Category Archives: Environment

Chart of the day II: A Kochian tar sands bottom line


The potential bottom line for the liberscarian bothers,  also from that ominous IFG report [PDF]. Clickk on the image to enlarge:

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Chart of the day: A Canadian tar sands cui bono


If you’re wondering who stands to reap the biggest profits from the environmentally dangerous Canadian tar sands oil rush, consider this from a sobering new report [PDF] from the International Forum on Globalization. Click on the image to enlarge:

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Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroAsianFukuDup


A very, very long compilation and perhaps the last of its sort, covering a panoply of notable developments in the economic, political, and environmental domains:.

For our first item, via the Press Gazette, proof there’s more than one way to control information:

Journalists seeking accreditation for Brit Awards asked to agree coverage of sponsor Mastercard

A PR company representing MasterCard, who are a major sponsor for tonight’s Brit Awards for pop music, appear to have asked journalists to guarantee coverage of their client as the price of attending.

Before providing two journalists from the Telegraph with accreditation to attend the event House PR has asked them to agree to a number of requests about the coverage they will give it.

They have even gone as far as to draft Twitter messages which they would like the journalists to send out – and asked that they include a mention of the marketing campaign #PricelessSurprises and @MasterCardUK.

And from the Los Angeles Times, What’s in Your Wallet?™:

Capital One says it can show up at cardholders’ homes, workplaces

  • The credit card company’s recent contract update includes terms that sound menacing and creepy.

Ding-dong, Cap One calling.

Credit card issuer Capital One isn’t shy about getting into customers’ faces. The company recently sent a contract update to cardholders that makes clear it can drop by any time it pleases.

The update specifies that “we may contact you in any manner we choose” and that such contacts can include calls, emails, texts, faxes or a “personal visit.”

As if that weren’t creepy enough, Cap One says these visits can be “at your home and at your place of employment.”

The police need a court order to pull off something like that. But Cap One says it has the right to get up close and personal anytime, anywhere.

We switch to a global headline that overshadows pretty much defining the nature of life in the era of neoliberal austerity. From Reuters:

World risks era of slow growth, high unemployment: OECD

Sweeping reforms are urgently needed to boost productivity and lower barriers to trade if the world is to avoid a new era of slow growth and stubbornly high unemployment, the OECD warned on Friday.

In its 2014 study on “Going for Growth”, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said momentum on reforms had slowed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, with much of it now piecemeal and incremental.

From CBC News, another consequence of neoliberalism comes back to bites one its leading proponents in the bottom line:

Wal-Mart cuts growth forecast as poor shoppers spend less

  • Food stamp cuts in U.S. eat into same-store sales

Recent U.S. cuts in federal food stamps for the working poor and unemployed has led Wal-Mart Stores Inc to lower the forecast for its full-year profits.

The world’s largest retailer still expects net sales growth of three to five per cent this year.

But less food stamp aid, higher taxes and tighter credit are eroding its grocery sales, as its low-income customers struggle to get by on less.  As many as a fifth of Wal-Mart’s customers rely on food stamps, according to one analyst quoted by Reuters.

From Salon, more of the same, this time from the company founded by the new publisher of the Washington Post:

Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers

  • You might find your Prime membership morally indefensible after reading these stories about worker mistreatment

Amazon equals Walmart in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees and in settings that go beyond the assembly line to include their movement between loading and unloading docks, between packing and unpacking stations, and to and from the miles of shelving at what Amazon calls its “fulfillment centers”—gigantic warehouses where goods ordered by Amazon’s online customers are sent by manufacturers and wholesalers, there to be shelved, packaged, and sent out again to the Amazon customer.

Amazon’s shop-floor processes are an extreme variant of Taylorism that Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, a near century after his death, would have no trouble recognizing. With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, scientific managers, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.

Amazon is also a truly global corporation in a way that Walmart has never been, and this globalism provides insights into how Amazon responds to workplaces beyond the United States that can follow different rules. In the past three years, the harsh side of Amazon has come to light in the United Kingdom and Germany as well as the United States, and Amazon’s contrasting conduct in America and Britain, on one side, and in Germany, on the other, reveals how the political economy of Germany is employee friendly in a way that those of the other two countries no longer are.

ProPublica covers the sadly predictable:

U.S. Lags Behind World in Temp Worker Protections

‘Permatemping’ cases highlight lack of U.S. protections for temp workers. Other countries limit the length of temp jobs, guarantee equal pay and restrict dangerous work.

Since the 2007-09 recession, temp work has been one of the fastest growing segments of the economy. But a ProPublica investigation into this burgeoning industry over the past year has documented an array of problems. Temps have worked for the same company for as long as 11 years, never getting hired on full-time. Companies have assigned temps to the most dangerous jobs. In several states, data showed that temps are three times more likely than regular workers to suffer amputations on the job. And even some of the country’s largest companies have relied on immigrant labor brokers and fly-by-night temp agencies that have cheated workers out of their wages.

In contrast, countries around the globe have responded to similar abuses by adopting laws to protect the growing number of temps in their workforces. These include limiting the length of temp assignments, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work and restricting companies from hiring temps for hazardous tasks.

Badly Behaving Banksters pay their dues, via TheLocal.ch:

Credit Suisse to pay $196m US fine

Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse has admitted it violated US securities laws and will pay $196 million to settle the charges, the Securities and Exchange Commission said Friday.

The SEC action came as the Department of Justice investigates Credit Suisse for allegedly helping US citizens illegally avoid taxes.

The SEC said that Credit Suisse Group violated laws by providing cross-border brokerage and investment advisory services to US clients without first registering with the SEC.

According to the SEC, the Zurich-based global bank began conducting the unregistered services as early as 2002 and had collected about $82 million in fees on the accounts before completely exiting the business in mid-2013.

Belated action from United Press International:

California unveils legislation to help deal with drought

California officials Wednesday unveiled a $687.4 million plan to help the state cope with its severe drought.

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders said the proposal would provide funds for direct relief for farm workers who will likely be out of a job for an extended period as growers cut back on their planting.

In addition, the legislation provides funding for water-conservation projects and a public-awareness campaign to remind Californians it is shaping up to be a long, dry summer.

The Christian Science Monitor adds context:

California drought: Farmers cut back sharply, affecting jobs and food supply

With drought limiting water deliveries from northern California and the price of irrigation skyrocketing, farmers’ fields lie fallow and the politicized debate over solutions rages.

And from the U.S. Drought Monitor, the latest image of California’s water crisis, with severity increasing with color darkness [the dark brown being the worst, “Exceptional Drought”]:

BLOG Drought

Al Jazeera America campaigns:

Push to boost wages at big LA hotels

  • City council to consider proposal to raise hourly rate to $15.37, which would be among nation’s highest if passed

Three Los Angeles City Council members have launched a bid to nearly double the minimum wage for hotel workers to $15.37 an hour, among the highest proposed minimums nationwide.

The living wage proposal, applicable to about 11,000 workers employed by Los Angeles hotels with more than 100 rooms, would help to lift employees out of poverty and benefit the city economy, proposal supporters said on Tuesday when the proposal was introduced.

California’s minimum wage is $8 an hour with a $1 bump coming in July. It will reach $10 in 2016. Cities and counties can set a higher minimum wage. In San Francisco, for example, the minimum is $10.74 with annual cost of living increases. Nationwide, a number of cities have adopted or are considering minimum wage proposals, including a citywide $15-per-hour rate urged by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

Meanwhile, there’s another crisis in California, reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Many L.A. Unified school libraries, lacking staff, are forced to shut

Budget cuts leave about half of L.A. Unified’s elementary and middle schools without librarians, and thousands of students without books.

About half of the 600 elementary and middle school libraries are without librarians or aides, denying tens of thousands of students regular access to nearly $100 million worth of books, according to district data.

The crisis has exacerbated educational inequalities across the nation’s second-largest system, as some campuses receive extra money for library staff and others don’t. It has also sparked a prolonged labor conflict with the California School Employees Assn., which represents library aides.

Cashing in the Mile High City’s state with the London Telegraph:

Bumper cannabis sales in Colorado form billion-dollar industry

  • In America’s first cannabis-legal state sales are surging far ahead of predictions, bringing huge additional tax revenue

Cannabis is likely to become an annual billion-dollar legal industry in the sate of Colorado by next year after officials suggested greater volumes of the drug are being sold than anticipated.

Colorado was the first state in the US to licence and tax sales of the drug for recreational use, allowing dozens of shops to open for business on Jan 1, 2014.

In the lead up to legalisation it was estimated that sales would reach $395 million in the 2014/2015 financial year.

But in its first assessment since the New Year Governor John Hickenlooper’s budget office has dramatically increased that to $612 million.

When the $345 million in estimated sales of the drug to people with medical conditions is added that means a total of almost $1 billion.

The Hill concedes the despicably considered:

Obama drops proposal to cut Social Security from his budget

Yielding to pressure from congressional Democrats, President Obama is abandoning a proposed cut to Social Security benefits in his election-year budget.

The president’s budget request for fiscal 2015, which is due out March 4, will not call for a switch to a new formula that would limit cost-of-living increases in the entitlement program, the White House said Thursday.

“This year the administration is returning to a more traditional budget presentation that is focused on achieving the president’s vision for the best path to create growth and opportunity for all Americans, and the investments needed to meet that vision,” a White House official said.

Obama last year proposed the new formula for calculating benefits as an overture to Republicans toward a “grand bargain” on the debt.

Barry O continues his neoliberal trade crusade with BBC News:

Obama champions controversial North America-Asia trade deal

US President Barack Obama has vowed to expand trade agreements between North America and Asia, despite concerns within his own political party.

Ending a day of talks with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Mr Obama said they must keep up their “competitive advantage”.

The three countries are negotiating a major Pacific trade deal.

But Mr Obama’s Democratic allies oppose the agreement amid concerns that American jobs could be lost.

Republic Report adds significant context:

Obama Admin’s TPP Trade Officials Received Hefty Bonuses From Big Banks

Officials tapped by the Obama administration to lead the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations have received multimillion dollar bonuses from CitiGroup and Bank of America, financial disclosures obtained by Republic Report show.

Stefan Selig, a Bank of America investment banker nominated to become the Under Secretary for International Trade at the Department of Commerce, received more than $9 million in bonus pay as he was nominated to join the administration in November. The bonus pay came in addition to the $5.1 million in incentive pay awarded to Selig last year.

Michael Froman, the current U.S. Trade Representative, received over $4 million as part of multiple exit payments when he left CitiGroup to join the Obama administration. Froman told Senate Finance Committee members last summer that he donated approximately 75 percent of the $2.25 million bonus he received for his work in 2008 to charity. CitiGroup also gave Froman a $2 million payment in connection to his holdings in two investment funds, which was awarded “in recognition of [Froman’s] service to Citi in various capacities since 1999.”

Getting together with Kyodo News:

Crucial TPP ministerial meeting begins in Singapore

Ministers from the 12 countries involved in the envisioned Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade accord began talks in Singapore on Saturday seeking to achieve the challenging goal of reaching a broad agreement after missing an end-of-2013 deadline.

But the momentum for an early conclusion of the ambitious U.S.-led trade initiative has been overshadowed by U.S. frustration over Japan’s reluctance to open up its agricultural market, as well as Malaysian and Vietnamese opposition to reforming state-owned firms.

During a five-day working-level meeting through Friday, each country held bilateral meetings on the sidelines of plenary sessions to bridge gaps over outstanding issues, but officials made little progress on thorny issues.

The Japan Times covers amen choristers:

Don’t fold on TPP tariffs: senators

A bipartisan group of senators has sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman urging the Obama administration not to make tariff concessions to Japan during the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.

The letter, dated Saturday and signed by 15 senators led by Michael Bennett, a Colorado Democrat, and Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, “asked for assurances that the TPP negotiations will not be concluded until Japan agrees to eliminate tariff and non-tariff trade barriers for agricultural products,” the National Pork Producers Council said the same day.

Tokyo and Washington are jousting over Japanese duties on five “sacred” farm product categories — rice, beef and pork, wheat, dairy and sugar — that Tokyo wants to retain under the TPP, which is based on the principle of abolishing all tariffs.

The Obamanations continue via The Guardian:

Obama begins Mexico summit with orders lowering trade barriers

  • Before meeting Mexican and Canadian heads of state, president bypasses Congress by signing trade liberalisation orders

Barack Obama begins a North American summit in Mexico on Wednesday with a gesture of defiance toward allies in Congress who are hampering his ability to negotiate controversial trade liberalisation agreements.

In the latest in a series of so-called executive actions promised in his state of the union address, the US president will sign new measures to speed up imports and exports for businesses by reducing bureaucratic barriers.

And from one Canadian province, a modest resistance to the tenor of the times, via CBC News:

Quebec proposes rules to prevent hostile takeovers

  • Budget sets out economic agenda that includes government taking stakes in mining sector

Quebec’s Parti Québécois government proposed measures to shield businesses headquartered in Quebec from hostile takeovers in a budget tabled Thursday.

It was one in a series of proposals geared at keeping Quebec business in the province that also included plans for the government to buy direct stakes in oil and mining companies with new finds in Quebec.

The proposal comes at a time when the minority government is expected to call a provincial election and may not last long enough to pass through the legislature.

From MercoPress, deserved anxiety:

IMF concerned with risks in emerging markets from pulling back stimulus too quickly

Advanced economies, including the United States, must avoid pulling back stimulus too quickly given the weak global economic recovery and recent market volatility highlights key risks in some emerging markets, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday.

The IMF said there was scope for better coordination of central bank exit plans, something many emerging market policymakers have called for as the Federal Reserve has begun to wind back its US support for the economy.

In a briefing note prepared for upcoming Group of 20 meetings, IMF staff said the outlook for global growth was similar to its last assessment in January, with growth of about 3.75% seen for this year and 4.0% in 2015.

More from China Daily:

Growth in emerging economies to decline: IMF

Anticipated growth in emerging surplus economies, including China’s, is “expected to decline” and output gaps in advanced economies remain negative, the International Monetary Fund said in a report released ahead of this weekend’s G-20 finance meeting in Australia.

Global recovery from the recession has been “disappointingly weak,” and G-20 countries are still producing “far below” the longer-term trend, the report said.

While global economic activity picked up in the second half of 2013 due to strengthening advanced economies, trade volumes remain below trend, decline in unemployment and strong private demand “did not materialize,” the IMF said Wednesday.

Against the backdrop of slower-than-anticipated global growth, emerging economies are experiencing bouts of volatility in the financial sector, influenced in part by weakening sentiment toward emerging economies, the IMF said.

On to Europe with another red flag from BBC News:

Eurozone business growth slowed in February, PMI study suggests

Business growth in the eurozone eased this month but the bloc’s economy continued to expand at a “robust pace”, a closely watched survey suggests.

The latest Markit eurozone composite purchasing managers’ index (PMI) dipped to 52.7 from 52.9 in January. A figure above 50 indicates expansion.

Within the bloc, Germany and France continued to see contrasting fortunes. German companies saw strong growth, but activity among French firms declined for the fourth month in a row.

Another from Deutsche Welle:

Eurozone January inflation too tame to please ECB

In January, price increases in the eurozone remained well below the rate desired by the European Central Bank. The timid inflation rate for the month points to a lackluster recovery in the recession-hit currency area.

Annual inflation in the 18-nation eurozone remained tame in January, recording 0.8 percent higher than in the previous month of December, according to Monday.

In the wider 28-nation European Union, inflation fell to 0.9 percent against 1 percent at the end of last year, Eurostat said.

Compared with January 2013, however, the rates for both areas were significantly lower, coming down from 2 percent and 2.1 percent annual inflation respectively a year ago.

And from Eurostat [PDF], the graphic that tells the deeper story [click to enlarge]:

BLOG Inflate

Another indicator of creepy europoverty from The Guardian [obesity rates rise as poverty increases, with the rates of obesity highest in Europe’s unfortunately named, crisis wracked PIGS]:

Overweight children could become new norm in Europe, says WHO

As many as a third of 11-year-olds in some countries are overweight, as well as two-thirds of UK’s adult population

Being overweight is in danger of becoming the new norm for children as well as adults in Europe, the World Health Organisation warns, issuing figures showing that up to a third of 11-year-olds across the region are too heavy.

According to the EU figures, Greece has the highest proportion of overweight 11-year-olds (33%), followed by Portugal (32%), Ireland and Spain (both 30%).

More anxieties from EurActiv:

Europe tries to reverse drift towards de-industrialisation

After a lost decade, Europe is trying to reverse a decline in manufacturing which has brought industrial output to a standstill. The issue will reach the EU’s top decision-making body in March when European leaders meet for their quarterly summit in Brussels.

Over the past few years, the European Commission has been the most vocal EU institution campaigning for the continent’s industrial revival, positioning itself as a driver of competitiveness and job creation.

Within the EU executive, the commissioner for enterprise, Antonio Tajani, has emerged as the winner of an internal debate opposing supporters of industry to environmentalists, whose policies were blamed for hampering the economy.

Another warning from New Europe:

North-South gap weakens employment and social cohesion

  • The latest European Vacancy Monitor revealed a growing North-South divide

A widening gap in job opportunities between Northern and Southern EU countries is threatening the employment and social cohesion of the EU.

On 24 February, the European Commission announced the latest issue of the European Vacancy Monitor (EVM), which indicated a shortage in labour supply in countries such as Austria, Denmark Sweden, Estonia and Latvia, and an increased competition for jobs in countries such as Greece, Slovakia and Spain.

László Andor, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, said that the Northern-Southern employment gap indicates Eurozone’s employment and social asymmetries. “Diverging job prospects in Northern and Southern Europe underline mismatches in the European labour market, linked also to Eurozone asymmetries. Labour mobility might help to reduce those imbalances. Tools supporting workers mobility within the European labour market such as EURES are available to help job seekers find job opportunities,” Commissioner Andor said.

A shift in sentiment from EUobserver:

Poll: Socialists to top EU elections, boost for far-right

Europe’s socialists are set to top the polls in May’s European elections, according to the first pan-EU election forecast.

The projections, released by Pollwatch Europe on Tuesday (19 February), give the parliament’s centre-left group 221 out of 751 seats on 29 percent of the vote, up from the 194 seats it currently holds.

For their part, the centre-right EPP would drop to 202 seats from the 274 it currently holds on 27 percent of the vote across the bloc. If correct, it would be the first victory for the Socialists since 1994.

EurActiv takes a hit:

Financiers snipe at draft EU law against money laundering

Representatives of financial transactions services have criticised harshly the EU’s draft legislation to fight money laundering which will go through its first parliamentary vote today (20 February) and enjoys the support of the anti-corruption champion, Transparency International.

The European Commission proposal, tabled in February last year, is aimed at tightening EU rules on financial transactions in a bid to step up the fight against money laundering and terrorism funding.

One of the main elements of the proposal is the introduction of a mechanism to name the beneficial owners of companies, in order to prevent the illicit activities which are often carried out under anonymity.

The proposal also includes requirements to increase customer due diligence and tightening the rules obliging financial companies to identify their clients and the legitimacy of their activities.

Europe Online pulls back:

Iceland moves to withdraw EU application

Iceland’s centre-right government is to seek parliamentary approval to withdraw its application to join the European Union, opting not to restart accession talks that were put on ice a year ago.

A bill proposing the withdrawal was sent to parliament late Friday and was due to be debated next week, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson told dpa on Saturday.

The move came after the parliamentary caucuses of the ruling parties – the centrist Progressive Party and the conservative Independence Party – voted Friday to withdraw the application.

In comments on the proposal quoted by online news site Visir.is, the government said it “did not have a support base” to complete the accession process.

Off to Britain, with a major policy reversal of the post-equine escape animal enclosure locking sort from Sky News:

Cameron: UK Ready To Fund New Flood Defences

  • David Cameron tells Sky News he is ready to open the Government’s “chequebook” to build new flood defences.

David Cameron has suggested that his “money is no object” pledge on the flood relief effort could be extended to cover the costs of new defences.

In an exclusive interview with Sky News, the Prime Minister said he was ready to take out his “chequebook” following a major review of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented.

“You’ve got to look at where the floods have been this time, compared with 2007, compared with 2003,” he said.

From the London Telegraph, the usual result:

Wages rise but still below inflation

  • Pay increase and a fall in unemployment a boost for the Bank of England

Wages are still failing to keep up with the rising cost of living despite climbing at a faster rate in the final quarter of last year.

Average weekly pay including bonuses edged up 1.1pc to £478 in the three months to the end of December, up from the 0.9pc rate of increase in the three months to the end of November, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

However, the Government’s preferred inflation measure, the consumer prices index (CPI), currently stands at 1.9pc – below the 2pc target – despite a surprise 0.1 point fall on Tuesday.

Another austerian consequence from The Observer:

Cash-strapped older women are forced back to work

  • Older women taking on more jobs, study finds, but pay gap between the sexes is growing wider

More than three-quarters of the rise in female employment, which hit record levels last December, is the result of women aged over 50 taking on jobs, a study has found.

A report by the TUC to be released this week has established that 2,278,000 more women are now working than in 1992, and that 1,645,000 (72%) of these are aged 50 or over.

Last week the government welcomed news that more women were in work, with the proportion – 67.2% – the highest since records began 43 years ago. The TUC study pinpoints how many older women have felt the need to return to work or to continue working until later in life, for a combination of reasons. These include the rising cost of living, the increase in the state pension age and the fall in value of workplace pensions.

While much of the rise in female employment is due to the greater number of over-50s in the population, the rate of employment has risen too. In 1992, 50.7% of women in the 50-64 age group were economically “inactive”, compared with 36.8% today.

The Observer follows hunger in posh places:

‘Most desirable’ district in the country has three food banks

  • In wealthy towns, families hit by falling incomes and benefit cuts are increasingly being forced to rely on charity handouts

Volunteers have sounded the alarm over a growing reliance on food banks in one of the richest areas in Britain.

Weekly earnings in Hart in Hampshire, recently named as the most desirable district in the country for quality of life, are a third higher than the national average. But the district also has three food banks, which have given out more than 1,000 emergency food parcels in the past six months.

Anti-poverty campaigners say that, even in wealthy areas such as Hart, benefit changes and low wages are creating growing pockets of desperate need.

EurActiv readies the trial:

Britain sets out new test to limit EU migrant benefits

Britain laid out new rules on Wednesday (19 February) designed to limit the access that migrants from other European Union states have to the country’s welfare system.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking to curb immigration into Britain in an effort to quell concerns about migrants entering the country to claim benefits, referred to as ‘benefits tourism’. The move may also stop voters defecting to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party.

The new test, due to come into effect on March 1, sets a minimum income threshold to determine whether a migrant working in the UK should have access to the wider suite of benefits that comes with being classed as a worker rather than a jobseeker.

