Apr 082017
 
 April 8, 2017  Posted by at 8:13 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  


Dorothea Lange Wife of sharecropper in town to sell crop at tobacco auction, Douglas Georgia 1938

 

US Credit Card Debt Tops $1 Trillion For The First Time In A Decade (ZH)
Store Wars: US Retail Sector Is Shedding Jobs Like It’s A Recession (MW)
Apparel Retailers Lead The Charge Out Of Brick-And-Mortar (Forbes)
Wall Street Is Making It Harder to Buy a Car (BBG)
US Jobs Growth Slumps To 98,000 In March (MW)
Millions Of Americans Desperate To Trade Part-Time Work For Full-Time (MW)
Toronto Real Estate Is In A Bubble Of Historic Proportions (Rosenberg)
Rosenberg: Toronto Housing Bubble ‘On Par With What We Had In The US’ (BNN)
Could Europe Copy America’s Supersized Corporate Debt? (BBG)
Syrian Gas Attack is a Lie: “Stop Your Governments!” – Russia (FR)
US Missile Strikes in Syria Cross Russian ‘Red Lines’ (RI)
Greece On Course To Avoid Debt Default As Athens Agrees Pension Cuts (Tel.)
Letting People Drown Is Not A European Value (EUO)

 

 

On top of auto and student loans, both already well over $1 trillion. Get a fork and turn ’em over.

US Credit Card Debt Tops $1 Trillion For The First Time In A Decade (ZH)

Unlike last month’s unexpectedly week consumer credit report, which saw a plunge in revolving, or credit card, debt moments ago the Fed, in its latest G.19 release, announced that there were few surprises in the February report: Total revolving credit rose by $2.9 billion, undoing last month’s $2.6 billion drop – the biggest since 2012 – while non-revolving credit increased by $12.3 billion, for a total increase in February consumer credit of $15.2 billion, roughly in line with the $15 billion expected. However, while in general the data was uneventful, there was one notable milestone: in February, following modest prior revisions, total revolving/credit card debt, has once again risen above the “nice round number” of $1 trillion for the first time since January 2007… where it now joins both auto ($1.1 trillion) and student ($1.4 trillion) loans, both of which are well above $1 trillion as of this moment.

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It IS a recession.

Store Wars: US Retail Sector Is Shedding Jobs Like It’s A Recession (MW)

The U.S. retail industry is shedding jobs at an unparalleled pace outside of recession and stands to lose many more as the industry continues to shrink its physical footprint, a response to the shift in consumer shopping habits away from purchasing in stores and malls in favor of e-commerce. The U.S. retail sector lost 60,600 jobs in February and March, the worst two months for the sector since the tail end of 2009, according to Labor Department data. The category called general merchandise stores – Target, J.C. Penney and the like – has shed jobs for five consecutive months. Media reports have tallied more than 3,500 store closures for 2017, with retailers including J.C. Penney, Sears, Macy’s and others announcing that they are shutting doors and making job cuts.

Ralph Lauren has outlined the next phase of its turnaround effort, which includes shutting stores and cutting jobs. Bankruptcies and liquidations have also picked up, with Payless ShoeSource just this week announcing nearly 400 store closures. Wet Seal, Aeropostale, Sports Authority, and Hhgregg are among the many other retailers that have either filed for bankruptcy or liquidated. The current state of retail, which is weighed by less foot traffic, more promotions, and increased competition, particularly from Amazon.com, suggests that additional closures are on the horizon. The U.S. simply has too many stores, according to a report from Cowen & Company titled “Retail’s Disruption Yields Opportunities – Store Wars!,” which found that up to 2,000 stores should close.

“[W]e expect online penetration of apparel to increase to 35% to 40% from 20%, yielding closures of 20% at oversized chains,” the report said. Cowen analysts say there are about 1,200 malls in the U.S. and they represent about 15% of retail square footage. Cowen anticipates that up to about 20%, or 240 malls, will close or be repurposed, with anchor store closures and the rise of digital among the primary drivers.

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The Amazon bubble. Killing off America’s last remaining meeting places.

Apparel Retailers Lead The Charge Out Of Brick-And-Mortar (Forbes)

This week, Payless ShoeSource filed for bankruptcy, joining many other U.S. apparel brands, including The Limited and Wet Seal, that have sought Chapter 11 protection in recent months. These three chains alone will shutter almost 1,000 stores. Fung Global Retail & Technology estimates that all of the major U.S. store closures announced so far this year total 2,507. That total is just for announcements made in the three months through April 4, 2017, yet it already dwarfs the 1,674 store closures we recorded across major U.S. chains in all of 2016. Closures are impacting multiple sectors: electronics is represented by RadioShack, furniture and appliances by Hhgregg, office products by Staples and healthcare by CVS. Apparel, however, is leading the charge out of brick-and-mortar. We calculate that apparel retailers and department stores account for 2,060 (82%) of the 2,507 closures announced so far this year.

What can we infer from this surge in store closures? We see three principal takeaways: Weak demand for apparel persists. The most obvious conclusion from the recent bankruptcy filings is that apparel retailers continue to feel the impact of subdued consumer demand. American shoppers have been flush with cash thanks to low gas prices, but they have chosen to spend on cars and their homes rather than on fashion. The latest retail sales data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that apparel specialist stores saw a 1% year-over-year decline in sales in February. There is little reason to think shoppers will switch back to apparel as interest rates rise and if fuel prices creep up.

Second, pure-play retailing is fashionable again. Amid all the talk of omnichannel retailing and Internet pure plays opening brick-and-mortar stores, we are now seeing a trend of retailers going the opposite way, moving from operating stores to selling only online. Bebe is one such retailer that is planning to become an Internet pure play. The Limited considered a similar plan but is no longer selling online after filing for bankruptcy. Third, more retailers are facing reality. Not all store closures are being forced by bankruptcies. J.C. Penney and Macy’s, for instance, are slimming down their store networks in order to prepare for the future. We expect more retailers to join them in recognizing a need for fewer stores. Accordingly, we do not expect this year’s store-closure count to stop at 2,507.

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Just in time economy?!

Wall Street Is Making It Harder to Buy a Car (BBG)

On countless occasions in recent years, the U.S. auto industry has relied on cheap and easy credit from Wall Street to get it through rough patches. Not this time. With both bad loans and interest rates on the rise, financial institutions are becoming more selective in doling out credit for new-car purchases, adding to the pressure for automakers already up against the wall with sliding sales, swelling inventories and a used-car glut. “We’ve been having a party for a few years and it was fun,” said Maryann Keller, an industry consultant in Stamford, Connecticut. “Now lenders are getting back to basics.” Many figure they have to. For one thing, subprime borrowers have been falling behind on their car-loan payments at a rate not seen since just after the 2008 financial crisis.

Delinquencies for auto debt of all stripes have been climbing, with the value of those behind for at least 30 days swelling to $23.3 billion in December, a 14% jump from a year earlier, according to the Federal Reserve. This helps explain why 10% of senior bank-loan officers said they expect to pull back on extending credit to car buyers this year, according to a Fed survey. Expectations are that terms will toughen for loans the vast majority of Americans need to buy new vehicles as the Fed boosts benchmark rates. “There are only so many people wanting a new car and only so much capital available,” said Daniel Parry, CEO of Praxis Finance and co-founder of Exeter Finance, a subprime lender. “Manufacturers and lenders will have to reset to reduced volume levels.”

