FILE PHOTO: Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the far-right League Party, speaks as he launches campaigning for the European elections, in Milan, Italy April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo/File Photo
April 24, 2019
By Giuseppe Fonte and Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s government approved an economic growth plan in the early hours of Wednesday after a bad-tempered cabinet meeting that exposed divisions in the ruling coalition and fuelled speculation about a government collapse.
The infighting overshadowed media coverage of the “growth decree” which called for tax breaks and investment incentives and for simplified procedures for public tenders.
The ruling parties, the right-wing League and anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, are feuding as they compete for votes ahead of European Parliament elections on May 26, stoking investor fears that the government could fall.
The government had presented the decree as a landmark in its efforts to kickstart Italian growth, which has lagged euro zone peers for two decades, but it instead served to underline an intensifying feud between the coalition partners’ leaders.
5-Star chief Luigi Di Maio showed up for the meeting more than an hour late, after using a TV appearance to call for a junior League minister to resign over a corruption scandal. League leader Matteo Salvini has refused to sack the minister.
“It’s official – there are two governments,” read the front-page headline in national daily newspaper La Repubblica.
Di Maio and Salvini repeatedly say they want the alliance to continue even as they attack each other on a range of issues, and they have shown no willingness to compromise over the future of the League official at the centre of the scandal.
Armando Siri, a transport ministry undersecretary and economic adviser to Salvini, has been put under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes to promote the interests of renewable energy firms. Siri denies any wrongdoing.
“I plan to govern for a full mandate and I have no intention of sending Italians to (early) elections,” Salvini told reporters on Wednesday.
He added that he would not push for a cabinet reshuffle to have more weight in government after the EU elections, where the League is likely to be the largest party, opinion polls suggest.
He said Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte – an academic who is from neither ruling party but is close to 5-Star – had not asked for Siri’s resignation. Shortly afterwards Conte said he would speak to Siri, without giving further details.
DEBT RELIEF CHANGE
The growth decree contained few surprises, though the dispute was reflected in a change to one of the decree’s major measures – debt relief for the municipality of Rome, which is run by 5-Star.
The decree was less generous than an original draft of the plan after criticism from the League.
Cabinet also broadened the scope of its plan to compensate savers hit by the country’s recent banking crisis, making the money available to those with an annual income of up to 35,000 euros ($39,000) or with assets of up 200,000 euros.
The asset test was raised from 100,000 euros in the original draft, but it later emerged the amended scheme with the higher threshold would be conditional on EU approval.
The decree also gave the green light for the government to potentially take an equity stake in any vehicle set up to rescue loss-making airline Alitalia. The government is desperate to save the carrier and avoid mass layoffs.
Italy last year unveiled a big-spending budget for 2019, rattling the euro and other financial markets, but it has so far had little impact on growth. The economy slipped into technical recession at the end of 2018 and is now barely expanding.
Italy, the euro zone’s second-most indebted nation after Greece, had public debts equalling 132.2 percent of GDP in 2018, up from 131.4 percent in 2017.
($1 = 0.8923 euros)
(Editing by Giselda Vagnoni, Mark Bendeich and Alison Williams)
FILE PHOTO: Representation of the Bitcoin virtual currency standing on a PC motherboard is seen in this illustration picture, February 3, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
April 24, 2019
By Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss
(Reuters) – Swiss investment firm Final Frontier and global blockchain technology company the Bitfury Group, which was recently valued at $1 billion, on Wednesday announced the launch of a regulated bitcoin mining fund.
The fund is under the supervision of Liechtenstein’s financial regulator.
Both companies, however, did not disclose the size of the fund, which was developed by Final Frontier for institutional and professional investors to gain access to the esoteric world of bitcoin mining.
Bitcoin mining entails updating the ledger of bitcoin transactions known as the blockchain. Miners run extremely powerful computers in a race against other miners to guess a specific number. The first miner to guess the number gets to update the ledger of transactions and also receives a reward of 12.5 newly minted bitcoins.
Bitfury, which holds a minority stake in Switzerland-based Final Frontier, said in a statement it is providing the hardware and end-to-end services for the bitcoin mining fund. The mining sites where the equipment will be deployed will be in locations scouted and serviced by Bitfury.
The fund will invest in turnkey assets consisting of mining sites with some of the lowest electricity and operating costs globally that feature Bitfury data centers, both companies said.
