school Eada and the consultant ICSA, are further proof of the unraveling of the middle classes, according to the director of the study, Ernest Poveda. “What we’re seeing is a clear polarization trend: with a rise in what directors receive and a fall in the rest — two segments where wages are moving downward to the same level, that is where the trend is one of homogenization, while those who earn the most earn even more.”

The study, which is based on 80,000 interviews, shows that the average salary of directors has been on the rise in spite of the crisis, with the exception of 2009. The average annual gross salary of this group rose from 68,705 euros to 80,330 last year. Workers and middle management saw an increase in what they earn in 2008 and 2009 before experiencing falls thereafter. The average gross salary of middle managers last year was 36,522 euros, and for other employees it was 21,307 euros.

Along the same line, from TheLocal.es:

Credit squeeze ‘killing’ 90 Spanish firms a day

Spanish banks, alarmed by multiple bankruptcies and mass unemployment, are keeping a tight rein on loans and potentially choking off the lifeblood of a longed-for economic recovery, analysts say.

Insufficient credit threatens to throttle Spain’s fragile recovery, they warn, after a double-dip recession triggered by a 2008 property crash, which left banks awash with bad loans.

Last year, Spain shored up its tottering banks’ balance sheets with a €41.3-billion ($56 billion) programme financed by its eurozone partners.

But the banks have shown reluctance to lend, economists and industry say, as the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy struggles with a 26-percent unemployment rate and, according to official data compiled by auditors PwC, a 20-percent rise in bankruptcy filings in 2013.

Bloomberg totals the tab:

Spain Says CAM Savings Bank Rescue Cost May Reach $21 Billion

Spain’s 2011 bailout of savings bank Caja de Ahorros del Mediterraneo (CAM) may cost as much as 15 billion euros ($21 billion) because its assets performed worse than expected, Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said.

Banco Sabadell SA (SAB) bought the failed savings bank known as CAM for 1 euro after Spain’s deposit-guarantee fund, financed by the nation’s banks, injected 5.25 billion euros into the lender and offered guarantees against certain assets souring, shielding the national budget from losses.

De Guindos said yesterday the assets included in the so-called asset-protection plan had performed worse than predicted, and the total cost of the cleanup may amount to as much as 15 billion euros. By comparison, Bankia SA, the lender whose nationalization in 2012 pushed Spain to seek a European banking bailout, took 18 billion euros of European rescue funds and transferred about 22 billion euros of real estate-linked assets to the nation’s so-called bad bank.

El País notes a decline:

House sales in November plunge close to lowest levels since the crisis broke

Transactions declined an annual 15.7 percent in the month to 21,847, the second lowest figure since the real estate boom bust

Just a day after Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said that the housing market was beginning to touch bottom in a recovery that is gathering pace, the National Statistics Institute (INE) on Tuesday announced that home sales plunged in November of last year to their second-lowest level since the crisis began around the start of 2008.

The INE said housing transactions in the month shrank by 15.7 percent to 21,847, a figure only above that of April 2012, which coincided with that year’s Easter holidays and therefore had fewer working days.

Despite an accumulated fall in prices since the highs set in 2007 of around 40 percent after a decade-long boom that suddenly burst, house sales have fallen for the last seven straight months. In the first 11 months of last year, home sales dropped 2.1 percent.

On to Lisbon and another decline from the Portugal News:

Bad year for national vehicle production

Last year saw a 5.8 percent slide in overall vehicle production, 3.1 percent below the average for the last five years, with a total of 154,016 vehicles coming out of multinational owned factories in Portugal according to figures from ACAP – the National Car Association published this week.

Adding to glimmers of life flickering back into the economy, December did see a sharp improvement with a total of 9,440 vehicles produced, up 92.3 percent year-on-year as last year automobile firms were mothballing in the run up to the Christmas period having already built up reserve stock levels.

Annual passenger car production was down 5.2 percent year-on-year while the vans, heavy-goods and commercial vehicles shed 6.6 percent, 14.9 percent and 7.3 percent of their output respectively.

ACAP added that 2013 saw car production at “15.4 percent of the average for the last ten years and 3.1 percent below the five-year average.”