The reset has already started, with auto sales dipping in each of the first three months of the year. In March, the annualized pace, adjusted for seasonal trends, slowed to 16.6 million from 16.7 million a year earlier, according to Autodata Corp. Analysts had projected it would accelerate to about 17.2 million. Now Goldman Sachs economists figure there’s only demand for about 15 million per year, they said in an April 4 report. The industry set a record by selling 17.6 million cars and trucks in 2016 and has been on a seven-year growth streak. But General Motors, Ford and others had to pile on discounts and incentives to keep the expansion going, with both their finance arms and third-party lenders giving them a boost with easy credit. “This has come full circle,” Keller, the consultant, said. “We’ve created an auto market of 17.5 million vehicles based on accommodating credit. There will be consequences.”

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Whaddaya think? Yup, weather.

US Jobs Growth Slumps To 98,000 In March (MW)

The U.S. created just 98,000 new jobs in March to mark the smallest gain in almost a year, a sign the labor market is not quite as strong as big hiring gains earlier in 2017 suggested. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, fell to 4.5% from 4.7% and touched a nearly 10-year low despite the slowdown in hiring. U.S. stocks ended the session pretty much where they started as investors sifted through the March employment report. The U.S. had added more than 200,000 jobs in January and February, but hiring in weather-sensitive industries such as construction was helped by unusually high temperatures in the dead of winter.

Many economists were skeptical the recent pace of job creation was sustainable after a six-year hiring boom that chopped the unemployment rate in half and ignited growing complaints among companies about a shortage of skilled workers to fill open jobs. As a result, economists polled by MarketWatch had estimated the number of new jobs created in March would taper off to 185,000 in the third month of Donald Trump’s young presidency. Instead the decline was even steeper, speared by plunging employment in a beleaguered retail industry. “The 200,000-plus numbers reported for job gains in January and February always seemed a bit outlandish,” said Steven Blitz, chief U.S. economist at TS Lombard. Added economist Harm Bandholz of UniCredit: “Most of this is weather related and correct for exaggerated strengths seen earlier in the year.”

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It’s going so well, get me come shades.

Millions Of Americans Desperate To Trade Part-Time Work For Full-Time (MW)

Millions of Americans don’t want to work part-time. The U.S. economy added just 98,000 jobs in March, the smallest gain in nearly a year, after adding more than 200,000 jobs in January and February. Economists predicted that the number of jobs created in March would hit 180,000, so the actual figures fell far short of that. Unemployment fell to a 10-year-low of 4.5% in March from 4.7% in February, but the “real” unemployment rate that includes part-time workers who would rather work full-time and job hunters who gave up searching for work was 8.9%, although this was also down from 9.2% in February. Part-time work is still a contentious alternative for many workers. On Thursday, Amazon said it will create 30,000 part-time jobs in the U.S. over the next year, nearly double the current number. Of those, 25,000 will be in warehouses and 5,000 will be home-based customer service positions.

Amazon said in January it would create 100,000 full-time jobs over the next 18 months, according to a separate announcement made in January. Last year, Amazon’s world-wide workforce grew by 48% to 341,400 employees. In the U.S., it has over 70 “fulfillment centers” and 90,000 full-time employees. There were some 5.6 million involuntary part-time workers in March 2017, little changed from the month before, but down from 6.4 million a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number is up from 4.5 million in November 2007, but way off a peak of 8.6 million in September 2012. These figures are almost entirely due to the inability of workers to find full-time jobs, leaving many workers to take or keep lower-paying jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think-tank in Washington, D.C. And 54% of the growth in these involuntary part-time jobs between 2007 and 2015 were in retail, leisure and hospitality industries, the EPI said.

[..] Perhaps not surprisingly, involuntary part-time workers tend to earn less than their voluntary part-time counterparts. Approximately 40% of involuntary part-time workers report a total family income of less than $30,000, compared with just 18% of the latter and 29% of the population as a whole, according to an earlier report published in 2015 by Rutgers University. More than four out of every five involuntary part-time workers says it’s hard to save for retirement and about seven out of every 10 say they earn less money than they and their family need to get by and pay bills.

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It’s too late to gently deflate.

Toronto Real Estate Is In A Bubble Of Historic Proportions (Rosenberg)

The concerns about froth in Toronto’s housing market are not likely to subside given the sticker-shock from the latest report from the Toronto Real Estate Board. As per the March report, the average single-detached house in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) sold for $1,214,422 last month up from $910,375 in March of last year – that is a 33% YoY surge, and follows a 16% run-up over the prior 12 months. Whatever the term is for an acceleration in an already parabolic curve, well, that is what we have on our hands today. And it isn’t just detached homes seeing this degree of rapid price appreciation — the benchmark single-family home selling price was up 29% YoY, the benchmark townhouse price was up 28% and the condo/apartment composite was up 24%. This is a bubble of historic proportions.

Not only to have home prices in the GTA now absorb an unprecedented 13 years of median family income, but to have 30%-ish run-ups against a backdrop of a 2% inflation rate, wages that are barely going up 2% as well, and nominal GDP growth of around 4%. This should put 30% into some sort of perspective when we conclude that what we have on our hands is a near three standard deviation event. That alone qualifies as a bubble — if you don’t like that term, then call it a giant sud. In the past, Toronto home prices went up at an annual rate of 4% in real terms, in the past year they have surged by nearly 30%. [..] it goes without saying that if the name of the game is to tame the flame then have the foreign investor share the blame. A tax on foreign transactions, as was already done in Vancouver, seems like a pretty good idea.

And the government can at the very least use the revenues to either provide greater tax incentives to build and/or provide tax relief for the low/mid income entry-level buyer who is struggling to cobble together the funds for a down payment. So yes, in this sense, I would be advocating a Robin Hood style of economic policy. Indeed, what may be needed is a very progressive tax on foreign buying of local residential real estate in the bid to cool demand and reverse the exponential surge in home prices – a surge that is creating tremendous social problems by crowding out young families (or individuals) from chasing the homeownership dream (a typical response is for these folks is to go out and buy a condo instead, but the reality is that average prices here have also skyrocketed 24% in the past year and are in a bubble of their own).

Everyone says that the Bank of Canada cannot raise interest rates to curb the excess demand because of the deleterious effect this would have on the economy writ large (for example, taking the Canadian dollar back up to or above 80 cents which would thwart our export competitiveness which has become a longstanding role of the central bank). Be that as it may, the home price surge in the GTA over the past year has impaired homeowner affordability to such an extent that it is basically the equivalent of the Bank of Canada having raised rates 150 basis points – actually a 200 basis point increase if you were to look at what home prices have done to affordability ratios over the past two years …

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“Where home prices are in Toronto, they absorb 13 years of average family income. That is completely abnormal. We’ve never seen this before.”

Rosenberg: Toronto Housing Bubble ‘On Par With What We Had In The US’ (BNN)

Gluskin Sheff Chief Economist David Rosenberg is joining the growing chorus of calls for government intervention into the Toronto housing market. In an interview on BNN, Rosenberg, who correctly called the U.S. housing bubble in 2005, said the massive deviation from historical norms has him drawing comparisons between the two situations. “This bubble is on par with what we had in the States back in ’05, ’06, ’07,” he said. “We have to actually take a look at the situation. The housing market here is in a classic price bubble. If you don’t acknowledge that, you have your head in the sand.” Rosenberg warned unchecked increases in home prices are becoming a social issue. “It’s not an equity, it’s not a bond – it’s where people live,” he said. “Where home prices are in Toronto, they absorb 13 years of average family income. That is completely abnormal. We’ve never seen this before.”

