Electric Vehicles, a Century Old, Gain Speed in Marketplace

The International Energy Agency says 13% of cars sold worldwide this year will be electric. Mike O’Sullivan reports from Los Angeles that consumer demand for electric vehicles is increasing as the industry overcomes technical hurdles.

your ad here

COVID Protests Hit Shanghai as Anger Spreads Across China

Protests simmered in Shanghai early Sunday, as residents in several Chinese cities, many of them angered by a deadly fire in the country’s far west, pushed back against heavy COVID-19 curbs nearly three years into the pandemic.

A fire Thursday that killed 10 people in a high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, has sparked widespread public anger as many internet users surmised that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down, which city officials denied.

In Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub, residents gathered on Saturday night at the city’s Wulumuqi Road — which borrows its name from Urumqi — for a vigil that turned into a protest in the early hours of Sunday.

“Lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China!” the crowds in Shanghai shouted, according to a video circulated on social media.

At one point a large group began shouting, “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping, free Urumqi!” according to witnesses and videos, in a rare public protest of the Chinese leadership.

A large group of police looked on and sometimes tried to break up the crowd.

China is battling a surge in infections that has prompted lockdowns and other restrictions in cities across the country as Beijing adheres to a zero-COVID policy even as much of the world tries to coexist with the coronavirus.

China defends President Xi Jinping’s signature zero-COVID policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the healthcare system. Officials have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting toll on the world’s second-biggest economy.

Videos from Shanghai widely shared on Chinese social media showed crowds facing dozens of police and calling out chants including: “Serve the people,” “We don’t want health codes” and “We want freedom.”

Some social media users posted screenshots of street signs for Wulumuqi Road, both to evade censors and show support for protesters in Shanghai. Others shared comments or posts calling for all of “you brave young people” to be careful. Many included advice on what to do if police came or started arresting people during a protest or vigil.

Anger nationwide

Shanghai’s 25 million people were put under lockdown for two months earlier this year, an ordeal that provoked anger and protest.

Chinese authorities have since then sought to be more targeted in their COVID curbs, but that effort has been challenged by a surge in infections as China faces its first winter with the highly transmissible omicron variant.

While low by global standards, China’s case numbers have hit record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections reported by health authorities on Sunday for the previous day.

On Friday night, crowds took to the streets of Urumqi, chanting “End the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air after the deadly fire, according to videos circulated on Chinese social media.

Many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents have been under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days.

In Beijing, 2,700 kilometers away, some residents under lockdown staged small protests or confronted local officials on Saturday over movement restrictions, with some successfully pressuring them into lifting the curbs ahead of schedule.

A video shared with Reuters showed Beijing residents in an unidentifiable part of the capital marching around an open-air carpark Saturday, shouting “End the lockdown!”

The Beijing government did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

The next few weeks could be the worst in China since the early weeks of the pandemic both for the economy and the health care system, Mark Williams of Capital Economics said in note last week, as efforts to contain the outbreak will require additional localized lockdowns in many cities.

your ad here

US Black Friday Online Sales Hit $9 Billion Despite Inflation

U.S. shoppers spent a record $9.12 billion online on Black Friday, a report showed Saturday, as consumers weathered the squeeze from high inflation and grabbed steep discounts on everything from smartphones to toys.

Online spending rose 2.3% on Black Friday, Adobe Inc’s data and insights arm Adobe Analytics said, thanks to consumers holding out for discounts until the traditionally big shopping days, despite deals starting as early as October.

Adobe Analytics, which measures e-commerce by analyzing transactions at websites, has access to data covering purchases at 85% of the top 100 internet retailers in the United States.

It had forecast Black Friday sales to rise a modest 1%.

Adobe expects Cyber Monday to be the season’s biggest online shopping day again, driving $11.2 billion in spending.

Consumers were expected to flock to stores after the pandemic put a dampener on in-store shopping over the past two years, but Black Friday morning saw stores draw less traffic than usual with sporadic rain in some parts of the country.

Americans turned to smartphones to make their holiday purchases, with data from Adobe showing mobile shopping represented 48% of all Black Friday digital sales.

your ad here

COVID Protests in China’s Urumqi Region

Protesters, angry about long COVID-19 lockdowns, have taken to the streets in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western Xinjiang region.

The protests followed a high-rise apartment building fire in Urumqi on Thursday that killed 10 people and concerns that the lockdown measures may have prevented firefighters from entering the building quickly and may have hampered the exit of some residents.

The demonstrations also follow online discussions, now removed, on Chinese social media questioning why there are maskless spectators at the World Cup games, while China continues to subject its citizens to long lockdowns.