Italy next, and a ray fo sunshine from AGI:

Finance Minister reports modest signs of growth

Finance Minister Fabrizio Saccomanni, speaking in Milan at a conference on the euro, reported weak and modest signs of growth in the economy. Saccomanni does not underestimate anti-European feeling in various countries just a few months before the elections for the European parliament.

“These feelings are not a surprise considering the unprecedented economic crisis and we must now concentrate on revival and unemployment,” he added.

TheLocal.it blows smoke:

Turin votes in favour of legalizing cannabis

Turin’s city council has approved a motion in favour of making the drug legal for therapeutic purposes, making it the first of Italy’s large cities to do so.

The proposal is an appeal to the Italian Parliament that they “move from a prohibitionist structure to one where soft drugs, particularly cannabis, are legally produced and distributed”. This means that while the vote doesn’t make it legal to consume, buy or sell cannabis for individual use yet, it paves the way for a more tolerant view of the drug in the eyes of the law.

There are two parts to the proposal; the first called for the right to use cannabis for ‘therapeutic’ purposes, something already permitted in Tuscany, Liguria and Veneto, where as well as authorizing pharmacies to sell cannabis-based products, experimental distribution of free medications containing cannabis has been approved in hospitals, as well as direct production of marijuana.

The second part is more drastic: it overrules the Fini-Giovanardi law, by which offences involving cannabis are treated in the same way as those involving cocaine or heroin. This would pave the way for legalization of recreational cannabis use.

After the jump, the latest from Greece, a Turkish proposal, Latin American trade and travails, Indian finance, Thai troubles, Chinese neoliberalism, Japanese deficits, environmental woes, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . .

From Reuters, our first Greek headline:

Analysis: Greece hopeful, but any debt relief likely to be symbolic

Greece expects the euro zone to provide some debt relief to Athens later this year but the impact on its vast liabilities will be little more than symbolic.

The magic bullet for Greece would be the writing-off of some portion of the 240 billion euros in loans it has received from the euro zone since 2010. But Athens is adamant it does not want that and the euro zone is not willing to provide it.

Instead, what Greek officials seek is some combination of at least three measures: a further lowering of interest rates on existing loans, an extension of the maturities and pay-back schedule, and some relief on financing EU structural funds.

From Keep Talking Greece, the real reasons:

Olli Rehn: Greek haircut did not happen in 2010 in order to save European banks and EU member states

It’s official! What we thought and reported about back in 2010 and 2011 about why there was no haircut of Greek debt, it’s been now officially confirmed by EU commissioner Olli Rehn. “Greek debt did not undergo restructuring ( haircut ) in 2010,  in order to avoid contagion of the crisis in other  member states and European Banks,” Economic and Monetary Affairs EU commissioner Olli Rehn replied to a question posed by SYRIZA MEP Nikos Hountis, during an session between Rehn and Members of European Parliament on the work of the troika of international lenders.

As expected left-wing SYRIZA commented on Rehn’s reply stressing in a statement “Greece had to sign loan agreements so that European economies and banks be saved.”

ANSAmed looks on the bright side:

Crisis: Greece posts budget surplus in 2013, minister says

Greece’s central government posted a primary budget surplus of 700 million euros last year and will also post a surplus at the more closely-watched general government level, making it eligible for further debt relief, Deputy Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said on Tuesday as reported by Kathimerini online. Staikouras said that the core government’s primary surplus — that is, not counting the cost of paying interest on existing debt — was 691 million euros.

He said the primary surplus for overall government spending is expected to be 812 million euros. The official figure will be released in about one month. Greece has been promised it can seek more debt relief from its euro zone partners and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that have bailed out the country, after it posts a primary surplus for a full year.

A battle over the loss of the commons from ANA-MPA:

SYRIZA attacks ND, PASOK over the privatisation of power grid operator ADMHE

Main opposition leftist SYRIZA party attacked New Democracy and PASOK on Tuesday regarding the bill on the privatisation of the country’s Independent Power Transmission Operator (ADMHE), which the government has submitted to the Parliament.

“New Democracy and PASOK will be held accountable for the crime,” SYRIZA said in a statement.

