Despite Payment, Investors Brace for Russia to Default

Prices for Russian credit default swaps — insurance contracts that protect an investor against a default — plunged sharply overnight after Moscow used its precious foreign currency reserves to make a last-minute debt payment Friday.

The cost for a five-year credit default swap on Russian debt was $5.84 million to protect $10 million in debt. That price was nearly half the one on Thursday, which at roughly $11 million for $10 million in debt protection was a signal that investors were certain of an eventual Russian default.

Russia used its foreign currency reserves sitting outside of the country to make the payment, backing down from the Kremlin’s earlier threats that it would use rubles to pay these obligations. In a statement, the Russia Finance Ministry did not say whether future payments would be made in rubles.

Despite the insurance contract plunge, investors remain largely convinced that Russia will eventually default on its debts for the first time since 1917. The major ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s have declared Russia is in “selective default” on its obligations.

Russia has been hit with extensive sanctions by the United States, the EU and others in response to its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and its continuing military operation to take over Ukrainian territory.

The Credit Default Determination Committee — an industry group of 14 banks and investors that determines whether to pay on these swaps — said Friday that they “continue to monitor the situation” after Russia’s payment. Their next meeting is May 3.

At the beginning of April, Russia’s finance ministry said it tried to make a $649 million payment due April 6 toward two bonds to an unnamed U.S. bank — previously reported as JPMorgan Chase.

At that time, tightened sanctions imposed for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prevented the payment from being accepted, so Moscow attempted to make the debt payment in rubles. The Kremlin, which repeatedly said it was financially able and willing to continue to pay on its debts, had argued that extraordinary events gave them the legal footing to pay in rubles, instead of dollars or euros.

Investors and rating agencies, however, disagreed and did not expect Russia to be able to convert the rubles into dollars before a 30-day grace period expired next week.

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Satellites Detect California Cow Burps, a Major Methane Source, From Space

Satellites have detected methane emissions from belching cows at a California feedlot, marking the first time emissions from livestock – a major component of agricultural methane – could be measured from space.

Environmental data firm GHGSat this month analyzed data from its satellites and pinpointed the methane source from a feedlot in the agricultural Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, California in February.

This is significant, according to GHGSat, because agricultural methane emissions are hard to measure, and accurate measurement is needed to set enforceable reduction targets for the beef-production industry.

GHGSat said the amount of methane it detected from that single feedlot would result in 5,116 tons of methane emissions if sustained for a year. If that methane were captured, it could power over 15,000 homes, it said.

Agriculture contributes 9.6% to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and about 36% of methane emissions, mostly from livestock.

The Biden administration late last year announced its plan to crack down on methane emissions from the U.S. economy.

The EPA unveiled its first rules aimed at reducing methane from existing oil and gas sources that require companies to detect and repair methane leaks. The Agriculture Department rolled out a voluntary incentive program for farmers.

At last year’s climate talks, more than 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% and to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Much of this reduction would need to come from the livestock industry, according to the U.N. food agency, which said that livestock accounts for 44% of man-made methane emissions.

Several methods to reduce livestock methane emissions are being tested, including adding seaweed to cattle diets.  

GHGSat provides its data to the United Nations’ International Methane Emissions Observatory program.

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India, Pakistan Reeling From Pre-Monsoon Season Heat Wave

Meteorologists warn the extreme heat gripping India and Pakistan is likely to have many cascading effects on human health, ecosystems, agriculture, water, energy, and the economy. 

For the past few days, hundreds of millions of people have been sweltering under temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius in widespread areas of India and Pakistan. The intense heat is predicted to continue until May 2 and then subside.

The World Meteorological Organization says both India and Pakistan regularly experience excessively high temperatures in the pre-monsoon period, especially in May. While heatwaves do occur in April, it says they are less common.

WMO spokeswoman Clare Nullis said national meteorological and hydrological departments in both countries are implementing measures that have been successful in saving lives in the past few years.

“A lot of work has been taken on heat health action plans specifically and in particular to protect the most vulnerable, and the most vulnerable in urban areas where the impact of the heat tends to be magnified,” she said. “So, we do hope that mortality from this ongoing event will be limited.”

Nullis said large swaths of Pakistan are experiencing daytime temperatures between five and eight degrees Celsius above normal for this time of year. She said the extreme heat will have a punishing impact on Pakistan’s mountainous regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“The Pakistan Meteorological Department is warning that the unusual heat has the risk of speeding up the melting of snow and ice, and this might trigger what we call glacial lake outbursts, which lead to flash floods,” she said. “These are, obviously, very deadly hazards.”