Imraan Moola, co-founder of Final Frontier, said the firm is launching the fund at an advantageous time for investors. “With the bitcoin price down significantly from its all-time high, yet institutional interest growing every day, now may be an opportune time to consider investing in bitcoin mining,” Moola said.
Bitcoin has trended higher the last few weeks, trading up nearly 4 percent at $5,594.65 on the Bitstamp platform late Tuesday.
That rally has made bitcoin mining more profitable, said crypto analyst Alex Kruger, noting that profits have risen since the start of April.
He said on Twitter that the break-even cost for efficient bitcoin mining operations currently hovers around $3,550 to $4,350, while the price of bitcoin is in the $5,500-plus range. That ensures a $1,000-plus profit for each bitcoin mined.
Bitfury late last year raised $80 million from investors including the merchant bank founded by billionaire Mike Novogratz, a former macro hedge fund manager at Fortress Investment Group. That funding pushed Bitfury’s valuation to $1 billion.
(Reporting by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
FILE PHOTO: Mark Nordlicht, Platinum Partners founding partner and chief investment officer, exits after a hearing at U.S. Federal Court in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
April 23, 2019
By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Investors in the defunct billion-dollar hedge fund firm Platinum Partners had ample notice they might not get their money back, a lawyer for Platinum founder Mark Nordlicht told jurors on Tuesday, urging them to acquit his client of criminal fraud charges.
In his opening statement in Brooklyn federal court, lawyer Jose Baez said Nordlicht never defrauded investors, who included himself and his own family.
“This case is a fraud,” Baez said of the criminal prosecution, which began more than two years ago with the December 2016 arrest of Nordlicht and other Platinum executives.
The trial began early Tuesday afternoon with an opening statement from Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Hein.
He told jurors that Nordlicht and his co-defendants, Platinum’s co-chief investment officer David Levy and its Chief Financial Officer Joseph SanFilippo, bilked investors out of “millions and millions of dollars” in two different schemes.
In one scheme, Hein said Platinum overvalued the often-illiquid assets of its flagship hedge fund, reported false annualized returns topping 17 percent and selectively paid out cash to some investors over others.
In the second scheme, Nordlicht and Levy defrauded bondholders in Black Elk, an oil exploration company Platinum owned, by diverting money from asset sales to Platinum ahead of Black Elk’s 2015 bankruptcy, Hein said.
Baez countered by showing jurors numerous examples of documents given to investors warning that the investments were risky, that Platinum’s investments were not necessarily liquid and that redemptions of cash were at Nordlicht’s discretion.
“The warnings and the notices to these investors are everywhere,” he said.
Baez said Nordlicht and the other defendants believed they could recover from a liquidity crunch in 2014 and 2015. He said they ultimately failed because of “leaks” to media about the federal investigation of Platinum, and that there could be something “sinister” behind those leaks.
That drew a sharp rebuke from U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan after the jury left for a break.
Cogan had previously ruled that defense lawyers could not suggest to the jury that the government engaged in misconduct.
“Do you want to be the guy whose representations I can’t really trust?” the judge asked.
Levy’s lawyer, Morris Fodeman, delivered his own opening statement after the break, saying his client always acted “lawfully, properly and in good faith.”
A lawyer for SanFilippo is expected to deliver his opening statement on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)
FILE PHOTO: The ticker and logo for General Electric Co. is displayed on a screen at the post where it’s traded on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S., June 30, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo
April 23, 2019
By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) – General Electric Co on Tuesday put the remnants of its WMC Mortgage unit into bankruptcy, 11 days after paying a $1.5 billion U.S. fine over defective subprime mortgages issued by WMC before the 2008 financial crisis.
The Chapter 11 filing affords “finality” for WMC, given its limited cash –$175,000– and support from GE, and the threat of further claims, WMC Chief Executive Mark Asdourian said in a filing with the U.S. bankruptcy court in Wilmington, Delaware.
WMC was bought by General Electric’s GE Capital unit in 2004, and originated more than $65 billion of mortgage loans from 2005 to 2007.
It halted originations in 2007 because of the collapse of the U.S. housing and financial markets. WMC sold most of its assets that December to DLJ Capital.
Tuesday’s filing is part of GE’s effort to address liabilities incurred through many years of expansion under prior management, while improving profitability and cash flow.