But the Usual Suspects are doing quite well, thankee kindly. Via Reuters, a case of Banksters Behaving Brazenly:

HSBC to announce bonuses totaling $4 billion: report

HSBC will announce staff bonuses totaling just under 2.4 billion pounds ($4 billion) globally for 2013 and is expected to report a significant rise in pretax profit, Sky News reported on its website on Saturday without citing its sources.

Referring to an unnamed source close to the bank, Sky also said Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver will receive a 1.8 million pound bonus as part of an overall pay deal worth more than 7 million pounds, though this would be less than his previous year pay deal of 7.4 million.

Europe’s biggest bank is expected to announce the size of its bonus pool on Monday along with its yearly results. Bonus payments remain a sensitive issue as many Britons still blame banks for the 2008 financial crisis, after which the state was forced to bail out RBS and Lloyds.

On to Scandinavia and some hard times intolerance from TheLocal.no:

Three men charged for racist attack in Norway

Three men in their twenties have been charged for assaulting a black man in northern Norway, allegedly telling him “we do not like immigrants in Verdal” as they hit him on the back with a snow shovel.

Jacob Kuteh, who was born in Liberia, was hospitalized after the  attack, which took place on Saturday night.

Kuteh claimed the men hit him, strangled him and kicked him in the head, before hitting him with a snow shovel, all the while telling him, “we hate you. We’ll take you.”

“I’ve lived here for ten years and have never experienced anything like this,” Kuteh told VG newspaper. “I have kids that go to school here and it’s no fun at all that someone has suddenly come and told me that they do not like the colour of my skin.”

Sweden next, with a demographic note from TheLocal.se:

Immigrants behind boom in Sweden’s population

The population of Sweden saw the biggest yearly increase in 70 years last year, according to new statistics, thanks largely to the almost 120,000 immigrants who arrived throughout the year.

Sweden’s population on the last day of 2013 was 9,644,864 – a 0.93 percent hike from 2012. The total increase was the largest since 1946, and statisticians at Statistics Sweden (Statistiska centralbyrån – SCB) marked it down to a record-high level of immigration.

In total, 115,845 immigrants arrived in Sweden in 2013, many from Syria and Somalia. The figure is the highest Sweden has ever had in a one-year period. The men outnumbered the women by around 5,000.

TheLocal.se again, this time with a contrarian finding:

Romanian beggars cleared in court

A district court in central Sweden has cleared three Romanian nationals of begging following a previous indictment, saying they did not need the permission of the police to beg.

The trio had previously been prosecuted for begging on the streets of Södertälje, Stockholm county, in January. In court it was debated whether the three individuals had broken any local laws regarding the collection of money.

Local newspaper Länstidningen said that the case was unique as the issue has never been tested before by law.

According to local Södertälje regulations police permission is required for the “collection of money in boxes or similar.” In court the example of street musicians, who don’t require police permission, was raised and comparisons were made between the beggars and street performers.

And more academic austerity ahead with TheLocal.se:

Borg to cut student grants and pension perks

With autumn elections on the horizon, Sweden’s Finance Minister Anders Borg said his government would cut student grants and make alcohol and tobacco more expensive, part of a budget plan to fill Sweden’s coffers.

“You shouldn’t stoke the fire in good times,” Borg told reporters in Stockholm on Thursday as he mapped out the centre-right government coalition’s budget prognosis for the near- and medium term. He said he no longer saw the need to use stimulus measures to keep Sweden’s economy buoyant, and argued that it was time to strengthen public finances.

“Sweden needs proper levees in place before the next crisis,” Borg said, adding that Sweden’s reliance on liquidity and its high household indebtedness was “a big element of uncertainty in the Swedish economy”.

Off to the Netherlands with stagnation from DutchNews.nl:

House prices stabilise but building permits reach 60-year low

House prices were down just 0.5 percent in January, compared with January 2013, showing house prices have now stabilised, the national statistics office CBS says on Friday.

Month on month, there was a 0.4% rise in house prices.

House prices are now in line with 11 years ago, after reaching a peak in August 2008, the CBS says. Houses have gone down an average of 20% in price since then.

At the same time, the CBS says the number of permits for new houses reached a record low of 26,000 in 2013. This is 30% down on 2012 and 70% down on 2008. Permits for new housing have not been so low since 1953, the CBS says.

Germany next, and a pain in the wallet from TheLocal.de:

Wages fall for first time since crash

Wages in Germany fell by an average of 0.2 percent last year, the first drop since the 2009 economic crisis, the federal statistics office said on Thursday.

The calculation was in terms of the real buying power of wages, allowing for inflation, and the fall bodes ill for efforts to fire up domestic consumption to boost recovery in Europe’s biggest economy.

Germany has relied mainly on exports to drive growth.

Citing preliminary results, the statistics office said that nominal wages in 2013 were up 1.3 percent from the previous year, but that consumer prices rose faster, at 1.5 percent, over the same period.

“One reason for the decline in real wages in 2013 was a decline in bonuses which are frequently performance-related,” said a statement by the Wiesbaden-based agency which is known as Destatis.

Deutsche Welle tracks a booming business:

Arms manufacturer Rheinmetall logs lower profit but higher orders

Germany’s biggest arms maker, Rheinmetall, has defied weak defense spending in Europe in 2013 to surprise investors with higher-than-expected earnings. A massive order backlog for 2014 boosted company shares further.
Panzer

Last year, Rheinmetall’s performance had been stable, with consolidated sales of 4.6 billion euros ($6.3 billion). Before special items, Rheinmettal also boasted an operating profit of 213 million euros, the German defense and automotive industry conglomerate announced as it released figures for its 2013 fiscal year on Wednesday.

Rheinmetall’s 2013 operating result was about 55 million euros lower than in 2012, but higher than forecast for 2013, the Düsseldorf-based company announced. The decrease was the result of restructuring measures to the tune of 86 million euros, as well as a further 15 million euros in expenses for strategic portfolio measures, Rheinmetall aannounced.

Annual sales also fell in 2013, however, with the 2 percent decline mainly being a result of unfavorable exchange rates for the euro.

And a point we’ve made before, from EUbusiness:

Germany has ‘unfair’ edge with low salaries: minister

Germany’s low salaries have given Europe’s biggest economy an “unfair” competitive advantage over its partners and must be corrected, a junior German minister has said.

Michael Roth, state secretary for European Affairs, was commenting on Germany’s record trade surplus, which surged to nearly 200 billion euros ($270 billion) last year, and has seen Berlin placed under EU scrutiny.

He said in an interview with AFP Thursday that imbalances had appeared among EU members and there “was a duty not only for countries running a deficit but also for Germany to reduce them”.

The comments by the Social Democrat politician differ from the stance of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, who disagree that Berlin has a problem with its trade surplus despite it consistently exceeding EU limits.

France next, and a uniquely Gallic form of action from Europe Online:

New “boss-napping” incident at a French factory

Workers at a French factory were holding three managers captive for a second day Thursday, after its owners announced that it would be shut down.

The managing director, technical director and financial director of Depalor, a company that produces wood panels in the north-eastern Lorraine region, were being held in an office building.

A trade union representative told France Info radio that the three were barred from leaving until the CEO of parent company Swiss Krono Group came to discuss redundancy terms for the 142 workers.

The incident is the second case of “boss-napping” in France within two months.

And the hidden disclosed, via TheLocal.ch:

France says thousands declare Swiss accounts

The French government says that nearly 16,000 people have declared funds hidden abroad after Switzerland curtailed its vaunted banking secrecy.

France’s Budget Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Wednesday that the government was on track to collect 230 million euros ($316 million) from only 2,621 of the cases.

He told the finance committee of the lower house National Assembly that 80 percent of the newly declared accounts were from Switzerland, which has curtailed its banking secrecy traditions under international pressure.

France 24 ponies up:

French government, China’s Dongfeng to invest in Peugeot

Peugeot Citroën, which has been manufacturing automobiles in France for more than 100 years, has agreed to a deal that will see both the French government and Chinese carmaker Dongfeng buy large stakes in the struggling company.

Peugeot announced on Wednesday that its board had approved the agreement, in which the French government and Dongfeng will each invest €800 million ($1.1 billion) in exchange for 14 percent stakes in the company.

The move marks a huge transition for the carmaker, which until now has been controlled by the Peugeot family. Under the agreement, the family’s 25 percent stake and 38 percent of voting rights will now be reduced to equal the French government and Dongfeng’s stakes in the company.

On to Switzerland and a case of resigned to not being resigned from TheLocal.ch:

German professor quits over Swiss ‘xenophobia’

A German professor at the Federal Institute for Technology in Zurich (ETH) has made a splash in the media for quitting his job over the Swiss vote to limit immigration.

Christopher Höcker, who had taught at the university’s Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture since 1999, told his students this week he was stepping down.

The decision by Swiss voters in a February 9th referendum to narrowly support quotas for immigrants from the European Union was the last straw for the 57-year-old German citizen.

“I do not want more exposure to the increasingly xenophobic climate in Switzerland,” Höcker told 20 Minuten newspaper.

TheLocal.ch delays:

EU not compromising but gives Switzerland time

The EU said Thursday it cannot compromise on the principle of freedom of movement but will allow Switzerland time to find a solution after a controversial referendum approved immigration curbs.

“It is a serious . . . not a minor change which we have to assess calmly,” chief operating officer of the EU external affairs service David O’Sullivan said of the referendum outcome.

“Freedom of movement is a fundamental core value” of the European Union and as such is not open for negotiation, O’Sullivan said after talks with Yves Rossier, his counterpart in the Swiss department of foreign affairs.

On to Spain and onto the streets with United Press International:

Spanish marchers protest job cuts, law against protesting

Demonstrators in at least seven Spanish cities have called for an end to a “gagging law” that set large fines for protest marches.

The protesters were joined by factory workers due to be laid off and groups seeking to preserve access to universal healthcare, Think Spain reported. Monday.

The anti-demonstration law, which affects even peaceful protests, calls for fines of $41,000 to $823,000 for anyone staging the marches.

The protests, which drew thousands of supporters in each of the cities, also want the Spanish Parliament to reject a proposed law restricting abortions.

From Spanish Property Insight, the one group of immigrants eagerly sought:

First Chinese property investors get their “Golden Visas”

Chinese nationals investing in property in Spain are starting to get their residency visas, according to Spanish press reports.

A businesswoman from Shanghai who spent €520,000 on flats in Barcelona and Madrid has become one of the first Chinese nationals to get a Spanish residency via the new “Golden Visa” law that offers Spanish residency permits to non-EU nationals in return for real estate investments of €500,000 or more.

She invested in Spanish property via the Emigration Centre at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), which has a programme to help Chinese nationals invest in residency schemes abroad.

On to Lisbon and yet another austerian misery demanded from the Portugal News:

EU calls for Portugal wages to fall by a further 5%

The European Commission has argued that Portugal needs a further 5% average reduction in wages to ensure a balance between the unemployment rate and wage rates.

Portugal’s government responded by saying that it continued to disagree with that view, arguing that recent increases in exports show that wage adjustment in the private sector has been “sufficient”.

In its report on the 10th regular review of Portugal’s economic and financial assistance programme, released on Thursday, the European Union executive states that “Portugal needs wage moderation sufficient to absorb unemployment” and outlines some estimates.

According to the commission’s calculations, “a reduction of one percentage point in the unemployment rate demands a reduction in real wages of about 2.4%” – which it said means real wages falling 5% if the gap is to be closed between the current jobless rate and that at which wage levels will not lead to new increases in unemployment.

Deutsche Welle takes us to Italy and the latest regime:

Italy swears in its youngest-ever prime minister, Matteo Renzi

  • Italy’s new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, and his cabinet have been sworn into office at a ceremony in Rome. The new government is the youngest in the recent Italian history.

The swearing-in of the prime minister took place at a ceremony in Rome under the auspices of Napolitano.

At 39, Renzi is the youngest-ever person to take the reins in the eurozone’s third largest economy, and his cabinet, with an average age of 47.8 years, is also the most youthful in recent Italian history.

As a result, the government is facing widespread skepticism as to whether it has the political maturity to cope with the challenges currently facing the country.

And the road’s already getting bumpy, via TheLocal.it:

Grillo declares ‘war’ as Berlusconi backs Renzi

Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo has lashed out at Matteo Renzi, saying the prime minister designate is “not credible” and declaring a political “war” against the country’s prospective new leader.

Since being nominated for the premiership on Monday, Renzi has been meeting with party leaders to gain the political backing needed to push urgent reforms through parliament.

While some meetings, such as one with Go Italy (Forza Italia) leader Silvio Berlusconi, have gone relatively well, the same cannot be said of Renzi’s meeting with Grillo.

Visible to all by a live internet stream, their meeting appeared to be a dialogue of the deaf, with neither side appearing interested in the other.

ANSA raises an alarm:

Italian recovery slow, growth stalling, say industrialists

  • Urgent need to address competitiveness, demand and bank credit

Italy’s economic recovery is extremely slow and recent data shows that industrial production in the eurozone’s third-largest economy is close to stalling, according to a new report released on Wednesday by Italian employers’ association Confindustria.

“(The recovery is) moving ahead very slowly, almost at a standstill”, Confindustria’s economists said. “These are the harsh facts of the Italian economy”, with employment and industrial production data “confirming that the pick up from the extremely deep hole that has been dug by the recession is extremely slow”.

Fourth-quarter gross domestic product data, which showed the economy expanded 0.1% in the last three months of 2013, was “lower that expected” and “confirms the extreme weakness of the recovery”, according to the report drawn up by Confindustria’s economic research unit which is headed by economist Luca Paolazzi.

And another call for an increasingly mooted move from ANSA:

Re-open cannabis debate, hurt mafia, says ex-health minister

  • Ban on marijuana doesn’t work, says top oncologist Veronesi

It’s time that Italy re-opened the debate on liberalizing marijuana use, to cut out drug traffickers, permit its medical use, while acknowledging the current ban doesn’t work, former health minister Umberto Veronesi said Thursday.

In an opinion article published in La Repubblica newspaper, Veronesi, a prominent oncologist, said that liberalizing the drug would take away power from the mafia and other criminals who now profit greatly from its cultivation and sale.

It would make marijuana more safe for users, including those who need it for pain relief, added Veronesi, whose comments come amid debate about Italy’s illegal-drug laws.

And from New Europe, departures from Bucharest:

Romanian ministers resign

Romania is in the throws of a political crisis after two ministers from the junior party in the ruling coalition resigned.

Finance Minister Daniel Chitoiu and Economy Minister Andrei Gerea, both Liberal Party members, stepped down on Wednesday after Prime Minister Victor Ponta refused to accept the Liberals’ nomination of Klaus Johannis, the popular mayor of Sibiu city, as interior minister. The position, now vacant, was recently held by another Liberal Party official.

Ponta, leader of the Social Democratic Party, will temporarily head the finance portfolio. He named a party colleague as interim economy minister.

After the jump, the latest Greek debacles, unmentionable anxieties in Russia, the latest from Kyiv, an African GMO invasion, the latest turmoil from Latin America, India swings to the right, Thai troubles, worries down under, Chinese alarm bells, Abenomics on the rocks, nucelear woes in the U.S.A., Big Ag hits a roadblock, fracking woes go global, a Spanish snail invasion, and a globl arming cooler. . .plus Fukushimapocalypse Now! Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliEcoFukunews


We begin today’s collection of news political, economic, environmental, and nuclear — including the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now! — with a take on the merger de jour from Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observer:

BLOG Siers

From the Washington Post, consequences of enserfing students:

Student debt may hurt housing recovery by hampering first-time buyers

The growing student loan burden carried by millions of Americans threatens to undermine the housing recovery’s momentum by discouraging, or even blocking, a generation of potential buyers from purchasing their first homes.

Recent improvements in the housing market have been fueled largely by investors who snapped up homes in the past few years. But that demand is waning as prices climb and mortgage rates rise. An analysis by the Mortgage Bankers Association found that loan applications for home purchases have slipped nearly 20 percent in the past four months compared with the same period a year earlier.

First-time buyers, the bedrock of the housing market, are not stepping up to fill the void. They have accounted for nearly a third of home purchases over the past year, well below the historical norm, industry figures show. The trend has alarmed some housing experts, who suspect that student loan debt is partly to blame. That debt has tripled from a decade earlier, to more than $1 trillion, while wages for young college graduates have dropped.

A decline from the Los Angeles Times:

Builder confidence down sharply in February

Builder confidence in the new home market plunged in February, a combination of debilitating weather and few lots available for construction, a trade group said.

The National Assn. of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index tumbled 10 points from January to a seasonally adjusted level of 46, the largest drop since the index launched in 1985. A level higher than 50 means more builders see the market for new, single-family homes as good rather than poor.

From the Los Angeles Times again, another decline:

Coca-Cola announces $1 billion in cuts as demand, profit slide

Coca-Cola Co., faced with tepid demand and a drop in fourth-quarter earnings, said Tuesday it was initiating a $1-billion cost-cutting campaign to improve profitability.

The world’s largest beverage company said Tuesday that profit fell 8.4% in the fourth quarter of 2013 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Investors were selling on the news. Shares of the Atlanta company were down $1.46, or nearly 4%, to $37.47 at 9 a.m. PST.

Another sort of decline from the Associated Press:

After UAW defeat, can GOP fulfill promise of jobs?

Republicans fighting a yearslong unionization effort at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee painted a grim picture in the days leading up to last week’s vote. They said if Chattanooga employees joined the United Auto Workers, jobs would go elsewhere and incentives for the company would disappear.

Now that workers have rejected the UAW in a close vote, attention turns to whether the GOP can fulfill its promises that keeping the union out means more jobs will come rolling in, the next great chapter in the flourishing of foreign auto makers in the South.

Regardless of what political consequences, if any, Republicans would face if that fails to happen, the Volkswagen vote established a playbook for denying the UAW its goal of expanding into foreign-owned plants in the region, which the union itself has called the key to its long-term future.

CNBC posits the negative:

$10.10 minimum wage could hit total employment: CBO

Raising the U.S. federal minimum wage to $10.10, as President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress are proposing, could result in about 500,000 jobs being lost by late 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated on Tuesday.

The non-partisan CBO also said that increasing the hourly wage could reduce U.S. budget deficits by a small amount for several years, but then increase them slightly in later years.

The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Democrats who control the U.S. Senate could try to advance minimum wage legislation as early as next month.

Xinhua invests:

Foreign holdings of U.S. Treasury debt hits record in December

Foreign buyers continued to increase their holdings of U.S. Treasury securities for a fifth straight month in December, even though the two largest holders of U.S. public debt trimmed their shares, U.S. Treasury Department said Tuesday.

The total foreign holdings rose to 5.79 trillion U.S. dollars in December, up 1.4 percent from that in November, showed the Treasury International Capital report. The figure surpassed the all-time high hit in March of 5.73 trillion dollars.

China, the largest foreign buyer of the Treasury debt, trimmed its holdings by 47.8 billion dollars to 1.27 trillion dollars in December, its first reduction in the past four months, the report showed.

Japan, the second largest holder, sold 3.9 billion dollars to 1. 18 trillion dollars in December, according to the figures.

Salon disgraces:

Virginia county sheriff hosting anti-Muslim training by disgraced conspiracy theorist

  • John Guandolo says Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.” Now he’s instructing law officers

The Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia is planning to host a three-day training by John Guandolo, a notorious Muslim-basher and conspiracy theorist who resigned from the FBI before he could be investigated for misconduct, according to promotional materials.

It’s hard to believe that the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office would knowingly associate itself with such a disreputable character, who regularly attacks the U.S. government, claims that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency is a secret Muslim agent for the Saudi government and says that American Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.”

Guandolo joined the bureau’s Counterterrorism Division in the wake of 9/11, but by 2005 he was posing as a driver for a “star witness” in the corruption case of former Congressman William Jefferson (D-LA). He made “inappropriate sexual advances” to that witness and soon was having an “intimate relationship…that he thought could damage an investigation.” He also unsuccessfully solicited the witness for a $75,000 donation to an organization he supported and carried on extramarital affairs with female FBI agents.

And the Los Angeles Times talks a deal:

U.S.-Mexico-Canada talks will focus on strengthening economic ties

Mexico is expected to avoid discussions about its drug-related violence and focus on its oil and gas industry, along with border and immigration issues.

Twenty years after their countries signed a landmark regional trade agreement, the presidents of the United States, Mexico and Canada will meet this week to attempt to strengthen the economic ties envisioned in that pact, correct the omissions and find ways to expand.

Trade and commerce are expected to dominate the agenda when President Obama meets with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts — President Enrique Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Stephen Harper — in the Mexican city of Toluca, just west of Mexico City, on Wednesday.

Large squads of soldiers and police were patrolling Toluca, the capital of Mexico state, and blocking off major roadways Monday. Schools in the central city were suspending classes. Leftist political parties were planning demonstrations, with several hundred people marching from Mexico City to Toluca.

EUbusiness covers another deal in the making:

EU, US reps meet ahead of free-trade talks

US Trade Ambassador Michael Froman received his European counterpart Karel De Gucht in Washington Monday, preparing for next month’s fourth round of talks on creating the world’s largest free-trade area.

The two sides have been in discussion since last year over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which aims to expand trade, investment and regulatory cooperation between the two huge economies.

Froman and De Gucht spoke briefly to reporters in Washington before two days of closed-door meetings with the EU trade commissioner, meant to take stock of progress made during three past rounds of negotiations, which wrapped up in December.

On to Europe and a call from The Guardian:

Eurozone countries should form United States of Europe, says EC vice-president

  • Viviane Reding calls for full fiscal and political union for 18 eurozone countries but says UK should remain apart

A celebrated call by Winston Churchill for the creation of a “United States of Europe” was revived on Monday by a leading member of the European commission who said the 18 eurozone countries should form a full fiscal and political union.

Viviane Reding, a vice-president of the commission, told Cambridge University’s law faculty that “bold reforms” were needed to avoid tensions across Europe as new governance arrangements were introduced to stabilise the single currency.

A lop-sided take from New Europe:

EU industry: Towards an unbalanced recovery

  • The output of the EU industry remains below the pre-crisis levels

The EU industry lacks of a cohesive growth as according to a report by the European Commission most sectors have still not regained their pre-crisis level of output and significant differences exist between sectors and Member States.

The data for the EU industry shows a mixed picture. The economic output of the manufacturing sector has declined significantly, but important differences between sectors remain. According to the “EU Industrial structure report 2013: Competing in Global Value Chains,” the pharmaceuticals sector has experienced sustained growth since the start of the financial crisis, while high-technology manufacturing industries have, in general, not been impacted to the same extent as other industries.