Meteorologists say it is premature to attribute the extreme heat in India and Pakistan solely to climate change. However, they agree it is consistent with what is expected in a changing climate.

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns heat waves and humid heat stress will be more intense and frequent in South Asia this century.

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Nepal Second South Asian Country to Grapple with Economic Woes

Nepal has banned imports of cars, alcohol and other luxury goods to conserve foreign exchange reserves as spiraling prices of fuel and food imports stemming from the war in Ukraine strain an economy already battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Himalayan nation between India and China is the second South Asian country, after Sri Lanka, to face a foreign exchange crunch.

The goods that will not be imported include expensive televisions and mobile phones, the government said this week. The ban will remain in force until mid-July.

To conserve fuel, which Nepal imports, the work week in government offices has been shortened to five days.

“This is a short-term measure taken to prevent the economic condition of the country from going bad,” said Narayan Prasad Regmi, a senior official in the Industry, Commerce and Supplies Ministry.

Nepal’s central bank has said foreign exchange reserves are sufficient to cover just over six months of imports, down from 10 months in mid-2021. The landlocked nation of 29 million is heavily dependent on imports.

The government hopes the measures will help stave off a crisis like the one roiling Sri Lanka, where acute foreign exchange shortages have resulted in massive supply shortfalls, runaway price increases of fuel and food and a suspension of payments of its foreign debt.

Experts however call Nepal’s temporary ban on luxury goods and the shortening of the work week “desperate measures” that will not address the root cause of the problem that the economy faces.

“All this is only a quick fix and a Band-Aid over essentially what is a very big crack. The basic problem is that our imports far exceed our exports, so we face a huge balance of payments problem,” according to Santosh Sharma Poudel, co-founder of Nepal Institute for Policy Research.

Nepal’s foreign exchange crunch began during the COVID-19 pandemic. With tourism hit, earnings from foreign visitors plummeted in a country where more than a million tourists used to come before the pandemic.

Remittances sent by an estimated 3 million to 4 million Nepali migrants employed mostly in the Middle East and India have also taken a hit – before the pandemic they added up to as much as one-fourth of the country’s gross domestic product.

The war in Ukraine has added to its woes, as prices of both crude oil and food spiral in global markets — Nepal’s imports most of its essential needs, such as fuel, and food, such as cooking oil.

While Nepal’s economy is not as fragile as Sri Lanka’s, there is apprehension of what lies in store in one of the world’s poorest nations. The World Bank warned this week that the war in Ukraine is set to cause the “largest commodity shock” since the 1970s and “households across the world are feeling the cost-of-living crisis.”

They are households like that of Vijay Thapa, who works as a cook in New Delhi to support his family in a village in Nepal. “They can no longer manage in what I send. Prices of everything have spiked, whether it is cooking oil or wheat. Taxi fares have gone up by 50%.”

The situation is more worrisome for small countries, experts say.

“This is the second example in South Asia of how the war just after the pandemic is affecting us,” said Dhanajay Tripathi, a professor at the South Asian University in New Delhi.

“There are real worries for countries like Nepal because with smaller incomes it is harder for them to absorb the shock of high imports compared to larger countries such as India where the huge economy makes it possible to manage,” he said.

Analysts also warn that fixing the economy could be more difficult because Nepal also has some of the political problems that contributed to Sri Lanka’s crisis.

“We also have crony capitalism; corruption is high and there is political instability. That makes it harder to put long-term efficient policies in place,” Poudel said.

Economic mismanagement that led to the crisis in Sri Lanka has been blamed on the powerful Rajapaksa political dynasty that controls the government. Although some family members have resigned as ministers, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda, who is prime minister, still hold the top posts.

In Nepal constant infighting among political parties has resulted in short-lived governments for the last three decades.  For much of last year, the country was mired in political turmoil and is presently ruled by a fragile five-party coalition.

Plummeting COVID-19 cases, though, have encouraged the country to lift restrictions on tourists. Tourism earnings are up, although still far below prepandemic levels. And as Middle East countries increase crude output after the pandemic, when demand had plunged, jobs are coming back for Nepalese nationals, which could mean remittances will again pick up.

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Beijing Tightens COVID Restrictions as Long Holiday Begins

Beijing residents will need clear COVID tests to enter public spaces, officials said Saturday, announcing fresh virus controls at the start of a Labor Day holiday muted by creeping infections in the capital.