“More than 120 countries in the rest of the world have lifted their COVID restrictive measures quite some time ago,” began one of the questions posed by a writer who said he lives in north central Shannxi province, home to China’s ancient capital city Xi’an.

“Why should they lead freer lives than Chinese citizens? I did not see anyone sporting face masks at the Qatar World Cup opening ceremony and did not hear of any attendee showing proof of negative COVID tests; does this mean they live on a different planet from us?”

Urumqi has been under lockdown since August. However, it is reporting about 100 new COVID cases each day.

Urumqi is also home to many Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group that human rights groups and western governments say suffered many human rights abuses at the hands of the Chinese government. China rejects the charges as interference in its internal affairs.

your ad here

World Economic Outlook for 2023 Increasingly Gloomy

The outlook for the global economy headed into 2023 has soured, according to a number of recent analyses, as the ongoing war in Ukraine continues to strain trade, particularly in Europe, and as markets await a fuller reopening of the Chinese economy following months of disruptive COVID-19 lockdowns.

In the United States, signs of a tightening job market and a slowdown in business activity fueled fears of a recession. Globally, inflation grew and business activity, especially in the eurozone and the United Kingdom, continued to shrink.

In an analysis released Thursday, the Institute of International Finance predicted a global economic growth rate of just 1.2% in 2023, a level on par with 2009, when the world was only beginning its emergence from the financial crisis.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) agrees with the pessimistic forecast. In a report issued this week, the organization’s interim Chief Economist Alvaro Santos Pereira wrote, “We are currently facing a very difficult economic outlook. Our central scenario is not a global recession, but a significant growth slowdown for the world economy in 2023, as well as still high, albeit declining, inflation in many countries.”

U.S. interest rates

In the U.S., inflation and the Federal Reserve’s efforts to combat it have been the dominant factors in most analyses of the current and future states of the economy.

The U.S has been experiencing its highest levels of inflation in 40 years, with prices beginning to jump significantly in mid-2021. By the beginning of 2022, annualized rates were over 6%, and while fluctuating a bit, touched a high of 6.6% in October.

Beginning in March, the central bank’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which sets base interest rates, has engaged in a dramatic series of increases, raising the benchmark rate from between 0.0% and 0.25% to between 3.75% and 4.0% today.

The idea behind the Fed’s moves is to change consumers’ incentives. By making the interest rates on savings more appealing, and the rates on borrowing less so, the central bank is working to reduce demand and thereby slow the rate of price increases.

In general, the Fed believes that an annual 2% rate of inflation is healthy and considers that its long-term target.

Avoiding a recession

The Fed’s goal is to get inflation under control without plunging the economy into a damaging recession. And while a number of economic signs indicate that efforts to slow demand might be working, the threat of a recession still looms.

Evidence released this week showed that business activity in the U.S. contracted for a fifth consecutive month as companies reacted to decreased consumer demand. Although the economy has continued to add jobs in recent months, applications for unemployment benefits are on the rise, suggesting a potential softening in the labor market.

The Federal Reserve this week released the minutes from the early November meeting of the FOMC. The minutes revealed a pessimistic view among the central bank’s staff economists about the U.S. economy in the coming year.

Among their findings was that they “viewed the possibility that the economy would enter a recession sometime over the next year as almost as likely as the baseline.”

A “substantial majority” of the voting members of the committee indicated that they believe it is time to slow the rate of interest rate increases, suggesting that the FOMC will retreat from its recent 0.75% increases when it meets in December, perhaps raising rates by just 0.5%.

Global struggle

Internationally, governments are facing a difficult challenge: supporting their citizens during a time when prices are rising dramatically, particularly for necessities like food and fuel, which have been deeply affected by the war in Ukraine.

In a report this week, the International Monetary Fund pointed to the difficult balancing act governments must manage, saying, “With many people still struggling, governments should continue to prioritize helping the most vulnerable to cope with soaring food and energy bills and cover other costs — but governments should also avoid adding to aggregate demand that risks dialing up inflation. In many advanced and emerging economies, fiscal restraint can lower inflation while reducing debt.”

According to the Institute of International Finance (IIF), while global growth will be low but net positive in 2023, specific areas will face declines. Chief among them is Europe, where the IIF forecasts a 2.0% decline in cumulative GDP.

Bright spots

To the extent that there are bright spots in the global economy in 2023, they are in areas such as Latin America and China.

Many countries of Latin America, where the export of raw materials, including timber, ore, and other major economic inputs drives many economies, global inflation has proved beneficial insofar as the prices for those goods have risen. The IIF report projects a 1.2% expansion in GDP across the region, even as much of the remainder of the world sees economic contraction.