Moreover, EU manufacturing output indicates significant differences between Member States. Strong recoveries can only be seen in Romania, Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic States, which all regained and exceeded their pre-recession peaks. On the other hand, the EU manufacturing recovery remains below the pre-recession levels in 20 Member States.

Spiegel diagnoses:

The Swiss Virus: Europe Gripped by Immigration Worries

  • The Swiss aren’t the only ones in Europe deeply concerned about immigration. Many across the Continent would also like to see limits placed on newcomers from elsewhere in the EU. Europe must remain firm, but right-wing populists stand to benefit.

Greeks, Italians and French blame economic policy from Brussels for their difficulties. At the same time, Germans and other Northern Europeans are afraid they will ultimately be forced to cough up for EU countries to the south. What some call “reform” and others call “austerity” is driving a wedge between Europeans. And now, the issue of free movement across the EU is being thrown into the discussion because many are concerned they could lose out on the employment market. But questioning the EU principle allowing people to choose where they wish to live and work is akin to questioning the entire European project.

On to Britain and the austerian price of a flooding disaster, via The Guardian:

Thames flood defences among schemes hit by coalition funding cuts

  • Avoidable damage estimated to cost £3bn as projects at Heathrow, Dawlish and Somerset Levels delayed or downsized

Planned defences along the length of the flood-hit Thames Valley were delayed and downsized after government funding cuts following the last election, the Guardian can reveal.

The schemes, totalling millions of pounds, include projects near Heathrow, near David Cameron’s country home in Oxfordshire and in the constituency of the minister who oversaw annual flood budget cuts of almost £100m.

West Drayton, near Heathrow, the scene of significant flooding in west London, was in line for £2.8m of funding to build up concrete and earth bank defences by 2014-15. But following budget cuts, the Arklyn Kennels scheme was downgraded to a £1m scheme and delayed until at least 2018-19.

At Penton Hook, on the Thames near flood-affected Staines in Surrey, a £5.6m dredging scheme was due to be completed by the end of March 2014, but has received just £2m to date. The scheme was also intended to clean up a site where contaminated silt dredged from the river was dumped.

From New Europe, a warning:

Reding: UK would lose influence outside EU

European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding warned that the EU would lose influence outside the EU and that all the talk of opt-out by the British government distracts from the real issue which is to find solutions for the EU economy.

“The truth is, outside the EU, the UK would lose influence. If the UK were to leave the EU, it would no longer be able to influence EU regulation. It would have to live with the rules decided on by the other EU countries,” Reding told an audience in Cambridge on February 17.

“To get access to the Single Market, you have to apply its rules. Just ask the Norwegians. It’s difficult to see why the other Member States would grant the UK unfettered access to their markets without requiring it to apply the EU’s rules,” she added.

The federalist Commissioner also added that the rhetoric of David Cameron’s Conservatives – who want to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership and have promised a referendum on the issue in 2017 should they win the next election – distracts from the real issues facing the bloc.

And from CNNMoney, the latest instance of Banksters Behaving Badly:

Ex-Barclays bankers charged with Libor rigging

Prosecutors have charged three former Barclays bankers in connection with the rigging of global interest rates.

The U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office, which prosecutes complex cases of fraud, said Monday that it’s started criminal proceedings against Peter Charles Johnson, Jonathan James Mathew and Stylianos Contogoulas in connection with manipulating the London interbank offered rate, or Libor.

All three have been charged with conspiring to defraud between June 2005 and August 2007.

Pondering a change of course with the London Telegraph:

Interest rate rise ‘a last resort’ to cool housing market

  • David Miles, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), describes rate rises as a “blunt tool” that will only be used if other policies fail

The Bank of England will only use interest rate rises to cool the housing market if its financial stability toolkit is “not up to the job”, one of its policymakers has said.

David Miles, an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), said rate rises were a “big stick” that would only be used as a last resort.

“We do have, as the last line of defence, the blunt instrument, the big stick of interest rates,” he told Bloomberg TV. “If you did get into a situation where the tools that the Financial Policy Committee (FPC) have seem not up to the job of stopping overheating in the housing market, we would then turn to the blunter instrument of using bank rate.

“We’re a long way from that.”

The Guardian delivers a jeremiad:

New Catholic cardinal renews attack on ‘disgraceful’ UK austerity cuts

  • Roman Catholic archbishop Vincent Nichols, who is to be made a cardinal by Pope Francis, inundated with messages of support

The leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales says he has been inundated with messages of support after branding the government’s austerity programme a disgrace for leaving so many people in destitution.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4′s Today programme to mark his imminent appointment as a cardinal by Pope Francis, Archbishop Vincent Nichols expanded upon his comments to the Telegraph when he criticised the government’s welfare reforms as “punitive”.

“The voices that I hear express anger and despair … Something is going seriously wrong when, in a country as affluent as ours, people are left in that destitute situation and depend solely on the handouts of the charity of food banks,” Nichols said.

In his Telegraph interview, published on Saturday, Nichols accused ministers of tearing apart the safety net that protects people from hunger and destitution. He said since he made those comments he had been “inundated with accounts from people … saying there are indeed many cases where people are left without benefits, without any support, for sometimes weeks on end”.

On to Sweden and a case of that Swiss fever from TheLocal.se:

Roma migrants evicted from Stockholm site

Officials evicted all remaining Romanian migrants from a campsite in southern Stockholm on Monday morning, just days after over 100 campers were given a free bus ride home.

The Swedish Enforcement Agency (Kronofogden) carried out the eviction in Högdalen, a suburb in the southern reaches of Stockholm, at 9am on Monday, just days after a bus load of the campers went home.

“All I know is that it’s more or less empty,” Henrik Brånstad, spokesman at the agency, told the TT news agency. “Many have apparently moved to other places while others have jumped at the chance of a bus ride home to Romania.”

Over 100 EU-migrants accepted the bus tickets home, many of whom had earned money begging in the Swedish capital. One of the buses crashed in southern Sweden on Sunday morning on the way to Bucharest. Only the driver was injured.

Rumbles from the right head to court with TheLocal.se:

First charges filed for Stockholm Nazi attack

Seven people were charged on Monday in the wake of a neo-Nazi attack on anti-racist demonstrators in Stockholm last year. But prosecutors say more indictments are on the way.

Charges were filed on Monday against people who took part in a violent riot in Stockholm’s Kärrtorp suburb in December last year. Four of the suspects were charged with violent rioting (våldsamt upplopp) and hate speech (hets mot folkgrupp) and another three were charged with instigating violent rioting. According to the indictment, several of those charged threw bottles, rocks, and firecrackers.

“There will be more charges filed than just these, altogether there were around 30 people detained after the demonstration,” Ulf Sundström of the Söderort police told the TT news agency.

And TheLocal.se, and a word for the teacher:

Teacher salaries too low in Sweden: OECD

Teacher salaries in Sweden are lower than in countries with higher–performing schools, according to an extra OECD evaluation requested by the government on the heels of Sweden’s dismal performance in the latest Pisa rankings.

“The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers,” Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Deputy Director of Education and Skills, told reporters at a press briefing in Stockholm on Tuesday.

“In higher-performing countries, teachers have higher salaries but also clear career possibilities.”

The analysis, which marks the first time ever that Sweden has asked the OECD for extra help in evaluating its school system, also found that Sweden has relatively high costs per student, with only nine other OECD countries spending more money per pupil.

The Associated Press covers a Norwegian whiner:

Breivik hunger strike threat: wants bigger gym

Convicted Norwegian mass-killer Anders Behring Breivik has threatened to go on hunger strike unless he gets access to better video games, a sofa and a larger gym.

In a letter received by The Associated Press Tuesday, Breivik writes the hunger strike will continue until his demands are met or he dies. Breivik’s lawyer Tord Jordet confirmed the letter was authentic and said his client is waiting for a response from prison authorities before starting the hunger strike.

Breivik is serving a 21-year prison sentence, which can be extended when it expires, for killing 77 people in bomb and gun massacres in 2011.

Among his demands, Breivik wants the lifting of restrictions on communications and improved air conditions. He wants the available PlayStation 2 console replaced by a modern version.

Germany next and a call for a New Deal from Deutsche Welle:

IW think tank urges change in German investment policy

A leading German economic think tank has announced that massive investments in infrastructure are needed so as not to lose out to competitors. The institute found many companies were worried about possible disadvantages.

In its study released Monday, the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) said despite a relatively good infrastructure many companies polled were increasingly worried about a deterioration of the country’s road network.

They also voiced concerns about the future state of the energy grid, with the shift to renewables currently posing enormous problems and a necessary expansion of the network facing community-level resistance.

Companies also worried about broadband Internet connections not being created fast enough in all regions. About two-thirds of the 2,800 firms polled reported that they were already experiencing disadvantages as a result of infrastructure problems.

The research institute calculated that all in all some 120 billion euros ($164.6 billion) would have to be invested into infrastructure over the next 10 years, to be spent evenly on road maintenance and extension, the broadband communications network and the national energy grid, with a major new north-south line.

From TheLocal.de, a cartel cabal busted:

Sugar giants fined €280m for price fixing

German consumers have been paying over the odds for sugar for years, it emerged on Tuesday, when authorities fined Germany’s three biggest sugar firms €280 million for illegally fixing prices.

Pfeiler & Langen, Südzucker and Nordzucker, along with seven unnamed individuals were found to have been fixing prices, sales territories and quotas between them for many years, the Federal Cartel Office in Bonn said.

The three German sugar producers agreed on various strategies between them aimed at pushing up sugar prices across the board, whether they sold to households or the food industry.

The manufacturers agreed “to keep to their traditional sales territories and not get in the way of the other cartel members,” said Cartel Office president Andreas Mundt in a statement.

And Europe Online notes a decline:

German investor confidence posts surprise fall in February

German investor confidence posted a surprise decline in February over concerns of a slowdown in the United States and uncertainties in emerging economies, a key survey showed Tuesday.

The closely watched indicator gauging the mood among analysts and institutional investors slipped to 55.7 from 61.7 in January, the Mannheim-based ZEW institute said.

While Spiegel covers blowback:

Child Porn Investigation: Merkel Cabinet Rife with Suspicion and Mistrust

It is a disastrous start for Angela Merkel’s new government: After details of a child pornography investigation were leaked, a cabinet member was forced to resign. Now, the chancellor’s new cabinet is consumed by backbiting and mistrust.

Deutsche Welle notes another downside to the German miracle:

Study: Eastern Europeans underpaid in Germany

  • Massive poverty-driven migration from Eastern Europe? Recent studies suggest a different situation: More than half of all immigrants from these countries have good credentials, but work for low wages in Germany.

The Employment Agency’s statistics show that a far larger percentage of Eastern Europeans receive low wages than their German counterparts do. In December 2012, around 52 percent were paid low-wage salaries, meaning they earned less than two-thirds of the country’s average income. The share of such workers among Germans makes up just under 20 percent.

At the same time, the educational level of immigrants keeps rising, says Nina Neubecker from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW): “We found that those who moved to Germany after 2004 are considerably more qualified than immigrants from years in the past.”

Neubecker says her research revealed that two thirds of Eastern European immigrants hold a university degree or have completed a vocational training course. She also found that a significant part of Romanians and Bulgarians who moved to Germany after 2007 carry out jobs not requiring their level of education. Depending on the method used, estimates of the proportion of these overqualified immigrant workers range from 40 to 58 percent.

And a call to chill from Deutsche Welle:

Merkel calls on EU to remain calm after controversial Swiss referendum curbing immigration

German Chancellor Merkel has called on EU states to remain calm after a controversial Swiss referendum which limits the number of immigrants within its borders. The comments followed a meeting with the Swiss president.

Chancellor Merkel warned fellow EU members against “rashly breaking” relations with Bern. “It can’t be that because one side did something in one specific area that the other side says nothing works in other areas,” she said, referring to Brussels’ retaliatory moves.

“The challenge will now be that we deal with the results in a way that relations between the European Union and Switzerland remain as intense as possible with respect for the referendum,” Merkel added.

Merkel and Burkhalter also reaffirmed their commitment toward maintaining German-Swiss ties. The current bilateral trade volume is worth roughly 75 billion euros ($103 billion) and some 350,000 Germans are employed in Switzerland.

On to France and a fear from TheLocal.fr:

French TV execs want protection from Netflix

French TV executives have asked to meet with top leaders to plead for “urgent measures” that would guard them against the pending arrival of video service Netflix and tech giants like Google.

The heads of France’s three largest private television networks have asked the government to protect them from US competitors like Google, Apple and Netflix who are set to enter the market.

The bosses of TF1, Canal+ and M6, alarmed by the impending arrival of the American tech giants, have sought a meeting with Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti to discuss “urgent measures” to reform the sector.

“It is not an economic crisis that is being faced by TF1, Canal+ and M6 but a rapid sectoral change,” Nonce Paolini, Bertrand Meheut and Nicolas de Tavernost said in the letter written last week and seen by AFP on Monday.

And another Roma tragedy from TheLocal.fr:

Blaze ravages another Roma camp in France

Fire raged through a Roma camp in Marseille on Sunday, just days after a blaze in a Paris area Roma camp killed an eight-year-old girl. Following that deadly fire the local mayor said it was time France dismantled its slums.

No one was hurt in the latest fire on Sunday morning, but all 15 makeshift homes near the Marseille port were completely destroyed, said the local fire brigade in a statement.

“Preliminary investigations suggest the fire was started accidentally,” a judicial source told AFP.

Around 45 people who were in the camp will now be housed by authorities in a hotel for the next week, but their future is in doubt since the local government was on the verge of evicting them.

Switzerland next and blowback from TheLocal.ch:

EU freezes research and student exchange funds

In a tit-for-tat retaliation, the European Union has frozen research grants for Swiss universities worth hundreds of millions of euros and suspended the involvement of Switzerland in the Erasmus student exchange programme.

A spokesman for the EU announced the freeze on Sunday, a day after after Bern announced it had refused to sign a deal opening labour market access to Croatia, the ATS news agency reported.

The Swiss government said it was unable to ink the deal because of the February 9th referendum decision to scrap the freedom of movement of labour agreement with the EU and impose immigration quotas.

But Brussels considers that Horizon 2020, an €80-billion research and innovation programme spread over seven years (2014-2020), and Erasmus, are tied to the free movement of people accord, ATS said.

More blowback from TheLocal.ch:

Moody’s: Swiss migrant vote ‘credit negative’

Curbs on immigration from the European Union will hurt Switzerland’s economy and its banking sector, ratings agency Moody’s said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

Swiss voters on February 9th supported an initiative to reintroduce quotas on immigrants from the EU in a move that has already led to retaliation from the 28-country bloc.

“Limiting immigration is likely to affect the country’s growth potential, wealth and overall economic strength,” Moody’s said, noting that the effect of the vote was “credit negative”.

The agency noted that Switzerland has benefited over the past decade from the “strong inflow of highly qualified workers”.

And from RT, tucked in for the night:

Swiss jets not scrambled over hijacked plane because ‘airbases closed at night’

An incident with a highjacked Ethiopian passenger jet has exposed the Swiss Air Force’s inability to deal with threats in ‘off-duty’ hours. An emergency escort to the aircraft in distress was carried out by vigilant colleagues from Italy and France.

Early on Monday morning, an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot told ground control he had highjacked flight ET-702 from Addis Ababa to Rome and was going to land in Geneva. The Swiss Air Force was caught off guard and missed a rare opportunity to go on a real mission. It turned out that they were unable to scramble any jets because they only work during office hours!

“Switzerland cannot intervene because its airbases are closed at night and on the weekend,” Swiss Air Force spokesman, Laurent Savary, commented to AFP later on, adding that it is “a question of budget and staffing.”

According to Laurent Savary, the Swiss Air Force operates during office hours only, specifically from 8am until a lunch break at noon. A return to cockpits happens at 1:30 pm and they watch over Switzerland’s skies until 5pm.

Spain next, and blowback from anti-immigrant violence of another kind from El País:

Immigration law change in works: interior minister

  • Rajoy defends civil guards’ reaction to tragic Ceuta stampede
  • Brussels denies receiving Spain’s request for border help

Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz on Tuesday announced that the Popular Party (PP) government is preparing a change in the immigration law to help civil guards facing mass attempts by migrants to cross the border into the Spanish North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

“The law is not designed for events such as the stampedes in Ceuta and Melilla,” Fernández Díaz said in the halls of the Senate after a tense session. “It is not the same as controlling the border at Barajas or Melilla [airports]. We are working on a reform to control the borders, so that the Civil Guard has adequate regulations to confront these situations.”

Earlier in the upper house he and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vigorously defended the actions of civil guards at the Ceuta security fence on February 6, when 15 sub-Saharan migrants died as a result of a mass attempt to cross the border during which rubber bullets were fired.

TheLocal.es has a deal for you:

Spain rolls out plans to flog off failed bank

Spain will sell its stake in bailed-out bank Bankia in stages over two or three years, its president said in an interview published on Sunday.

Bankia became the symbol of Spain’s financial crisis when it lost more than €19 billion ($26 billion) in 2012 and pushed the government to ask its eurozone partners for €41 billion in rescue loans to shore up the entire banking system.

Under the terms of the European Union’s 2012 bailout, the Spanish government has until 2017 to sell its 68 percent stake in Bankia.

“It would be reasonable for the privatization process to be similar to what is being carried out with Lloyds. That is, that it be carried out in phases and take two or three years,” Bankia president Jose Ignacio Goirigolzarri said in an interview published in daily newspaper ABC.

Europe Online covers another record:

Spain’s public debt at record high

Spain’s public debt has risen to its highest level since records began, data released on Monday showed, with the country posting an unprecedented deficit of 961.6 billion euros (1.3 trillion dollars) at the end of 2013.

The debt level marks an 8.7-per-cent increase on the previous year’s figure, the Bank of Spain revealed on Monday.

It represents around 94 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), which is slightly higher than the Spanish government’s 2013 target of 94.2 per cent.

El País covers departures:

Chinese burned

  • Some Spanish firms are abandoning China because of the problems of doing business there

“The wave of news stories about the rise in the Chinese market is creating a very distorted image of what it means to do business in this country and the risks involved.” This is the opinion of the director of a big Spanish industrial company with a presence in China. The director spoke on the condition that he was not named. “Currently, although the opposite image is given, very few Spanish companies are making a profit in China, and many are having great problems finding room for themselves in a particularly difficult market,” the director says.

Cases such as those of Revlon and Garnier, which this year decided to pull out of China, have shown that such problems are common to all foreign companies, although the idea persists that Spanish firms are finding it particularly difficult because they “lack the right background and financial resources.”

“Many companies are reaching desperation point. Traditional markets are not working and they’re convinced that anyone can make money in China. But they limit themselves to putting an intern in a business center and hoping for results that obviously will never come,” says the director, who is a leading member of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. “The problem of human resources is a major one: they don’t invest enough in personnel, there is a lack of talent and the turnaround in staff is one of the highest in the world.”

On to Lisbon and a caution from the Portugal News:

‘Crisis not over’ – finance minister

Portugal’s finance minister, Maria Luís Albuquerque, said on Monday in Brussels, that one of the country’s biggest challenges was not to be tempted to give up on budget discipline because it felt the worst part of the crisis was over.

Maria Luís Albuquerque, who was speaking at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) meeting before a Eurogroup meeting, said that “ among the reforms being implemented across Europe, the banking union was clearly the priority for Portugal”, since the current “credit conditions are a very negative factor for the competitiveness of Portuguese companies and the economy as a whole”.

Noting that the structural reforms, one of the topics of the seminar, are also high on the agenda, and there were reasons to be satisfied with the results, but added that there was “still a lot more work ahead”.

Italy next and a change at the top from ANSA:

Renzi handed govt mandate, sets ambitious reform goals

  • Premier-designate eying one major reform every month till May

Democratic Party (PD) leader Matteo Renzi set ambitious reform targets on Monday after being given a mandate to try to form a government from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Renzi, 39, is set to become Italy’s youngest-ever premier after torpedoing the coalition administration of his PD colleague Enrico Letta last week over his lack of progress with much-needed institutional reforms and measures to revive the troubled economy.

Italy is slowly emerging from its longest postwar recession, but it is still ravaged by unemployment of over 12% with over four in 10 under-25s out of work. Constitutional changes are also needed to streamline government and reduce the cost of the country’s expensive, slow-moving political system.

Les than enthused with TheLocal.it:

Italians think Renzi takeover is ‘pointless’

Matteo Renzi was nominated as Italy’s new prime minister on Monday after a “palace coup” which saw Enrico Letta resign from the leadership. But a new poll has found that few Italians believe it is a positive political move.

Just 31 percent of Italians think replacing Letta with Renzi, who aged just 39 is set to be Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister, is positive, an Ipsos poll on Sunday found.

While 23 percent found the move outright wrong, 26 percent said it was “pointless” while 15 percent found the current situation “absurd”.

Still more enthusiasm absent from ANSA:

Fitch keeps outlook negative, ‘Renzi faces same problems’

  • Letta’s resignation highlights ‘volatility of Italian politics’

Ratings agency Fitch said Monday it was keeping a negative outlook for Italy with a BBB+ rating, saying premier-designate Matteo Renzi “will probably have the same problems as his predecessor” in pushing through reforms if he manages to form a new government.

Fitch said the resignation of outgoing Premier Enrico Letta on Friday highlighted the “volatility of Italian politics” pointing out that Renzi was set to be the country’s fourth premier since November 2011.

A plutocratic spat from the London Telegraph:

Tycoons quarrel over Italy’s young jobless

  • Two of Italy’s business heavyweights have gone to war over the country’s soaring levels of youth unemployment
  • Italy’s youth unemployment reached a record 41.6pc in January

Diego Della Valle, head of the Tod’s luxury leather goods empire, launched a blistering attack on John Elkann, the president of the Fiat auto giant, after Mr Elkann said Italy’s young unemployed had no desire to look for work.

Mr Della Valle, the colourful entrepreneur known for his exuberant ties and gold-tinted spectacles, labelled Mr Elkann an “imbecile” after a week of bitter exchanges between the two.

Unhappy other from TheLocal.it:

Desperate business owners march on Rome

An estimated 60,000 Italians protested in central Rome on Tuesday, calling for greater action to save the millions of small- and medium-sized businesses which employ almost half the country’s workforce.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on Tuesday; a collective army of business owners demanding the government do more to stem the worrying rise in bankruptcies.

“Without business there is no Italy,” was the slogan of the day, organized by the Italian Enterprise Network (Rete Imprese Italia) along with a number of business associations.

Among a series of demands was an overhaul of the tax system, often described as a barrier to growth with such high rates many Italians simply evade their tax duties.