“This filing is another important step in the de-risking of GE Capital,” a GE spokeswoman said in a statement about WMC’s bankruptcy. “GE and GE Capital are not part of the filing and the case has no adverse impact on our business operations.”
WMC said the bankruptcy would help it complete a $198 million settlement over its packaging in 2006 of 5,000 mortgage loans into securities sold to investors.
It said that would resolve the last of 14 lawsuits it faced over residential mortgage-backed securities, following $870 million of settlements of the other 13 lawsuits.
The $1.5 billion civil settlement on April 12 resolved U.S. Department of Justice claims that GE concealed the poor quality of WMC’s loans and WMC’s lax fraud controls. GE did not admit wrongdoing.
The case is In re WMC Mortgage LLC, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, District of Delaware, No. 19-bk-10879.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)
FILE PHOTO: The skyline of banking district is photographed in Frankfurt, Germany, April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/File Photo
April 23, 2019
By Huw Jones, Sinead Cruise and Francesco Canepa
LONDON/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – European Union regulators are refusing to cut British-based banks any slack over bulking up in the bloc in preparation for Brexit, despite an extension to the process which some have taken as an opportunity to drag their feet.
Cost-conscious banks are reluctant to spend millions more and cause further disruption to already unsettled staff given uncertainty over how and when Britain will leave the EU.
“Businesses are trying to be savvy, to meet the minimum legal requirement and figure the rest out after Brexit,” Hakan Enver, managing director for financial services at recruiter Morgan McKinley told Reuters.
Banks are trying to minimize staff moves despite pressure from the European Central Bank (ECB), which set a proviso to granting licenses that firms would beef up their EU units with more employees and assets over the next one to two years.
This requirement has not changed, a source close to the matter said, even though the EU has given Britain until Oct. 31 to leave, an extension from the original “Brexit Day” of March 29.
“Banks are still expected to stick to the timeline agreed with the ECB,” the source said.
Dozens of banks have already set up new bases in the EU to avoid disrupting services to clients. Regulators issued licenses for them, even though they are thinly staffed, so that they could be operational when Britain was meant to quit the EU.
HSBC, which declined to comment, shifted some staff from London to its Paris subsidiary in case of a no-deal Brexit on April 12, only to recall them when a new delay was agreed.
And a source at a major U.S. bank said it had dozens of staff lined up to move if there was a no-deal Brexit, but stood them down and is now awaiting clarity before any further moves.
“We are inclined to say that while we remain in this holding pattern, we don’t have to move anyone or anything,” the source said, adding that Brexit could yet be scrapped completely.
The Bank of England expects about 4,000 banking and insurance jobs will have moved from London to new EU hubs by Brexit Day, but recruiters and banking sources say the number that have moved so far is much lower than that.
Some banks were behind with plans to be operationally ready and are now using the delay to complete moves of customer accounts to new hubs, a senior official at a global bank said.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority’s has warned financial firms sending staff to new EU hubs to ensure they still have “appropriate senior oversight” of their operations left behind in Britain.
Banks have so far moved around a trillion euros in stocks, bonds, derivatives contracts and other assets from London to their new EU hubs. Accounts of EU clients must also be moved to conduct business from these hubs, a process known as repapering.
But there is still a long tail of small customers for whom repapering is a burdensome task of changing IT and controls systems, limiting how much business new hubs can take on despite regulatory pressure to move in to higher gear.
“Nobody is yet really doing any substantive business, but there will be a robust dialogue between banks and regulators about when to transfer substantive amounts of business and client preferences will play a big role,” said Vishal Vedi, lead financial services Brexit partner at Deloitte.
EU regulators gave temporary concessions to banks to obtain a license, such as continuing to book some trades in London, but their tolerance is waning.
“We expect some back-to-back (trading) to continue, though new hubs in Frankfurt will have to show the ECB that they can stand on their own two feet if need be,” a senior banking regulator told Reuters.
Having to build up capital in a new unit is expensive for banks at a time of a slowdown in European investment banking.
European M&A was down 67 percent in the first quarter of the year, while first quarter results due out over the next few weeks are expected to show trading volumes at European investment banks were down 15 to 20 percent.
“The longer the extension period, the longer it will be problematic for firms,” Andrew Gray, head of UK financial services at PwC, said.