China has suffered economically as a result of President Xi Jinping’s “zero-COVID” strategy, which has forced massive lockdowns of whole cities and regions, with serious disruption to economic activity. The IFF and other organizations expect significant loosening in China’s policy in the coming year, which will lead to economic growth of as much as 2.0% as the Chinese economy attempts to revive itself.

U.K. to suffer

With the exception of Russia, which is still laboring under crushing sanctions related to its invasion of Ukraine, the United Kingdom faces the gloomiest outlook for the coming year of any of the world’s largest economies.

With inflation running significantly ahead of other countries, annualized price increases are expected to touch 10% by the end of the year, before slowly moderating in 2023.

Among the G-7 countries, the U.K. is the only one in which economic output has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and it is forecast to shrink further. The OECD projects that the British economy will decline in size by 0.3% in 2023 and will grow at only 0.2% in 2024.

your ad here

China Reports Third Consecutive Daily Record for New COVID Cases

China reported 35,183 new COVID-19 infections on Friday, of which 3,474 were symptomatic and 31,709 were asymptomatic, the National Health Commission said on Saturday, setting a new high for the third consecutive day.

That compared with 32,943 new cases a day earlier — 3,103 symptomatic and 29,840 asymptomatic infections, which China counts separately.

Excluding imported cases, China reported 34,909 new local cases on Friday, of which 3,405 were symptomatic and 31,504 were asymptomatic, up from 32,695 a day earlier.

There were no deaths, keeping fatalities at 5,232. As of Friday, mainland China had confirmed 304,093 cases with symptoms.

Mega-cities continue to struggle to contain outbreaks, with Chongqing and Guangzhou recording the bulk of new cases.

Chongqing, a southwestern city of 32 million people, reported 7,721 new local cases for Friday, a jump of almost 20% from the previous day.

Guangzhou, a prosperous city of nearly 19 million people in southern China, reported 7,419 new local cases for Friday, down slightly from 7,524 cases a day earlier.

New local cases for Friday in the capital Beijing jumped 58% to 2,595, according to figures released by local health authorities Saturday.

There are COVID outbreaks in almost all Chinese provinces, with Hebei, Sichuan, Shanxi and Qinghai provinces each registering more than a thousand new cases on Friday.

your ad here

US Bans Huawei, ZTE Equipment Sales, Citing National Security Risk

The Biden administration has banned approvals of new telecommunications equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies HWT.UL and ZTE 000063.SZ because they pose “an unacceptable risk” to U.S. national security.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said Friday it had adopted the final rules, which also bar the sale or import of equipment made by China’s surveillance equipment maker Dahua Technology Co 002236.SZ, video surveillance firm Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co Ltd 002415.SZ and telecoms firm Hytera Communications Corp Ltd 002583.SZ.

The move represents Washington’s latest crackdown on the Chinese tech giants amid fears that Beijing could use Chinese tech companies to spy on Americans.

“These new rules are an important part of our ongoing actions to protect the American people from national security threats involving telecommunications,” FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

Huawei declined to comment. ZTE, Dahua, Hikvision and Hytera did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rosenworcel circulated the proposed measure — which effectively bars the firms from selling new equipment in the United States — to the other three commissioners for final approval last month.

The FCC said in June 2021 it was considering banning all equipment authorizations for all companies on the covered list.

That came after a March 2021 designation of five Chinese companies on the so-called “covered list” as posing a threat to national security under a 2019 law aimed at protecting U.S. communications networks: Huawei, ZTE, Hytera Communications Corp Hikvision and Dahua.

All four commissioners at the agency, including two Republicans and two Democrats, supported Friday’s move.

your ad here

NASA’s Orion Capsule Enters Far-Flung Orbit Around Moon

NASA’s Orion capsule entered an orbit stretching tens of thousands of miles around the moon Friday, as it neared the halfway mark of its test flight.

The capsule and its three test dummies entered lunar orbit more than a week after launching on the $4 billion demo that’s meant to pave the way for astronauts. It will remain in this broad but stable orbit for nearly a week, completing just half a lap before heading home.

As of Friday’s engine firing, the capsule was 380,000 kilometers from Earth. It’s expected to reach a maximum distance of almost 432,000 kilometers in a few days. That will set a new distance record for a capsule designed to carry people one day.

“It is a statistic, but it’s symbolic for what it represents,” Jim Geffre, an Orion manager, said in a NASA interview earlier in the week. “It’s about challenging ourselves to go farther, stay longer and push beyond the limits of what we’ve previously explored.”

NASA considers this a dress rehearsal for the next moon flyby in 2024, with astronauts. A lunar landing by astronauts could follow as soon as 2025. Astronauts last visited the moon 50 years ago during Apollo 17.