After the jump, the latest on the endless Greek crises, violence in the Ukraine, Turkish joblessness rising, Turkish economic alarms, Venezuelan turmoil, troubles in Brazil, Argentinian woes, Latin legalization moves, Australian economic woes and a Murdochian bonanza, Indian populism and woes, Thai turmoil, a mixed report from China, Abenonics in extremsis in Japan, nuclear woes, and Fukushimapocalypse Now! . . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEcoPoliFukuFailure


Today’s collection of headlines form the realms of economics, politics, and the environment begins with a tale of sobering implications from RT:

Self-organizing robot armies produced – and all thanks to ingenious termite logic

Harvard ‘brainiacs’ are at it again. Inspired by termites, they have realized their dream of cheap, expendable, self-organizing robots – a construction crew building complex structures at a quick pace, and completely independent of leadership.

The possibilities are vast. The machines can be made to build any three-dimensional structure on their own and with minimal instruction. But what is truly staggering is their ability to adapt to their work environment and to each other; to calculate losses, reorganize efforts and make adjustments. It is already clear that the development will do wonders for humanity in space, hard-to-reach places and other difficult situations.

Looking at huge mounds of soil and the resilience of hordes of termites building them, working for a common cause, while their comrades die, the techies and engineers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have created an army of little bots that do just that. And they cooperate and learn with no oversight.

And the world into which these shiny new arnies are born? From The Independent:

One in four Americans ‘don’t know the Earth orbits the Sun’ and only half believe in evolution

With the possible exception of ‘is the earth flat?’ it is (according to Discover magazine at least) the most basic question in science: ‘does the earth orbit the sun?’

The good news is that 74 per cent of Americans know the answer.

The very bad news is that means 26 per cent really don’t.

These results, which appear in the National Science Foundation (NSF) survey of 2,200 Americans, will form part of a report set to be presented to Barack Obama and lawmakers in congress, and are likely to once again raise the issue of educational standards in the United States.

Other startling results from the survey included that only 39 per cent of Americans believe “the universe began with a huge explosion”. And fewer than half of the people surveyed (48 per cent) agreed that “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals”.

As for those creationism believers, they’ve gotten so bad that even Pat Robertson thinks they’re bonkers [via Right Wing Watch]:

RWW News: Even Pat Robertson Attacks Creationism As A “Joke”

From JapanToday, an American initiative with legs:

U.S. drug policy fuels push for legal pot worldwide

From the Americas to Europe to North Africa and beyond, the marijuana legalization movement is gaining unprecedented traction — a nod to successful efforts in Colorado, Washington state and the small South American nation of Uruguay, which in December became the first country to approve nationwide pot legalization.

Leaders long weary of the drug war’s violence and futility have been emboldened by changes in U.S. policy, even in the face of opposition from their own conservative populations. Some are eager to try an approach that focuses on public health instead of prohibition, and some see a potentially lucrative industry in cannabis regulation.

“A number of countries are saying, ‘We’ve been curious about this, but we didn’t think we could go this route,’” said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who helped write Colorado’s marijuana regulations. “It’s harder for the U.S. to look at other countries and say, ‘You can’t legalize, you can’t decriminalize,’ because it’s going on here.”

That’s due largely to a White House that’s more open to drug war alternatives.

There’s also an argument to be made from the employment angle, as Britain’s ITN discovered:

Pot employees in demand in the US

Program note:

Hemp temps are being sought after due to the rise in the demand for pot. . Report by Jennifer Cordingley.

And from the Toronto Globe and Mail, yet another shift:

Relaxed marijuana rules make Sochi Olympics faster, stronger and way, way higher

Olympic officials take great pride in cracking down on doping and so far no athlete has tested positive at the Sochi Olympics. But officials acknowledge they have had a difficult time dealing with one drug in particular: marijuana.

Technically marijuana is on the World Anti-Doping list of banned drugs, which governs events like the Olympics, because officials consider it to be performance enhancing and a violation of the “spirit of sport”. But in a nod to the growing relaxed attitude toward the drug around the world, the cut off level for a positive test has been increased for the Sochi Games, allowing for some recreational use prior to the Olympics.

The new threshold for the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, has been increased from 15 nanograms per millilitre of urine to 150ng/mls. Officials say that means an athlete who smoked some weed before the Olympics, or inhaled second-hand smoke, wouldn’t likely test positive in Sochi. Someone who failed the new test would have to be “a pretty dedicated cannabis consumer,” WADA officials have said.

Meanwhile, CNBC spots a growth industry:

Helping the rich to become $100 trillion industry

With the global economy creating millionaires and billionaires at breakneck speed, the industry handling their money is about to explode.

Six years from now, the asset management industry, which currently controls about $60 trillion in wealth, will be responsible for more than $100 trillion by 2020, according to a recent study from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

PwC attributes the surge both to a general growth in emerging economies, particularly in Asia.

And the first of two headlines focusing on changes in the Golden State, first from Salon:

San Francisco’s rightward turn: Why it may no longer be America’s iconic liberal city

  • With an influx of rich people and exodus of poor and middle class, a less liberal San Francisco could soon emerge

And the second headline, from the San Francisco Chronicle:

http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/williesworld/article/Are-public-employee-unions-toxic-to-their-5238874.php

Are public-employee unions toxic to their candidates?

The real news in the San Diego mayoral race isn’t that a Republican won, but that the candidate backed by public-employee unions lost.

That is a real shift in California politics. And it’s the second time it’s happened in a big-city mayoral race in less than a year.

And from News Corp Australia, an old ghost in a new sheet:

Experts concerned scientific advances are giving rise to ‘neoracism’

ADVANCES in genetic sequencing are giving rise to a new era of scientific racism, experts have said.

New forms of discrimination, known as “neoracism”, are taking hold in scientific research, spreading the belief that races exist and are different in terms of biology, behaviour and culture, according to anthropologists who spoke at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago.

This comes despite decades-long efforts to reverse attitudes that were used to justify the slave trade and the Nazi ideology.

From Al Jazeera America, a loss for labor:

Tennessee Volkswagen workers reject union

  • Factory workers voted 712 to 626 to prevent the United Auto Workers from representing them

Workers at Volkswagen’s three-year-old factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted Friday to reject union representation by the United Auto Workers (UAW), frustrating an effort to revive the waning influence of the labor movement in the South.

The vote tally concluded with 712 voting no, and 626 voting yes.

The UAW’s bid to represent VW’s 1,550 hourly workers faced fierce resistance from local politicians and national conservative groups.

The defeat could scuttle the 400,000-member union’s latest attempt to stem a decades-long decline in membership, revenue and influence. It could reinforce the widely held notion that the UAW is unable to overcome the South’s deep opposition toward organized labor.

And from Bloomberg yet another corporate takeaway:

Companies Squeeze 401K Plans From Facebook to JPMorgan

Employers are squeezing their workers’ retirement savings, holding back on both the amount and the timing of 401(k) matching funds and dragging out vesting schedules. Taken together, these measures are making it more difficult to save for old age.

Major companies that have engaged in such practices in recent years include Whole Foods Market Inc. (WFM), Facebook Inc., Oracle Corp. (ORCL), Caesars Entertainment Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The most frugal have been scaling back company matches and setting lower limits for the maximum annual payment they’ll make to a 401(k) account, according to hundreds of government filings analyzed by Bloomberg. A difference of three percentage points on a match can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars lost for employees over the course of their careers.

But the takers aren’t giving, via Bloomberg Businessweek:

Billionaires’ Wealth Is Skyrocketing. Their Philanthropy Is Not

The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its annual “Philanthropy 50″ list this week, detailing the gifts of the most generous donors in America. These individuals are “ditching the caution that marked so much of their giving as the economy stalled and are roaring back” with $7.7 billion in contributions, 4 percent more than in 2012, the publication says.

Giving is up since the financial crisis. But while the stock market has made a complete recovery, top-50 philanthropy has clearly not. And this kind of giving has not nearly kept pace with the rise in American billionaires’ wealth over the past decade. The Forbes 400 list, which tracks the richest people in the U.S., had a total net worth of $955 billion in 2003. By 2013, it had more than doubled, to $2 trillion.

The Bloomberg Billionaires index, which launched in 2012 and tracks the 300 richest people worldwide, saw a $524 billion increase in wealth during 2013 alone. Tech billionaires gained 28 percent on the year, led by Tesla (TSLA) founder Elon Musk, whose wealth climbed 233 percent.

This puts the 4 percent increase the Chronicle of Philanthropy hails in context. At a time when the richest Americans’ wealth is skyrocketing, it’s appropriate to ask whether their giving is skyrocketing as well.

United Press International covers the boom:

Oil boom in Williams County, N.D., leads to high crime, housing costs

The boom in oil production in Williams County, N.D., has resulted in a population increase and an overbooking of the county jail, officials said.

In the 2010 U.S. census, about 14,700 residents lived in Williston, N.D., the seat of Williams County. Today, officials estimate more than 30,000 live in the city and another 50,000 are being served by its infrastructure, the Williston Herald reported Saturday.

The population boom and high-paying oil jobs have led to the highest housing costs in the country.

Apartment Guide said a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Williston costs on average $2,394, the highest in the entire country. That’s even higher than New York City, which is No. 7 on the list, and Los Angeles, which is No. 8.

And from the New York Times, the other drug problem:

Medicines Made in India Set Off Safety Worries

India, the second-largest exporter of over-the-counter and prescription drugs to the United States, is coming under increased scrutiny by American regulators for safety lapses, falsified drug test results and selling fake medicines.

Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration, arrived in India this week to express her growing unease with the safety of Indian medicines because of “recent lapses in quality at a handful of pharmaceutical firms.”

India’s pharmaceutical industry supplies 40 percent of over-the-counter and generic prescription drugs consumed in the United States, so the increased scrutiny could have profound implications for American consumers.

F.D.A. investigators are blitzing Indian drug plants, financing the inspections with some of the roughly $300 million in annual fees from generic drug makers collected as part of a 2012 law requiring increased scrutiny of overseas plants. The agency inspected 160 Indian drug plants last year, three times as many as in 2009. The increased scrutiny has led to a flood of new penalties, including half of the warning letters the agency issued last year to drug makers.

Reuters covers a coming cash flow:

Foreign banks bracing for tough U.S. Fed capital rules

Overseas banks look set to win only minor concessions when the Federal Reserve signs off on new capital rules next week, as they become increasingly resigned to the fact that the cost of doing business in the United States will go up.

The Fed, whose board of governors meets on Tuesday, will require overseas banks to hold as much capital in the United States as their local rivals.

The reform is designed to address concerns that U.S. taxpayers will need to foot the bill if European and Asian regulators treat U.S. subsidiaries with low priority if they need to rescue one of their banks.

Foreign banks with sizeable operations on Wall Street such as Deutsche Bank and Barclays have pushed back hard against the plan because it means they will need to transfer costly capital from Europe.

On to Canada and a familiar neocon ploy from the National Post:

Fair Elections Act sure to deprive Canadians of voting rights, U.S. experts warn

A participant in the bruising American battle over voting rights warns that Canada is treading on dangerous ground with its proposed electoral reforms.

One of the lawyers who helped strike down the voter ID law in Pennsylvania last month says legislation tabled by the Harper government will inevitably wind up depriving some people of their voting rights.

That’s why any change to voting requirements should be made with the strictest care, in the spirit of achieving more accurate election results, said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union for Pennsylvania.

That warning comes from a country where voting rights are an especially emotional subject, for obvious historical reasons. Americans know the issue well. And the impact of ID rules has been studied extensively, re-emerging in recent years as a hotly debated partisan issue.

From Jiji Press, anxiety on the agenda:

G-20 to Focus on Uncertainty over Emerging Economies

Finance ministers and central bank chiefs from the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies are expected to mainly discuss uncertainty over the course of emerging economies at their two-day meeting in Sydney from Feb. 22.

Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso, also deputy prime minister and financial services minister, regards concerns over emerging economies and the U.S. Federal Reserve’s tapering of its quantitative easing as important issues that the world economy faces.

Since views differ between anxious emerging economies and calm advanced countries, whether the G-20 can hammer out a cooperation framework in a joint statement is a focal point.

Jiji Press again, with another set of talks:

Japan, U.S. to Explore Compromise for TPP Conclusion

At their forthcoming meeting, Akira Amari, Japanese minister in charge of Trans-Pacific Partnership affairs, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman are expected to sound each other out about the possibility of compromise for an agreement in TPP regional free trade talks.

Amari and Froman are set to hold talks in Washington later on Saturday, ahead of a ministerial meeting of 12 TPP countries in Singapore from Feb. 22.

Japan and the United States remain far apart over tariffs on farm products. In their talks in parallel with multilateral TPP negotiations, Japan is insisting on keeping its tariffs on five key product categories including rice.

And the post-meet update, also from Jiji Press:

Japan, U.S. Fail to Strike Tariff Deal

Japanese and U.S. trade ministers remained apart over tariff issues particularly in the agricultural sector in their talks Saturday linked with multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

Emerging from the talks with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman in Washington, which lasted two and a half hours, Akira Amari, Japanese minister in charge of TPP negotiations for regional trade liberalization, told reporters that the two “agreed on the importance of reducing differences in their stances” over the issues.

The Japanese and U.S. sides discussed ways to abolish import duties on individual trading items including agricultural products but “did not reach any numerical agreement,” Amari said.

Toward the upcoming TPP ministerial meeting in Singapore from Feb. 22, the Japanese and U.S. governments will hold working-level talks to narrow the gap, he added.

On to Britain and a disaster update from The Guardian:

UK floods: 5,000 more troops on standby as water continues to rise

  • Storms ease but severe flood warnings remain in place along Thames and in Somerset, where pumping work continues

An extra 5,000 troops are on standby to support communities hit by flooding, it was announced on Sunday, as the government faced calls for a halt to home building on flood plains.

Large swaths of the UK remain on high alert with severe flood warnings still in place along the Thames and in Somerset where water levels continue to rise despite a respite from the storms.

Defence secretary Philip Hammond said 3,000 troops were currently deployed, and another 5,000 were available. He admitted the armed forces could have been despatched earlier to help.

The London Telegraph tracks a decline:

Downward mobility: Lucy Mangan on the fall of the middle class

The middle classes are being squeezed and stripped – of jobs, income and security – like never before. Lucy Mangan reports on ‘a profound psychological shift in the nation’s heartland’

How to complain about house prices, mortgages and pensions without being accused of being a middle-class whinger? Well, I may be just that, but my worries – and those of millions like me – are very real and need to be heard: they represent a profound psychological shift in the nation’s heartland.

Today the middle classes are being squeezed and stripped – of jobs, income and security – like never before. The landscape ahead has been laid bare by the winds of social, political and technological change. I hardly needed Alan Milburn’s recent report on social mobility, which revealed that for the first time in history middle-class children are likely to end up poorer than their parents, to start worrying about how my son is going to survive out there.

A dis from The Observer:

It’ll take a miracle to restore Barclays’s wrecked reputation now

  • Antony Jenkins may have tried to do the right thing at Barclays by waiving his own payout, but even the bonus-hungry City is shocked by the bankers’ shameful behaviour

What a difference a year makes. Antony Jenkins was applauded by the City 12 months ago when he set out his strategy for turning Barclays into the “go to” bank by restricting costs and rooting out the bad apples in the investment banking arm.

Remember, it was barely six months after the Libor crisis had shaken Barclays to its core and forced out its top management, including Jenkins’s predecessor, Bob Diamond. Jenkins had said enough to push the bank’s share price up 9% by the end of the day.

Such was his status as the antithesis to Diamond – who was dubbed the “unacceptable face of banking” by Lord Mandelson – that Jenkins ended 2013 with the honour of guest editing the BBC’s flagship Today programme. His halo was given a rub when Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who also featured in the New Year’s Eve radio show, supported Jenkins’s attempt to clean up Barclays’s act.

Last week the applause stopped. Even though Jenkins had personally tried to do the right thing by waiving his own bonus for 2013 – potentially as much as £2.7m – he stunned even the City with his failure to explain why the bank was paying out 10% more in bonuses in a year when profits collapsed by 32%. The boost was even harder to stomach in the investment bank, once better known as BarCap, where the bonus pot was up 13%, despite the unit reporting losses in the final quarter of the year.

The Financial Express wields the job ax:

Indian-origin ‘chicken king’ may cut thousands of UK jobs

British Indian businessman Ranji Boparan, known as the “chicken king”, is set to axe around 1,800 jobs in the UK as part of a major restructuring of his food business empire.

The Birmingham-based tycoon, known as the “chicken king” for his mega poultry-focused business ‘2 Sisters’, is planning to shut two sites and cut jobs to rein in costs.

The company is one of the largest suppliers of poultry and meat to supermarkets and fast-food chains in the UK. The 47-year-old Boparan’s empire now includes ready meals, pizzas, frozen vegetables and biscuits, and he has 24,000 employees at 50 factories.

The Guardian hints of deflation in the making:

Inflation expected to fall below Bank of England’s 2% target

  • Anticipated drop to 1.9% will mark the first time inflation has fallen below the target since November 2009

Inflation is expected to have fallen below the Bank of England’s 2% target for the first time in more than four years in January thanks to retailers slashing prices and lower fuel costs.

Many economists believe official figures on Tuesday will reveal a fall in the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) to 1.9% last month from 2% in December, which will mark the first time inflation has dropped below the target since November 2009.

It follows last month’s aggressive discounting by food and general merchandise retailers, with high streets seeing widespread deflation. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said shop prices fell at their fastest rate last month, falling by 1% against a 0.8% drop in December.

BBC News bubbles away:

Mark Carney says UK housing market in widespread recovery

Bank of England governor Mark Carney says the UK housing market is generally recovering.

Mr Carney told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that, looking at the UK as a whole, “we are now seeing house prices begin to recover, so it is a more generalised phenomenon”.

He said the only area where prices had not picked up was Northern Ireland. He also said there was little the bank could do to cool the London market, where prices were rising far faster.

Prices in London are rising by about 10% a year, but Mr Carney said a change in interest rate policy – not on the cards in any case until the recovery is well established – would not cool the market as a significant number of properties were bought without a mortgage.

Sky News casts doubt:

Independent Scotland EU Bid ‘Almost Impossible’

The European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s comments have been labelled “preposterous” and “ridiculous” by the SNP.

An independent Scotland joining the European Union would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”, according to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Mr Barroso said if the country voted for independence in a referendum on September 18 it would have to apply for membership and get its bid approved by all current member states.

The Scottish government has said the country would try to gain membership within 18 months of a yes vote. But Mr Barroso suggested this could run into difficulties. “We have seen Spain has been opposing even the recognition of Kosovo, for instance,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

On to Sweden with TheLocal.se and one xenophobia casualties:

Evicted migrants in serious bus crash

A bus carrying 43 Romanian migrants back to Bucharest crashed in the early hours of Sunday morning in southern Sweden, after they had been evicted from a shanty town in Stockholm.

The accident took place in Alvesta when the bus veered off the national highway 27 shortly after midnight. One person, understood to be the bus driver, was seriously injured and spent the night in a local hospital although his injuries are not considered life threatening.

“It is very, very slippery on the roads in this area. It is completely icy which may have been a cause of the accident,” local policeman Percy Nilsson told the Expressen newspaper.

The other passengers spent the night in a hotel where a spokesperson said they were in shock following the crash.

Finland next and a blotted escutcheon from New Europe:

Finland’s record of transparency blemished by increasing corruption cases

Finland, a Nordic country that has been a model in the world in combating corruption, has witnessed an increase of suspected business related crimes in the past few years.

According to a fresh police report quoted by the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle, alleged economic crimes have more than doubled over the past six years, from 91 cases in 2009 to 204 in 2013.

The increase was almost entirely due to a rise in cases involving the abuse of authority, which number has doubled since 2012.

Erkki Laukkanen, chief of Transparency International Finland, said the public-private partnerships are “far from transparency, and much more open to corruption.”

On to Amsterdam and expectations unfulfilled from DutchNews.nl:

Cuts and tax rises have an adverse effect on the treasury

Cuts to healthcare benefits in 2012 did not give the government the savings it expected, the national auditor says in a report published on Friday.

The benefits bill shrank by just €98m, while the government expected to save €600m. The €502m shortfall added 0.08% to GDP, says the national auditor, quoted by news agency ANP.

Although the number of households claiming healthcare benefits of up to around €70 a month per person did fall, the average cost per household was up €8. The government was expecting a drop of €50.

The national auditor says the cabinet gave ‘limited’ information to parliament about the shortfall and must keep parliament fully informed about the effects of all the cuts.

On to Switzerland with The Guardian:

Swiss vote on immigration boosts far-right parties through rest of Europe

  • In Austria, the Freedom party, once led by Jörg Haider, has seen a rise in working-class votes

When Christian Ragger heard that the Swiss had voted to cap immigration into their country in a referendum last weekend, he was “deeply impressed”, he says. “All over the world, immigration is protected [from being limited]. It required a special courage to vote in that way. This was a typically democratic Swiss action.”

Ragger heads the local branch of the Austrian Freedom party (FPÖ) in its mountainous stronghold of Carinthia, in the south of the country. Once led by the flamboyant Jörg Haider, the FPÖ has been called everything from populist to neo-Nazi, yet it would be hard to imagine anyone less like the stereotype of a bull-necked, red-faced Alpine far right-winger than the FPÖ’s trim and cosmopolitan young leader.

TheLocal.ch rejects:

Bern rejects Croat free labour access deal

Switzerland has declined to sign a deal opening labour market access to Croatians, a week after a vote to curb immigration from the EU, the justice department said Saturday.

Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga called Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic to inform her that Bern would not be able to sign a bilateral accord extending the right of free access to Switzerland for EU citizens to the bloc’s newest member state “in its current form,” a ministry spokesman said.

Sommaruga had also informed Brussels that the deal would need to be re-examined, spokesman Philippe Schwander told AFP, adding that the minister had stressed she was seeking a “solution” to ensure Croatians were not discriminated against.

Spain next and a worried take from RT:

EU ‘very concerned’ by Spanish police use of rubber bullets to deter migrants

The European Commission wants Spain to account for the drowning of 13 migrants who recently failed to swim to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. Spain earlier admitted that rubber bullets were fired at them, but claimed no one was injured.

“The commission will be requesting explanations from the Spanish authorities on these events,” EU Home Affairs spokesperson Michele Cercone said, adding that the commission has a right to act if there’s evidence that a member state has violated EU laws.

On Thursday, Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz admitted that local border police, in an effort to turn back around 200 migrants who tried to cross the frontier between Morocco and Spain’s Ceuta on February 6, had indeed fired rubber bullets at them.