Rosenberg said he’d be singing a different tune if price increases were running in line with any of the usual economic fundamentals, such as job growth, rising incomes, or nominal GDP growth. “We’re out of equilibrium, and when we’re out of equilibrium, or there’s some sort of market failure, are there grounds there for government intervention? I think even the most ardent libertarian would say ‘yes,’” he said. Rosenberg said there are a trio of levers the government can pull to cool down the market. Authorities can address supply, which he said has already been “kiboshed.” Interest rates can be raised, but Rosenberg doesn’t believe the Bank of Canada will do that. Or new policy can be drafted to address the prevalence of speculation.

“These are not prices driven by the local fundamentals – this is the foreign buyer coming in,” Rosenberg said. “Toronto has really emerged as a first-class city, not just politically, not just culturally and economically, but also in terms of being a major financial centre. But if you’re going to ask me at this stage, ‘do we need to approach taxation of this capital coming in differently to curb the demand?’ [That’s] absolutely right.”

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In a word: YES.

Could Europe Copy America’s Supersized Corporate Debt? (BBG)

Unilever CEO Paul Polman must have had one eye focused across the Atlantic when he unveiled his revamp of the consumer goods giant this week. And not just because erstwhile suitors 3G Capital, Kraft Heinz and Warren Buffett will have been watching. In an effort to appease shareholders, Polman also ripped a couple of pages from any U.S. CEO’s post-crisis playbook: load more debt on the balance sheet and buy back lots of your own shares. So Unilever will lift its net debt to Ebitda ratio from 1.3 to 2 and buy back 5 billion euros ($5.3 billion) of stock.In Europe, that counts as relatively bold. Faced with anemic economic growth since the global financial crisis, non-financial companies here have typically been reluctant to take on more debt, as the chart below shows.

They’re also far less likely to buy back stock: U.S. corporations repurchased more than $530 billion of stock last year. In Europe the total was a fraction of that.Polman seems to have belatedly recognized the obvious: having a lightly geared balance sheet makes a company vulnerable to a takeover. That’s especially true if the buyer is holding dollars and your stock is priced in relatively cheap euros or pounds.

Of course there’s an argument what Polman is doing is common sense. Debt is cheap compared to equity, so Unilever’s balance sheet is simply becoming more efficient. Having more debt shouldn’t pose a problem for Unilever as its earnings power is considerable. People still need to buy soap and deodorant, even in a recession.Still, this sets a rather uncomfortable precedent. Polman rebuffed Kraft Heinz’s $143 billion bid in part because he’s no fan of financial engineering. It would be a shame if other European companies now drew the conclusion that to remain independent they need to indulge in some financial engineering of their own. Especially if they load up on too much debt just as the current economic cycle starts to look long in the tooth.

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She’s crystal clear.

Syrian Gas Attack is a Lie: “Stop Your Governments!” – Russia (FR)

On April 7th, US warships delivered an illegal blow to a Syrian airbase in Homs. Their justification was the recent “chemical weapon” attack on behalf of the Syrian government in Idlib. The Kremlin condemned the strike as an act of aggression against a sovereign state, and a violation of international law. Meanwhile, at the UN, representatives of Western governments attempt to push through a resolution that is based on information taken out of thin air. It includes the removal of Assad, whether or not he was behind the attack.

It is noteworthy, that the only real source of information on what took place, are the videos made by the White Helmets, an infamous propaganda organisation as it pertains to the Syrian civil war. In this clip, Maria Zakharova calls on Western respresenatives/ journalists to hear Russia, and what it has to say. The attack against the Syrian government, much like the Ghouta gas attack in 2013, which precipitated the Syrian civil war, is a giant facade for the military industrial warhawks in the US, to put their money where their mouth is.

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“Putin has a cool mind and we may anticipate that the Russian response will come at a time of his choosing and in a manner that is appropriate to the seriousness of the U.S. offense. Look for this before the end of the month.”

US Missile Strikes in Syria Cross Russian ‘Red Lines’ (RI)

My days as apologist for Donald Trump’s backsliding on his electoral campaign promise of a new direction in foreign policy are over. From being the solution, he has become an integral part of the problem. And with his bigger than life ego, petulance and stubbornness, Commander-in-Chief Trump is potentially a greater threat to world peace than the weak-willed Barack Obama whom he replaced. Trump has ignored Russian calls for an investigation into the alleged chemical gas attack in Idlib province before issuing conclusions on culpability, as happened within hours of the event. He has accepted a narrative that is very possibly a false flag produced by anti-government rebels in Syria, disseminated by the White Helmets and other phony NGO’s paid from Washington and London.

He ordered the firing of 50 or more Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian Government air base in Homs province, thereby crossing all Russian “red lines” in Syria. Until this point, the Kremlin has chosen not to react to all signs coming from Washington that Trump’s determination to change course on Russia and global hegemony was failing. The wait-and-see posture antedated Trump’s accession to power when Putin overruled the dictates of protocol and did not respond to Obama’s final salvo, the seizure of Russian diplomatic property in the U.S. and the eviction of Russian diplomats. The Russians also looked the other way when the new administration continued the same Neocon rhetoric from the tribune of the UN Security Council and during the visits of Vice President Pence, Pentagon boss Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson to Europe.

However, the missile attack in Syria is a game changer. The pressure on Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin to respond in kind is now enormous. Putin has a cool mind and we may anticipate that the Russian response will come at a time of his choosing and in a manner that is appropriate to the seriousness of the U.S. offense. Look for this before the end of the month. In the meantime, we who have been hoping for a change of direction, for the rooting out of the Neocons and Liberal hawks directing the Deep State should drop what we are doing, and help form a grass roots political statement that Donald Trump and the political establishment will hear loud and clear.

A mass letter-writing campaign to Congress and the White House? A march on Washington? One way or another, the White House must be told that arranging foreign policy moves out of purely domestic calculations, such as likely happened yesterday puts the nation’s very existence at risk. Acting tough, striking out at Russia and its allies, is not the way to form a coalition to pass a tax reform act. The same may be said of an alternative reading of the missile attack yesterday: that it was intended as a message to visiting Chinese President Xi that should there be no joint action to restrain North Korea, the United States will act alone and with total disregard for international law. Either logic in the end is a formula for suicide.

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I predict very large demonstrations, and quite possibly more violent ones. This could well be the end of Tsipras, and of SYRIZA; there’s no credibility left. They should have fought for the people.

Greece On Course To Avoid Debt Default As Athens Agrees Pension Cuts (Tel.)

Greece is on course to avoid a debt default this summer after creditors reached a deal with Athens on reforms including pension cuts and tax changes that will continue until the end of the decade. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who leads the group of eurozone finance ministers, said creditors had reached an agreement in principle on the “size, sequencing and timing” of Greek reforms. The agreement also paves the way for the IMF to join the country’s third, €86bn bail-out programme. The Eurogroup chief said “significant progress” had been made in all areas, with debt inspectors expected to return to Greece shortly to “put the last dots on the ‘i’s and to reach a full staff-level agreement as soon as possible”.

A final agreement among finance chiefs will unlock a fresh tranche of rescue funds, enabling Athens to pay back around €6bn to creditors in July, including the ECB. “We’ve solved all the big issues,” said Mr Dijsselbloem. “The big blocks have now been sorted out and that should allow us to speed up and go for the final stretch.” The measures, which include controversial cuts to pensions and a widening of the tax base, amount to 2pc of Greek GDP in 2019 and 2020. Greece will be able to implement “parallel expansionary measures” if the economy is strong enough, said Mr Dijsselbloem. He said discussions on medium-term debt relief would not be discussed at a political level until a full agreement is reached and approved by the Greek government, which has a slim majority.

