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Ex-BMW and VW executive Pischetsrieder proposed as chairman by Daimler

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – German carmaker Daimler on Thursday said it would propose that Bernd Pischetsrieder be elected chairman of the car and trucks maker, after former Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche withdrew his candidacy for the job.

Pischetsrieder is a former chief executive of Volkswagen Group and a former board member of rival BMW.

Daimler also said that Elizabeth Centoni, Ben van Beurden and Martin Brudermueller will be put forward for election to the supervisory board at the company’s 2021 annual general meeting.

At the end of the annual general meeting on March 31, 2021, long-term chairman Manfred Bischoff will step down, Daimler said.

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Central bank should allow yield curve to steepen more, BOJ’s Suzuki

TOKYO (Reuters) – Bank of Japan (BOJ) board member Hitoshi Suzuki said on Thursday the central bank should allow super-long bond yields to rise moderately as part of efforts to make its stimulus programme sustainable.

Under its yield curve control policy, the BOJ seeks to keep short-term interest rates at around -0.1% and 10-year bond yields around zero as part of efforts to revive the economy with low borrowing costs.

But years of ultra-low rates have strained financial institutions’ profits, stoking fears that they may not earn enough to boost lending and help support the economy.

“Allowing the super-long end of the yield curve to steepen moderately, while keeping 10-year bond yields around zero, would help financial institutions earn more profits,” Suzuki told business leaders in Fukushima, northeastern Japan.

“As such, this will be desirable from the standpoint of maintaining financial system stability, as our monetary easing is prolonged,” he said.

Suzuki also said the BOJ must seek to make its policy framework “sustainable and flexible”, including its purchases of risky assets such as exchange-traded funds.

His remarks underscore a growing concern among policymakers over the rising costs of the BOJ’s monetary easing, which has failed to fire up inflation to its elusive 2% inflation target.

Suzuki said the central bank would extend the duration of its special corporate financing programme beyond its March deadline, if that’s deemed necessary, echoing the view voiced by BOJ deputy governor Masayoshi Amamiya on Wednesday.

The BOJ boosted asset purchases in March and April, and launched a new facility to funnel funds via financial institutions to cash-strapped firms under the COVID-19 financial distress in a package of steps that expires next March.

Market players widely view an extension as a done deal, with the BOJ leaning toward a decision at its Dec. 17-18 rate review.

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Hong Kong media tycoon in custody after fraud charge

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was denied bail on Thursday on a charge of fraud related to the lease of a building that houses his Apple Daily, an anti-government tabloid.

Authorities have intensified a crackdown on key opposition figures in the Chinese-ruled city since Beijing circumvented the local legislature and imposed sweeping national security legislation on the global financial centre on June 30.

While Lai’s fraud charge did not fall under the national security law, it marks the latest crackdown on pro-democracy figures in the former British colony, which was handed back to Beijing in 1997 with a promise to maintain the free-wheeling city’s way of life for 50 years.

Critics say the law crushes freedoms in the global financial centre, while supporters say it will bring stability after prolonged anti-China, pro-democracy protests last year.

On Wednesday, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists Joshua Wong was jailed for more than 13 months for his role in an unlawful anti-government rally in 2019, the toughest and most high-profile sentencing of an opposition figure this year.

Lai, 73, and two senior executives of his company Next Digital, were charged on Wednesday on suspicion of concealing from and falsely representing the use of their office to their landlord, a public corporation set up by the Hong Kong government.

The charge stated they were not using the office space as permitted under the lease between 2016 to 2020, and had sub-let a part of the premises, resulting in benefits to Apple Daily.

Reuters was not immediately able to reach Lai or his lawyers for comment. Next Digital suspended trading on Thursday morning, pending an announcement containing “inside information”.

“This is about dirtying Jimmy up. It’s Beijing’s policing brought to Hong Kong,” Mark Simon, an associate of Lai, told Reuters.

An ardent critic of Beijing, Lai has been detained since Wednesday after reporting to the police for his arrest in August. Prosecutors applied to adjourn the case until April next year, according to local media.