While some tried to cross on land, at least thirteen migrants drowned in the Mediterranean trying to swim around a man-made breakwater that separates Moroccan and Spanish waters. Spanish police say they are still searching for more victims.

More from TheLocal.es:

Calls for Spain to end migrant ‘violent’ abuse

A group of Moroccan NGOs has called on Spain and Morocco to end “widespread violence” against illegal immigrants, in a letter to Spain’s ambassador, after 12 people drowned trying to cross their common border.

“We are deeply concerned to see the close cooperation between Spain and Morocco on border control today resulting in… widespread violence against migrants and security practices outside of any legal framework,” the eight NGOs said in the open letter seen by AFP on Friday.

“We ask you to intervene urgently with your government to put an end to these practices,” said the group, with included the Moroccan branch of Caritas and migrant support group GADEM.

A deflation alert from El País:

Inflation at lowest level in over 50 years

  • Consumer price index up annual 0.2 percent in January

Inflation in Spain in the first month of the year was at its lowest level on record reflecting the ongoing weakness of domestic demand due to high unemployment and falling wages. The National Statistics Institute (INE) on Friday confirmed earlier flash estimates that the consumer price index fell 1.3 percent in January from December as the annual rate slowed from 0.3 percent to 0.2 percent, the lowest level since the INE began compiling the current series in 1961.

Spain pulled out of recession in the third quarter of last year but the contribution of domestic demand to GDP remaining negative.

Annual inflation has now remained under 0.5 percent for the past five months and is well below the euro-zone average in January of 0.7 percent. Analysts have expressed fears of deflation taking a hold on the euro-zone economy as it did in Japan for over a decade. The ECB’s medium-term target for inflation is close to but below 2 percent.

TheLocal.es protests:

Coke staff stage protest over plant closures

Thousands took to the streets in Madrid on Saturday in protest at the closure of four bottling plants of US soft-drink giant Coca-Cola that would affect 1,250 workers.

Demonstrators, some coming from other Spanish cities, carried banners condemning the layoffs and calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola Iberian Partners, the multinational’s only bottling company in Spain, said at the end of January the closures were needed to improve efficiency. But workers argue the layoffs are unjustified since the company is making a profit.

Coca-Cola Iberian Partners, which currently has 4,000 employees on its books, was founded last year by merging the seven bottling companies in Spain
owned by the US brand. Under the restructuring plan, four of the 11 plants in Spain — Fuenlabrada near Madrid, Palma, Oviedo and Alicante — will close.

Of the affected 1,250 jobs, 750 will be axed and 500 relocated to other plants.

El País dings a biggie:

Cabinet approves “Google tax” on use of copyrighted material

  • Measure included in reform of Intellectual Property Law

The Spanish Cabinet on Friday approved a draft reform of the Intellectual Property Law, which includes a so-called “Google tax” on the use of fragments of “information, opinion and entertainment” grouped together, for example, on search engines.

Presented by Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría and Education and Culture Minister José Ignacio Wert, the reform allows the reproduction of such “non-significant fragments” without prior authorization but requires the payment of “equitable compensation” for doing so, Wert explained. Prior authorization will still be required for the use of photographs. Such a tax already exists in Germany and France.

Wert did not say how “non-significant fragments” would be defined nor how much compensation would be involved.

thinkSPAIN cuts corners:

Judge accuses ADIF rail board of ‘putting profits before lives’ in light of Galicia crash

A JUDGE investigating the devastating train crash just outside Santiago de Compostela last July in which 79 passengers died has slammed the rail board for ‘putting profits before lives’.

According to a court report, the Administrator of Rail Infrastructures (ADIF) decided not to put in place the European-standard ERTMS braking system which automatically slows a train down when it is exceeding the speed limit, instead using the older ASFA system which does not warn the driver when the high-speed AVE line with a limit of 200 kilometres per hour switches to the regional line, where the speed limit is 80 kilometres per hour.

The report says this decision was purely financial and went against the duty of care the rail board has towards its passengers, and questions whether it could be considered ‘suspected criminal behaviour’.

Medical tourism fears from El País:

Government warned Euro-healthcare scheme will lead to longer waiting lists

  • Officials consider possibility that Spain could become a cheap option for other countries

Spanish patients, like all Europeans, will now be able now choose which EU country to seek treatment in. The Cabinet last week approved a decree that implements an EU directive on cross-border healthcare. Under the system, patients will advance the money for their treatment abroad, but can request a reimbursement from their own country.

The directive aims to go one step beyond the emergency treatment already covered by the European Health Card and let patients choose another member state for specific, non-emergency treatment.

But the initiative has raised questions, such as how many Spaniards will want to get surgery abroad. And how many foreigners will come to Spain for healthcare? Uppermost among people’s concerns is how reimbursement will take place. While some issues are already clear to the Health Ministry, others will have to be decided by the regions.

On to Italy and a Bunga Bunga reincarnation from The Independent:

Silvio Berlusconi’s back… to broker voting reform: Italy’s new PM Matteo Renzi to do a deal with his predecessor

Italy’s head of state President Giorgio Napolitano yesterday set in train his third prime ministerial appointment in less than three years. His most conspicuous meeting was not, however, with soon-to-be premier Matteo Renzi, but with the disgraced tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who appears to be enjoying yet another unlikely political revival.

Pundits are predicting that the centrist Mr Renzi, dubbed “Italy’s Tony Blair”, could be sworn in as soon as Tuesday. In addition to reviving Italy’s moribund economy the 39-year-old has promised to make a radical overhaul of its flawed electoral and political system his priority, to prevent hung parliaments of the type Italy currently labours under.

But to get a deal on electoral reform through parliament, Mr Renzi is, to the horror of many in his centre-left Democratic Party, doing a deal with convicted tax fraud Berlusconi. Berlusconi, as a convicted criminal, has been expelled from parliament, but still leads the biggest centre-right grouping, Forza Italia.

Reuters issues the call:

President summons center-left’s Renzi as Italy seeks new government

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano summoned Matteo Renzi to a meeting on Monday at which he is expected to ask the center-left leader to form a government that must overhaul one of the most troubled economies in the euro zone.

Napolitano is likely to ask the slick-talking mayor of Florence to form the country’s 65th government since World War Two in the meeting, which a statement from the president’s office said was scheduled for 10.30 a.m. (0930 GMT) in Rome.

Enrico Letta resigned as prime minister on Friday after his Democratic Party (PD) forced him to make way for Renzi, 39, who is promising radical reforms to the euro zone’s third-biggest economy and a government that can survive until 2018.

Renzi would become the youngest prime minister in Italian history.

Renzi would be Italy’s youngest ever prime minister if his bid succeeds and has promised a radical programme of reforms to combat rampant unemployment, boost growth and slash the costs of Italy’s weighty bureaucratic machine. Opinion polls show Renzi enjoys high popularity ratings, mainly because as someone with no experience in national government or parliament he is seen as a welcome breath of fresh air in Italy’s discredited political system.

An uptick from the Associated Press:

Moody’s upgrades outlook for Italy’s govt bonds

Moody’s Investors Service on Friday raised the outlook on Italy’s government bond rating to stable from negative, citing improved financial strength in the European country.

It reaffirmed Italy’s bond rating at Baa2, its second-lowest investment grade, and its Prime-2 debt ratings, which is considered a moderate credit risk.

The rating agency said that it expects the government’s debt-to-gross domestic product ratio to level off in 2014 as economic growth modestly resumes. It pointed to Italy’s strong government bond market, which is one of the largest in Europe, as an indicator of strength.

Moody’s also said that that the government’s balance sheet is looking less risky, citing lower risks tied to its banking sector as the capitalization in that sector has stabilized.

And next, Bosnia. Via New Europe:

Angry protesters want new government of experts

On 10 February, thousands protested in a dozen Bosnian cities to demand that politicians be replaced by non-partisan experts who can better address the nearly 40% unemployment and rampant corruption, AP reported.

It was the sixth day of the worst unrest the Balkan country has seen since the end of the 1991-95 Bosnian war, which killed 100,000.

The peace deal that ended the war created a complex political system in which more than 150 ministries govern Bosnia’s four million people. Corruption is widespread and high taxes eat away at paychecks. One in five Bosnian lives below the poverty line. Svjetlana Nedimovic, an unemployed political scientist, accused the European Union — whose 28 foreign ministers were discussing Bosnia on Monday — of turning its back on her country even as it supports protesters in Ukraine.

After the jump, the latest chaos in Greece, Ukrainian stalemate, Turkish judicial independence constrained, neoserfdom in the Gulf, a Cuban cutoff, drought and violence in Brazil, Venzuelan protests, Mexican vigilantes, Chinese lending [and bad loans] hit a peak, hot money flight in Manilla, Japanese tax cuts and investments, a radioactive leak in New Mexico, childhood toxins, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now! Continue reading

Trophic cacades: How wolves can change rivers


A remarkable video from SustainableMan featuring journalist George Monbiot in a narrative about the major ecological changes wrought by the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park:

How Wolves Change Rivers

Program notes:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” — John Muir

When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable “trophic cascade” occurred. What is a trophic cascade and how exactly do wolves change rivers? George Monbiot explains in this movie remix.

H/T to Permaculture.

Headlines of the day II: EconPoliEcoGrecoFuku


We begin our collection of things economic, political, and environmental with a reminder from Mother Nature via Nikkei Asian Review:

Crazy weather disrupting economic activity worldwide

A merciless cold snap gripping the U.S., blizzards burying Japan, record rainfall inundating the U.K., and droughts searing South America. Abnormal weather patterns are wreaking havoc across the world, and while the impact on production is still limited, nature’s fury is beginning to take a toll on global economic activity. Some regions are experiencing a drop in consumer spending and sluggish car sales, and global prices are rising for commodities such as coffee beans.

The U.K. is being drenched. Not since 1766 has the southern part of the nation seen so much rain in January, and the wet weather continues. The upper part of the Thames River is flooding and the damage is widening. And with rail lines submerged, the distribution of goods has stalled in some parts.

Normally hot Thailand is locked in a cold front that claimed more than 60 lives through the end of January. With temperatures dipping to 10 C in the northern and northeastern parts of the country, the government has begun distributing free blankets to a population ill equipped to fend off the cold.

Another icy front swept across much of the U.S. this week, forcing some government agencies to shut down in Washington. Many retailers were also forced to close.

Another weather report from United Press International:

Obama offers short-term relief to California; warns of global warming

President Obama announced a four-prong approach Friday to help Californians get through one of the state’s worst-ever droughts.

Speaking at the farm of Joe Del Bosque in Los Banos, Calif., Obama said his administration’s assistance for the parched state would include accelerating $100 million from the farm bill to help ranchers, allocating $15 million more on top of the $20 million given hard-hit communities last week, directing the Interior Department “to use its existing authorities, where appropriate, to give water contractors flexibility to meet their obligations,” and ordering all federal facilities in California “to take immediate steps to curb their water use, including a moratorium on water usage for new, non-essential landscaping projects.”

“As anybody in this state could tell you, California’s living through some of its driest years in a century,” the president said. “Right now, almost 99 percent of California is drier than normal — and the winter snowpack that provides much of your water far into the summer is much smaller than normal.

“While drought in regions outside the West is expected to be less severe than in other years, California is our biggest economy, California is our biggest agricultural producer, so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table.”

Bloomberg sounds another warning:

Factory Production in U.S. Falls by Most Since 2009

Factory production in the U.S. unexpectedly declined in January by the most since May 2009, adding to evidence severe winter weather weighed on the economy.

The 0.8 percent decrease at manufacturers followed a revised 0.3 percent gain the prior month that was weaker than initially reported, figures from the Federal Reserve showed today in Washington. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 0.1 percent advance. Total industrial production dropped 0.3 percent even as utility output climbed the most in almost a year.

Assembly lines slowed last month as colder weather tempered production, the Fed said, showing a pause in the momentum of an industry that’s helped bolster the economy. A pickup in capital spending and faster hiring that drives consumer purchases will be needed to spur production gains.

From RT, the latest appalling reminder of who rules:

‘Corporate rights’: Judge blocks popular move to end tax breaks for big energy

Citing corporate rights under the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, a St. Louis, Missouri circuit court judge has temporarily blocked a citizen-led municipal ballot initiative that could end city tax breaks to “unsustainable” fossil fuel companies.

Judge Robert Dierker granted this week a temporary restraining order that, for now, puts a citywide ballot initiative on hold. The measure “would end public financial incentives, such as tax abatements, to fossil fuel mining companies and those doing $1 million of business with them per year,” according to Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE).

MORE has led the effort to put the proposed charter amendment on St. Louis’ April 8 ballot. Volunteers with the Take Back St. Louis coalition gathered over 22,000 signatures last year in an effort to put the proposal in front of St. Louis voters. In addition to curbing tax breaks, the measure would require the city to work on a sustainable energy plan that makes way for renewable energy efforts on vacant city-owned property.

Dierker said the ballot initiative was “facially unconstitutional” given it may collide with state law and because targeting unsustainable-energy companies is a “patent denial of equal protection to those entities.”

From PandoDaily, a rare win:

BREAKING: PBS to return John Arnold’s $3.5 million, following Pando exposé

Following Pando’s exclusive report on a secret financing deal between public broadcasting officials and the nation’s leading anti-pension activist, officials from PBS have announced they are returning the $3.5 million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

In a breaking-news story published Friday afternoon, the New York Times credited PandoDaily for breaking the original story and ultimately for public broadcasting officials’ decision to return the money:

WNET, the New York City public television broadcaster, said Friday that it will return a $3.5 million grant it received to sponsor an ambitious project on public pensions amid charges that it solicited inappropriate underwriting for the series.

In the absence of the funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the project, called “Pension Peril,” will go on hiatus

From the Los Angeles Times, a rational change:

Obama issues guidelines for banks on funds from legal marijuana sales

The Obama administration issued guidance to prosecutors and banks Friday meant to make it easier for legal marijuana sellers to open bank accounts.

But the guidance fell short of giving banks carte blanche to get involved in a business that is legal in some states for medical or recreational purposes but is still illegal under federal law.

A memo issued Friday by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to all federal prosecutors said that prosecution may not be appropriate for banks dealing with marijuana sellers if they are operating legally in their states and stay away from red zones, such as the sale of the drug to minors or across state lines. The banks must also follow new Treasury Department procedures.

Although President Obama and Holder have indicated they have no desire to be tough on pot, the cautious move Friday reflects a reluctance to go too far because of solid opposition to marijuana legalization within the ranks of law enforcement.

And a video report on implications from Bloomberg News:

A Pot Banking Guide to Financial Institutions

Program note:

Peter Cook reports on marijuana banking guidelines for financial institutions on Bloomberg Television’s “Bottom Line.”

North of the border with the Financial Post and anther indicator:

The Canadian dollar hasn’t had this bad a start to a year in more than 4 decades. Has it seen the worst?

Traders are betting the Canadian dollar fell too far, too fast in its worst start to a year in more than four decades, as rising commodities prices and a forecast budget surplus damp speculation for interest-rate cuts.

The cost to insure against the loonie weakening further dropped to the lowest in three years, and analysts are downgrading the currency at the slowest pace since October, when the Bank of Canada began a policy shift that sent it tumbling to a 4 1/2-year low of C$1.1224 per U.S. dollar on Jan. 31. Canada’s dollar has gained more than 2% since then to C$1.0981, and is forecast to end the first quarter at C$1.10, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of 64 respondents.

From the Financial Post, a prospering sector:

Canadian arm of weapons maker General Dynamics wins ‘biggie’ Saudi contract worth up to $13-billion

U.S. weapons maker General Dynamics Corp has won a contract worth up to $13 billion for its Canadian division to build light-armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia, in what Ottawa said was the largest advanced manufacturing export win in Canadian history.

General Dynamics said on Friday the 14-year contract for military and commercial vehicles and training and support services has a value of $10 billion, but could be worth about $13 billion if all options were exercised.

The company did not identify the customer, but Canadian Trade Minister Ed Fast issued a statement saying the vehicles would be sold to Saudi Arabia and would create and sustain 3,000 jobs each year in Canada.

On to Europe, first with a regional story from the New York Times:

France and Germany Lead Euro Zone to Higher Growth

The euro zone economy grew slightly faster than expected in the last three months of 2013, an official report showed on Friday, bringing welcome news for the global economy amid signs of slowing in the United States and China.

Although growth in the 18-nation currency union is still weak, at a 1.1 percent annualized rate, it was the euro zone’s third straight quarter in positive territory, indicating that the bloc is well beyond the year-and-a-half recession that ended in mid-2013.

The broader 28-member European Union also grew, though weakly, for the third consecutive quarter. The Union, with a market of 500 million consumers and an economy worth about 11.7 trillion euros, or $16 trillion, is one of the pillars of the global economy, and the extended weakness there has been a major source of concern for officials in the United States.

A qualification from EUbusiness:

Expect more sluggish growth in eurozone: analysts

New growth figures on Friday should show the eurozone economy continuing only a modest recovery as key problems remain, among them near-record unemployment and the threat of deflation.

Recent data has been very mixed, especially after a much weaker-than-expected third quarter, sparking concerns the bloc risked falling back into recession.

That worst fear is unlikely to be realised in Friday’s fourth-quarter data, analysts said, but the outlook remains fragile and the growth report will be very closely scrutinised for any sign of weakness.

Blame-placing from EUobserver:

MEPs accuse troika of causing ‘social tsunami’

The troika caused social devastation by forcing eurozone crisis countries to ignore social and welfare standards, MEPs have said.

Deputies on the European Parliament’s employment committee backed a report by Spanish centre-left MEP Alejandro Cercas by 27 votes to seven on Thursday (13 February), which accuses governments of ignoring the European Social Charter and employment conventions set out by the International Labour organisation (ILO).

Speaking with reporters following the vote, Cercas accused the troika – officials who manage bailout payments on behalf of EU and international lenders – as well as eurozone finance ministers, of riding roughshod over the EU treaties and creating a “social tsunami.”

“The arrogance of economic fixation has made policy makers forget that there are conventions which you must stick to … even in a crisis you can’t reduce pensions below the breadline,” he said.

“It’s time for employment and these social benefits which have been destroyed by structural reforms need to be brought back,” he noted, adding: “budgets are now balancing and we need to bring back those who have been left behind.”

On to Britain and more weather from The Guardian:

Expect no let-up in severe weather, UK forecasters warn

Around 5,000 military personnel committed to flood relief work as violent storms set to batter southern coast over weekend

Violent storms will batter cliffs and promenades along the south coast this weekend, with tidal surges and gale-force winds set to cause more flooding for days to come. Forecasters warned that there would be no let-up in the severe weather as defence chiefs committed 5,000 military personnel to the flood relief mission.

Two people were killed late on Friday in the stormy weather and the high winds left more than 16,000 homes in north Wales without power.

And rough sailing for labor, via The Guardian:

Public sector jobs are set to be cut by 40% throughout Britain

  • Report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that the planned reductions would hit the poorest parts of the country the hardest

The biggest cull of public sector jobs for at least 50 years will see vulnerable parts of the state endure reductions in headcount of up to 40%, Britain’s leading tax and spending thinktank said today.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the reductions planned as part of the coalition’s deficit reduction programme would hit the poorest parts of Britain hardest, and warned they would prove “challenging” for those parts of government bearing the brunt of austerity.

The IFS said that the government’s own spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, was expecting 1.1m jobs to go in the eight years from 2010-11, of which only a quarter had so far been lost.

The London Telegraph scolds:

New Cardinal Vincent Nichols: welfare cuts ‘frankly a disgrace’

  • Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, condemns Government’s austerity programme as a ‘disgrace’ for leaving poor facing ‘destitution’

Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric has accused the Coalition of leaving increasing numbers of people facing “hunger and destitution”.

Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, said that while the need to reduce spending on benefits is widely accepted, the Government’s reforms have now destroyed even the “basic safety net”.

Archbishop Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said the welfare system had also become increasingly “punitive”, often leaving people with nothing for days on end if they fail even to fill a form in correctly.

He said it was “a disgrace” that this was possible in a country as rich as Britain.

And speaking of the rich. . . From Sky News:

Investors Warn Of Fresh Barclays Pay Revolt

  • Leading investors tell that a protest vote over the bank’s £2.4bn bonus pot is “inevitable” given the fall in profits.

Barclays is facing a battle to avert a mass revolt of its leading investors at this year’s annual meeting amid fury over the £2.4bn bonus pool announced this week.

Sky News has spoken to a number of Barclays’ biggest shareholders who have warned in recent days that they are unlikely to be dissuaded from voting against the bank’s remuneration report or individual directors involved in setting pay.

They are furious that Antony Jenkins, the chief executive, announced this week that bonus payments for 2013 were 10% higher than the previous year despite a slump in profits from £7bn to £5.2bn.

Investors will not cast their votes until much closer to Barclays’ annual meeting on April 25, but three big City institutions said a major revolt looked “inevitable”.

The Guardian investigates:

Foreign exchange benchmarks face investigation by FSB regulator

  • Financial Stability Board to open investigation into allegations of price manipulation into world’s largest financial market

Foreign exchange benchmarks will be reviewed by the world’s top financial regulator, the latest front to be opened in a global investigation into allegations of price manipulation in the world’s largest financial market.

The Financial Stability Board (FSB), which co-ordinates regulation for the Group of 20 (G20) leading economies and is chaired by Bank of England governor Mark Carney, said on Friday it would open its own investigation.

It is the latest step in an investigation into allegations that a handful of senior traders exchanged market-sensitive information and colluded to manipulate benchmark currency rates.

The US Department of Justice and Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) are among those leading the investigations into potential wrongdoing in the $5.3tn-a-day (£3.2tn) market.

Bad news for the Tories from EUbusiness:

Eurosceptics beat British PM’s party into third place in by-election

The eurosceptic UK Independence Party received a boost ahead of European polls in May by beating British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives into third place in a by-election, results showed Friday.

The opposition Labour party comfortably won the election in Wythenshawe and Sale East in northwest England, receiving 55 percent of ballots in a vote triggered by the death of Labour MP Paul Goggins, who had represented the area since 1997.

But the anti-EU, anti-immigration UKIP — whose leader Nigel Farage said the election campaign was “as dirty as they come” — polled second with 18 percent, ahead of the Conservatives who won 15 percent of the vote.

The Liberal Democrats of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the junior partner in the coalition government with the Conservatives, got just five percent and lost their deposit for the ninth time since the last general election in 2010.

The Independent spots a curious connection:

NHS adviser Sir Stuart Rose has private health link

The former Marks & Spencer’s boss appointed by Jeremy Hunt to advise on improving the NHS could “make a fortune” from hospital takeovers by private companies, the country’s biggest union has claimed.