According to SYRIZA, the government wants the discussion on the issue to be concluded in just three meetings held by the production and trade Parliamentary committee and then submit it to the plenary for voting.

Kathimerini English comes up short:

SDOE chief admits only fraction of names on Lagarde list have been checked

Of the 2,062 Greeks named on the Lagarde list of depositors with accounts in Switzerland, Greece’s Financial Crimes Squad (SDOE) has so far conducted checks on just 266, according to the agency’s chief, who told MPs on Tuesday that his service is suffering from a lack of trained personnel.

Appearing before Parliament’s ethics and institutions committee, SDOE head Stelios Stasinopoulos faced a barrage of questions about the list. He said that he expects 155 of the 266 checks being carried out on Greeks with deposits at the Geneva branch of HSBC to be completed by the end of this month. He added, however, that so far about 10 million euros that had not been declared to authorities was found in the accounts of six people on the list.

Intolerance suspicions from EnetEnglish.gr:

Investigation into alleged Greek coastguard abuse of migrants

Probe follows letter from Europe’s top human rights watchdog

Ministers tell Nils Mui┼żnieks, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, that investigations have been launched into claims that Greek coastguard officials ill-treated migrants last year

An internal investigation has been ordered into a number of cases of alleged ill-treatment of migrants by Greek coastguard officials last Autumn, the government has told Europe’s top human rights watchdog.

“The Hellenic Coastguard commandant has ordered the investigation of three distinct cases of alleged ill-treatment of third-country nationals by staff of the Hellenic Coastguard for the period between August and December 2

And Greek Reporter goes to the laundry:

Offshore Companies and Huge Bank Accounts for Golden Dawn’s Members

Greece’s Financial and Economic Crime Unit (SDOE) has located two offshore companies in Cyprus which belong to a member of Golden Dawn. This member also appears to be connected with the funding side of the party. SDOE has also found 150,000 euros in a bank account of Golden Dawn MP, Yiannis Lagos, who is currently in detention and who previously declared that he was unemployed.

These revelations add a new dimension to SDOE’s investigations in terms of the financial transactions and sources of the party’s funding. Intensive inquiries began last Autumn after the murder of 35-year-old Pavlos Fyssas.

The results of analysis of files on personal computers belonging to three Golden Dawn MPs in detention – Giorgos Yermenis, Panayiotis Iliopoulos and Efstathios Boukouras – are expected within the next few hours. It is believed that some of these will provide authorities with valuable information regarding the inner workings of the organization.

Turkey next, and a declaration from Deutsche Welle:

Erdogan offers compromise over Turkey’s judiciary bill

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will backtrack on his efforts to curb the powers of the country’s judiciary if the constitution is changed. His offer comes as police raided an Islamic charity.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will withdraw his plan to curb the powers of the country’s judiciary if certain constitutional changes are met. His offer comes as police raid an Islamic charity.

The tumult between the Turkish government and the police over the latter’s anti-graft raids in December continues, with Erdogan on Tuesday describing the investigation as a “black stain on Turkey’s democratic and legal history” and an “act of treachery.”

On to Latin America and trade talk with MercoPress:

China becomes the leading market for Uruguayan meat exports

Uruguay’s meat exports slid 6.5% in volume during 2013 compared to the previous year, but the big news is that China has become the main client for beef, followed by Nafta countries, (US, Canada and Mexico), according to the latest release from the country’s National Meat Institute, INAC.

Regarding beef which represents 80% of all Uruguay meat exports, last year overseas sales were down 7% in dollars and in volume. On the other hand lamb and mutton soared 24% in dollars and 29% in volume, compared to 2012. However ovine meat only represent 6% of all Uruguayan meat exports.

The increase in lamb and mutton can be attributed to the opening of the US market for Uruguayan produce, a successful ending for eight years of negotiations.

Pressed, from Journalism in the Americas:

Journalists stranded in Michoacán, Mexico while covering vigilante groups

A group of journalists covering the expansion of vigilante groups in the Mexican state of Michoacán became stranded in a local town after being caught in crossfire this weekend, reported freedom of expression organization Article 19.