In August, Lai was arrested after about 200 police officers swooped on his offices. Hong Kong police later said they had arrested nine men and one woman for suspected offences including “collusion with a foreign country/external elements to endanger national security, conspiracy to defraud” and others.

Suspicion of colluding with foreign forces carries a maximum sentence of life in jail under the new security law.

Lai has been a frequent visitor to Washington, where he has met officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to rally support for Hong Kong democracy, prompting Beijing to label him a “traitor”.

The security law was introduced on June 30 and punishes anything China considers subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

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U.S. exchanges’ Chinese firms threatened by bill headed to Trump’s desk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives passed a law to kick Chinese companies off U.S. stock exchanges if they do not fully comply with the country’s auditing rules, giving President Donald Trump one more tool to threaten Beijing with before leaving office.House passes bill targeting Chinese companies.

The measure passed the House by unanimous voice vote, after passing the Senate unanimously in May, sending it to Trump, who the White House said is expected to sign it into law.

“The Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act” bars securities of foreign companies from being listed on any U.S. exchange if they have failed to comply with the U.S. Public Accounting Oversight Board’s audits for three years in a row.

While is applies to companies from any country, the legislation’s sponsors intended it to target Chinese companies listed in the United States, such as Alibaba, tech firm Pinduoduo Inc and oil giant PetroChina Co Ltd..

Measures taking a harder line on Chinese business and trade practices generally pass Congress with large margins. Both Democrats and Trump’s fellow Republicans echo the president’s hard line against Beijing, which became fiercer this year as Trump blamed China for the coronavirus ravaging the United States.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, who co-authored the bill with Republican Senator John Kennedy, said in a statement that American investors “have been cheated out of their money after investing in seemingly-legitimate Chinese companies that are not held to the same standards as other publicly listed companies.”

Kennedy said China was using U.S. exchanges to “exploit” Americans. “The House joined the Senate in rejecting a toxic status quo,” he said in a statement.

The act would also require public companies to disclose whether they are owned or controlled by a foreign government.

The American Securities Association praised passage of the bill saying it was necessary to protect Americans from “fradulent companies controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

‘NON-DISCRIMINATORY ENVIRONMENT’

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said before the vote that it was a discriminatory policy that politically oppresses Chinese firms.

“Instead of setting up layers of barriers, we hope the U.S. can provide a fair and non-discriminatory environment for foreign firms to invest and operate in the U.S.,” Hua told a news conference.

A spokesman for Alibaba pointed to a comment on the bill from May, when it was passed by the Senate. Chief Financial Officer Maggie Wu told investors the firm would “endeavor to comply with any legislation whose aim is to protect and bring transparency to investors who buy securities on U.S. stock exchanges.”

Chinese authorities have long been reluctant to let overseas regulators inspect local accounting firms, citing national security concerns.

Officials at China’s securities regulator indicated earlier this year they were willing to allow inspections of audit documents in some circumstances, but past agreements aimed at solving the dispute have failed to work in practice.

Shaun Wu, a Hong Kong-based partner at law firm Paul Hastings, said increased enforcement against Chinese companies was likely even though Democrat Joe Biden will become president in January.

He said if the bill becomes law, “all Chinese companies listed in the U.S. will face enhanced scrutiny by the U.S. authorities and inevitably consider all available options.”

This could include listing in Hong Kong or elsewhere, he said. Several U.S.-listed Chinese firms, including Alibaba and KFC China operator Yum China, have recently carried out secondary listings in Hong Kong.

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Rio Tinto’s sacred Indigenous caves blast scandal

(Reuters) – Mining giant Rio Tinto Ltd destroyed two ancient and sacred rock shelters in the Pilbara region of Western Australia as part of an iron ore mine expansion in late May.

The blasts, while legal, deeply distressed the traditional owners and led to a public outcry and national inquiry, ultimately costing three top executives their jobs. They also increased investor pressure on the industry to address heritage management practices.

The parliamentary inquiry is due to report Dec. 9.

May 24: World’s biggest iron ore miner destroys the rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge, one of which showed evidence of continual human habitation dating back 46,000 years.