Sir Stuart Rose, who will lead a review of management in the NHS, is also paid to sit on the advisory board of Bridgepoint, an international private equity group, which is the major shareholder of private health firm Care UK.

Care UK is in the running to take over the George Eliot NHS Hospital Trust – one of 14 hospital trusts in Sir Stuart’s review. Rachael Maskell, national officer for health at the Unite union, said Sir Stuart’s appointment represented a “gobsmacking conflict of interest” and called on him to confirm he would not profit personally from Care UK’s bid for the Warwickshire hospital.

Oln to Iceland and another country ready to jump on the band wagon via the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Health Minister “Very Supportive” Of Decriminalising Drugs

Minister of Health Kristján Þór Júlíusson surprised many attendees at a meeting of young conservatives by expressing his support for re-examining Iceland’s drug laws.

Vísir reports that the minister was one of the guest speakers at an event hosted by Heimdallur, a society of young conservatives, which bore the title, “Is the punitive policy against drugs working?”

Kristján apparently believes it is not, as he told attendees, “I am very supportive of the opinion that we ought to try to decriminalise [drug] use in this matter.”

Taking questions from the audience, the minister was asked if he believed that even the most basic drug laws need review, to which he replied, “That’s what I’m offering. I am convinced that we need to try other remedies.”

Germany next, and a departure from an almost-new cabinet via euronews:

German minister quits over alleged leak of confidential information on porn probe

German Agriculture Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has stepped down over allegations he breached confidentiality passing on information about an inquiry into child pornography.

The leak is now under scrutiny by the authorities.

In Friday’s hastily arranged press conference Friedrich told reporters he was convinced he acted correctly in both the political and legal senses and added such was the pressure now he did not think he could do his job as Minister of Agriculture with the required political support. He vowed he would be back in the political arena.

It’s claimed Friedrich, a member of the CSU – Merkel’s sister party passed on information when he was interior minister to Sigmar Gabriel the chairman of the Social Democrat Party, telling him fellow SPD lawmaker Sebastian Edathy was the target of a child pornography probe. Gabriel then told other senior members of his party.

Swiss dissent from TheLocal.ch:

Student groups fight threatened mobility curbs

In yet more fallout from the decision of Swiss voters to curb immigration to Switzerland from the European Union, student organizations are alarmed about the impact this will have on educational exchange programmes.

“Switzerland is on a slippery slope of isolating its students and academics from the outside world,” Elizabeth Gehrke, vice-chairwoman of the European Students’ Union (ESU), said in a statement issued on Thursday.

“This could have devastating effects that would be difficult to reverse.”

One of the chief concerns is that educational and research exchanges between the EU and the Swiss may be scrapped if bilateral agreements between the two sides are nullified.

New Europe stays mum:

Portugal: No decision on “clean” bailout exit

The Portuguese government denied that it had already taken the decision for a “clean” bailout exit saying it is too early to make the option.

A “clean” bailout exit, means for Portugal to exit the bailout programme with international lenders without seeking a precautionary loan as a safety measure. On 13 February, Portuguese Cabinet Office Minister Luis Marque Guedes said the decision whether to seek a precautionary program after Portugal’s bailout exit would only be taken “at the right moment” stressing that “the right moment is not three months beforehand.” Minister Guedes also said that the government has time to “assess the development of the situation.”

In a statement issued on Thursday, Prime Minister of Portugal Pedro Passos Coelho also reaffirmed that “no decision has been taken on this subject by the Portuguese government and … no preference has even been communicated to any institution.” Mr. Coelho said that his government will make its decision on the issue before the country exit the bailout program in May.

Italy next, and an assessment from New Europe:

Italian economy in recovery, government in intensive care

Italy’s economy grew by 0.1 percent in the last three months of 2013 compared to the third quarter, the national statistics institute, Istat, said on Friday in preliminary estimates while a government crisis was unfolding in Rome following the ousting of Prime Minister Enrico Letta by his Democratic Party rival Matteo Renzi.

Italy’s gross domestic product (GDP) slightly increased after nine months of negative or zero growth – the country’s longest postwar recession that ended in the third quarter with flat GDP.

Last year the Italian economy contracted 1.9 percent, Istat added in the preliminary estimates.

Also on Friday, the Italian central bank said the country’s public debt fell by €36.5 billion to €2.0675 trillion euros from November to December. The Italian debt is the second largest compared to GDP in the eurozone after Greece’s.

More from BBC News:

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi tipped to be Italy’s youngest PM

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi is expected to be offered the chance to become Italian prime minister, as talks begin on forming a new government.

President Georgio Napolitano is starting consultations following the resignation of Enrico Letta.

He was ousted in a vote called by Mr Renzi at a meeting of their centre-left Democratic Party. The 39-year-old would be Italy’s youngest prime minister.

Mr Letta was under increasing pressure over Italy’s poor economic performance.

And a Bunga Bunga reminder from the Associated Press:

Berlusconi remains a force in Italy turmoil

He has been convicted of tax fraud, booted out of the Senate and banned from political office.

In other countries, that would be three strikes. But in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has not lost his political legitimacy, and it will be on full display when the former premier leads his Forza Italia party to meet with Italy’s president to discuss prospects for a new government after Premier Enrico Letta’s resignation Friday.

Berlusconi’s reemergence on Italy’s political scene comes just days after a court in Naples put him on trial yet again, this time for allegedly paying a senator 3 million euros ($4 million) to switch parties to bring down a rival government.

“Silvio Berlusconi is a survivor. He has survived many crises, political and legal. He is not going to give up,” said Wolfango Piccoli, an Italian political analyst based in London. “Italians are used to seeing Berlusconi as a political leader, regardless of whether he is a felon or regardless of whether he lost his seat in the Parliament.”

And another country eases up via RT:

Italy overturns ‘absurd’ drug law equating marijuana and hard drugs

Italy’s constitutional court has overturned a controversial law equating cannabis with cocaine and heroin. The decision could see around 10,000 people released from the country’s overburdened jails.

The court ruled the law was “illegitimate,” without elaborating further.

The law, passed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2006, has been blamed for Italy’s swelling prison population, as sentences for selling, growing or possessing marijuana effectively tripled.

Official data shows that Italian prisons are operating beyond capacity, with 62,000 inmates residing in facilities meant to house a maximum of 48,000.

After the jump, the latest Greek woes, Venezuelan disorders, Argentine anxieties, another leglaization call from Uruguay, an Indian resignation, Thai police action, mixed Chinese news, Japanese structural woes, economic alarm bells, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: MegaloEconoPoliFuku


A verrryyyy long collection, with the latest global economic, political, and environmental news for your perusal.

First up, playing monopoly with Sky News:

Comcast To Buy Time Warner Cable For $45bn

The deal would create an entertainment superpower with 32 million TV subscribers, but there are calls for regulators to step in.

The two biggest US cable companies are joining forces in a $45bn (£27bn) deal, creating an entertainment giant with some 32 million TV subscribers.

Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable was confirmed at the start of trading on Thursday.

Its offer, which is subject to regulatory approval, is about 17% higher than the company’s closing share price on Wednesday.

The takeover bid trumps an earlier $38bn (£23bn) offer from Charter Communications, which appeared to concede defeat by announcing: “We’ve always maintained our greatest opportunity to create value for shareholders is by executing our current business plan.”

More from Business Insider:

What’s in it for Comcast Cable shareholders?

“This combination creates a company that delivers maximum value for our shareholders,” said Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.

How are they going to do that?

The company explains in one sentence that probably has every Comcast and Time Warner Cable employee nervous.

“The transaction will generate approximately $1.5 billion in operating efficiencies and will be accretive to Comcast’s free cash flow per share while preserving balance sheet strength.”

“Operating efficiencies” usually means the closing and combining offices, which also often comes with job cuts.

Still more from The Guardian:

Comcast takeover of Time Warner Cable ‘will throttle choice on the web’

  • Angry consumer groups say proposed $45.2bn mega-deal will drive up costs for millions – and call on FCC to block takeover

Consumer groups reacted angrily to the merger of cable giant Comcast and Time Warner Cable on Thursday, claiming the combination could “throttle” choice on the internet.

Comcast’s proposed $45.2bn takeover of TWC will create a media behemoth that will dominate broadband internet access across the US. Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, will also cement its position as the pre-eminent force in cable TV.

Jodie Griffin, senior staff attorney at consumer rights group Public Knowledge said: “This is a deal that needs to be blocked.” She said Comcast was likely to use the extra leverage to “drive up costs and reduce choices for consumers.”, and claimed the new company would be too powerful, becoming a “gatekeeper” capable of “throttling competition.”

And from In These Times, a symbolic action taken years too late:

It’s Official: Obama Signs Minimum Wage Hike for Some Federal Contract Workers

Today, President Barack Obama honored his promise from last month’s State of the Union address to raise the minimum wage for some workers indirectly employed by the federal government. In a new executive order, he raised the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, effective Jan. 1, 2015. The White House estimates the order will affect hundreds of thousands of workers employed by private companies with government contracts.

“Nobody who works full time should have to live in poverty,” Obama said during a signing ceremony at the White House. He used the ceremony to repeat his calls for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for all workers and for state and local governments and private businesses to also act to boost the income of low-wage workers.

Labor groups and union supporters reported they were pleased with the final shape of the executive order.

From The Hill, reversing idiocy:

Senate reverses pension cut

The Senate on Wednesday sent legislation to President Obama’s desk that would repeal the controversial $6 billion cut to military pensions.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure in a 95-3 vote, undoing the spending cut that Congress had approved two months prior in the December budget deal.

The only senators to vote against the bill were Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

The legislation passed in the House just a day earlier in a 326-90 vote.

From MintPress News, necessary action:

Justice Department Sued Over Secretive JPMorgan Settlement

The agreement settled both “actual and potential” civil claims against the company brought by five federal agencies and several state attorneys general, thus offering broad immunity for years.

A public interest group is suing the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder over the agency’s recent record-busting settlement with JPMorgan Chase for the bank’s fraudulent conduct leading up to the 2007-08 bursting of the housing bubble and subsequent meltdown of the financial industry.

Better Markets, a watchdog group based here, alleges that the Justice Department broke both federal law and constitutional mandate when it agreed to and finalized the $13 billion settlement in November. The agreement process, reportedly decided upon personally by Holder and JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, included no judicial oversight, despite what critics say are multiple statutory obligations to do so.

“There are certain statutes regarding certain violations of law that expressly state that the Department of Justice must seek court approval, and then there are others where it’s silent,” Dennis Kelleher, the head of Better Markets, told MintPress while announcing the lawsuit on Monday.

CNBC frets:

Wealthy more worried about being seen as wealthy

  • Is success being vilified in America? The successful seem to think so.

A new poll from American Express Publishing and Harrison Group finds that 1 percenters no longer like to be seen as such.

One-third of members of the group said they “like it when others recognize me as wealthy.” Though that number (taken in the fourth quarter of 2013) may sound high, it’s down from 40 percent a year earlier. And it’s far below the 53 percent who agreed with the statement in 2010.

Fully 28 percent say they worry about “being scorned for being in the top part of the economy,” versus 24 percent who were concerned about that in the first quarter of 2013.

From USA TODAY, that old hard times intolerance [the first of several in today’s compendium]:

Immigration debate is reignited in Fremont, Neb.

Voters in Fremont, Neb., are still trying to curb illegal immigration.

Residents voted 60%-40% on Tuesday to re-approve an ordinance that requires property owners not to rent houses or apartments to illegal immigrants and requires renters to declare their legal residency. Landlords who violate the ordinance face fines.

Fremont has a complicated history with the ordinance, which thrust this city of 26,000 people near Omaha into the national spotlight in 2010, when residents first approved the law after the City Council defeated the proposal. The law also requires employers to verify the legal status of employees; that part of the law is in effect.

After voters approved the measure, the City Council put the law on hold when the Nebraska ACLU and other groups sued. Lower courts upheld the law, and the council sent the housing portion back for another vote of the people.

Al Jazeera America protests:

Portland, Ore., residents tell mayor: ‘Stop arresting homeless people’

Residents of Portland, Ore., gathered in front of City Hall on Tuesday to protest the government’s treatment of its homeless population. The group, a self-described “angry mob,” carried pitchforks and torches while demanding that Mayor Charlie Hales end policies that criminalize homelessness.

The city government has come under fire in recent months for enforcing an ordinance that prohibits camping on public property, which critics say unfairly targets the homeless.

A 2013 city count found nearly 1,900 individuals in the Portland metropolitan area to be homeless and unsheltered, a 10 percent increase from 2011.

From PandoDaily, paying the piper:

The Wolf of Sesame Street: Revealing the secret corruption inside PBS’s news division

On December 18th, the Public Broadcasting Service’s flagship station WNET issued a press release announcing the launch of a new two-year news series entitled “Pension Peril.” The series, promoting cuts to public employee pensions, is airing on hundreds of PBS outlets all over the nation. It has been presented as objective news on  major PBS programs including the PBS News Hour.

However, neither the WNET press release nor the broadcasted segments explicitly disclosed who is financing the series. Pando has exclusively confirmed that “Pension Peril” is secretly funded by former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering.

In recent years, Arnold has been using massive contributions to politicians, Super PACs, ballot initiative efforts, think tanks and local front groups to finance a nationwide political campaign aimed at slashing public employees’ retirement benefits. His foundation which backs his efforts employs top Republican political operatives, including the former chief of staff to GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey (TX). According to its own promotional materials, the Arnold Foundation is pushing lawmakers in states across the country “to stop promising a (retirement) benefit” to public employees.

Despite Arnold’s pension-slashing activism and his foundation’s ties to partisan politics, Leila Walsh, a spokesperson for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), told Pando that PBS officials were not hesitant to work with them, even though PBS’s own very clear rules prohibit such blatant conflicts. (note: the term “PBS officials” refers interchangeably to both PBS officials and officials from PBS flagship affiliate WNET who were acting on behalf of the entire PBS system).

United Press International sues:

Magazines sue Colorado over marijuana advertising restrictions

Two publications are challenging Colorado’s recreational marijuana rules about advertising, with a lawsuit filed in federal court, records said.

The national magazine High Times and the local weekly magazine Westword sued the state of Colorado Monday because of rules stating recreational marijuana stores can advertise only in publications aimed at a readership over the age of 21, the Denver Post reported Wednesday.

The lawsuit argues the rules, which also apply to outdoor and broadcast advertising, are restrictions of free speech, and notes there are no similar restrictions on medical marijuana businesses.

It marks the first time the state’s advertising rules have been challenged in court.

From MintPress News, a stunning development:

HIV/AIDS Cure May Be Found In Marijuana: Study

For years, many Americans with HIV/AIDS have used medical marijuana to relieve some common symptoms associated with the illness such as nausea, vomiting and appetite loss.

Now, a new study published last week in the journal AIDS Researcher and Human Retroviruses found that a daily dosage of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, may actually fight the HIV/AIDS virus itself.

In this most recent study, the team of researchers from Louisiana State University found that when HIV-infected monkeys were given THC daily during a 17-month time period, the monkeys had less damage in the immune tissue of their gut — an important site of HIV infection — than those given a placebo.

Researchers also reported that they found consuming THC had improved the monkeys immune tissue at a gene level as well, and was in a way, preventing the disease from killing healthy immune cells — a discovery other studies have found as well.

From the McClatchy Washington Bureau, blowing smoke:

Marijuana gets a show of support on Capitol Hill

  • Eighteen House members ask Obama to reclassify the banned drug

In the biggest show of support yet for legalizing marijuana on Capitol Hill, 18 House members today asked President Barack Obama to reclassify the drug, removing it from a list of banned substances deemed to have no medical value.

The letter, distributed by Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, argued that including marijuana in the Schedule 1 list of banned drugs, along with heroin and LSD, disregards the laws of 20 states that allow pot to be used for medical purposes.

It comes after Obama last month said that he doesn’t believe that marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol.

MintPress News cashes out:

Banking Regulations For Marijuana Industry “Imminent”

“Without access to basic banking services, many legitimate cannabis businesses are forced to manage sales, payroll, and even tax bills entirely in cash.”

On Tuesday U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, Wash., said the federal government’s new guidance for banks and bank regulators will be released “imminently.”

What Heck is referring to is Attorney General Eric Holder’s pledge that the Justice Department and the Treasury Department would issue guidance “very soon” to banks on how they can work with marijuana businesses.

Though the guidance had not been issued by the time of this article’s publication, Heck, a member of House Committee on Financial Services, who along with Congressman Ed Perlmutter of Colorado has pressed for marijuana banking reform, said legal marijuana businesses will be provided with a “full range of banking service, including accepting credit cards, direct depositing payroll checks and more,” under the guidance.

In other words, marijuana-related businesses will no longer be forced to operate on a cash-only basis.

On to latest in the global neoliberal trade agreement games from Jiji Press:

Japan, U.S. to Hold Working-Level TPP Talks Next Week

Working-level officials of Japan and the United States will meet in Japan next week to discuss sticky issues in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks ahead of key four-day TPP ministerial talks in Singapore from Feb. 22, Japanese government sources said Wednesday.

Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler will arrive in Japan on Monday and hold talks with Hiroshi Oe, Japan’s deputy chief representative in the TPP negotiations, and other officials, according to the sources.

The two sides are expected to discuss the handling of tariffs on farm products and issues related to automobile trade, the sources said.

Another deal, with problems, via Deutsche Welle:

Tripping over TTIP: Obstacles overshadow EU-US trade pact

  • With talks on the EU-US transatlantic free trade deal set to continue next month, this week’s outrage over a European Parliament vote on genetically modified corn will hardly be the last obstacle negotiators face.

This coming Monday (17.02.2014), EU trade chief Karel de Gucht and his US counterpart Michael Froman are scheduled to meet in Washington to discuss the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a transatlantic free trade area. They are expected to make a political assessment of the past three rounds of US-EU trade talks and to discuss the upcoming fourth round of negotiations in March.

The pact would unify standards and licensing procedures across a EU-US trade zone and would waive tariffs on goods traded between the EU and the US. According to the Munich-based IFO institute, the treaty will create up to 400,000 new jobs in Europe – 110,000 of them in Germany alone. A done deal, it would seem.

But the deal is far from done: the EU and the US differ over a wide variety of issues, one of which is genetically modified food. On Tuesday (11.02.2014), a new type of genetically modified corn from the US was approved by the European Parliament amid great controversy. The decision paves the way for compromise over one of the differences in EU-US consumer attitudes that has been a stumbling stone in TTIP negotiations.

But opponents of the trade pact are becoming more vocal, and more debates over standards, consumer protection, cultural protectionism threaten to erupt when EU-US negotiators get down to the deal’s fine print and put the agreement up for domestic scrutiny.

From Canada, riches spurned from South China Morning Post:

Canada scraps millionaire visa scheme, ‘dumps 46,000 Chinese applications’

Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires in the queue will have their applications scrapped and their application fees returned

Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires face an uncertain future after Canada’s government moved to scrap its controversial investor visa scheme, which has allowed waves of rich Hongkongers and mainland Chinese to immigrate since 1986.

The surprise announcement was made in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget, delivered to parliament in Ottawa on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires in the queue for visas will have their applications “eliminated” and their fees returned.

The announcement came less than a week after the South China Morning Post revealed how the scheme was overwhelmed by an influx of applications from mainland millionaires at Canada’s Hong Kong consulate. Applications to the scheme were frozen in 2012 as a result, as immigration staff struggled to clear the backlog.

ANSAmed covers a ploy:

EU and southern Europe in re-industrialization pact

  • Italy, Spain, Portugal heads of State meet at COTEC in Lisbon

An EU Industrial Compact adopted in January has led to a ‘pact’ between the European Commission and southern European countries to speed up the re-industrialization of Europe by exploiting the first signs of economic recovery, European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani made known in a joint statement with ministers from Italy, Spain and Portugal on Wednesday in Lisbon.

The statement was issued on the sidelines of the annual COTEC conference, which was attended by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, Spanish King Juan Carlos, and Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva.

The aim of the Industrial Compact is for the manufacturing sector to make up 20% of EU GDP, and this can be achieved by speeding up innovation and marketing, COTEC experts from Italy, Spain and Portugal said.

And from MintPress News, more of that old hard times intolerance:

The Rebirth Of European Racism

The mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervor goaded by public statements of right-wing leaders.

Bulgaria has recently seen a surge in xenophobic attacks since a wave of Syrian refugees escaping the horrors of the war started arriving. But it appears what these refugees have found in Bulgaria isn’t much better than what they left behind.

Last year, roughly 11,600 migrants and asylum seekers crossed into Bulgaria from Turkey, most of them Syrian. Human rights organizations expect tens of thousands to make the journey across the Turkish border in the coming months.

But the mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervor goaded by public statements of right-wing leaders. Last November, several neo-Nazi factions, including the local branch of the international Blood and Honor Skinhead network, formed the Nationalist Party of Bulgaria, which says it wants to “cleanse Bulgaria from the foreign and alien immigrant scum that have been flooding the towns of Bulgaria.”

The party has organized so-called “civil patrols,” which stop and check foreigners—and a portion of the general population thinks that this is a good idea.

And an admission from The Guardian:

Migration in the EU ‘has caused strains,’ admits José Manuel Barroso

  • President of the European Commission says free movement is open to abuse but that he will not compromise on citizens’ rights

José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, will on Friday acknowledge that the free movement of people across the EU has put “unintended strains” on public services and is open to abuse.

In a move to show that Brussels understands the concerns raised in Britain, Barroso will say in London that the commission has recently clarified anti-abuse rules to crack down on sham marriages which allow non-EU citizens to claim benefits as a family member.

But the commission president will make clear in a speech to the London School of Economics that he will not compromise on the right of all EU citizens to move across all 28 member states – one of the four founding pillars which guarantees the free movement of labour, capital, goods and services.

Reuters ponders:

ECB still assessing if lower inflation temporary: Coene

The European Central Bank is awaiting further information, particularly signs on whether the current easing of euro zone inflation is temporary, before it acts, Governing Council member Luc Coene said.

Annual inflation in the 18-member euro zone slowed to 0.7 percent in January from 0.8 percent in December, confounding expectations of a rise and matching a four-year low hit last October.

The ECB left interest rates at record low last week, but put markets on alert for a possible move in March, when the Governing Council should have new forecasts from the bank’s staff extending into 2016.

On to Britain and an ongoing disaster from the London Telegraph:

Flood-hit areas are a ‘battlefield’ as thousands of soldiers are deployed

  • Army chief says that commanding officers are applying ‘battle-group’ skills an ‘unparalleled natural crisis’

Britain is in the grip of an “unparalleled natural crisis”, the Army officer in charge of the flood recovery effort declared on Wednesday.