The five-day break is typically one of China’s busiest travel periods, but the country’s worst COVID resurgence since early in the pandemic is expected to keep people home.

Faced with the highly transmissible omicron variant, Chinese officials have doubled down on their zero-COVID policy, quashing virus clusters through mass testing and lockdowns.

Despite mounting economic costs and public frustration, the capital city announced it would further restrict access to public spaces after the holiday period.

Starting May 5, a negative COVID test taken within the past week will be needed to enter “all kinds of public areas and to take public transport,” according to a notice on the city’s official WeChat page.

For activities such as sporting events and group travel, participants will also need to show a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours, along with proof of “full vaccination,” according to the new rules.

China reported more than 10,700 domestic COVID cases on Saturday, with most in economic engine Shanghai.

The eastern metropolis has been sealed off for around a month after becoming the epicenter of the latest outbreak.

Cases are trending downwards, yet frustration and anger is boiling in the city of 25 million where many have been ordered to stay at home for several weeks.

Shanghai officials said on Saturday that its new cases were all found among quarantined or restricted groups — signaling that community infections could be slowing.

They added that hundreds of companies on a “whitelist” have resumed work, with around 1,000 firms allowed to restart operations too, state media said.

In Beijing, cases nudged up to 54, according to the National Health Commission.

As the long holiday started, consumers in the capital were asked to show proof of negative COVID tests — from within 48 hours — to enter public areas such as malls, shops and scenic spots.

The city will make COVID testing free for residents starting Tuesday, authorities said. 

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Foreign Businesses Consider Leaving China Amid Lockdowns

Chris Mei has been stuck in his Shanghai flat for a month save for PCR testing and occasional volunteer work delivering food to neighbors. That will change in a couple of days when he boards his flight for a long-scheduled trip home to Portland, Oregon.

He uses Zoom to do factory inspections for his 2-year-old import-export firm, Shanghai Fanyi Industry, but he can’t complete all the orders for clients overseas. He’s locked down like most of the 26 million people in the city, along with some of the factories where he normally sources goods, such as artificial plants and solar lights.

“In terms of how’s business, it’s definitely affected us,” Mei said. “Clients abroad always have deadlines, especially for some of our products.” He continued, “For example, for a shipment that recently went out, we had a portion of the order canceled due to the fact that the factory, they were on lockdown as well, so we basically could only produce what they could, and then the remaining part of the order basically passed the client’s deadline in South America.”

Leaving a city in lockdown has become an expensive, multistep process. Mei, a U.S. citizen, applied for permission to leave Shanghai by getting a pass from his neighborhood committee. He then found a driver with special permission to take him to the airport during lockdown – for about six times the usual price of that ride.

Shanghai’s residents have been ordered to stay home since early April in response to a spike in COVID-19 infections. Last week, authorities began easing restrictions in parts of the city to restore economic activity.

Mei’s case is typical, analysts who follow China say. Large numbers of foreign businesspeople in China are planning on leaving the country, for now or for good. The lockdowns have hammered an economy already hobbled by the 4-year-old Sino-U.S. trade dispute, capital outflows and last year’s crackdown on tech giants.

On March 18, That’s Shanghai, a local magazine, reported the results of an online survey saying 85% of foreigners in the city would “rethink their future in China” because of the lockdowns. The survey found that 48% of respondents plan to leave China over the next year and that 37% would wait in case anti-pandemic measures improve.

Risk seems to be increasing

Shipments through seaports in Shanghai and the Chinese tech hub Shenzhen, which locked down in March, have slowed because of a lack of workers and a shortage of truckers who are allowed to move imports and exports around the country.

Larger businesses can afford to wait in case lockdowns ease and China resumes its robust economic growth, said Doug Barry, communications vice president with the U.S.-China Business Council, a 265-member advocacy group in Washington.

Smaller companies are having more trouble because they depend on China’s advanced contract manufacturing ecosystem and cannot easily relocate, Barry said. He said some businesses have closed temporarily because so many workers can’t report to their jobs.

Others have spent money to help feed workers and even let them stay overnight at workplaces so they can report to their jobs the next day.

Overseas-based company leaders are staying away from their China projects because of quarantine rules, he said.

“Business in some cases has come to a complete stop,” Barry said. “The risk seems to be increasing, and the unknowns are also increasing and you’re looking at bottom lines and the future of things, and you’re wondering what to do.”