May 27: Rio Tinto issues a statement saying it is sorry that the “recently expressed concerns” of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people did not arise during discussions. PKKP on June 5 rejects that characterisation and says the significance of Juukan Gorge had long been emphasized.

June 11: Rival BHP Group says it would not disturb any sites around a planned $2.9 billion South Flank expansion in Western Australia without further study and consultation with traditional owners to better understand the cultural significance of the area.

June 11: Australian Senate refers the Juukan Gorge incident to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia for an inquiry.

June 12: Rio Tinto Chief Executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques addresses the incident for the first time, and pledges full cooperation with an Australian government inquiry.

June 19: Rio launches an internal board-led review and says it will look at ways to improve its internal processes and governance following public outcry.

Aug. 7: Rio did not tell the PKKP about three alternative mine plans, its CEO tells the parliamentary inquiry, despite saying it had won fully informed consent for blasting.

Aug. 7: Fortescue Metals Group says it will review plans at an iron ore mine in Western Australia after an Indigenous group said a planned expansion threatened sacred sites, including a 60,000 year old rock shelter.

Aug. 24: Rio’s board-led review finds procedural faults and cuts the short-term bonuses of some senior executives but stops short of leadership overhaul. The review is not well received by the public and investors who say it lacks accountability.

Sept. 11: Bowing to stakeholder outcry, Rio parts ways with its chief executive and two deputies.

Oct. 29: Investors worth $10.2 trillion step up pressure on mining companies, write to boards of 78 miners asking for more information about how they manage their relationships with First Nations people.

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United States issues travel curbs for Chinese Communist Party members

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration on Wednesday issued new rules to restrict travel Chinese Communist Party members’ and their families’ travel to the United States, the New York Times newspaper reported on Thursday.

The new policy limited the maximum validity of travel visas for party members and their families to one month and a single entry, the paper reported here, citing people familiar with the matter.

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Oil Industry sees rise in prices as market awaits output deal

Monitoring Desk

LONDON: Oil prices rose on Wednesday as the market awaited a pact from producers on output, which many traders expect will continue to be reined in, and Britain’s approval of a COVID-19 vaccine gave hopes for a demand recovery a boost.

Prices were hit earlier by a surprise build in oil inventories in the US and as OPEC and its allies created uncertainty with a two-day delay to a formal meeting to decide whether to increase production in January.

Brent crude oil futures were up 1.9 percent at $48.31 in late afternoon trade in London, while West Texas Intermediate crude was also up about 2 percent to $45.46.

Industry data from the American Petroleum Institute showed US crude inventories rose by 4.1 million barrels last week, compared with analysts’ expectations in a Reuters poll for a draw of 2.4 million barrels.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Russia and other allies, a group known as OPEC+, postponed talks on next year’s oil output policy to Thursday from Tuesday, according to sources.

The group this year imposed production cuts of 7.7 million barrels per day (bpd) as the coronavirus pandemic hit fuel demand.

It had been widely expected to roll those reductions over into January-March 2021 amid spikes in COVID-19 cases.

But the UAE said this week that even though it could support a rollover, it would struggle to continue with the same deep output reductions into 2021.

“Energy markets will remain on edge until OPEC+ gets past tomorrow’s meeting. Oil prices should continue to have underlying support as vaccine makers announce start dates for beginning immunizations,” he added.

Britain on Wednesday became the first western country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, jumping ahead of the US and the EU in what may be a first step toward a return to normal life and boost to oil consumption.

Courtesy: Arab News

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UAE launches satellite to celebrate National Day

Monitoring Desk

DUBAI: The UAE has launched the “Falcon Eye” satellite into space to mark its 49th National Day, state news agency WAM has reported.

The Soyuz ST-A rocket took off from the French Guiana Space Centre on Wednesday carrying the Gulf country’s earth-observation satellite that could take high-resolution images.

It is the fourth reconnaissance satellite launched by the UAE, bringing the total number to 12 satellites into orbit.