In the past week, the “self-defense” vigilante groups that emerged months ago to combat the Knights Templar drug cartel occupied small communities throughout the state in preparation for an assault on the city of Apatzingán, a headquarters for the cartel.

The resulting shootouts and roadblocks prevented reporters from the media outlets Reuters, El Universal, Mic Photo Press and Punto de Partida from leaving the town of Antunez.

Chilean stalemate from the Santiago Times:

Ongoing port strike hits fruit exporters with billion dollar losses

Exporters say government and port authorities are refusing to assume responsibility in resolving potentially devastating strikes.

Hundreds of thousands of crates of perishable fruit are sitting idle in one of Chile’s major ports and exporters fear billion dollar losses unless work is resumed.

Strikes have swept through the country’s ports since last Friday, with the produce industry — still reeling from devastating spring frosts — being the hardest hit in terms of exports. Ronald Bown, president of the Chilean Fruit Exporters Association (Asoex), said in a release Thursday that both the government and port authorities are refusing to assume the responsibility of resolving the work stoppages.

According to Asoex, losses this year have already reached US$1.5 billion in an industry which last year totalled US$4.5 billion. The trade organization says 1.6 million containers of fresh fruit are idle, and expects a decrease of 28 percent in exportations due to the strikes and external factors, such as the spring frosts.

MercoPress plans a deal:

Mercosur and EU to exchange tariff reduction proposals in early February

Paraguay’s Foreign minister Eladio Loizaga said on Monday that at the latest in early February Mercosur and the European Union would be exchanging their tariff reduction proposals for the much delayed free trade agreement. The deadline originally was December but it was delayed on request from Brussels.

“If it’s not at the end of January it will take place in early February” said Loizaga who added the issue was in the hands of foreign ministers from the original four Mercosur full members, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, but not Venezuela the latest incorporation to the group.

“Venezuela’s negotiation process with the rest of the group is yet unfinished”, so this means Caracas is not part of the negotiations with the European Union.

And jobless woes from the Tico Times:

Costa Rica has the second highest unemployment rate in Latin America, according to the UN

Costa Rica’s unemployment rate dropped from 9.6 to 8.9 during the first three quarters of 2013 but it wasn’t enough to avoid the lamentable title.

A report released by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said Costa Rica had the second highest unemployment rate in the region.

Only Colombia with an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent surpassed Costa Rica’s 8.3 percent, according to the report dated December 2013.

Off to Asia, starting in India with the Financial Express:

State Bank of India fears more strain on asset quality

State Bank of India expressed apprehension that bank’s asset quality might deteriorate further due to contraction in factory output

Country’s largest commercial bank State Bank of India (SBI) today expressed apprehension that the bank’s asset quality might deteriorate further due to contraction in factory output.

“The contraction in factory output as indicated by falling IIP will put additional pressure on banks, including SBI, on the asset quality,” bank’s managing director A Krishna Kumar said here at the launch of a specialised MSME branch.

He indicated that the stress on manufacturing sector and mid-corporates would continue and this would definitely put pressure on asset quality.

The Financial Express again, with advice for the central bank:

RBI should pause rate hike, focus on growth: HSBC chief

HSBC India country head Naina Lal Kidwai has said the Reserve Bank needs to desist from hiking interest rates as growth has slumped to below potential.

“I do think that we need a pause in interest rates. Growth (situation) is scary,” Kidwai said at a CNBC TV18 awards function here last evening.

In the mid-quarter monetary policy review last month, RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan had left the key policy rate unchanged, after raising it 50 bps in two instalments since he took over on September 4, saying he was waiting for more data clarity.

Thailand next, with circumspection from South China Morning Post:

Police lie low as anti-government protesters seek to occupy Bangkok

Crowds of protesters take over major road intersections in an ongoing attempt to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office and establish a ‘people’s council’.

At an abandoned police post by a key intersection occupied by anti-government protesters in the Thai capital, rally guard Ton had no doubt who was in charge of security.

“We’re in control of the city now,” he said.

In a twist to a peculiarly Thai protest, police have almost deserted the streets during a new round of mass rallies aiming to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and curb the political dominance of her brother, former premier Thaksin.