While foreign businesspeople are thinking of leaving, the significance of China to outside companies can be seen in the numbers. Foreign businesses invested $173.5 billion in China last year, up from $163 billion in 2020 and $140 billion a year earlier, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s latest report.

Just more than 1 million foreign companies were registered in China at the end of 2020.

Companies normally relocate in China for contract manufacturing – which is seen as professional yet inexpensive – or to sell cars, coffee, phones and fashion apparel to the massive consumer market.

Incentives to stay

Mei will be back in Shanghai after a couple of months at home. By then, he expects there will be a “more solid” response to COVID-19 with clarity about people’s mobility.

Some people he knows have been called back to work in May, he said.

William Frazier, a 58-year-old U.S.-born owner of a business advisory firm in Shanghai, has lived in the city continuously since 2002.  He has no plans to leave the city even though he’s been locked down since March 16. Frazier has a spacious flat in a high-end compound, making life tolerable as he works though emails, phone and video conferences. The economic chaos has caused more clients to call him for information.

“No real significant impact, I would say, not for me,” Frazier said. “I don’t see hiccups. I see opportunities.”

Local officials in China want foreign investors to stay in the country, the U.S.-China Business Council has found. They are willing to meet and hear out American businesspeople, Barry said, though no government body has offered them any economic stimulus.

Sticking around will keep companies competitive after China returns to normal, he said.

If lockdowns in Shanghai end in May, more businesspeople are likely to stay in the city, said Yan Liang, professor and chair of economics at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Local and central government policymakers have the economic aftershocks of COVID-19 “on their radar,” she said.

“It’s just so important to be able to have a foothold in a large market like this,” Liang said. “And I think some of the sentiments (are) also that even though there are some maybe temporary or maybe more permanent slowdowns, the Chinese economy is still a really bright spot when you compare with other countries in the world.”

That makes the lure of the largest market in the world worth waiting for, for businesses that can afford to hold out until cities open again.

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For Kenya’s Birds of Prey, Power Lines Are a Deadly Enemy

A blindfold calms the large black and white augur buzzard as two men glue a prosthetic leg into an insert on her body to replace the one that she lost.

The female is one of many injured birds of prey that turn up at Simon Thomsett’s Kenyan rehabilitation center, most of which, like her, have been crippled by electrocution.

The problem has progressively grown as Kenya has upgraded its electricity network, replacing wooden poles with steel-reinforced concrete, which can be conductive, and hanging inadequately insulated power lines between them, conservationists say.

That and the lack of deterrent markers along the cables are pushing Kenya’s already dwindling bird of prey populations closer to disappearance.

“Thirty years ago, the birds were coming in being hit by cars, diseased… or hitting things like clothes lines or …windows,” said Thomsett before/after helping to fit the prosthetic.

“Now we … the vast majority is electrocution.”

Many are killed outright by the shock, both via direct collision with power lines or from perching.

Kenya’s population of augur buzzards, historically one of its most common birds of prey has plunged 91% over 40 years due to electrocution, habitat loss, and poisoning, according to a February study by Thomsett and others published in Biological Conservation.

Over the same period, hooded vulture are down 88% and long-crested eagles by 94%, the study said.

The government-run Kenya Power and Lighting Company did not respond to requests for comment.

In some parts of South Africa, bird flight diverters have successfully been introduced to reduce instances of such deaths.

“These devices can reduce collisions by over 90% for some species,” said Lourens Leeuwner, who manages the wildlife and energy program at South Africa’s Endangered Wildlife Trust.

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Tech Stocks Sink Again; Nasdaq Has Worst Month Since 2008 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slumped more than 900 points Friday as another sharp sell-off led by technology added to Wall Street’s losses in April, leaving the S&P 500 with its biggest monthly skid since the start of the pandemic.

The benchmark S&P 500 fell 3.6% and finished April with an 8.8% loss, its worst monthly slide since March 2020. The Dow slumped 2.8%.

The Nasdaq composite, heavily weighted with technology stocks, bore the brunt of the damage this month, ending April with a 13.3% loss, its biggest monthly decline since the 2008 financial crisis.

A sharp drop in Amazon weighed on the market after the internet retail giant posted its first loss since 2015.

Major indexes have been shifting between slumps and rallies throughout the week as the latest round of corporate earnings hit the market in force. Investors have been reviewing a particularly heavy batch of financial results from big tech companies, industrial firms and retailers.