The satellite will be used for mapping, agricultural and environmental monitoring, urban planning, helping with response planning for natural disasters, as well as monitoring the UAE’s borders and coasts.

“This national achievement is worthy of pride not only given the civil and military importance of Falcon’s Eye, but also because it has unique characteristics, including a mobile platform for receiving and sending photos from any location in the world that will be used for various purposes,” Matar Salem Ali Al-Dhaheri, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Defense, said.

It will remain in low Earth orbit for 10 years to take high quality imagery.
Al-Dhaheri said the move has “reinforced the UAE’s accumulated experience in the satellite sector.”

Courtesy: Arab News

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Donors grow increasingly impatient with Lebanese politicians

Monitoring desk

BEIRUT: As the UN hosted a second International Conference on Assistance and Support to Beirut on Wednesday, there was growing impatience among donors with Lebanese politicians.

The virtual event, chaired by French President Emmanuel Macron and UN Secretary-General António Guterres, aimed to coordinate international aid efforts in support of the Lebanese people as the country continues to face political, economic and social challenges.

The participants — including heads of state, international organizations, donors, NGOs and civil-society representatives — discussed the results of the first conference, which was organized by France after the Beirut port explosion and held on Aug. 9. It resulted in pledges of aid worth about $300 million in a fund managed by the World Bank that will be channeled through UN agencies and NGOs rather than Lebanese state institutions.

However, delegates expressed impatience with the failure of political factions in Lebanon to resolve their differences and work together for the good of their country. Four months after the Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut, and the subsequent resignation of Hassan Diab’s government, a new government has yet to be formed, delaying the economic and political reforms needed to begin efforts to resolve the financial crisis.

According to Reuters, the French presidency on Wednesday said: “No measures required in the French road map for Lebanon have been implemented and the Lebanese Central Bank’s accounts haven’t been audited.”

It added: “American sanctions imposed on the Lebanese political class have not had any effect so far and will not help in forming a government.”

This came after the leak of a conversation in which Dorothy Shea, the US ambassador to Lebanon, asked Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, to “distance himself from Hezbollah.” She also hinted that “Washington will reject any government in which Hezbollah is represented and there won’t be any foreign aid without radical change.”

Lebanese politicians met on Wednesday in an attempt to agree financial support for basic goods and services in light of declining state reserves. Lebanon subsidizes fuel, wheat and medicine but Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh said on Tuesday he has the means to “continue subsidizing products only for the next two months.”

The atmosphere was tense as factions argued over how to maintain reserve requirements and the danger of lifting subsidies. The meeting ended with a request from the caretaker government for a report on subsidies.

Naim Qassem, the deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah, called for the swift formation of a new government. He warned against waiting to see whether the presidential transition in Washington will improve Lebanon’s situation.

“Signs show that the country is heading to the abyss if the formation of the government is not fixed as soon as possible,” he said. “If the concerned parties agree on any government, the world will deal with it, and so will America.”

Meanwhile, several students at Saint Joseph University in Lebanon were injured in clashes between supporters of the Lebanese Forces (LF) party and Hezbollah during student elections on Wednesday. Three people were arrested. The LF blamed the violence on “armed groups who are not affiliated with the university.”

Also on Wednesday, prosecutors filed corruption charges against eight security forces officers, including army chief, Gen. Jean Kahwaji.

In another case, Gen. Mohamed Fahmy, the caretaker interior minister, appeared before the prosecutor general, Judge Ghassan Oueidat, to answer Supreme Judicial Council allegations that he had defamed the judiciary.

After the meeting, Fahmy said he “did not intend to offend the judicial authority” and praised the close relationship between security forces and the judiciary.

Fahmy said during a TV interview that 95 percent of judges are corrupt, prompting protests by the judicial body and a one-day strike by Bar Association members.

Meanwhile, Lebanese president Michael Aoun said on Wednesday he wants maritime border talks with Israel to succeed, and that disagreements during the previous round of negotiations last month can be resolved based on international law. His comments came during a meeting with John Desrocher, the US mediator for the negotiations.