The pension cuts are likely to spark a fresh wave of protests across the country. Euclid Tsakalotos, the Greek finance minister, said austerity measures would be legislated “in the coming weeks”. “There are things that will upset the Greek people,” he said. Mr Tsakalotos said the government would also adopt stimulus measures in parallel, which will be “activated” if Athens meets its fiscal targets. Gerry Rice, a spokesman at the IMF, welcomed the “important progress” made in recent weeks, but said it still needed “satisfactory assurances” on debt sustainability before the Fund would seek board approval to participate in Greece’s third rescue programme.

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There is so much in the way of international law and UN conventions to protect refugees, but none of it has any meaning in Brussels.

Letting People Drown Is Not A European Value (EUO)

595. A nice round number, right? It refers to the dead and missing in the central Mediterranean, mostly between Libya and Italy, in the first three months of 2017. The known dead died from drowning, exposure, hypothermia, and suffocation. Horrible, agonising deaths. 24,474. This is a nicer number. It refers to the women, men, and children who made it safely to Italy this year, all of them plucked from flimsy, overcrowded boats by European vessels. Many were rescued by teams from nongovernmental organisations patrolling international waters just off Libya, where most migrant boats depart. Those groups – including Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), SOS Mediterranee, Proactiva Open Arms, Sea-Watch and others – are now being accused of encouraging boat migration. Or worse, of collusion with people smugglers.

The EU border agency, Frontex, has suggested that the presence of rescue operations by nongovernmental groups is a pull factor, encouraging people to take the dangerous journey in hopes of rescue. A prosecutor in Catania, Sicily, has opened an inquiry into the funding streams for these groups, indicating a suspicion that they may be profiting illicitly from the movement of people in search of safety and better lives. This is the latest cruel twist in the EU’s response to boat migration from Libya. It reflects concern over increasing numbers of people embarking from Libya, the strain on the reception system in Italy and beyond, and the rise of xenophobic populism in many EU countries. But blaming the lifesavers ignores history, reality, and basic morality.

As MSF’s Aurelie Ponthieu explained, the NGO group rescuers are not “the cause but a response” to an ongoing human tragedy. Even before the significant increase in numbers in 2015, tens of thousands of people have been risking their lives in unseaworthy boats in the Mediterranean for decades; almost 14,000 have died or been reported missing since 2011. After the October 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, in which 368 people lost their lives, there was increased talk among organisations about mounting rescue missions in the central Mediterranean. In 2015, that became a reality, in large part because the end of the Italian navy’s humanitarian rescue mission Mare Nostrum and the gaps in its poor replacement by the EU border agency Frontex. People embark on these dangerous journeys for myriad reasons; they are fleeing persecution, violence, and poverty, and moving toward freedom, safety, and opportunity.

Both pull and push factors are always in play when people are on the move. Insofar as more freedoms, liberties, and policies grounded in respect for human rights – including vital rescue-at-sea operations – serve as pull factors, these should not be sacrificed in the name of limiting migration. The presence of EU vessels just off Libyan waters has changed the dynamic of boat migration. There is more hope of rescue, and smugglers have adopted even more unscrupulous tactics like using inflatable (throw-away) Zodiacs instead of wooden boats and providing only enough fuel to reach international waters. But to question the humanitarian imperative of rescue at sea is to discard our most basic respect for life. And the logic of those who criticise the rescue operations as a pull factor is that the groups should stop rescuing people and let them drown to discourage others from coming.

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May 032015
 


Harris&Ewing Hancock’s, the Old Curiosity Shop, 1234 Pennsylvania Avenue 1914

Gundlach’s Bet-Against-German-Debt Plan Has One Very Big Problem (Bloomberg)
Canada has the Most Overvalued Housing Market in the World (VC)
No New Bailout Needed If Greek Debt Restructured, Says Varoufakis (AFP)
Markets Waver As Greece Teeters On Edge Of Financial Tragedy (AFR)
Use Your Credit Card To Fight Tax Evasion, Greece Urges Visitors (Observer)
Greek Exit ‘Would Leave Western Alliance In Chaos’ (Telegraph)
Greece Braced For Weekend Of Unrest As Cash Crunch Nears (Telegraph)
German President Says Berlin Should Be Open To Greek War Reparations (Reuters)
What Does Putin Want? (Rostislav Ishchenko)
Insanity Grips The Western World (Paul Craig Roberts)
China Teaches Top Cadres Western Ideas Despite Backlash (AP)
Italy Rescues More Than 3,400 Europe-Bound Migrants At Sea (AFP)
Greece To Ask EU For Extra Funding For Migrant Influx (Kathimerini)
Many Displaced African Migrants Had No Plan to Land in Italy (NY Times)
Italian Army Growing Cannabis To Slash End User Prices (RT)
From Ukraine To Australia, Tributes Pour Out For Odessa Massacre Victims (RT)
Wildlife Decline To Lead To ‘Empty Landscape’ (BBC)

Europe’s bond markets are so distorted everything carries out-of-whack risks.

Gundlach’s Bet-Against-German-Debt Plan Has One Very Big Problem (Bloomberg)

So it turns out that Jeffrey Gundlach was really thinking out loud when he said he was looking to short negative-yielding German debt. Yes, it’s true he’d really like to. But, as he would subsequently acknowledge, it’s a very difficult trade to execute in today’s European markets. “The mechanics are challenging,” Gundlach wrote in an e-mail on April 29. Earlier this week, the chief executive officer of DoubleLine Capital said in an interview on Bloomberg TV that he’s thinking of amplifying a wager against 2-year German notes using leverage. “It seems to me there’s almost no way to lose,” he said in that interview. “I wonder why people don’t leverage up negative bonds.” There are legitimate reasons why everyone isn’t. For one, there appear to be no negative-yielding derivatives contracts tied to this debt.

And Europe closely regulates short-selling of government bonds. Then, even if you could do it, you may have to park cash at some point in European bank accounts, which make you pay to hold your money because the region’s deposit rates are negative. “You can actually lose money being short negative yielding debt,” said Ashish Shah at AllianceBernstein. “People charge you even more in the short term to hold cash.” Of course, this is an opportunity that seems too good to pass up, and traders are almost certainly trying to figure out the best way to make it happen.

The trade should be – again, in theory – very lucrative. While bonds are normally cushioned from losses due to their regular interest payments, it’s the opposite in this bizarro world of negative-yielding debt. Traders betting against bonds wouldn’t lose money if prices stayed about where they were, because there’s essentially no coupon payment. Yes, prices on this upside-down-inside-out debt could keep rising and yields could get even more negative, leading to some losses. But the chances of that happening appear to be getting smaller as economic data shows inflation and growth starting to pick up in the euro zone.

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Auckland wants that title.

Canada has the Most Overvalued Housing Market in the World (VC)

In every inflating bubble, there’s usually two camps. The first group points out various metrics suggesting something is inherently unsustainable, while the second reiterates that this time, it is different. After all, if everyone always agreed on these things, then no one would do the buying to perpetuate the bubble’s expansion. The Canadian housing bubble has been no exception to this, and the war of words is starting to heat up. On one side of the ring, we have The Economist, that came out last week saying Canada has the most overvalued housing market in the world. After crunching the data in housing markets in 26 nations, The Economist has determined that Canada’s property market is the most overvalued in terms of rent prices (+89%), and the third most overvalued in terms of incomes (+35%).