Earlier in the week, Mission Control in Houston lost contact with the capsule for nearly an hour. At the time, controllers were adjusting the communication link between Orion and the Deep Space Network. Officials said the spacecraft remained healthy.

your ad here

London to Expand Vehicle Pollution Zone to Cover 9 Million People

Older and more heavily polluting vehicles will have to pay to enter the entire metropolitan area of London starting next August, the British capital’s mayor said Friday.

Sadiq Khan said the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) would be expanded beyond its current confines starting August 29 to encompass the entire 9 million people of greater London.

Announcing a parallel expansion of bus services in outer London, he argued that air pollution from older and heavier vehicles was making Londoners “sick from cradle to the grave.”

The ULEZ has proved transformational, the mayor said, and its extension would mean “5 million more people will be able to breathe cleaner air and live healthier lives.”

But the plan has prompted a fierce backlash from political opponents and some residents in the capital, who point to a survey indicating that most Londoners opposed extending the zone.

The two-month outreach exercise was held earlier this year by Transport for London, which runs the capital’s various transport systems. The survey heard from 57,913 people, including nearly 12,000 campaigners on either side of the issue.

Although it found 55% of respondents had “some concern” about their local air quality, the survey also recorded 59% as opposed to the ULEZ being expanded.

That rose to 70% in the outer London areas set to be part of the enlargement.

“Sadiq Khan has broken his promise to listen to Londoners,” the Conservative grouping in London’s lawmaking assembly said on Twitter.

“He must U-TURN on the ULEZ expansion.”

The zone has been expanded once since it was introduced in April 2019 and currently covers a large area within London’s North and South Circular inner ring-roads and the city center.

Unless their vehicles are exempt, drivers entering the zone must pay a daily charge of $15.

Gasoline cars first registered after 2005, and diesel cars after September 2015, typically meet the ULEZ standards for nitrous oxide emissions and are exempt.

Air pollution caused around 1,000 annual hospital admissions for asthma and serious lung conditions in London between 2014 and 2016, according to a 2019 report.

A coroner ruled in 2020 that air pollution made a “material contribution” to the death of a 9-year-old London girl in 2013, the first time in Britain that air pollution was officially listed as a cause of death.

Air pollution is “affecting children before they’re even born, and giving them lifelong health issues,” the campaign group Mums for Lungs tweeted.

“Good news for the health of all Londoners,” it said in response to the ULEZ announcement.

Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, a U.N. climate envoy and former mayor of New York, said Khan was “helping to clean London’s air and set an example for cities around the world.”

But opponents of the ULEZ argue it amounts to a tax on poorer drivers least able to afford to replace their polluting vehicles and has hurt small businesses.

The announcement will be “a hammer-blow for desperate drivers and businesses already struggling with crippling fuel costs” during a cost-of-living crisis, said the head of roads policy for motoring body the RAC, Nicholas Lyes.

All cars and vans entering central London during the daytime also pay a “congestion charge” of 15 pounds, a measure first introduced in 2003.

Similar programs have been set up in several other British towns and cities to reduce emission levels and improve air quality.

your ad here

Global Wildlife Summit Approves Shark Protections 

Delegates at a global summit on trade in endangered species on Friday approved a plan to protect 54 more shark species, a move that could drastically reduce the lucrative and cruel shark fin trade. 

Members of the requiem shark and the hammerhead shark families will now have their trade tightly controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). 

The binding resolutions were adopted by consensus on the final day of the two-week meeting by delegates from 183 countries and the European Union. 

“Proposal 37 approved,” Shirley Binder, Panamanian delegate and head of the plenary, said of the requiem shark proposal, after Japan failed to get the blue shark removed from the measure. 

The proposal regarding the hammerhead shark passed without debate. 

Binder earlier told AFP the “historic decision” would mean up to 90 percent of sharks in the market would now be protected.  

The insatiable appetite in Asia for shark fins, which make their way onto dinner tables in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, has spurred their trade. 

Despite being described as almost tasteless and gelatinous, shark fin soup is viewed as a delicacy and is enjoyed by the very wealthy, often at weddings and expensive banquets. 

Shark fins, representing a market of about $500 million per year, can sell for about $1,000 a kilogram (2.2 pounds). 

“This will be remembered as the day we turned the tide to prevent the extinction of the world’s sharks and rays,” said Luke Warwick, director of shark protection for the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). 

The shark species will now be listed on what is known as CITES Appendix II, which is for species that may not yet be threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade in them is closely controlled. 

“The crucial next step will be to implement these listings and ensure they result in stronger fisheries management and trade measures as soon as possible,” Warwick said. 

 

From villain to darling 

Sharks have long been seen as the villain of the seas they have occupied for more than 400 million years, drawing horror with their depiction in films such as “Jaws” and occasional attacks on humans. 