The fourth round of talks, due to take place Wednesday, were postponed until further notice, officials said. Resolving the border issue could pave the way for lucrative oil and gas deals on both sides. Each nation claims about 860 square kilometers of the Mediterranean. During the second round of the talks, Lebanon pushed for another 1,430 sq km.

Courtesy: Arab News

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On Mars, internal heat may have powered habitable hotspots long ago

Monitoring Desk

The Martian underground may have been habitable billions of years ago even if the planet’s surface was a dry, frigid wasteland.

Mars likely churned out enough geothermal heat in the ancient past to melt the bases of thick ice sheets, generating large amounts of potentially life-supporting groundwater, a new study suggests.

The results could help scientists get a better handle on a decades-old mystery known as the faint young sun paradox. Four billion years ago, the sun was about 30% dimmer than it is today — too weak, seemingly, to support a continuously warm and wet Mars. Yet evidence of liquid water during that epoch abounds; NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, for example, has spent the last eight years exploring an ancient lake-and-stream system. Hence the paradox.

“Even if greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor are pumped into the early Martian atmosphere in computer simulations, climate models still struggle to support a long-term warm and wet Mars,” study lead author Lujendra Ojha, an assistant professor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey, said in a statement. 

“I and my co-authors propose that the faint young sun paradox may be reconciled, at least partly, if Mars had high geothermal heat in its past,” Ojha said.

He and his colleagues investigated whether the required internal heat — generated by the radioactive decay of elements such as thorium, potassium and uranium — did indeed flow during Mars’ Noachian era, which lasted from about 4.1 billion to 3.7 billion years ago. The researchers focused their attention on the Martian southern highlands, a region that likely supported large ice sheets at the time.

The team modeled the thickness, behavior and evolution of those ice sheets using a variety of datasets, including observations by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter, which has been studying the Red Planet since 2001. Odyssey carries a gamma-ray spectrometer, which has allowed scientists to map the abundance of thorium and potassium in the Martian crust.

The researchers determined that heat flowing from the Martian mantle and crust likely would have been sufficient to melt the bottom layers of thick ice sheets long ago, creating potentially habitable environments underground no matter what conditions may have been like on the planet’s surface. 

Just what the Noachian surface was like — primarily warm and wet or mostly cold and dry, with intermittent melting spurts — remains a topic of considerable debate. But it’s widely accepted that Mars changed dramatically shortly after this era. The planet lost its global magnetic field, leaving its once-thick atmosphere vulnerable to stripping by the solar wind. Such stripping left the Martian surface cold, dry, radiation-blasted and seemingly uninhabitable, at least for Earth-like life.

But pockets of groundwater likely persisted, though they probably retreated to greater and greater depths as the surface dried out. Some of these Martian aquifers may even have survived to the present day.

“At such depths, life could have been sustained by hydrothermal activity and rock-water reactions,” Ojha said in the same statement. “So, the subsurface may represent the longest-lived habitable environment on Mars.”

The new study, which was published online today (Dec. 2) in the journal Science Advances, could have applications beyond the Red Planet. For example, the faint young sun paradox complicates our understanding of life’s emergence on the early Earth, Ojha noted. Radiogenic heat may have played a large role in making our planet habitable long ago, he said.

Similar reasoning could apply to exoplanets as well. For example, some alien worlds that seem to orbit too far from their host star to support life may actually be habitable “by their own merit, by their own radioactive heat generation,” Ojha told Space.com.

The new results don’t fully resolve the faint young sun paradox: “This is a partial solution at best,” Ojha said. He also stressed that the heat-flow numbers he and his team derived are somewhat uncertain, given that they come from elemental abundances. The researchers would love to extrapolate backward from actual measurements of Martian subsurface heat flow, he said, but no such data are available.

NASA’s InSight Mars lander, which touched down in November 2018, carries an instrument that could gather such information — a burrowing heat probe nicknamed “the mole,” which was designed to get at least 10 feet (3 meters) underground. So far, however, the Martian soil has stymied the mole’s efforts, keeping the little digger stuck at, or just below, the surface.

Courtesy: Space.com