Fed medicine

The volatile week caps off a dismal month for stocks as traders fret about the tough medicine the Federal Reserve is using in its fight against inflation: higher interest rates. That will increase borrowing costs across the board for people buying cars, using credit cards and taking out mortgages to buy homes.

The S&P 500 fell 155.57 points to 4,131.93. The Dow dropped 939.18 points to 32,977.21. The Nasdaq slid 536.89 points to 12,334.64.

Big Tech has been leading the market lower all month as traders shun the high-flying sector. Tech had posted gigantic gains during the pandemic and now is starting to look overpriced, particularly with interest rates set to rise sharply as the Fed steps up its fight against inflation.

Internet retail giant Amazon slumped 14%, one of the biggest decliners in the S&P 500, after reporting a rare quarterly loss and giving investors a disappointing revenue forecast. The weak update from Amazon comes as Wall Street worries about a potential slowdown in consumer spending along with rising inflation.

Prices for everything from food to gas have been rising as the economy recovers from the pandemic, and there has been a big disconnect between higher demand and lagging supplies. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only added to inflation worries as it drives price increases for oil, natural gas, wheat and corn.

The Commerce Department on Friday reported that an inflation gauge closely tracked by the Federal Reserve surged 6.6% in March compared with a year ago, the highest 12-month jump in four decades and further evidence that spiking prices are pressuring household budgets and the health of the economy.

Europe, too

The latest report on rising U.S. inflation follows a report from statistics agency Eurostat that shows inflation hit a record high in April of 7.5% for the 19 countries that use the euro.

Bond yields rose following the hot readings on inflation. The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 2.92% from 2.85%.

Persistently rising inflation has prompted central banks to raise interest rates to temper the impact on businesses and consumers.

Much of the anxiety on Wall Street in April has centered around how quickly the Fed will raise its benchmark interest rate and whether an aggressive series of hikes will crimp economic growth. The chair of the Fed has indicated the central bank may raise short-term interest rates by double the usual amount at upcoming meetings, starting next week. It has already raised its key overnight rate once, the first such increase since 2018, and Wall Street is expecting several big increases over the coming months.

Investors spent much of April shifting money away from Big Tech companies, whose stock values benefit from low interest rates, to areas considered less risky. The S&P 500’s consumer staples sector, which includes many household and personal goods makers, is on track to be the only sector in the benchmark index to make gains in April. Other safe-play sectors, such as utilities, held up better than the broader market, while technology and communications stocks were among the biggest losers.

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California Group Working to Help Ukraine With Low-Cost Incubators 

A San Francisco area-based nonprofit is working to send easily operated, simply maintained and low-cost incubators to Ukraine. 

After learning that 260,000 women in Ukraine are pregnant, with many now giving birth in bomb shelters or without access to modern medical care, Embrace Global is working to send 3,000 of its incubators to war ravaged areas of the country.

Co-founder and CEO Jane Chen launched the initiative at the recent TED 2022 conference in Vancouver.  The company was already sending 200 incubators with UNICEF.

While traditional incubators require continuous electricity, these devices, which look like small sleeping bags, can be charged like a cellphone with electricity or a heater that works off hot water. The charge lasts up to eight hours.

“The core technology is a pouch of a waxlike substance called a phase change material,” Chen said. “And so this, once melted, can maintain the exact same temperature of 98 degrees, human body temperature, for up to eight hours at a stretch, and it can be reheated thousands of times.”

Far less expensive

Each device costs $300 to $400, substantially cheaper than the $20,000 cost of a basic traditional incubator, which also requires continuous electricity and trained personnel. The low-cost incubators require virtually no training and are designed to be very simple to use.

Chen developed the device while attending Stanford University and after then spending four years in India, where the devices have been distributed to 12 states.  She said the war in Ukraine was creating a new use for the incubators.

“This is a really ideal solution, actually, for a humanitarian crisis like this, because of the fact that the incubator is portable, and it works without stable electricity,” she said. “And on top of that, you don’t need a trained caregiver. The training for this is extremely simple. It was made to be very intuitive to you. So it can be used in those types of situations.”

This is the first time Chen and her organization have sent their incubators to Ukraine.

Besides India, the incubators are also being distributed through parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Easy, accurate 

Dr. Geeta Arora, a New York City internist, said she loved the fact that the incubators can be used so easily in the developing world.