As hurricane-force winds gusting at more than 100mph lashed the country, forecasters warned that the weather will get worse this weekend as a month’s worth of rain falls in just 48 hours.

The chaos now threatens to derail Britain’s economic recovery, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England warned. His comments came as storms that have battered the South West and Wales for weeks spread to the north of England for the first time this winter, bringing parts of the country to a standstill.

A bankster alert from the London Telegraph:

RBS warned of credit rating ‘downgrade’

  • Royal Bank of Scotland has been told its credit could be downgraded by ratings agency Moody’s

Royal Bank of Scotland has been warned by one of the world’s main ratings agencies that its credit is at risk of being downgraded following the surprise revelation last month of weaker than expected capital levels.

Moody’s said it had put RBS’s debt “on review for downgrade” pointing to the taxpayer-backed lender’s “weaker than previously anticipated regulatory capital position”.

The move comes after RBS’s unscheduled announcement on January 27 of £3.1bn of extra provisions for issues ranging from its sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities to the mis-selling of payment protection insurance and interest rate hedging products.

More immigration tension, this time from Iceland and the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Newspaper Editor Defends Leaked Memo

Davíð Oddsson – the current co-editor of Morgunblaðið – defended the leak of a memo on an asylum seeker that launched a police investigation as “allowing the public to get the whole picture”.

In an editorial for Morgunblaðið, Davíð – who is also, amongst other things, the former chairperson of the Independence Party, from which Ministry of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir hails – argued in favour of government offices publishing personal information about refugees as a means to take part in the public discussion about asylum seekers.

“Is it not right that the public get the whole picture?,” Davíð wrote. “That nothing is hidden about what’s at stake?”

As reported, the police are currently investigating the Ministry of the Interior over a leaked memo which impugned the reputations of Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos and the mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph. It later came to light that the accusations in the memo were false. Whilst the ministry denies the memo came from their offices, all evidence indicates the ministry as the only source.

On to Norway with EUbusiness and a hard times intolerance rebuke:

Norway rules out referendum on immigration

Norwegian Justice Minister Anders Anundsen on Wednesday ruled out holding a referendum on immigration, rejecting a request by a fellow member of his populist party to follow in the footsteps of Switzerland.

“For many years, the (populist) Progress Party has claimed that more influence should be granted to the citizens. This proposition shouldn’t shock anybody,” Anundsen, a Progress Party minister was quoted by Norwegian news agency NTB during parliamentary question time.

“But within the government coalition, the Progress Party is sticking to our cooperation agreement (with the other right and centre-right parties) and does not plan a referendum on this matter.”

A Finnish proclamation from New Europe:

Finland: OECD wants more structural reforms

Most people would not associate Finland with past high-tech successes like Nokia and Ericksson with structural reforms that have come to be associated with the EU’s troubled south. But the latest report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) urged Helsinki to make more efforts in the structural reform to stimulate the economy, Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE reported on Wednesday.

OECD called for more measures in restructuring municipalities, raising retirement age and stricter mortgage rules, in order to promote the economic growth and deal with the aging population in Finland.

The report pointed out that the rising cost of pensions and healthcare for an aging population is one economic to Finland, suggesting higher retirement age and an end to part-time retirement.

On to the Netherlands and significant decision from DutchNews.nl:

The Netherlands to vote against approving the EU’s 2012 accounts

The Netherlands will join Britain and Sweden in voting against giving approval to the EU’s accounts for 2012 because of an increase in mis-spending, finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on Thursday.

Dijsselbloem told MPs there are still too many uncertainties about the accounts and the error rate in the EU’s books has risen from 3.9% in 2011 to 4.8% in 2012. This is equivalent to €6.7bn being wrongly spent.

The problems centre on funds allocated to reducing the prosperity gap between different members states and money earmarked for rural development. In some cases, projects were not put out to tender properly or they were ineligible for grants under Brussels’ rules.

‘We cannot simply let this happen,’ Dijsselbloem, who also chairs the influential Euro Group, is quoted as saying by news agency ANP.

Germany next and higher hopes from Deutsche Welle:

German government revises growth forecast slightly upwards

The German government has confirmed the Economic Ministry’s 2014 growth outlook, saying that GDP will expand slightly more this year than previously predicted. It said the labor market would benefit as well.

German cabinet ministers on Wednesday adopted the 2014 Annual Economic Report, which included slightly higher expectations for growth in the course of this year.

The government said it expected the national economy to expand by 1.8 percent in 2014, marginally up from an earlier prediction of 1.7 percent. The report said the growth rate would increase to 2 percent next year.

Commenting on the report, conservative lawmakers in Berlin said everything should be done to avoid jeopardizing the growing economic momentum amid problems caused by the country’s energy transition and the aftermath of the protracted eurozone debt crisis.

And from Deutsche Welle, another chorus of that old. . .:

DW exclusive: Germans would vote just like the Swiss on curbing immigration

  • A survey commissioned by Deutsche Welle has found the majority of German citizens would vote for limiting immigration. The survey follows a decision in Switzerland to limit its annual immigration from the EU.

If Germans were to vote in a referendum on limiting immigration to Germany nearly half would support the measure (48 percent ) while almost as many (46 percent) would oppose it, according to a DW commissioned survey.

On behalf of DW, opinion research institute infratest dimap surveyed 1,001 Germans over the age of 18 on February 11-12, 2014. Three percent of those surveyed were undecided.

The survey showed that a particularly high number of Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party members (84 percent) would support an immigration limit. Members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and its sister party the Christian Social Union voted 51 percent for a limit.

Paris next, and plutocratic woes from France 24:

French billionaire senator Dassault loses immunity over graft claims

The French Senate stripped billionaire industrialist senator Serge Dassault of parliamentary immunity on Wednesday, clearing the way for him to face possible criminal charges for allegedly buying votes.

The decision by a Senate committee means that UMP senator Dassault, 88, can be taken into custody for interrogation by judges investigating allegations dating from his 14 years as mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes, a Paris suburb.

The judges suspect Dassault of operating an extensive system of vote-buying that influenced the outcome of three mayoral elections in Corbeil in 2008, 2009 and 2010, which were won either by Dassault or by his successor and close associate Jean-Pierre Bechter, the current mayor of Corbeil.

Dassault is ranked by Forbes magazine as France’s 4th richest man and the 69th richest in the world, with an estimated fortune of 13 billion euros. He heads Dassault Group, which owns France’s prestigious conservative newspaper “Le Figaro” and holds a majority stake in Dassault Aviation, which makes business and military aircraft including the Rafale fighter jet.

Europe Online rakes it in:

Societe Generale nearly triples profits in 2013

France’s second-biggest bank Societe Generale nearly tripled its profits in 2013, helped by higher earnings in both its retail and corporate and investment banking units, the group said Wednesday.

Net income shot up to 2.2 billion euros (3 billion dollars), from 774 million euros in 2012. Group revenues were up 4.3 per cent to 22.8 billion euros.

Societe Generale ended the year on a high note, with fourth-quarter profits of 322 million euros far exceeding analysts’ expectations.

TheLocal.fr parks it:

French taxi drivers call for ‘indefinite strike’

The announcement will not go down well with Parisians or tourists but angry taxi drivers in France are clearly not willing to lie down without a fight. On Tuesday they called for an “indefinite strike”, saying they will take action “anytime, anywhere”.

Paris taxi drivers continued to vent their anger on Tuesday when they brought traffic to a standstill in the centre of the French capital leading to the arrest of dozens of drivers. The trouble comes as unions called for ongoing industrial action.

On Tuesday evening as cabbies fronted up to police at Place de La Concorde union leaders called for an indefinite strike, which could see wildcat blockades and go slows continue for the foreseeable future.

In a joint statement drivers’ unions said they “reserved the right to take action at any place at any time.”

Switzerland, and that old familiar tune from TheLocal.ch:

Populists urge more immigration controls

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which spearheaded the initiative narrowly accepted by Swiss voters to limit immigration from the European Union, is set on Friday to push for for more measures to tighten immigration as tensions mount in Switzerland over the issue.

The initiative against massive immigration, backed by 50.3 percent of the electorate, calls for an end to the freedom of movement agreement between Switzerland and the EU and the imposition of quotas.

But the deal is fuzzy on details. It does not, for example, stipulate how many foreigners would be accepted into the country and through what criteria the level of needed workers would be selected for different sectors of the economy.

The SVP is being prodded to clarify how it expects the quota system to work.

Spain next, and an affirmative declaration from thinkSPAIN:

Economy starts to grow as GDP predictions more optimistic

SPAIN’S Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will increase by 0.9 per cent this year and 1.9 per cent next year – signs that the economy is growing once again, according to figures released by the BBVA bank.

This will be enough for creation of ‘sustainable’ employment to begin, says the entity, but it warns that jobless figures are unlikely to drop below 25.6 per cent this year and 24.8 per cent in 2015.

Consumer spending in Spain is expected to rise in 2014 by 0.9 per cent and by 1.3 per cent next year, with lack of national demand gradually ceasing to pose barriers to micro-economic growth over the next two years and ongoing efforts in increasing exports will set the scene for the economy to begin its recovery, the BBVA reveals.

ANSAmed has a harsher take:

Spain: fewer jobs, lower wages two years after reform

  • Trade unions and ILO slam reform, OECD praises it

Two years to the day from Spain’s last labor reform, there are fewer jobs, more long-term unemployed, and fewer people paying into social security.

A negative balance according to trade unions and a ‘’not very encouraging’‘ picture according to the Savings Banks Foundation (Funcas), but the government says the reform is beginning to have positive effects within the context of a recovering economy.

Jobless benefit claims totaled 4,599,829 people as of January 2012, one month before the labor reform was enacted. Two years later, that number is at 4,814,435, up by 241,606 people or +4.6% as of January 2014. In the same period, the number of workers paying into the social security fund dropped by 769,627 people, or -4.5%, to a total of 16,176,610 people. A quarterly report by national statistics bureau INE showed 5,273,600 were unemployed when the reform was enacted in the fourth quarter of 2011, a number that rose to 5,896,300 in the same period of 2013, equal to 622,700 more unemployed people (+11.8%) in two years.

ANSAmed again, and a comedown for high-flyers:

Spain: Iberia; agreement with pilots, salaries down 14%

  • The deal provides for a salary freeze till 2015

Spanish carrier Iberia and pilots’ union Sepla have reached an agreement in principle ending years of conflict which provides for salary cuts by at least 14%.

The agreement also introduces ‘’permanent structural changes’‘ at the company to cut costs and allow the development of the airline and its low-cost company Iberia Express, Iberia’s Iag group said in a statement to the market authority committee on Thursday.

The deal provides for a salary freeze till 2015, previously rejected by pilots, and from that date onwards salary increases depending on the company’s results.

From El País, the bankster blues:

Failed lender CAM wants prison for two of its former executives

  • Bank’s lawyer seeks six to 10 years for ex-director general and oversight committee chief
  • Attorney accuses them of inflating expense accounts and favoring own interests

The lawyer of failed lender Caja de Ahorros del Mediterráneo (CAM), appointed by the government’s bank bailout fund, the FROB, wants prison terms for two of the bank’s former top executives.

Former director general Roberto López Abad and former chairman of the Valencian savings bank’s oversight committee, Juan Ramón Avilés, face the prospect of between six and 10 years in prison for misappropriation of funds and deliberate mismanagement.

The state prosecutor is seeking shorter jail terms for the two men.

And the social counterrevolution prevails, via TheLocal.es:

‘New abortion law to stay’: Spanish lawmakers

A controversial plan to ban women in Spain from freely opting for abortions overcame a key hurdle on Tuesday when lawmakers voted in secret against a motion to scrap the reform.

The plan has outraged pro-choice groups and brought thousands of people out onto the streets to protest, but has sparked division even within the conservative ruling party.

Lawmakers rejected a proposal submitted by the opposition Socialists to “immediately withdraw” the bill by 183 votes to 151. Six lawmakers abstained.

The ruling Popular Party (PP) holds a strong majority in parliament, but the abortion reform, supported by the Roman Catholic Church, has been delayed amid dissent by senior party figures.

And another sign of the times from El País:

House sales fall for third year in a row

  • Property purchases hit record low in December

The Spanish housing market remained locked in a trough in 2013, six years after a massive property bubble burst.

According to figures released by the National Statistics Institute (INE), the number of homes sold last year, excluding public housing schemes, fell 1.2 percent from a year earlier to 276,600 after falling 11.3 percent in 2012 and 18.2 percent in 2011. During the height of the boom over 800,000 houses were exchanged in a year. In December alone sales fell 11.0 from a year earlier to a new monthly record low of 18,619.

The only respite the market has had since boom turned to bust was in 2010 when sales increased 4.8 percent, driven by the purchase of new homes before the introduction of a hike in value-added tax.

And from TheLocal.es, an unconscionable demand:

Cancer drug maker wants 4000% Spanish price hike

Drug manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare has reportedly threatened to stop selling its leukaemia and ovarian cancer treatments in Spain if Health Minister Ana Mato refuses to raise fixed purchase prices by up to 4,000 percent.

According to online daily El Confidencial Digital, the habitual bargaining between Aspen and the Ministry of Health has taken a turn for the worse.

The South African manufacturer of generic medicines is currently undergoing a rapid expansion in international markets.

The company is allegedly insisting on massive price increases for a number of drugs but the Ministry has flatly refused.

On to Lisbon with EUbusiness:

Portugal passes new IMF rescue program review

The International Monetary Fund approved Wednesday the disbursement of 910 million euros ($1.24 billion) to Portugal after the country passed the 10th review of its bailout program.

The disbursement took the country a step closer to the May 2014 end of the European Union-IMF rescue program, with the country’s finances stabilizing.

But the IMF urged the Portuguese government not to give in to pressure to increase public spending and to keep pushing ahead on structural reforms to its finances.

“The Portuguese authorities’ implementation of their Fund-supported program has been commendable,” said IMF Deputy Managing Director Nemat Shafik in a statement.

And on to Italy with the New York Times:

Italy’s Prime Minister Announces Resignation Amid Party Revolt

Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy, whose weak coalition government has come under increasing criticism, announced his resignation on Thursday night after his own Democratic Party staged a dramatic insurrection and voted to replace him with the party’s new leader, Matteo Renzi.

The Democratic Party is the largest member of Italy’s coalition government, and the party’s decision to dump Mr. Letta will likely have to be put to a confidence vote in Parliament. Mr. Letta will meet with his cabinet on Friday morning and then present his resignation letter to Italy’s president, making way for Mr. Renzi, 38, to become Italy’s youngest prime minister.

Mr. Renzi, the mayor of Florence who recently won a nationwide primary to become leader of the Democratic Party, has a reputation for boldness and has long been considered Italy’s most promising young politician. He has spoken repeatedly about the need for sweeping political and economic changes. But few analysts foresaw that he would lead a revolt against his party’s sitting prime minister.

AGI has a skeptical take from the populist right:

M5S co-founder doubtful government will last until 2018

M5S co-founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio says he is doubtful the government can last until 2018: “I see a high instability situation. A 2018 forecast is very risky”.

The statement was made at the Termini train station, while Casaleggio was waiting for a train to Milan. Asked by journalists about the likelihood of a government lead by Matteo Renzi to survive until 2018, Casaleggio added: “One can never tell, but the beginning of this year seems to be marked by a great political instability”.

From TheLocal.it, austerian rigor:

Italians drop holiday plans as crisis bites

The number of trips taken by Italians since the economic crisis began in 2008 has plummeted by 48.6 percent, new statistics show.

Last year Italy’s resident population took just over 63 million trips with overnight stays, whether for work or holiday, the country’s statistics agency Istat said this week.

With a population of nearly 60 million one trip per person may seem like a fair ratio, but a broader look shows that Italians have nearly halved travel in recent years.

They took 48.6 percent fewer holidays or work trips last year than five years’ previously, continuing a year-on-year decline.

EUbusiness divides:

Catalonia, Scotland, Venice? Italian party eyes autonomy

The head of Italy’s Northern League on Wednesday said he supported the autonomy bids of Catalonia from Spain and Scotland from Britain, and hoped that the Venice region “will be next on the list”.

Matteo Salvini said two other regions of northern Italy — Lombardy and Piedmont — could also follow suit, adding that it was time to reduce the powers of the European Union and return to “national and regional sovereignty”.

Salvini also said that plans for a coalition of far-right parties including his own at the European Parliament after elections in May were “well advanced”.

The coalition “will not be Eurosceptic but will be in favour of a different Europe,” he said, adding however that he continues to support an abandonment of the euro. “The euro has massacred our economy,” he said.

TheLocal.it inhales:

Italy relaxes cannabis penalties

Italy’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday struck down an anti-drug law from 2006 that imposed tough sentencing for the sale and possession of cannabis, putting it on the same level as heroin and cocaine.

The court declared “illegitimate” the law, which imposed sentences of six to 20 years for trafficking in cannabis, whereas the previous law which is now back in force included sentences of between two and six years.

Leftist lawmakers and civil society representatives immediately hailed the court ruling, saying it would help ease overcrowding in Italian prisons.

The scrapping of the law could affect 10,000 detainees who are in pre-trial detention or serving time and could see a revision of their sentences and their release.

After the jump, deeper misery in Greece, Blackwater creator’s African dreams, Venezuelan violence, Argentine inflation, Indian populist payoffs, parliamentary riots, and bankster woes, Thai turmoil prolonged, Aussie bubble alarms, Chinese marketeering and GMOs, Japanese desperate measures, environmental woes, and a jam-packed Fukushimapocalypse Now! Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroEcoFukunomia


From the worlds of politics, economics, and environmental news, today’s collection begins with a propitiatory sacrifice from Jiji Press:

Obama Urged Not to Sign TPP Unless Japan Bans Dolphin Hunting

A group of celebrities and activists in the United States are urging President Barack Obama to refuse to sign a proposed international trade deal unless Japan bans dolphin hunting.

In a letter dated Wednesday, hip-hop producer Russell Simmons asked U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy to urge Obama not to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact unless Japan bans the hunt.

Simmons’ effort draws support from about 40 celebrities and activists including film director Oliver Stone and actress Cameron Diaz.

Bloomberg limits the bubble:

Home Prices Rose in Fewer U.S. Markets in Fourth Quarter

Prices for single-family homes rose in 73 percent of U.S. cities in the fourth quarter, fewer than in the previous three months, as surging values in the past two years started to reduce affordability.

The median transaction price for an existing home climbed from a year earlier in 119 of 164 metropolitan areas measured, the National Association of Realtors said in a report today. In the third quarter, 88 percent of markets had increases.

While tight inventories and improving employment are bolstering the housing recovery, home-price gains are poised to decelerate as an increase in mortgage rates from record lows cuts into affordability. Values have been rising faster than incomes, particularly in the West, the Realtors group said.

Businessweek takes a flier:

Yes, There’s a Pilot Shortage: Salaries Start at $21,000

The regional side of the U.S. airline industry has long been a fiercely competitive arena in which the big airlines auction large sections of their flight schedules to the lowest bidder. That’s put pressure on wages: The starting salary for a first officer at a regional airline is a little more than $21,000 per year—about $40,000 lower than the same job at Delta (DAL) and United (UAL), according to the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilot union.

And the stingy pay, in turn, exacerbates the pilot shortage. Not only does it make pilot jobs less appealing, but the small salaries also combine with the more onerous federal training rules to put many new pilots deep in debt. Paying for the necessary hours of training flights before getting a first job can cost more than $100,000.

“There may be a shortage of qualified pilots who are willing to fly for U.S. airlines because of the industry’s recent history of instability, poor pay, and benefits,” ALPA President Lee Moak said last week in a statement that aimed to refute the “myth” of such a shortage. The union says that Emirates Airlines pays new first officers $82,000, “plus a housing allowance and other extraordinary benefits,” and that thousands of U.S. pilots on furlough and working abroad are “eager to return to U.S. airline cockpits—under the right conditions.”

From In These Times, Tea Party pols:

When the Boss Wants a Union, But the GOP Says ‘No’

Volkswagen is willing to let employees at its Tennessee plant unionize, but Republicans are stiff in their opposition.

Republicans are blasting VW (actually criticizing a corporation!) because VW is cooperating with an attempt by the United Auto Workers to organize the German automaker’s Chattanooga, Tenn., assembly plant. The workers at VW’s German assembly plants are organized and paid twice the wage of the Chattanooga workers.

VW wants to establish works councils at its Chattanooga plant, just like those it has in Germany. In Europe, these groups of white- and blue-collar workers collaborate on issues such as plant rules, work hours and vacations. In VW’s experience, cooperating with employees through these councils increases productivity and profitability.

Because the councils discuss labor issues such as work hours, VW and the UAW have determined that to legally establish them in Chattanooga, the plant must be unionized.

This is intolerable to the GOP. Two of Tennessee’s most powerful Republicans, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, insist they know how to run an auto company better than VW. Despite this successful international auto company’s actual business experience with work councils, these GOP politicians say that they know what’s best, that they just know unionization won’t be good for VW.

Al Jazeera America prolongs:

California gets two more years to ease prison overcrowding

  • Judges’ ruling sets compliance officer who will release inmates early if state fails to ease problem

Federal judges on Monday gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, the latest step in a long-running lawsuit aimed at improving inmate medical care.

In doing so, the judges said they would appoint a compliance officer who will release inmates early if the state fails to meet interim benchmarks or the final goal.

The judges said the delays have cost taxpayers money while causing inmates to needlessly suffer. Judges had previously extended the deadline in December.

The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,000 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has built more prison space and used some private cells.

The Hill anchors the baby:

Chinese ‘birth tourism’ booming in US territory

A growing number of pregnant Chinese women are having their babies in the U.S. territory of Saipan, automatically giving the children American citizenship, according to the region’s congressman.

Del. Gregorio Sablan (D) represents Saipan and the rest of the Northern Mariana Islands in Congress. The U.S. territory is in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 3,700 miles west of Honolulu and a four-hour flight from China.

Sablan said in an ABC News report that he has reached out to the Department of Homeland Security to look into the “birth tourism” situation. “We want to fix this and we want to make sure that this small problem remains very small,” Sablan said.

Heading north of the border for another “free trade” travesty from EurActiv:

EU-Canada free trade deal ‘opens door to environmental lawsuits’

Multinationals will have wide-ranging powers to sue EU states that enact health or environmental laws breaching their “legitimate expectations” of profit, according to a leaked ‘investment chapter’ from the Canada-EU free trade agreement (CETA), which was signed last November.

A separate ‘nature and scope’ document for EU-US free trade talks, which EurActiv has seen, makes clear that similar parameters are foreseen for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement.

The CETA investment chapter proposes a definition of ‘fair and equitable treatment’ (FET) for investors which has sparked multi-million dollar lawsuits, such as one by Lone Pine challenging a shale drilling ban by the Canadian state of Quebec.