However, these ancient predators have undergone an image makeover in recent years as conservationists have highlighted the crucial role they play in regulating the ocean ecosystem. 

Joaquin de la Torre of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) told AFP that more than 100 million sharks are killed every year. 

“Sharks and rays are the most threatened species, more even than elephants and big cats,” he said.

With many shark species taking more than 10 years to reach sexual maturity, and having a low fertility rate, the constant hunting of the species has decimated their numbers. 

In many parts of the world, fishermen lop the shark’s fins off at sea, tossing the shark back into the ocean for a cruel death by suffocation or blood loss. 

The efforts by conservationists led to a turning point in 2013, when CITES imposed the first trade restrictions on some shark species.

Exploitation

Delegates have been considering 52 proposals to change the protection levels of more than 600 species.

They also approved new protections for the guitarfish ray, crocodiles, frogs and some turtle species. 

“Many of the proposals adopted here reflect there is ongoing overexploitation and unsustainable trade, and escalating illegal trade, and some are due to complex interactions of other threats reducing species populations in the wild, including climate change, disease, infrastructure development and habitat loss,” said Susan Liberman of WCS. 

CITES, which came into force in 1975, has set international trade rules for more than 36,000 wild species. Its signatories include 183 countries and the European Union. 

your ad here

Musk Plans to Relaunch Twitter Premium Service, Again

Elon Musk said Friday that Twitter plans to relaunch its premium service that will offer different colored check marks to accounts next week, in a fresh move to revamp the service after a previous attempt backfired.

It’s the latest change to the social media platform that the billionaire Tesla CEO bought last month for $44 billion, coming a day after Musk said he would grant “amnesty” for suspended accounts and causing yet more uncertainty for users.

Twitter previously suspended the premium service, which under Musk granted blue-check labels to anyone paying $8 a month, because of a wave of imposter accounts. Originally, the blue check was given to government entities, corporations, celebrities and journalists verified by the platform to prevent impersonation.

In the latest version, companies will get a gold check, governments will get a gray check, and individuals who pay for the service, whether or not they’re celebrities, will get a blue check, Musk said Friday.

“All verified accounts will be manually authenticated before check activates,” he said, adding it was “painful, but necessary” and promising a “longer explanation” next week. He said the service was “tentatively launching” Dec. 2.

Twitter had put the revamped premium service on hold days after its launch earlier this month after accounts impersonated companies including pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., Nintendo, Lockheed Martin, and even Musk’s own businesses Tesla and SpaceX, along with various professional sports and political figures.

It was just one change in the past two days. On Thursday, Musk said he would grant “amnesty” for suspended accounts, following the results of an online poll he conducted on whether accounts that have not “broken the law or engaged in egregious spam” should be reinstated.

The yes vote was 72%. Such online polls are anything but scientific and can easily be influenced by bots. Musk also used one before restoring former U.S. President Donald Trump’s account.

“The people have spoken. Amnesty begins next week. Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Musk tweeted Thursday using a Latin phrase meaning “the voice of the people, the voice of God.”

The move is likely to put the company on a crash course with European regulators seeking to clamp down on harmful online content with tough new rules, which helped cement Europe’s reputation as the global leader in efforts to rein in the power of social media companies and other digital platforms.

Zach Meyers, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank, said giving blanket amnesty based on an online poll is an “arbitrary approach” that’s “hard to reconcile with the Digital Services Act,” a new EU law that will start applying to the biggest online platforms by mid-2023.

The law is aimed at protecting internet users from illegal content and reducing the spread of harmful but legal content. It requires big social media platforms to be “diligent and objective” in enforcing restrictions, which must be spelled out clearly in the fine print for users when signing up, Meyers said.

Britain also is working on its own online safety law.

“Unless Musk quickly moves from a ‘move fast and break things’ approach to a more sober management style, he will be on a collision course with Brussels and London regulators,” Meyers said.

European Union officials took to social media to highlight their worries. The 27-nation bloc’s executive Commission published a report Thursday that found Twitter took longer to review hateful content and removed less of it this year compared with 2021.

The report was based on data collected over the spring — before Musk acquired Twitter — as part of an annual evaluation of online platforms’ compliance with the bloc’s voluntary code of conduct on disinformation. It found that Twitter assessed just over half of the notifications it received about illegal hate speech within 24 hours, down from 82% in 2021.

The numbers may yet worsen. Since taking over, Musk has l aid off half the company’s 7,500-person workforce along with an untold number of contractors responsible for content moderation. Many others have resigned, including the company’s head of trust and safety.

Recent layoffs at Twitter and results of the EU’s review “are a source of concern,” the bloc’s commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders tweeted Thursday evening after meeting with Twitter executives at the company’s European headquarters in Dublin.