“My family comes from a very poor part of India,” Arora said. “And there’s nothing available. And most babies … you have to wrap them or strap them to another body to try to keep them warm. But with this, you know exactly what temperature the baby’s going to be.”

For Chen and Embrace Global, the challenge around the world is getting people on the ground to make sure the incubators are getting to the right places and people.  This was recently the case in Zambia.

A a nurse at a government facility “reached out to us and was just really passionate,” Chen said. “She was seeing the number of babies that were dying because of a lack of incubators.  And so we sent incubators to her. She, as the champion, really brought it to the attention of all of the hospital staff. And with that, we were able to expand it to other hospitals in the area.”

In a little over a decade, Chen estimated, Embrace Global’s incubator has already saved the lives of 350,000 babies around the world. Her organization’s goal is to save a million and then have the product available to everybody who needs it.

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First US Case of H5N1 Bird Flu in Human Confirmed in Colorado

A Colorado prison inmate who worked at a poultry farm culling infected birds has become the first person in the U.S. to test positive for the H5N1 strain of bird flu.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed the case Thursday.

H5N1 has been spreading rapidly among birds in the U.S. since February but does not appear to pose a significant threat to people because humans need to be in close contact with infected birds.

The virus has been seen among commercial birds in 29 states and among wild birds in 34 states.

More than 35 million chickens and turkeys have been destroyed in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

The infected man, who is younger than 40, reported fatigue for several days and made a full recovery.

“The inmate was part of a prison work crew composed of inmates nearing release, which had been working at the farm before a case of bird flu was confirmed there on April 19,” said Lisa Wiley, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Corrections.

In December 2021, a British man with 20 pet ducks was infected with the virus.

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Amazon Stock Falls After Company Reports First Quarterly Loss in 7 Years

Amazon share prices fell 11% Friday after the massive online retailer posted its first quarterly loss in seven years.

Amazon lost $3.84 billion during the first quarter of this year after recording a profit of $8.11 billion in the same period last year.

Revenue growth for the quarter was the slowest ever for the company, rising 7.3%.

The company blamed investments in warehouses and more staff for the slowdown. It also said there is uncertainty about consumer spending caused by inflation, supply chain problems and the war in Ukraine.

“With inflation hitting household budgets around the world, spontaneous Amazon purchases are likely to be reined in,” Sophie Lund-Yates, analyst at Britain-based financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown, said.

Another big hit to Amazon’s bottom line came from its stake in electric vehicle maker Rivian, shares of which are down 70% this year.

Amazon Web Services remained a strong point for the company as revenue for the cloud computing service jumped 36.6%.

The value of Amazon stock has dropped 23.2% this year.

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Zelenskyy’s Invite to G20 Not Enough for Biden

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who holds this year’s Group of 20 (G-20) presidency, announced Friday that he has invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the economic forum’s November summit in Bali.

“We understand the G-20 has a catalyst role in global economic recovery, and when we speak of global economic recovery there are two important factors right now; COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine,” Widodo said in a video outlining the rationale of his invitation to Zelenskyy.

Widodo said he extended the invitation during a call with Zelenskyy Wednesday when he turned down a request for weapons but offered humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. He said he spoke to Vladimir Putin on Thursday and the Russian president informed him that he will be attending the summit.  

“Indonesia wants to unite G-20,” Widodo said. “Peace and stability are the keys to global economic recovery and growth.”

That may be a tall order amid Western leaders’ demands to kick Russia out of the group of the 20 largest economies. U.S. President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, among others, have raised concerns about Putin’s participation in the summit and signaled they will not attend if Putin is there.

Not enough for Biden

“The president has been clear about his view, this shouldn’t be business as usual and that Russia should not be a part of this,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said to VOA Thursday when asked if Biden would consider attending with Zelenskyy invited.

It was Biden who suggested that Kyiv be able to attend G-20 meetings should other members disagree to kick out Russia. He made the point following a meeting with NATO members and European allies in Brussels last month, where he said they discussed expelling Putin from the G-20.

With China supporting Moscow to remain in the group, analysts point out that Widodo is in a tough position. Ultimately his government may have to decide whether it is willing to trade Putin’s attendance for several Western leaders’ absence.

“I think the perfect solution for Indonesia would be, they invite Zelenskyy and then the Russians say that Putin decided not to come and then Jokowi doesn’t have to make this decision,” said Gregory Poling to VOA, using Widodo’s nickname. Poling researches U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Earlier this month the Biden administration signaled it wants the G-20 to discuss the international economic repercussions of the Russian invasion and potentially Ukraine’s reconstruction.  