They have mentioned in the past that the market has looked bubbly for some time, but finally Canada is officially at the top of their list. Of course, The Economist is not the only fighter on this side of the ring. Just over a month ago, the IMF sounded a fresh alarm on Canada’s housing market by saying that household debt is well above that of other countries. Meanwhile, seven in ten mortgage lenders in Canada have expressed “concerns” that the real estate sector is in a bubble that could burst at any time. Deutsch Bank estimates the market is 67% overvalued and readily offers seven reasons why Canada is in trouble. Even hedge funds are starting to find ways to short the market in anticipation of an upcoming collapse. Canada’s housing situation could give rise to the world’s next Steve Eisman, Eugene Xu, or Greg Lippmann.

On the opposing side of the ring, who will contend that the Canadian housing market is just different this time? Hint: look to the banks and government. Stephen Harper, Canada’s Prime Minister, has tried to dispel fears. He recently told a business audience in New York that he didn’t anticipate any housing crisis in Canada. Just this week, the Bank of Canada also tried its best to deflate housing bubble fears. “We don’t believe we’re in a bubble,” says Stephen Poloz, the Bank’s Governor. “Our housing construction has stayed very much in line with our estimates of demographic demand.” Poloz suggested that housing costs do not necessarily have to contract to match the incomes of Canadians. Instead, he expects growth in the economy to raise wages and make housing more affordable.

Courtesy of: Visual Capitalist

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“..one thing to say we shouldn’t have joined the euro and it is another to say that we have to leave..”

No New Bailout Needed If Greek Debt Restructured, Says Varoufakis (AFP)

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis insisted Saturday that Greece would not require a new bailout from its international creditors if they would simply restructure its debt. Athens last week resumed talks with its creditors in a bid to unblock €7.2 billion from its EU-IMF bailout before state coffers run dry. But analysts believe that even if it manages to secure the last tranche of aid, Athens may have to obtain a new rescue package to stay afloat. Varoufakis said however that Greece could do without a new bailout. “One of the conditions for this to happen though, is an important restructuring of the debt,” he told the Efimerida ton Sindakton daily in an interview published Saturday.

The radical-left SYRIZA government came into power in January on a campaign promise that it would seek to get part of its debt written off. However, its creditors have reiterated that that is impossible. Varoufakis, whose negotiating style has grated his EU counterparts, also took a swipe at the eurozone in the interview, warning that if it “doesn’t change it will die.” He added that “no country, not only Greece, should have joined such a shaky common monetary system.” Nevertheless, Varoufakis said it was “one thing to say we shouldn’t have joined the euro and it is another to say that we have to leave” because backtracking now would lead to “an unforeseen negative situation.” Asked about reported insults from fellow Eurogroup finance ministers during a tense meeting in Riga on April 24, Varoufakis was also dismissive.

Media reports said he had been branded a “gambler,” an “amateur” and an “adventurist” by his peers. “Those would have surely been heavy offenses if they had been expressed. But they were not,” said Varoufakis. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had reshuffled the team handling negotiations with its creditors after relations between Varoufakis and the EU hit a new low during a stormy Eurogroup meeting in Riga last week. Athens is struggling to pay salaries and pensions without the promised loans. Almost a billion euros in debt and interest is also due for repayment to the IMF by May 12. Unless an agreement is reached to unlock the remaining EU-IMF bailout money, the debt-ridden country faces default and a possible exit from the euro. Technical experts from the Eurogroup and the Greek delegation are due to be in contact all weekend, trying to resolve differences concerning sweeping reforms required by Brussels and the IMF to secure the package.

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Who cares if markets waver?

Markets Waver As Greece Teeters On Edge Of Financial Tragedy (AFR)

In an attempt to address its liquidity crunch, Athens has directed 1500 state entities – including local authorities, hospitals and universities – to hand over surplus cash reserves to the central bank. But some entities are resisting this directed, fearing that their funds may not be returned. Meanwhile, the lack of progress in negotiations with Greece’s creditors is unnerving Greece’s households and businesses, who withdrew a further €2 billion from the country’s banks in March, according to the Bank of Greece. This follows withdrawals of more than €7.5 billion in February, just under €13 billion in January, and around €4 billion last December. As a result, household and business deposits fell to €138.55 billion in March, their lowest level in 10 years. Even more worrying, early figures for April suggest that deposit outflows are again accelerating.

To compensate for their dwindling deposit base, Greek banks have stepped up their use of emergency funding provided by the country’s central bank. Last week the ECB, which now reviews the amount which Greek banks can borrow on a weekly basis, raised the ceiling on emergency liquidity assistance by a further €1.4 billion, bringing it to €76.9 billion. This emergency liquidity is playing a crucial role in keeping the country’s banking system afloat. But financial markets – along with top officials in Paris, Berlin and Brussels – are all to well aware that Athens is moving ever closer to a position where it is no longer able to pay its debts, and is forced to “default”, potentially triggering an uncontrollable bank run and a collapse of the Greek banking system.

At that point, either European politicians resolutely adopt special emergency measures to rescue the country, or the situation spirals out of control, leaving Greece with no option but to introduce capital controls and quit the euro zone. Although some European politicians are in favour of allowing Greece to default, Paris and Berlin are fearful that “Grexit” risks destabilising the euro zone and encouraging speculators to target vulnerable countries such as Italy, Portugal or Belgium. For his part, Tsipras is betting that worries about the potential disruption from a “Grexit” will eventually cause the Europeans to back away from their demands for further reforms. Still, it’s a dangerous strategy, because in Greece’s precarious position, a financial accident could occur at any time.

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The benefits of plastic.

Use Your Credit Card To Fight Tax Evasion, Greece Urges Visitors (Observer)

Greece’s tourism chief has appealed to the millions of Britons planning to visit the crisis-hit country this year to use credit cards as much as possible. The move comes as the government in Athens has signalled that it plans to raise VAT rates on some holiday islands. Andreas Andreadis made the plea to what are expected to be record numbers of holidaymakers, saying plastic could play a key role in hindering tax evasion, a perennial drain on the Greek economy. “What we are saying is that on cash transactions above a certain level please use your credit cards,” he told the Observer. “That way it forces services and shops to declare it on the cash register and issue receipts.”

Greece is bracing itself for around 25 million foreign arrivals – more than twice its population – with the vast majority heading for resorts where tax collection is notoriously lax. An estimated 2.4 million Britons will be among them. “In a country where the tax collection system is so inefficient, credit cards are the easiest way of clamping down on evasion,” said Andreadis, who heads the Confederation of Greek Tourism (Sete). “We calculate that around 40% of receipts are not issued in tourist areas to avoid VAT.” The confederation, which represents more than 50,000 enterprises in the sector, was pressing for consumers to be given incentives to use cards. Greece is in a race against the clock to clinch a cash-for-reform deal with international creditors to keep bankruptcy at bay.

Fraught negotiations with the EU and International Monetary Fund have brought the nation close to insolvency with Athens’ radical left Syriza government, voted in on a pledge to end austerity, struggling last week to pay pensions. With Greece shut out of international markets and unable to issue short-term debt, a desperate lack of liquidity has exacerbated the problem. Over the next 10 days, the country must pay two loan instalments to the IMF – including €780m on 12 May – or face the spectre of potentially devastating default. The appeal came days after prime minister Alexis Tsipras suggested credit card use being made mandatory for transactions of more than €70. In his first wide-ranging interview since assuming power in January, he said payment cards made eminently more sense than the proposal of Yanis Varoufakis, his finance minister, to use tourists as undercover tax agents.