In the meeting, Reynders said he “underlined that we expect Twitter to deliver on their voluntary commitments and comply with EU rules,” including the Digital Services Act and the bloc’s strict privacy regulations known as General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR.

Another EU commissioner, Vera Jourova, tweeted Thursday evening that she was concerned about news reports that a “vast amount” of Twitter’s European staff were fired.

“If you want to effectively detect and take action against #disinformation & propaganda, this requires resources,” Jourova said. “Especially in the context of Russian disinformation warfare.”

your ad here

Ghana to Use Gold to Buy Oil Instead of US Dollars to Address Debt Distress

Ghana’s finance minister says the country is at high risk of debt distress as the currency, the cedi, has depreciated against the U.S. dollar, increasing its foreign debt by $6 billion this year alone.  Ghana on Thursday announced more spending cuts, including a freeze on government hiring and a hike in the Value Added Tax.  It’s also looking to buy oil using gold rather than U.S. dollars as the West African country grapples with the worst economic crisis in a generation. 

There is immense pressure on the Ghanaian government to turn things around, with inflation hitting a record 40 percent in October. Traders closed their shops last month to protest the rising cost of goods and services as citizens decry the high cost of living. 

Market confidence is very low as the West African country negotiates with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a (U.S.) $3 billion deal to help restructure the economy. 

Presenting the 2023 budget in parliament Thursday, Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta, who some governing party lawmakers have already called for the president to fire, said depreciation of the cedi continues to be a huge problem as the government strives to address the country’s current challenges.

“The demand for foreign exchange to support our unbridled demand for imports undermines and weakens the value of the cedi,” he said. “This contributed to the depreciation of the cedi, which has lost about 53.8 percent of its value since the beginning of the year. Compared to the average 7 percent average annual depreciation of the cedi between 2017and 2021, the current year’s depreciation, which is driving the high costs of goods and services for everyone, is clearly an aberration – a very expensive one.”

As part of the measures to get the economy back in shape, Ofori-Atta announced a freeze on new tax waivers for foreign companies, a review of tax exemptions for mining, oil and gas companies and a reduction in the fuel allocation to government appointees. 

Daniel Amartey, an economist with the Accra-based Policy Initiative for Economic Development (PIED), said the spending cuts send a positive signal, but he wants the government to focus more on blocking leaks in the system. 

“What could be done more significantly in terms of minimizing government expenditure has to do with the corruption in the system and then financial malfeasance,” Amartey said.  “So, we should have a way of addressing corruption and its related offences. The government if indeed is ready to minimize expenditures should empower the office of the special prosecutor to be able to deal with corruption and its related offences.”

Meanwhile, the Vice-President Mahamudu Bawumia announced on Facebook that Ghana is working on a new policy, effective next year, to buy oil products with gold rather than U.S. dollar reserves as part of the government measures to strengthen the cedi.

Explaining how the policy works, Gideon Boako, the spokesperson of the vice president in a text to VOA said, “it is basically going to be [a] government-to-government transaction. The significant drain on the forex [FX, the foreign exchange marketplace] is from oil imports. Once you lock that tunnel, you are good on the FX side.”

He added: “The government of Ghana will buy gold locally with cedis through the Bank of Ghana (financier) and then exchange the gold for fuel (oil) in a barter form, for example, with the government of UAE.”

Amartey described the policy as innovative.

“It is a very progressive one and within the shortest possible time it should be able to help us address the depreciation of the cedi. So, less dollars will be used in terms of our exportation.”

your ad here

Uganda Closes Schools to Fight Ebola, New Cases Fall

Uganda closed schools nationwide on Friday to curb the spread of Ebola, despite the health minister insisting to AFP that new cases had declined.

The directive to close schools two weeks before the end of term was announced earlier this month following the deaths of eight children from the highly contagious disease. 

But in recent weeks, the number of new infections registered in the capital, Kampala, and the epicenters of Mubende and Kassanda has declined, Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng told AFP.

“The major breakthrough in this fight against Ebola for Uganda is that the communities have realized that Ebola is deadly and it kills,” she said. 

“We encourage the population to remain alert and cooperate with the health teams if we are to win this battle and there are signs Uganda is winning,” she added.

Uganda’s WHO office said Thursday that as of November 22, no case had been declared for nine days in Kamapala, 10 days in Mubende and 12 days in Kassanda.

The outbreak has claimed 55 lives out of 141 known cases, according to Ugandan authorities, who have imposed lockdowns in Mubende and Kassanda.

The measures include a dusk-to-dawn curfew, a ban on personal travel and the closure of markets, bars and churches.