That idea is likely to create further rifts in the economic forum. Middle-power G-20 members, including India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and others, have their own agenda centered around post-pandemic recovery that do not align with the West’s focus of isolating Putin and helping Ukraine.

Jakarta has set three pillars for its G-20 presidency: global health architecture, sustainable energy transition and digital transformation. It has chosen “Recover Together, Recover Stronger” as the theme of this year’s summit – a proposal that could unravel amid new geopolitical rivalries triggered by Putin’s war.

Eva Mazrieva and Virginia Gunawan contributed to this report.

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Russia Makes Last-Gasp Dollar Bond Payments in Bid to Avoid Default

Russia made what appeared to be a late u-turn to avoid a default on Friday, as it made a number of already-overdue international debt payments in dollars despite previously vowing they would only be paid in rubles.

Whether the money would make it to the United States and other Western countries that sanctioned Russia was still not clear, but it represented another major twist in the game of financial chicken that has developed about a possible default.

Russia’s finance ministry said it had managed to pay $564.8 million on a 2022 Eurobond and $84.4 million on a 2042 bond in dollars – the currency specified on the bonds.

The ministry said it had channeled the required funds to the London branch of Citibank, one of the so-called paying agents of the bonds whose job is to disburse them to the investors that originally lent the money to Moscow.

Russia has not had a default of any kind since a financial crash in 1998 and has not seen a major international or ‘external’ market default since the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

The risk of another one though is now a flashpoint in the economic tussle with Western countries which have blanketed Russia with sanctions in response to its actions in Ukraine that Moscow has termed a “special military operation.”

The bonds were originally supposed to be paid earlier this month but an extra 30-day ‘grace period’ that government bonds often have in their terms meant Moscow’s final deadline was on May 4.

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New NASA Spacecraft Nearly Ready for Asteroid Mission

After years of preparation and testing, a new NASA spacecraft is almost ready for its mission to an asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists hope the journey will uncover clues into the origins of Earth. For VOA, Villafañe visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to see the spacecraft and speak with mission investigators.

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Google Adds Ways to Keep Personal Info Private in Searches

Google has expanded options for keeping personal information private from online searches.

The company said Friday it will let people request that more types of content such as personal contact information like phone numbers, email and physical addresses be removed from search results.

The new policy also allows the removal of other information that may pose a risk for identity theft, such as confidential log-in credentials.

The company said in a statement that open access to information is vital, “but so is empowering people with the tools they need to protect themselves and keep their sensitive, personally identifiable information private.”

“Privacy and online safety go hand in hand. And when you’re using the internet, it’s important to have control over how your sensitive, personally identifiable information can be found,” it said.

Google Search earlier had permitted people to request that highly personal content that could cause direct harm be removed. That includes information removed due to doxxing and personal details like bank account or credit card numbers that could be used for fraud.

But information increasing pops up in unexpected places and is used in new ways, so policies need to evolve, the company said.

Having personal contact information openly available online also can pose a threat and Google said it had received requests for the option to remove that content, too.

It said that when it receives such requests it will study all the content on the web page to avoid limiting availability of useful information or of content on the public record on government or other official websites.

“It’s important to remember that removing content from Google Search won’t remove it from the internet, which is why you may wish to contact the hosting site directly, if you’re comfortable doing so,” it said.

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China, N.Korea Halt Border Rail Crossing Over COVID Fears

China has suspended cross-border freight train services with North Korea following consultations after COVID-19 infections in its border city of Dandong, the foreign ministry said Friday.

The suspension came within four months after North Korea eased border lockdowns enforced early in 2020 against the coronavirus, measures global aid groups have blamed for its worsening economic woes and risks to food supplies for millions.

“Due to the COVID situation in Dandong, after friendly consultation between both sides, China has decided to suspend freight services from Dandong to Sinuiju,” foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing in Beijing.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said authorities in Dandong had acted on a request from North Korea, citing unidentified sources.

Authorities in Seoul, the capital of neighboring South Korea, said they were keeping watch on the situation.

The Chinese city of Dandong has been fighting a COVID-19 outbreak since late April, reporting 220 infections from April 24-27.

By Wednesday, authorities had locked down 77 residential compounds, while people elsewhere were asked to keep to designated areas.

North Korea has not officially reported any COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began but adopted border curbs among its anti-virus measures.

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