Bangkok Post stands pat:

Yingluck will not quit, EC urged to join election discussion

Yingluck Shinawatra insisted Tuesday she will remain on as caretaker prime minister and will take part in Wednesday’s meeting with various sides to discuss the Election Commission’s proposal to postpone the Feb 2 general election.

“I will continue to carry out my duty as prime minister, not because I want to cling to my post or to attain political stability, but because it is my duty to protect democracy and democracy belongs to the people,” Ms Yingluck, the caretaker premier and defence minister, told reporters on Tuesday.

She was responding to questions about the anti-government protesters’ demanddemand she step down to allow the pre-election reform process to begin.

The latest from Channel NewsAsia Singapore:

Two wounded as shots fired on Bangkok protest

Two people were wounded in a shooting at an opposition rally in the Thai capital Wednesday, authorities said, as protest leaders prepared to march through plush city neighbourhoods in their bid to oust the premier.

A man and a woman were taken to hospital with minor wounds after shots were fired shortly after midnight on the fringes of the protesters’ main “shutdown” base in Bangkok’s commercial heart, according to the city’s Erawan emergency centre.

Both were discharged overnight. Local reports said they were a garbage man and a protester. Television footage showed dozens of shots fired by unknown gunmen.

China next, starting with bankster news from the Global Times:

Foreign banks optimistic about reform

Foreign banks believe that they will benefit from China’s reforms, even though their market share is expected to remain limited for some time, PricewaterhouseCoopers aid at a press conference on Tuesday.

“Foreign bank CEOs are broadly -optimistic that forthcoming reforms will create opportunities for them,” Raymond Yung, financial services leader at PwC China, said at the press conference, citing a new PwC report released Tuesday.

The report is based on a survey of 37 foreign bank executives in China, and was conducted from September to October 2013. However, the executives are still uncertain about how these new policies and regulations will be applied to them, said Yung.

Want China Times notes a new high:

RMB strengthens to new high against USD

The renminbi marched to a new record high against the US dollar on Tuesday.

The yuan strengthened 20 basis points to reach 6.093 per US dollar, the strongest since July 2005, when the country launched reforms in the exchange rate mechanism, according to the China Foreign Exchange Trading System.

The yuan’s rise was partly attributed to poor US. non-farm payroll data. The world’s biggest economy added only 74,000 non-farm jobs in December, far less than what the most conservative analysts forecast.

From the Global Times, a good idea:

Bookstores profit from new policy

The Ministry of Finance and the State Administration of Taxation jointly announced a preferential policy in an effort to promote culture by making books exempt from value added tax (VAT) from 2013 to 2017. The government will return the tax levied against book sellers in 2013 at the beginning of 2014.

Last summer saw a wave of small bookstore closures across China, and bookstore managers were forthright in their views of the new government policy.

“The new policy will certainly benefit us because the VAT and corporate income tax are the two main taxes for us. A 13 percent tax reduction means a lot,” said Liu Gui, general manager of Page One China, which has opened three Page One bookstores in Beijing and one in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

Bloomberg Businessweek takes a shopping trip:

More Chinese Luxury Shoppers Prefer to Buy Overseas

Not all luxury brands have fared equally under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on graft and conspicuous flaunting of cadre wealth. While fancy watch sales dipped 11 percent in the year since a Rolex-wearing Chinese official nicknamed “Brother Watch” was ousted from his job in September 2012, sales of luxury apparel and cosmetics both jumped 10 percent in 2013, according to consulting firm Bain & Co.

Among fashion labels prominent in China, Burberry as most popular last year with mainland consumers, according to a new survey, “Luxury Purchase Power,” by Chinese news site IFeng. The next most popular brands, in order, were Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Dior. (In November, Burberry appealed a Chinese regulators’ decision to limit its trademark on the company’s iconic plaid pattern in China.)

Last year overall luxury spending in mainland China rose just 2 percent, down from 7 percent in 2012, according to Bain. However, that slowdown doesn’t fully reflect all purchases by Chinese buyers, who increasingly shop for luxury items overseas.