At a school in Kampala, one parent told AFP he was relieved to take his child home.

“I think this early closure was really necessary, because of the situation, the Ebola situation in the country,” said banker Joab Baryayaka. “We trust they are safer with us than staying at school, where we cannot guarantee the situation.”

Since the outbreak was declared in Mubende on September 20, the disease has spread across the East African nation.

President Yoweri Museveni has repeatedly ruled out imposing nationwide COVID-like restrictions.

According to WHO criteria, an outbreak of the disease ends when there are no new cases for 42 consecutive days — twice the incubation period of the disease.

The strain now circulating is known as the Sudan Ebola virus, for which there is no vaccine, although several would-be jabs are heading toward clinical trials.

Ebola is spread through bodily fluids. Common symptoms are fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhea. 

Outbreaks are difficult to contain, especially in urban environments.

your ad here

Inflation Clouds ‘Black Friday’ Shopping Bonanza

Retailers braced for their biggest test of the year: Will U.S. consumers open their wallets wide for the Black Friday sales that kick off the holiday shopping season?

Consumer confidence is precarious, rattled by soaring inflation in the world’s biggest economy, casting uncertainty on this festive shopping season that starts the day after Thursday’s Thanksgiving holiday.

A year ago, retailers faced product shortfalls in the wake of shipping backlogs and COVID-19-related factory closures. To avert a repeat, the industry front-loaded its holiday imports this year, leaving it vulnerable to oversupply at a time when consumers are cutting back.

“Supply shortages was yesterday’s problem,” said Neil Saunders, managing director for GlobalData Retail, a consultancy. “Today’s problem is having too much stuff.”

Saunders said retailers have made progress in recent months in reducing excess inventories, but that oversupply created banner conditions for bargain-hunters in many categories, including electronics, home improvement and apparel.

Juameelah Henderson always checks for sales, “but more so now,” she said while exiting an Old Navy store in New York with four bags of items.

The clothing chain’s prices were “pretty good,” she said. “If it’s not on sale, I really don’t need it.”

Higher costs for gasoline and household staples like meat and cereal are an economy-wide issue but do not burden everyone equally.

“The lower incomes are definitely hit worst by the higher inflation,” said Claire Li, a senior analyst at Moody’s. “People have to spend on the essential items.”

Leading forecasts from Deloitte and the National Retail Federation project a single-digit percentage increase, but it likely won’t exceed the inflation rate.

The consumer price index has been up about 8% on an annual basis, which means that a similar size increase in holiday sales would equate with lower volumes.

European countries including Britain and France have been marking Black Friday for a few years now, too, and are also enduring sky-high inflation. So merchants there face a similar dilemma.

“Retailers are desperate for some spending cheer, but the worry is that it could turn out to be more of a Bleak Friday,” said Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said in London.

Diminishing savings

U.S. shoppers have remained resilient throughout the myriad stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, often spending more than expected, even when consumer sentiment surveys suggest they are in a gloomy mood.

Part of the reason has been the unusually robust state of savings, with many households banking government pandemic aid payments at a time of reduced consumption due to COVID-19 restrictions.

But that cushion is starting to whittle away. After hitting $2.5 trillion in excess savings in mid-2021, the benchmark fell to $1.7 trillion in the second quarter, according to Moody’s.

Consumers with incomes below $35,000 were affected the most, with their excess savings falling nearly 39% between the fourth quarter of 2021 and mid-2022, according to Moody’s.

Accompanying this drop has been a rise in credit card debt visible in Federal Reserve data and anecdotally described by chains that also report more purchases made with food stamps.

“We’re seeing continued pressure,” said Michael Witynski, chief executive of Dollar Tree, a discount retailer that has seen “shifts” in shoppers, “where they’re very consumable and needs-based focused to try and make that budget work and stretch it over the month.”

Mixed picture

Earnings reports from retailers in recent days have painted a mixed picture on consumer health.

Target stood on the downcast side of the ledger, pointing to a sharp decline in shopping activity in late October, potentially portending a weak holiday season.

The big-box chain expects a “very promotional” holiday season, said Chief Executive Brian Cornell.

“We’ve had a consumer who has been dealing with very stubborn inflation for quarter after quarter now,” Cornell said on a conference call with analysts.

“They’re shopping very carefully on a budget, and I think they’re looking at discretionary categories and saying, ‘All right, if I’m going to buy, I’m looking for a great deal and a great value.'”

But Lowe’s, another big U.S. chain specializing in home-improvement, offered a very different view, describing the same late-October period as “strong” and seeing no evidence of consumer deterioration.

“We are not seeing anything that feels or looks like a trade down or consumer pullback,” said Lowe’s Chief Executive Marvin Ellison.