“It’s simpler than that other idea involving people with [hidden] cameras, etc,” he told Star TV on Monday. Greece loses up to €20bn in tax evasion every year, according to finance ministry officials. The new government has made cracking down on it a top priority. Taxpayers owe in excess of €70bn to the state – nearly a quarter of its debt. Under pressure to provide reforms to unlock an intermediate €7.2bn in bailout funds held up since August, the government has also signalled it will increase VAT on popular Aegean islands. Isles such as Mykonos and Santorini would see a surcharge on hotel rooms, services and goods. The measure would bring in an estimated €350m. But it has been strongly opposed by the tourist industry, which provides one in five jobs and is by far Greece’s biggest foreign earner.

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“..there’s a whole range of political ramifications in terms of market expectations if the euro proves to be reversible. The natural question is: who will be next?”

Greek Exit ‘Would Leave Western Alliance In Chaos’ (Telegraph)

A Greek exit from the eurozone would throw the bloc into chaos and put the “whole cohesion of the western alliance in doubt”, a key figure in the country’s private sector debt restructuring has warned. While banks had reduced their exposure to Greece, which represents less than 2pc of eurozone GDP, investors are being too complacent about the implications of a Greek exit, which could have far-reaching political ramifications and amplify the polarisation between the eurozone’s core and periphery, Hung Tran, executive managing director of the Institute of International Finance (IIF), said. Mr Tran, who helped represent private sector bondholders during Greece’s debt haircut in 2012, said he remained optimistic that there was “room for compromise” and that Greece would reach a “last minute deal” to remain in the 19 nation bloc.

However, he stressed that if the country was forced out of the euro, the consequences would be complex and were “not fully understood”. “In the short term, it probably is the case that financial contagion in terms of spreading to borrowing costs of peripheral countries like Spain and Portugal would be more limited this time compared with 2010 or 2012,” he said. “However, there’s a whole range of political ramifications in terms of market expectations if the euro proves to be reversible. The natural question is: who will be next? “If Greece exiting the euro area severely strains its relationship with the EU and the West, questions will arise about the alignment of Greece in terms of foreign policy, security policy and so on, and the whole cohesion of the western alliance would be put in doubt.”

Mr Tran said the European Central Bank’s €60bn a month quantitative easing programme had helped to create a false sense of security by “overwhelming” any sense of potential spillover from the Greek crisis and pushing down borrowing costs across Europe. However, he said a Greek exit would only serve to amplify the polarisation that we have already seen in Europe. “There has been a sharp polarisation both on the right and left of the mainstream arguing that the current austerity driven approach of economic policy hasn’t worked … so the failure of reaching an agreement in Greece leading to a exit from the eurozone would make this debate and this polarisation sharper and more problematic.”

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Telegraph wishful thinking?

Greece Braced For Weekend Of Unrest As Cash Crunch Nears (Telegraph)

Greece was braced for the biggest weekend of civil unrest since its radical Left government assumed power, as tensions over the country’s future in the eurozone are set to reach breaking point in May. Athens was gripped by a throng of anti-austerity protests on Friday, to mark the Labour Day holiday across the continent. Several members of the ruling Syriza party, including embattled finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, took part in rallies, repeating they would not forsake their people and cower to the demands of creditors. In a veiled barb aimed at his paymasters, a defiant Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras tweeted: “We will prevail in our struggles to bolster and protect our rights, our democracy and our dignity”.

Labour market reforms have emerged as one of the main stumbling blocks in Greece’s three-month bail-out impasse, as European powers have pushed the Leftist regime to reverse its promises to raise the minimum wage. But Greece’s Labour minister Panos Skourletis said the policy would go ahead, calling it a “deep and immovable red line” for the government. In a taste of the domestic turmoil that could ensue should the state withold funds from its citizens, hundreds of pensioners in Athens were forced to queue outside banks on Thursday, as pensions payments were temporarily delayed. The government is scrambling to find the funds it needs to avoid defaulting on the IMF on May 6, when it is due to repay a €200m loan. Panic over the pensions payment “suggests that this comparably small IMF payment will be a headache to scrape together and underlines that Greece might well struggle to stay financially afloat much beyond May,” said Robert Kuenzel of Daiwa Capital Markets.

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What do you say to that, Schäuble?

German President Says Berlin Should Be Open To Greek War Reparations (Reuters)

German President Joachim Gauck expressed support on Friday for Athens’ demands for reparations for the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War Two, even though the government in Berlin has repeatedly rejected the claims. Gauck, who has little real power in Germany but a penchant for defying convention, said in an interview to be published in Saturday’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that Germany should consider its historical responsibility to Greece. “We are not only people who are living in this day and age but we’re also the descendants of those who left behind a trail of destruction in Europe during World War Two – in Greece, among other places, where we shamefully knew little about it for so long,” Gauck said.

“It’s the right thing to do for a history-conscious country like ours to consider what possibilities there might be for reparations.” Greece’s demand for €278.7 billion in reparations for the brutal Nazi occupation have mostly fallen on deaf ears, but some legal experts say it may have a case. Many in Greece blame Germany, their biggest creditor, for the tough austerity measures and record unemployment that have followed from two international bailouts totaling €240 billion. Last month, economy minister and vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel called the demand “stupid”.

Gabriel said Greece wanted to squeeze some leeway out of its euro zone partners as they set conditions for further financial aid to help Greece avoid bankruptcy. “And this leeway has absolutely nothing to do with World War Two or reparation payments,” he said. German officials have previously argued that Germany has already honored its obligations, not least with a 115 million deutsche mark payment to Greece in 1960. Gauck, a former East German pastor, recently caused a stir by condemning the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turkish forces a century ago as “genocide”, a term that the Berlin government had long rejected. Turkey denies the charge.

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Good analysis of US-EU-Russia relations.

What Does Putin Want? (Rostislav Ishchenko)

To understand how, when and on what conditions military activity can end, we need to know what the politicians want and how they see the conditions of the postwar compromise. Then it will become clear why military action turned into a low-intensity civil war with occasional truces, not only in the Ukraine but also in Syria. Obviously, the views of Kiev politicians are of no interest to us because they don’t decide anything. The fact that outsiders govern the Ukraine is no longer concealed. It doesn’t matter whether the cabinet ministers are Estonian or Georgian; they are Americans just the same. It would also be a big mistake to take an interest in how the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) see the future.

The republics exist only with Russian support, and as long as Russia supports them, Russia’s interests have to be protected, even from independent decisions and initiatives. There is too much at stake to allow [Alexander] Zakharchenko or [Igor] Plotnitzky, or anyone else for that matter, to make independent decisions. Nor are we interested in the European Union’s position. Much depended on the EU until the summer of last year, when the war could have been prevented or stopped at the outset. A tough, principled antiwar stance by the EU was needed. It could have blocked U.S. initiatives to start the war and would have turned the EU into a significant independent geopolitical player. The EU passed on that opportunity and instead behaved like a faithful vassal of the United States. As a result, Europe stands on the brink of frightful internal upheaval.

In the coming years, it has every chance of suffering the same fate as the Ukraine, only with a great roar, great bloodshed and less chance that in the near future things will settle down – in other words, that someone will show up and put things in order. In fact, today the EU can choose whether to remain a tool of the United States or to move closer to Russia. Depending on its choice, Europe can get off with a slight scare, such as a breakup of parts of its periphery and possible fragmentation of some countries, or it could collapse completely. Judging by the European elites’ reluctance to break openly with the United States, collapse is almost inevitable. What should interest us is the opinions of the two main players that determine the configuration of the geopolitical front and in fact are fighting for victory in the new generation of war – the network-centric Third World War. These players are the United States and Russia.