On to Tokyo and the downside from JapanToday:

Japan posts record current account deficit

Japan’s current account deficit in November tripled year-on-year to a record $5.7 billion as a weak yen pushed up the country’s post-Fukushima energy bills, official data showed Tuesday.

The shortfall in the current account hit 592.8 billion yen, easily eclipsing a deficit of 179.6 billion yen in the same month a year earlier.

The latest data marked the largest monthly current account deficit based on comparable data stretching back to 1985, blowing past a 455.6 billion yen shortfall in January 2012, according to the finance ministry.

And so to Fukushimapocalypse Now!

RT hits a new high:

Fish testing at 124 times over radiation limit caught off Fukushima

Fish with deadly levels of radioactive cesium have been caught just off the coast of Fukushima prefecture, as scientists continue to assess the damage caused to the marine food chain by the 2011 nuclear disaster.

One of the samples of the 37 black sea bream specimens caught some 37 kilometers south of the crippled power plant tested at 12,400 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium, making it 124 times deadlier than the threshold considered safe for human consumption, Japan’s Fisheries Research Agency announced.

The samples were caught at the mouth of the Niidagawa river in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, on November 17. Two other fish caught there also tested non-safe for human consumption, showing radiations levels of 426 and 197 becquerels per kilogram. The rest of the fish were reportedly within safety limits.

NHK WORLD gets the lead out:

Fukushima to improve evacuation alerts

Officials in Fukushima Prefecture plan to step up efforts to make sure people receive calls to evacuate in case of nuclear accidents.

The move follows a drill last month assuming a scenario of accidents occurring at 2 power plants in the prefecture, including the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant.

About 20 vehicles including police cars and fire engines used loudspeakers to call on residents temporarily allowed to stay in their homes in no-entry zones.

A related story from the Mainichi:

12 hours needed for people within 30-km radius of nuclear plants to evacuate: study

At least 12 hours would be needed for everyone living within a radius of 30 kilometers from nuclear power plants in Japan to evacuate in the event of a nuclear accident, according to research results conducted by a private group.

In cases where the use of evacuation routes is limited to national highways due to complex disasters such as earthquakes, people within a radius of 30 kilometers from the Tokai No. 2 Power Station in Ibaraki Prefecture would need five days and a half to complete their evacuation. Those people living near the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station in Shizuoka Prefecture would likely need about six days to move out of the 30-kilometer zone, the research findings show.

The Los Angeles Times reassures:

West Coast radiation from Fukushima disaster poses no risk, experts say

Scientists trying to quell an outburst of concern say radiation from the 2011 tsunami that hit the Japanese nuclear power plant has dropped.

Radiation detected off the U.S. West Coast from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan has declined since the 2011 tsunami disaster and never approached levels that could pose a risk to human health, seafood or wildlife, scientists say.

Experts have been trying to dispel worries stemming from a burst of online videos and blog posts in recent months that contend radiation from Fukushima is contaminating beaches and seafood and harming sea creatures across the Pacific.

The Asahi Shimbun demonstrates:

Anti-nuclear sit-in protest marks 1,000 days in Kyushu

In April 2011, one month after the onset of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, demonstrators staged a sit-in outside the head office of Kyushu Electric Power Co.

The anti-nuke protesters were still there the next day, and the day after that.

On Jan. 14, the activists marked the 1,000th day of their sit-down protest.

Kyodo News campaigns:

Antinuclear ex-PM Hosokawa to vie for Tokyo gov., backed by Koizumi

Former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa said Tuesday he will run in the upcoming Tokyo gubernatorial election with an antinuclear agenda after securing the backing of popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at a meeting in Tokyo.

The move, which could have game-changing impact on the race for the helm of the Japanese capital, drew a quick response from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who suggested during his trip in Ethiopia that candidates should not focus too much on the issue of nuclear energy.

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is prepared to recommend former health minister Yoichi Masuzoe, who declared his intention to run in the Feb. 9 contest later in the day, saying he has “also kept saying no nuclear power in Japan.”