Consumers like Charmaine Taylor, who checks airline websites frequently, are staying vigilant.

Taylor thus far has been thwarted in her travel aspirations due to high plane ticket prices. Taylor, who works in child care, isn’t sure how much she’ll be able to spend on family this year.

“I’m trying to give them some little gifts,” Taylor said at a park in Harlem earlier this week. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to. Inflation is hitting pretty hard.”

your ad here

China Reports Another One-Day COVID Case Record, Tightens Curbs

China on Friday reported another single-day record-high number of COVID-19 infections, as cities across the country enforced measures and curbs to try to control outbreaks. 

Excluding imported infections, China recorded 32,695 new local COVID-19 cases on Thursday, of which 3,041 were symptomatic and 29,654 were asymptomatic, up from 31,144 a day earlier, which was the previous record.

Big outbreaks are numerous and far-flung, with the southern city of Guangzhou and southwestern Chongqing recording the bulk of the new cases, although hundreds of new infections have been reported daily in cities such as Chengdu, Jinan, Lanzhou, Xian and Wuhan. 

Cases quadrupled in Shijiazhuang to 3,197 on Thursday from the previous day.  

China’s capital, Beijing, reported 424 symptomatic and 1,436 asymptomatic cases on Thursday, compared with 509 symptomatic and 1,139 asymptomatic cases the previous day, local government data showed. 

Financial hub Shanghai – where a COVID lockdown that began in mid-April crippled the city of 25 million residents for two months – reported nine symptomatic cases and 77 asymptomatic cases on Thursday, compared with nine symptomatic cases and 58 asymptomatic cases a day before, the local health authority reported. 

Guangzhou, a city in the south of nearly 19 million people, reported 257 new locally transmitted symptomatic and 7,267 asymptomatic cases Thursday, compared with 428 symptomatic and 7,192 asymptomatic cases a day before, local authorities said. 

Chongqing reported 258 new symptomatic locally transmitted COVID-19 infections and 6,242 asymptomatic cases for Thursday, compared with 409 symptomatic and 7,437 asymptomatic cases the previous day, local government authorities said. 

your ad here

Twitter, Others Slip on Removing Hate Speech, EU Review Says

Twitter took longer to review hateful content and removed less of it in 2022 compared with the previous year, according to European Union data released Thursday.

The EU figures were published as part of an annual evaluation of online platforms’ compliance with the 27-nation bloc’s code of conduct on disinformation.

Twitter wasn’t alone; most other tech companies signed up to the voluntary code also scored worse. But the figures could foreshadow trouble for Twitter in complying with the EU’s tough new online rules after owner Elon Musk fired many of the platform’s 7,500 full-time workers and an untold number of contractors responsible for content moderation and other crucial tasks.

The EU report, carried out over six weeks in the spring, found Twitter assessed just over half of the notifications it received about illegal hate speech within 24 hours, down from 82% in 2021.

In comparison, the amount of flagged material Facebook reviewed within 24 hours fell to 64%, Instagram slipped to 56.9%, and YouTube dipped to 83.3%. TikTok came in at 92%, the only company to improve.

The amount of hate speech Twitter removed after it was flagged slipped to 45.4% from 49.8% the year before. TikTok’s removal rate fell by a quarter to 60%, while Facebook and Instagram saw only minor declines. Only YouTube’s takedown rate increased, surging to 90%.

“It’s worrying to see a downward trend in reviewing notifications related to illegal hate speech by social media platforms,” European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova tweeted. “Online hate speech is a scourge of a digital age and platforms need to live up to their commitments.”

Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment. Emails to several staff on the company’s European communications team bounced back as undeliverable.

Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter last month fanned widespread concern that purveyors of lies and misinformation would be allowed to flourish on the site. The billionaire Tesla CEO, who has frequently expressed his belief that Twitter had become too restrictive, has been reinstating suspended accounts, including former President Donald Trump’s.

Twitter faces more scrutiny in Europe by the middle of next year, when new EU rules aimed at protecting internet users’ online safety will start applying to the biggest online platforms. Violations could result in huge fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual global revenue.

France’s online regulator Arcom said it received a reply from Twitter after writing to the company earlier this week to say it was concerned about the effect that staff departures would have on Twitter’s “ability maintain a safe environment for its users.”

Arcom also asked the company to confirm that it can meet its “legal obligations” in fighting online hate speech and that it is committed to implementing the new EU online rules. Arcom said that it received a response from Twitter and that it will “study their response,” without giving more details.

Tech companies that signed up to the EU’s disinformation code agree to commit to measures aimed at reducing disinformation and file regular reports on whether they’re living up to their promises, though there’s little in the way of punishment.

your ad here