The U.S. position is clear and transparent. In the second half of the 1990s, Washington missed its only opportunity to reform the Cold War economy without any obstacles and thereby avoid the looming crisis in a system whose development is limited by the finite nature of planet Earth and its resources, including human ones, which conflicts with the need to endlessly print dollars. After that, the United States could prolong the death throes of the system only by plundering the rest of the world. At first, it went after Third World countries. Then it went for potential competitors. Then for allies and even close friends. Such plundering could continue only as long as the United States remained the world’s undisputed hegemon. Thus when Russia asserted its right to make independent political decisions – decisions of not global but regional import –, a clash with the United States became inevitable. This clash cannot end in a compromise peace.

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“Clearly, the European Parliament is a great danger to life on the planet.”

Insanity Grips The Western World (Paul Craig Roberts)

The White Media claims, and has claimed since February 2014, that there are Russian tanks and troops in Ukraine. Putin has pointed out that if this indeed was the case, Kiev and Western Ukraine would have fallen to the Russian invasion early last year. Kiev has been unable to defeat the small breakaway republics in eastern and southern Ukraine and would stand no chance against the Russian military. Recently a brave news organization made fun of the White Media’s claim that Russian tanks have been pouring into Ukraine for 14 months. The parody pictured Ukraine at a standstill. All traffic on all roads and residential streets is blocked by Russian tanks. All parking places, including sidewalks and people’s front and rear gardens have tanks piled upon tanks. The entire country is immobilized in gridlock.

Although a few have fun making fun of the gullible people who believe the White Media, the situation is nevertheless serious as it concerns life on planet Earth. There is little sign that Washington and its vassals care about life on Earth. Recently, the largest political group in the European Parliament–the European People’s Party–expressed a cavalier opinion about life on Earth. We know this, because, if we can trust Euractiv, an online EU news source, the majority EU party believes that declaring the EU’s readiness for nuclear war is one of the best steps to deter Russia from further aggression. The aggression to be stopped by Europe’s declaration of its readiness for armageddon is the alleged Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the “further aggression” is Putin’s alleged intention of reestablishing the Soviet Empire.

It must be disappointing to the Russian government to see that leaders of the European Union prefer to endorse nuclear war than to challenge Washington’s propaganda. When I read that the governing party in the European Parliament thought non-existent aggression had to be stopped by a declaration of readiness for nuclear war, I realized that money could buy any and every thing, even the life of the planet. The European People’s Party was speaking in behalf of Washington’s propaganda, not in behalf of Europe. Europe’s nuclear war with Russia would end instantly with the destruction of every European capital. The crazed vice-president of the European People’s Party, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski revealed who the real aggressor is when he declared: “Time of talk and persuasion with Russia is over. Now it’s time for a tough policy.” Clearly, the European Parliament is a great danger to life on the planet.

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Breeding Chinese Goldmanites.

China Teaches Top Cadres Western Ideas Despite Backlash (AP)

In the still, early hours, cadres make their way down tree-lined paths. They walk through a polished lobby, down dim hallways and settle themselves in rows in plain, wood-paneled classrooms. Here, they sit at the vanguard of the Communist Party of China. These rising Communist Party members from across the country have come to the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (CELAP) in Shanghai as part of the party’s decade-long effort to introduce its own elite to foreign ideas. Outside these walls, President Xi Jinping’s government is campaigning to scrub Western influence from classrooms, but here some 10,000 party loyalists each year hear from top Western scholars and executives about management techniques, media relations, urban development and innovation.

“It does no harm for top leaders to get to know different ideas in the world,” said Zhang Xuezhong, who was barred from teaching at East China University of Political Science and Law in 2013, after publishing an article critical of the government. “The Communist Party expects the people it rules to be ignorant, but they would not expect themselves to be like this.” As China seeks to play a more decisive role on the global stage, such exposure is becoming more important — at least for those at the forefront of transforming China’s economy and international role. For everyone else, education has become an ideological battleground, where destabilizing Western values must be vanquished lest they weaken the party’s grip on power.

“Young teachers and students are key targets of infiltration by enemy forces,” Education Minister Yuan Guiren wrote in a January essay. Around the same time, he told university officials to bar “teaching materials that disseminate Western values,” state-run news agency Xinhua reported. His remarks came shortly after Beijing issued new guidelines ordering universities to promote loyalty to the party, core socialist values, and the teachings of Xi himself. Meanwhile, Westerners continue to march through CELAP, bringing with them an uncontrollable parade of ideas. [..] “It’s a very unusual institution in China,” said Oxford University’s Nicholas Morris, who has taught at CELAP for a decade. “This institution’s job is to help Chinese leaders understand Western practice.”

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In one day. Where was Europe?

Italy Rescues More Than 3,400 Europe-Bound Migrants At Sea (AFP)

More than 3,400 migrants were rescued at sea Saturday, mainly off Libya, as Europe seeks ways to deal with the flood of people trying to reach its shores following a series of deadly shipwrecks. A total of 3,427 people were picked up during the operation coordinated by the Italian coast guard. While they said it was a “very busy day”, it was not a record for the coast guard, which coordinated the rescue of 3,791 migrants on April 12 and another 2,850 the following day. French patrol boat Commandant Birot, which was sent to boost EU patrols to deal with the influx of migrant boats in the Mediterranean, picked up 217 people off the coast of Libya.

The migrants – all men – had been on board three boats, the authorities said, adding that two suspected people smugglers were also caught and would be handed over to Italian police. In Italy, the coast guard announced late at night that 16 vessels had rescued a total of 3,427 people on Saturday alone in an operation coordinated from their headquarters in Rome.

In addition to the French patrol boat, the rescue operation mobilised four Italian coast guard ships, two Italian navy vessels, two cargo ships, two Italian customs ships and two tugs. Most notably, the navy said on Twitter that the frigate Bersagliere had rescued 778 migrants while the patrol boat Vega had picked up another 675. Some of the rescued migrants were expected to arrive overnight on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the closest to the African coast, while most of the others are expected to arrive in Sicily or southern Italy on Sunday night. According to the Italian coast guard, the French patrol vessel should land its migrants at a port in Calabria.

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Should have been taken care of a long time ago.

Greece To Ask EU For Extra Funding For Migrant Influx (Kathimerini)

Greece is to ask the European Union for €30 million of emergency funds to deal with the growing number of undocumented migrants arriving in the country, sources have told Kathimerini. The EU is already due to give Greece €470 million by 2020 for immigration-related matters, such as covering the cost of an asylum service and reception centers. However, this money covers existing operations and cannot be used to tackle problems caused by the spike in migrants reaching Greece over the last few months.

One of the things the government wants to use the emergency funds for is to hire a ferry to transport migrants from islands to reception centers or other facilities on the mainland. The coalition submitted an amendment to Parliament last week allowing authorities to bypass until the end of the year the tender process for immigration-related projects. The government says this will speed up the implementation of schemes aimed at helping migrants.

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Oooh, in-depth reporting from the NYT…

Many Displaced African Migrants Had No Plan to Land in Italy (NY Times)

By now, the unceasing tides of migrants arriving at the ports of Sicily fall into loose national categories. The Syrians usually arrive with money, bearing broken lives in canvas bags, and are able to slip out of Italy, bound for affluent northern Europe. The Eritreans may be far less wealthy but they too are well organized, with networks that move them north as well. Then there are men like Agyemin Boateng and Prince Adawiah, who were scooped out of the Mediterranean this month by an Italian rescue ship. Both are from Ghana, and neither has a plan for a new life in Europe — nor, they say, did either of them ever plan to come to Italy. They were working as laborers in Libya, until life there became untenable and returning to Ghana became unfeasible.