(Editing by Alexander Smith)
Guillermo Giralt, technical director of Cauchari Solar, stands next to solar panels at a solar farm, built on the back of funding and technology from China, in Salar de Cauchari, Argentina, April 3, 2019. Picture taken April 3, 2019. REUTERS/Miguel Lobianco
April 23, 2019
By Cassandra Garrison
JUJUY, Argentina (Reuters) – In an arid, lunar-like landscape in the sunny highlands of northern Argentina, South America’s largest solar farm is rising, powered by funding and technology from China.
Local officials said they had sought help at home, the United States and Europe without success. Potential lenders and partners, they said, were spooked by the project’s size and the fiscal woes of Jujuy province, one of the poorest in the country.
The Import-Export Bank of China saw it differently. The state-funded institution financed 85 percent of the project’s nearly $400-million pricetag. At 3 percent annual interest over 15 years, it is “cheap money” for Jujuy, a person familiar with the terms said. The catch: the province had to purchase nearly 80 percent of the materials from Chinese suppliers.
Those companies include Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecom giant under fire from U.S. President Donald Trump. Some in his administration have concluded, without presenting evidence, that Huawei’s equipment provides the Chinese military with a “backdoor” to spy on users or cripple their networks. In Jujuy, the company is supplying inverters, technology that turns power from solar panels into useable current and serves as a critical gateway to the electrical grid.
The project, known as Cauchari, is a testament to the rising clout of Beijing as a backer of big projects in cash-strapped emerging markets. And it is helping China cement its standing as the world’s leader in clean-energy technology.
At a time when Trump is doubling down on fossil fuels and withdrawing the United States from global partnerships, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sprawling “Belt and Road” initiative aims to put Chinese companies and innovation at the center of infrastructure development worldwide, including next-generation power sources.
“It is a way of expanding China’s growing global presence and dominant economic force, and it progressively reorients the world from the U.S. and European-centric view of the last fifty years,” said Tim Buckley, director for the U.S-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
(For a graphic on China’s solar strength, see https://tmsnrt.rs/2IBwZJD)
The trend is rattling Trump administration officials.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking April 12 in Santiago, Chile on a tour of South America, slammed China’s “predatory” lending practices, which critics say leave borrowers beholden to Beijing.
He warned repeatedly that Chinese technology, including equipment made by Huawei, poses a security risk that could affect information sharing by the United States.
“It is not okay to put technology systems in with latent capability to take information from citizens of Chile or any other country and transfer it back to President Xi’s government,” Pompeo said.
But in hardscrabble Jujuy province, home to around 750,000 people, officials are in no mood for a scolding. Argentina has set ambitious renewable energy targets. It is China, they say, not the United States, that is stepping up with money and technology to assist them.
“China…was the one that more generously opened its doors to finance this project,” Carlos Oehler, president of Jujuy’s energy agency JEMSE, told Reuters in an interview in the provincial capital of San Salvador.
Goodwill from the solar deal has led Jujuy to make purchases from other Chinese vendors, including a contract for surveillance equipment. Governor Gerardo Morales told Reuters that Jujuy and the southern Chinese province of Guizhou have established a “brotherhood” relationship that he is optimistic will lead to more tie-ups.
“We have received visits from many Chinese companies,” Morales said.
Huawei, the world’s biggest supplier of solar inverters, has repeatedly denied it poses any security risks. The company said in a statement it would continue to provide its customers with “innovative, trusted and secure solutions.”
POWERED BY CHINA
At more than 4,000 meters above sea level, Cauchari is one of the highest solar farms in the world. Reuters is among the few media outlets ever to see it. Rows of panels stretch toward the horizon, while boxes of still-packed equipment wait to be installed. Visitors check in at an on-site clinic to have their blood pressure and heart rates monitored because of the risk of altitude sickness.
Expected to begin sending current to the grid in August, the facility will generate up to 300 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 120,000 homes. A planned expansion to 500MW would boost that to 260,000 homes and bring the project’s total cost to $551 million, provincial officials said.
On the windy dirt track leading to the construction site, signs in Spanish and Mandarin proclaim the involvement of state-owned PowerChina construction company and equipment manufacturer Shanghai Electric.
It is yet another indicator of Beijing’s rising influence in the region. China is the top buyer of South American soybeans, iron ore and other commodities, while Chinese investors are snapping up stakes in key sectors such as energy.