More from South China Morning Post:

Former prime ministers Koizumi and Hosokawa gang up on Abe over nuclear power

Charismatic Koizumi backs Hosokawa’s bid for Tokyo governor on anti-atomic-energy platform

Two former Japanese prime ministers challenged incumbent Shinzo Abe’s pro-nuclear power policy yesterday, with charismatic Junichiro Koizumi backing fellow ex-premier Morihiro Hosokawa’s bid to become Tokyo governor on a platform opposing atomic energy.

Hosokawa’s candidacy could turn the local election into a referendum on Abe’s energy policies and boost the anti-nuclear movement, which has lost momentum since a surge after the March 2011 Fukushima disaster.

Surveys show most voters favour abandoning nuclear power, but the electorate nonetheless propelled Abe’s pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) back to power in December 2012, largely because of his promises to revive the economy and divisions among anti-nuclear opposition forces.

Reactors ahoy from Nikkei Asian Review:

S Korea to build more nuclear plants despite opposition

South Korea has decided to rely more heavily on nuclear power as concerns for the country’s industrial competitiveness and stable energy supply outweigh the domestic opposition stirred up by Japan’s Fukushima disaster and a major scandal.

The South Korean cabinet on Tuesday approved a long-term plan that calls for nuclear power to account for 29% of the nation’s electricity supply in 2035, up from 26% now. Achieving that target will require the construction of five to seven new reactors in addition to the 11 already planned, and possibly more if any existing reactors are decommissioned by then.

The 29% policy goal is based on generation capacity. Nuclear power is actually to make up a much larger share — probably 30% to 45% — of the total electricity supply because of the technology’s higher operating rate than hydroelectric facilities or fossil-fuel-burning plants. In setting the target, “We have taken energy security, (the need to cut) greenhouse gas emissions and industrial competitiveness into account,” the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Energy explains.

Fracktacular news from the London Telegraph:

Fracking opponents are ‘irrational’, says David Cameron

David Cameron calls many opponents of fracking “irrational” and says they are “religiously opposed” to the controversial technique.

Many opponents of gas fracking are “irrational” and simply “can’t bear the thought of another carbon-based fuel”, David Cameron said on Tuesday.

The Prime Minister attacked people who he described as “religiously opposed” to shale gas exploration. He said that fracking is a “real opportunity” for Britain and that it could solve our gas needs for decades to come.

The Prime Minister warned that people refusing to back the process despite being presented with evidence that it is safe are not being “helpful”.

The Guardian calls a halt:

UK defeats European bid for fracking regulations

Leaked documents show successful opposition to attempts to safeguard the environment with a legally binding directive

Members of the Green European parliament group and NGO representatives take part in a campaign against shale gas and fracking public action in front of the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

The UK has defeated European Union attempts to set legally binding environmental regulations for the continent’s fledgling shale gas industry, the Guardian has learned.

David Cameron has led intense lobbying against the proposals, arguing that existing rules are strict enough to keep fracking safe and that new rules would delay investment and increase costs.

Supreme corpocracy from Scientific American:

Monsanto Critics Denied U.S. Supreme Court Hearing on Seed Patents

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Monsanto Co’s biotech seed patents on Monday, dealing a blow to a group of organic farmers and other activists trying to stop the biotech company from suing farmers if their fields contain a few plants

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Monsanto Co’s biotech seed patents on Monday, dealing a blow to a group of organic farmers and other activists trying to stop the biotech company from suing farmers if their fields contain a few plants containing the company’s genetically modified traits.

The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and a group of dozens of organic and conventional family farmers, seed companies and public advocacy interests sued Monsanto in March 2011. The suit sought to prohibit the company from suing farmers whose fields became inadvertently contaminated with corn, soybeans, cotton, canola and other crops containing Monsanto’s genetic modifications.

For our final item, a vanishing act from BBC News:

Pine Island Glacier’s retreat ‘irreversible’

Antarctica’s mighty Pine Island Glacier (PIG) is now very probably in a headlong, self-sustaining retreat.

This is the conclusion of three teams that have modelled its behaviour.

Even if the region were to experience much colder conditions, the retreat would continue, the teams tell the journal Nature Climate Change.

This means PIG is set to become an even more significant contributor to global sea level rise – on the order of perhaps 3.5-10mm in the next 20 years.

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