“There are guns and bombs,” said Mr. Adawiah, 25, who worked in Tripoli for nearly three years. “Every day, there is shooting. I’m afraid. That is why I traveled to Italy.” Europe’s migration crisis escalated sharply in April, with the coming of warmer weather to the Mediterranean. Many more smugglers’ boats took to the sea, and a record number of migrants died attempting the crossing — more than 1,700 people so far in 2015, by some estimates. Conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia have shaped and reshaped Europe’s migrant flows in recent years, with none more transformative to the Mediterranean smuggling trade than the civil war in Syria. And the tumult in Libya is changing the migration equation once again.

Libyan lawlessness has allowed a haven for smugglers to operate along the country’s coastline, but it has also unmoored many African laborers who were working there as migrants. Many of these men now languish in Italian detention centers without contacts or plans for the future, and their growing numbers are frustrating some Italian mayors and other officials. “We don’t know anything,” said one migrant, Shamsudeen Sawud, 18, who arrived in Italy more than a week ago. “No one is telling us anything.”

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Yes, this is funny.

Italian Army Growing Cannabis To Slash End User Prices (RT)

Italy’s first medical marijuana crop – grown by the country’s military – is “coming along nicely,” according to officials at a government-funded greenhouse outside Florence. “The aim of the operation is to provide users with a product that is not always easily available on the market, at a more competitive price,” Colonel Antonio Medica, the director of the facility, told Italian daily Corriere della Sera. Medical marijuana has been legal in the country since 2013 as pain relief for conditions such as multiple sclerosis and cancer, and as treatment for others, such as glaucoma. However, as there have been no licensed producers, and the state would not pay for the treatment, those with prescriptions have had to purchase it abroad, from the Netherlands and Germany, at prices that reach up to €40 per gram.

This means many patients have simply been buying their drugs off the street, financing drug dealers, who do not pay taxes, and may be engaged in other illegal activities. By producing 100 kg of its own weed, the government hopes to undercut the street dealers. “We’re aiming to lower the price to under €15 euros ($17), maybe even around €5 euros per gram,’ said Medica, who noted that this would be similar to the black market price of the drug. The government chose a military lab, due to existing security and surveillance arrangements. While the innovations will help medicinal users, they are unlikely to undermine the illegal marijuana market in a country where one in five admitted to being smokers of the drug in a survey conducted in 2012.

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And not a word on an investigation.

From Ukraine To Australia, Tributes Pour Out For Odessa Massacre Victims (RT)

Thousands of people in Ukraine, Russia and around the world took to the streets to mark the first anniversary of the Odessa massacre. Last year, 48 activists were killed and over 200 injured as radicals set the local trade unions house on fire. The commemoration ceremonies for those who died in the fire on May 2, 2014 proceeded without serious incident in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. A huge crowd, including the relatives of the victims, gathered in front of the Trade Unions building and released black balloons and doves in air. According to local media, the rally in Odessa was attended by around 5,000 people. The people held banners reading “fascism won’t pass” and “no to political repressions,” with some carrying photos of journalist Oles Buzina and politician Oleg Kalashnikov, who were assassinated in Kiev last month.

In the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, some 2,000 people marched to honor the victims of the tragedy in an action entitled ‘Kiev Remembers Odessa.’ The people were carrying photos of those who died in the fire, as well as pictures of Buzina and Kalashnikov. Several arrests were made during the demonstration, with the Kiev police saying that they “invited the men to a local police station”. They were later released. March to honor the victims of the Odessa massacre in Ukrainian capital Kiev on May 2, 2015.March to honor the victims of the Odessa massacre in Ukrainian capital Kiev on May 2, 2015. Earlier, reports emerged on social media that it was the organizers of the rally, who had been detained by the security officials. “The organizers of a peaceful rally have been arrested in Kiev! What for? Show me a single slogan, for which you can be arrested in a democratic ‘European’ country?” Yuri Kot, Ukrainian public figure and journalist, wrote on Facebook.

In Moscow, around 1,000 people gathered in front of the Ukrainian Embassy to Russia to commemorate the Odessa massacre victims. An outdoor photo exhibition, showcasing pictures of the burning Odessa Trade Union House, was organized together with the rally. “It was very hard to not to cry. I didn’t expect so many people to care and feel for the sorrow,” an eastern Ukrainian resident, who attended the event, told RIA-Novosti. At the end, the bell tolled 48 times to commemorate each victim of the last year’s tragedy. Remembrance events were also held in Australia, Poland, the Republic of Ireland, Switzerland, Morocco and other countries. In Italy, a monument to the Odessa tragedy was opened in the northern town of Ceriano Laghetto.

Ukraine authorities deployed over 3,000 law enforcers in Odessa ahead of the anniversary of mass killings on May 2. Odessa’s Kulikovo Field, the square where the bloodiest scenes in the last year’s confrontation unfolded, was cordoned off on Friday. People wishing to lay flowers in front of the Trade Unions building, where dozens of activists met their deaths, have had to pass through metal detectors. The streets are being patrolled by some 2,600 police officers, while 600 special service fighters are on alert, the Interior Ministry reported. Unarmed volunteer activists were also called to Odessa. “There cannot be too much police presence. It’s a demonstration of our presence and strength to those who want to shake the situation in Odessa. There will be a policeman in every square meter,” Ivan Katerhinchuk, the chief of Odessa region’s police force, told the media.

Earlier on Friday, police troops brought in from other regions and their local colleagues gathered in front of the building. CCTV footage showed dozens of trucks and patrol cars parked in rows and columns of security forces marching in the streets.

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“It’s no use having habitat if there’s nothing left to eat in it.”

Wildlife Decline May Lead To ‘Empty Landscape’ (BBC)

Populations of some of the world’s largest wild animals are dwindling, raising the threat of an “empty landscape”, say scientists. About 60% of giant herbivores – plant-eaters – including rhinos, elephants and gorillas, are at risk of extinction, according to research. Analysis of 74 herbivore species, published in Science Advances, blamed poaching and habitat loss. A previous study of large carnivores showed similar declines. Prof William Ripple, of Oregon State University, led the research looking at herbivores weighing over 100kg, from the reindeer up to the African elephant. “This is the first time anyone has analysed all of these species as a whole,” he said. “The process of declining animals is causing an empty landscape in the forest, savannah, grasslands and desert.”

Prof David Macdonald, of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, was among the team of 15 international scientists. “The big carnivores, like the charismatic big cats or wolves, face horrendous problems from direct persecution, over-hunting and habitat loss, but our new study adds another nail to their coffin – the empty larder,” he said. “It’s no use having habitat if there’s nothing left to eat in it.” According to the research, the decline is being driven by a number of factors including habitat loss, hunting for meat or body parts, and competition for food and resources with livestock. With rhinoceros horn worth more than gold, diamonds or cocaine on illegal markets, rhinos could be extinct in the wild within 20 years in Africa, said the researchers.

The consequences of large wild herbivore decline include: • Loss of habitat: for example, elephants maintain forest clearings by trampling vegetation. • Effects on the food chain: large predators such as lions, leopards, and hyena rely on large herbivores for food. • Seed dispersal: large herbivores eat seeds which are carried over long distances. • Impact on humans: an estimated one billion people rely on wild meat for subsistence while the loss of iconic herbivores will have a negative impact on tourism. The biggest losses are in South East Asia, India and Africa. Europe and North America have already lost most of their large herbivores in a previous wave of extinctions.

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