In Argentina alone, China has financed hydroelectric dams and wind farms, and the government is in talks for a Beijing-bankrolled nuclear power project, potentially using China’s own Hualong One reactor design. China has invested some $5.7 billion in energy projects in Argentina since 2000, according to data compiled by the Global Development Policy Center at Boston University.
Argentina’s U.S.-educated President Mauricio Macri attended China’s first Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in 2017, a signal of the tightening embrace between the two nations. A number of Latin American officials are expected to be at the second forum later this month in the Chinese capital.
China has spent more than $244 billion on energy projects worldwide since 2000, a quarter of that in Latin America, according to the Global Development Policy Center data. While the vast majority of that capital has flowed to oil, gas and coal assets, China has been the largest investor in clean energy globally for nine straight years, according to the Chinese embassy in Buenos Aires.
China is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels and inverters, dominance that has seen European and U.S. producers struggle to compete. The Trump administration last year slapped steep tariffs on imported panels, citing unfair competition. But many renewable energy experts credit falling prices for speeding global adoption of solar.
So has China’s willingness to finance clean-energy projects in the developing world, opening doors for other Chinese firms. In Jujuy province, for example, the local government inked a deal with Chinese tech giant ZTE to supply it with fiber optic telecommunications systems and hundreds of surveillance cameras in the wake of the solar project.
“(Cauchari) paved the way – a highway – for all other projects,” a person familiar with the situation told Reuters.
Jujuy’s pivot to China underscores the challenge for the United States, whose warnings about the pitfalls of Chinese backing are no match for Beijing’s outreach and resources.
Jujuy Governor Morales recently traveled to China to discuss the Cauchari expansion with PowerChina and the Import-Export Bank of China, one of several trips local officials have made to the Asian nation over the past few years.
Jujuy, with its soon-to-be launched clean power and low seismic risk, is trying to position itself as an attractive location for companies to place their data centers. Morales said Chinese universities in Guizhou are helping Jujuy scale the learning curve, attention for which the long-ignored province is grateful.
“Suddenly Jujuy is recognized in China,” Morales said. “We have a path open there.”
(Reporting by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Marla Dickerson)
Forty-seven percent of Republicans voters believe no one on President Donald Trump’s campaign committed any crimes, according to a poll conducted by HuffPost and YouGov.
The survey was conducted April 18-19, one day after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller, who turned in his report to Attorney General William Barr on March 23, neither charged nor exonerated Trump on obstruction of justice charges and also said neither Trump nor his campaign conspired with Russia to win the 2016 campaign.
But the Mueller report states “the president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
The poll also found:
- 61% of Republicans think the Trump campaign’s relationship is not a problem at all.
- 45% of Republicans strongly approve of the job Attorney General William Barr is doing, compared with 45% of Democrats who strongly disapprove.
- 81% of Republicans do not believe Trump attempted to obstruct justice, while 78% of Democrats say he did.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted April 18-19 among 1,000 registered voters and has a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.
Source: NewsMax Politics
FILE PHOTO: A logo of French retailer Casino is pictured outside a Casino supermarket in Nantes, France, July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo
April 22, 2019
PARIS (Reuters) – French retailer Casino said on Monday it agreed to sell a portfolio of 12 Casino hypermarkets and 20 supermarkets to U.S. asset management firm Apollo Global Management in a deal worth up to 470 million euros ($529.03 million).
Casino said the proposed transaction was to take place by the end of July, with 80 percent of the value of the assets expected to be paid for by then.
The company is in the process of selling assets in order to help cut its debts and ease concerns over the financial position of both Casino and its parent holding company Rallye.
Along with domestic peers such as Carrefour and Auchan, Casino faces intense price competition in its home market as well as challenges from online players such as Amazon.
Last month Casino raised its goal for the disposal of non-strategic assets to at least 2.5 billion euros by the first quarter of 2020.
(Reporting by Matthias Blamont, editing by Louise Heavens)
Japan’s national flag is seen behind the logo of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc (MUFG) at its bank branch in Tokyo, Japan September 5, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
April 22, 2019
TOKYO (Reuters) – Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group will book about a 100 billion yen ($893.34 million) loss in the year to March after its credit card unit stopped development of a new system, but it will stick to its full-year profit forecast, the Nikkei said.
MUFG, Japan’s biggest bank by assets, will keep its full-year net profit outlook of 950 billion yen, the newspaper said on Monday.
($1 = 111.9400 yen)
(Reporting by Takashi Umekawa; Editing by David Dolan)