EU officials have reportedly not challenged the authenticity of the leaked document, which was published online by the Trade Justice Network, although they were unavailable for comment on the issue.

Pronouncement from a high place via Xinhua:

OECD index shows growth recovery in major economies

The latest composite leading indicators (CLIs) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are pointing to an improving economic outlook in major advanced economies, said the Paris-based think tank on Monday.

The CLIs, designed to anticipate turning points in economic activity relative to trend, stood at 100.9 for the OECD area, up by 0.1 percentage compared to last month, while the oulook of seven major economies pointed to a firming growth.

In the euro area, the indicators projected the single-currency bloc to witness positive change in momentum and reached a ratio of 101.1 at the end of 2013 compared to November’s 100.9.

As for France and Germany, Europe’s main powerhouses, the OECD report expected economic activities to gain ground. Their ratios were above the long term average rate of 100, with respectively a ratio of 100.5 and 100.8 for December after 100.3 and 100.7 reported a month earlier.

But The Guardian adds a qualification:

OECD admits overstating growth forecasts amid eurozone crisis and global crash

Biggest forecasting errors were made when looking at the prospects for the next year, rather than the current year, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said

A failure to spot the severity of the eurozone crisis and the impact of the meltdown of the global banking system led to consistent forecasting errors in recent years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development admitted on Tuesday.

The Paris-based organisation said it repeatedly overestimated growth prospects for countries around the world between 2007 and 2012. The OECD revised down forecasts at the onset of the financial crisis, but by an insufficient degree, it said.

“Forecasts were revised down consistently and very rapidly when the financial crisis erupted, but growth out-turns nonetheless still proved substantially weaker than had been projected,” it said in a paper exploring its forecasting record in recent years.

The biggest forecasting errors were made when looking at the prospects for the next year, rather than the current year.

On to Europe with an alarm from the London Telegraph:

ECB paralysed by German court decision as deflation threatens

  • The ‘thunderbolt’ ruling on eurozone rescue policies by Germany’s top court marks a serious escalation of Europe’s governance crisis

Last week’s ‘thunderbolt’ ruling on eurozone rescue policies by Germany’s top court marks a serious escalation of Europe’s governance crisis and may ultimately force Germany to withdraw from the euro, the country’s most influential magazine has warned.

A sweeping report by Der Spiegel said the court ruling amounts to a full-blown showdown between Germany and the European Central Bank over the methods to shore up southern Europe’s debt markets.

“It is nothing less than a final reckoning with the crisis-management strategy pursued by the ECB. The German justices insist that the German constitution sets limits on the ECB’s crisis strategy. In a worst-case scenario, the Court could forbid Berlin from contributing to efforts to save the euro or even force Germany to leave the currency zone entirely,” it said.

The warning came as market analysts began to see the darker implications of the ruling, which was initially seen as a green light for the ECB’s bond operations.

From the London Telegraph again, a contrarian take:

Schaeuble: German court decision no threat to eurozone

  • The German finance minister plays down damage of ruling that powerful ECB tool could be unconstitutional

Curbing the European Central Bank’s (ECB) powers to do “whatever it takes” to save the eurozone will not harm the single currency, the German finance minister has claimed.

Wolfgang Schaeuble said that although the ECB’s most effective tool for calming the eurozone debt markets, unlimited bond buying, could be ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice, that financial markets are now confident that the eurozone will remain intact.

“I think the return of financial market confidence in the stability of the euro has been due not only, not even primarily, to the ECB’s (unlimited bond buying) announcement,” said Mr Schaeuble in an interview with Reuters.

New Europe debunks:

Mobile EU citizens are mainly young people looking for job opportunities

  • Mobile EU citizens are often overqualified for the jobs they take up and may be paid less

A new study on the integration of mobile EU citizens was published today by the European Commission.

The study, which was carried out by Ernst and Young, focused on six European cities, chosen for the multinational composition of their population. The cities were Barcelona, Dublin, Hamburg, Lille, Prague and Turin. According to the study, most of the mobile EU citizens are young people looking for job opportunities.

The study showed that the the inflow of younger, working age EU citizens has had a positive economic impact in the cities under examination. For example in Turin, a local evaluation indicated that tax revenues from foreigners on the whole brought a net benefit of €1.5 billion to national public finances. Moreover, the newcomers have helped fill gaps in local labour markets, contributed to growth in new sectors and have helped balance out ageing populations. However, the study found that mobile EU citizens are often overqualified for the jobs they take up and may be paid less and at the same time do not always benefit from the same access to housing and education.

On to Britain and ongoing misery from Sky News:

UK Floods Could Last Months, Scientist Warns

Some 1.6 million properties across Britain are now at risk of groundwater flooding and there is no end in sight, an expert says.

Scientists have told Sky News that groundwater levels are now so high that parts of Britain face a serious risk of flooding for weeks or even months to come.

Andy McKenzie, a groundwater scientist at the British Geological Survey, told Sky News that even if the rain stopped today, so much water is soaking through the soil that levels are likely to keep rising for another two months.

The risk of flooding could remain high until May, he said.

Figures exclusively revealed to Sky News show that boreholes used to measure the height of the water table are overflowing in many areas, with the highest levels ever recorded.

The Guardian covers austerian pluvial accounting:

Government raised bar for funding of flood defence schemes

  • Defra wanted to see an average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 it would spend on schemes

Coalition ministers made it more difficult for flood defence schemes to get funding by introducing tougher targets demanding 60% more “benefits” for every pound spent on protection, it has emerged.

Under the new rules brought in three years ago, the Department for Environment Food And Rural Affairs (Defra) wanted to see an average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 they would spend on schemes.

Previously, projects were simply expected to deliver more than £1 of damage avoided for every £1 spent, with an average across all schemes of £5 of damage avoided for every £1 spent.

On hand giveth whilst the other taketh away, via Reuters:

Barclays to cut 12,000 jobs, pays bigger bonuses

Barclays said it would axe up to 12,000 jobs this year even as it raised bonuses for investment bankers, prompting fury among politicians and unions who said it had not learned the lessons of the financial crisis.

Britain’s third-biggest bank said up to 9 percent of employees could go, including 7,000 in Britain, as it tries to lower costs. The cuts are not concentrated in any one business area.

It said it paid 2.4 billion pounds ($3.9 billion) in incentive awards last year, raising bonuses at the investment bank by 13 percent despite a slump in its profits. The average bonus for the investment bank’s 26,200 staff was 60,100 pounds.

Critics of the bonus hike said it showed Britain’s biggest banks were still failing to heed the lessons of a financial crisis caused by dangerous risk taking and excessive pay.

The Independent calls the shots:

Revealed: Big Pharma’s hidden links to NHS policy, with senior MPs saying medical industry uses ‘wealth to influence government’

NHS bosses allowed a lobbying company working for some of the world’s biggest drugs and medical equipment firms to write a draft report which could help shape future health policy. NHS England commissioned a group called the Specialised Healthcare Alliance (SHCA) to consult with patients’ groups, charities and health organisations and produce a report feeding into its future five-year strategy for commissioning £12bn of services.

But the SHCA has confirmed to The Independent that it is entirely funded by commercial “members”. Its director, John Murray, is also a lobbyist whose company lists some of the world’s biggest drug and medical device firms as clients.

Mr Murray put his name on a foreword to the NHS England document along with James Palmer, the clinical director of specialised services at NHS England, with whom he admits he has had “many meetings [on] a wide range of organisations and interests”.

The findings raise significant questions about links between the lobbying industry and NHS England – a quango set up to run the NHS under the Government’s health reforms.

Hints of Banksters Behaving Badly from The Guardian:

Bank of England launches inquiry into forex manipulation claims

  • Senior currency trader says Bank officials condoned information sharing between traders under investigation

The Bank of England has launched an internal inquiry into allegations that its officials endorsed sharing of information between traders in the foreign exchange market, the central bank’s deputy governor told MPs.

The inquiry will examine claims that at a meeting between Bank officials and senior currency traders last April the officials said it was permissible for traders in different banks to share information about clients’ positions ahead of the setting of a benchmark rate in the foreign exchange market.

On to Iceland and a crisis resurrection from DutchNews.nl:

Icesave dispute reopened, Dutch and British demand €3.5bn

The Dutch and British authorities have reopened their dispute with Iceland over the bankruptcy of online bank Icesave by filing claims for up to €3.5bn from the Icelandic bank guarantee fund.

The Netherlands and Britain chose to compensate savers who lost billions when Iceland bank Landsbanki collapsed in 2008 from their own domestic guarantee schemes. At the time, this was seen as a sort of loan to Iceland.

However, last year a European court ruled Iceland itself was not responsible for repaying the cash.

Iceland again, and misbehavior in high places from the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Protest At Interior Ministry

Three organisations will be holding simultaneous protests at the Ministry of the Interior tomorrow at noon, demanding the minister’s resignation.

The Alda – Association for Sustainability and Democracy, activist organisation Attac and refugee and immigration rights group No Borders have all planned protests in front of the ministry at noon tomorrow. These protests call for the resignation of Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, whose ministry is being investigated by the police for allegedly leaking a memo which falsely impugned on Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos and the mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph. Lawyers for both Tony and Evelyn filed charges against the ministry, including breach of confidentiality, slander, and abuse of public office.

Alda has called the ministry’s handling of the case as being “characterised by silence, arrogance, and contradictory statements”. No Borders has taken matters further, saying that Tony Omos’ asylum case should be re-introduced for consideration in light of the unfair treatment he has received.

Norway next, with a familiar theme from EUbusiness:

Norway’s populists demand immigration referendum

Days after the Swiss narrowly voted to curb immigration from the EU, Norway’s populist right-wing party on Tuesday demanded a similar referendum in the prosperous Nordic country.

“I won’t take a stance on a quota system like the one the Swiss people have voted for,” said Mazyar Keshvari, immigration spokesman for the Progress Party, a member of the ruling coalition which wants a more restrictive immigration policy.

“But the idea of a referendum is interesting and Norway should also organise a referendum on immigration. I’m completely certain that a majority wants to tighten up” the policy.

Norway is not a member of the EU but is included in the European Economic Area and the Schengen Area which allows relatively unrestricted movement of citizens.

Spain next, and departures from El País:

Is the crisis fueling an exodus?

Studies are trying to pinpoint just how many people are leaving Spain due to rampant unemployment

What if the Spanish exodus caused by the crisis was not quite as massive as we have been led to believe? This is the question that drives a recent study by Carmen González Enríquez, of the Elcano Royal Institute think-tank. Based on information gathered from Spanish consulates, the researcher notes that only two percent of nationals living abroad are Spaniards who left because of the crisis. That is just 39,912 people.

But what if it was the other way around, and we were in fact underestimating the extent of the trend? This is what Amparo González Ferrer, a sociologist and demographics specialist at the CSIC National Research Council, claims. She says that the number of émigrés who left the country between 2008 and 2012 — rather than the number of Spaniards living abroad — is closer to 700,000 than the official figure of 225,000. That Spain is losing population to emigration is unquestionable in view of the data. The latest census report by the National Statistics Institute (INE), containing data up to January 2013, shows a drop of 135,538 people during 2012, taking the population down to 47,129,783.

But how many Spaniards are actually leaving due to the economic situation? There is a debate among the scientific community because of the absence of a statistical mechanism that can quickly and efficiently register the departure of nationals.

And a blow to Iberian Brits from TheLocal.es:

Spain’s UK expats to lose free NHS health care

Thousands of British expats who have taken early retirement in Spain will now have to get private health insurance following the UK government’s decision to scrap free access to their local Spanish health care system.

The change in legislation, set to be implemented on April 1st, will affect only those who haven’t already completed a Social Security residual form S1 before leaving the UK.

However, once their current form comes to an end, jobless UK expats in Spain are likely to also be obliged to buy private medical insurance.

Up to now, unemployed Brits in Spain and other EEA countries who were under the age of 65 were able to pass on their health care costs to the UK Treasury.

And a case of Royals Behaving Badly from El País:

Prosecutor seeks 19 years in prison for princess’s husband Urdangarin

  • More than half of Nóos case suspects may not face charges
  • Infanta Cristina could be required to pay 600,000 in civil liability
  • Princess Cristina will have to return 600,000 euros if husband found guilty

After Princess Cristina’s unprecedented testimony before an investigating judge in Palma de Mallorca on Saturday, the anticorruption prosecutor in the Nóos investigation, Pedro Horrach, maintains that the infanta should not be implicated in the business dealings of her husband, former Olympic handball medalist Iñaki Urdangarin, and has also stated that over half of the 40 official suspects in the case should not face charges.

However, the prosecutor has now asked that Urdangarin, the Duke of Palma, should face a 19-year prison sentence and his former business partner Diego Torres 15 years, both on charges of embezzlement, falsifying documents, tax fraud and other financial crimes. Torres’ brother-in-law and financial advisor, Miguel Tejeiro, who designed the shell companies and tax fiddles though which Torres and Urdangarin allegedly funneled millions of euros of public money, also faces 19 years if found guilty.

On to Italy and a low rating from ANSAmed:

Italy bottom in EU for labour-cost competitiveness

  • 100 euros of labout costs generated 126% of added value in 2010

Italy is the bottom of the European Union when it comes to the competitiveness of labour costs, national statistics agency Istat said in a report Tuesday. Istat said every 100 euros an Italian business spent on labour costs in 2010, the most recent year in which there is comparative data for the rest of the EU, generated added value of 126%.

This was lowest in the EU and way behind the figure of 211.7% for Romania. Istat said that labour-cost competitiveness improved in 2011, with every 100 euros of labour costs generating 128.5% of added value.(ANSAmed).

Bunga Bunga politics from Deutsche Welle:

Berlusconi back on trial for political corruption

Italy’s scandal-ridden former premier Silvio Berlusconi is back in court yet again. This time he is facing charges of having bribed an opposition politician to swap sides.

Silvio Berlusconi’s latest trial opened in the southern Italian city of Naples on Tuesday, with the former premier facing charges of having used bribery to persuade a senator to join his party in 2006.

Berlusconi was not at Tuesday’s hearing and was not obliged to attend under Italian law.

He is accused of giving a 3-million-euro ($4.1-million) bribe to senator Sergio De Gregorio to entice him into leaving the anti-corruption Italy of Values party to join Berlusconi’s own People of Freedom party. The prosecution sees the bribe as part of a plan to bring down the-then center-left coalition of Romano Prodi.

Prodi still won in 2006, but his coalition finally collapsed in 2008, paving the way for early elections and Berlusconi’s return to power. De Gregorio, who had formed part of Prodi’s coalition, defected to Berlusconi’s conservatives and was re-elected in that capacity in 2008.

And from Deutsche Welle, resurrection?:

Berlusconi comeback in European elections?

Silvio Berlusconi is planning his comeback in Europe. Thus far, Brussels isn’t taking the idea too seriously. But his appeal at the ECJ and a political rehabilitation in Italy might make it possible.

Those who know Silvio Berlusconi won’t be surprised that he is planning a comeback on an international platform. At a meeting with his re-established political party, Forza Italia, in January, the former Italian prime minister announced his plans to run for office during European elections in May 2014 – despite the fact that a law forbids him from doing exactly that.

The so-called “Legge Severino” is a law prohibiting convicts to run for a post for six years. And then there’s the Mediaset verdict imposing a two-year-ban from public office; both obstacles in the way of the former premier, who was convicted on tax fraud charges and is currently facing more recent charges of bribery.

For a while now, Berlusconi’s lawyers have been working on a plan to circumvent the “Severino” law, according to reports in the Italian media. That plan leads directly to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxemburg, where Berlusconi has already filed for appeal proceedings.

ANSAmed grimly enumerates:

Almost one in four Italians in dire straits

  • 24.9% of households in situation of ‘deprivation’

Almost one in four Italian households, 24.9%, are in a situation of “deprivation”, Istat said Tuesday, as they are positive for at least three of the statistics agency’s nine factors of economic hardship. These include the inability to meet unexpected expenses, being behind in loan payments or being unable to afford a meal with a high protein content at least once every two days.

Istat said the percentage of people in a situation of deprivation was 22.3% in 2011, when Italy entered its longest postwar recession.

More from TheLocal.it:

Italians pay almost as much tax as the Swedes

Average tax levels in Italy grew from 41.3 percent in 2000 to 42.5 percent in 2011, the agency said.

Meanwhile, the average rate in Sweden, where taxpayers receive favourable social benefits in return for their high contributions, actually fell from 51.7 percent in 2000 to 44.7 percent in 2012.

Taxes in Italy might be almost as high as in Sweden, but the main gripe among Italians is that they don’t get the same high standard of services in return, whether that be in healthcare, education or public transport.

Istat’s report, called Noi Italia, also revealed that just 61 percent of Italians between the ages of 20 and 64 have jobs, well below the 75 percent employment level stipulated by the European Union, had jobs in 2012.

Women fared the worst, with just 50.5 percent – one of the worst rates in Europe – being in work in 2012, while 71.6 percent of working-age men were employed.

From Reuters, revelatory blowback:

Italian President Napolitano under fire over Monti appointment

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano faced fierce criticism on Monday over reports that he asked Mario Monti about replacing Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister months before his government fell at the height of the euro zone crisis in 2011.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party expressed “bitterness and shock” at the reports, based on interviews with Monti and others in a forthcoming book by journalist Alan Friedman, extract of which were published by the Financial Times and the Corriere della Sera newspapers.

Although the events recounted in the book occurred more than two years ago, they risk reopening wounds between the parties that could complicate the already difficult situation facing Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s fragile ruling coalition, which is struggling to adopt economic and political reforms.

“We are dismayed to learn that, as early as June 2011, the head of state was actively taking steps to bring down the Berlusconi government and replace him with Mario Monti,” the parliamentary floor leaders of Forza Italia, Renato Brunetta and Paolo Romani, said in a statement.

After the jump, the latest from Greece, a Cypriot uptick, Mexican vigilante motives, Myanmar miseries, troubles for Australian industry and ministerial corporateering, Chinese strategy, bad numbers for Japan, environmental woes, a Big Agra GMO win, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Humans and landscapes, a complex interaction


On his UC Berkeley faculty website, archaeologist Patrick V. Kirch lists his specialties as “Prehistory and ethnography of Oceania, ethnoarchaeology and settlement archaeology, prehistoric agricultural systems, cultural ecology and paleoenvironmentalism, ethnobotany and ethnoscience, development of complex societies in Oceania.”

In this presentation Dr. Kirch applies the ideas of the cultural landscape developed by an earlier Berkeley geographer, Carl O. Sauer, to human interaction with the landscapes of three Polynesian cultures, those of Mangareva, Mo’orea, and Hawaii.

What kept the Polynesian Islands so green? In part, the phosphorus blown in the winds in dust from China and Mongolia.

But some islands, like those of the Mangareva archipelago and Easter Island, lay in regions missed by the winds from Asia, leaving one other source of phosphorus and other key soil nutrients, populations of fish-eating, guano-pooping sea birds.

Todat the once-forested islets of Mangareva, the smallest, most barren, and most ancient of the three, today resemble a nearly barren desert islands, landscapes created in large part by the relatively late arrival of Polynesians who eliminated or decimated the once varied native bird populations.

Mo’orea is a much younger island, with the human population living in intimate relationship with an evolving and eroding landscape, shifting settlement as new soils are exposed and older soils become depleted.

And then there’s Hawaii, a still-growing landscape but nonetheless precarious landscapes populated by an emerging state society that had neared the carrying capacity of the delicate landscape when Europeans arrived, along with the diseases that laid waste to the Polynesians.

From University of California Television, an important reminder of just how delicate our world really is:

Island Landscapes or Sauer Among the Polynesians

Program notes:

Geographer Carl Ortwin Sauer demonstrated through his work and writings that landscapes are the long-term contingent product of interactions between natural processes and cultural forces. In this lecture, Patrick Kirch, Professor of Anthropology and Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, applies the concept of landscape to the islands of Polynesia. Drawing upon recent multi-disciplinary research, Kirch shows how certain natural properties of islands shaped the course of cultural and social evolution of island peoples, at the same time that cumulative effect of human actions irreversibly altered island environments. Series: “UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures” [2/2014]

Hot water: A look inside Reactor #1 at Fukushima


From NHK via Fukushima Emergency what can we do?:

NHK Documentary; “Radioactive Water-Fukushima Daiichi’s Hidden Crisis”

Program notes:

*Please read the note below the video description*

Nearly 3 years have passed since the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, but leaking radioactive water is an ongoing problem. The plant’s operator believes the leaks are caused by damage to the containment vessel in Reactor 1. A special remote-controlled boat equipped with a camera captured images of tainted water flowing down a wall inside the vessel. On this program, we explore the causes and potential risks of this hidden crisis.

In order to avoid content ID copyright issues, I removed all background music which was inserted throughout the original broadcast. I have included captions in the portions where audio is eliminated. Nearly 50 percent of the video had background music and I didn’t want another copyright strike. Nonetheless, there is important information in this video.

Please excuse any typos. I spent many hours editing this today.

Li Min: Whale Killing


A China Daily editorial cartoonist weighs in on Japan’s obstinate refusal to stop slaughtering some of the most majestic creatures on the planet:

BLOG Japan whaler

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliAsianWoes


Today’s compilation of economic, political, and environmental developments opens with a somber statement from the Economic Times:

US economy may be stuck in slow lane for long run

Two straight weak job reports have raised doubts about economists’ predictions of breakout growth in 2014. The global economy is showing signs of slowing _ again. Manufacturing has slumped. Fewer people are signing contracts to buy homes. Global stock markets have sunk as anxiety has gripped developing nations.

Some long-term trends are equally dispiriting.

The Congressional Budget Office foresees growth picking up through 2016, only to weaken starting in 2017. By the CBO’s reckoning, the economy will soon slam into a demographic wall: The vast baby boom generation will retire. Their exodus will shrink the share of Americans who are working, which will hamper the economy’s ability to accelerate.

At the same time, the government may have to borrow more, raise taxes or cut spending to support Social Security and Medicare for those retirees.

From the Daily Dot, the latest from the party of family values:

Are fake candidate websites the new political attack ads?

Republican politicians finally figured out how to use the Internet as a campaign tool, and they’re really proud of themselves. Unfortunately, the GOP’s newfound Web savvy has taken the form of a campaign program that’s ethically questionable, intensely negative, and may or may not be against the law.

The National Republican Congressional Committee created a spate of fake websites for Democratic candidates that at first glance look like normal, legit sites, but then rip into the candidate in the text. The faux sites also have donation forms that send funds to the NRCC. There are several fake microsites up now, and the committee says it’s buying up URLs to create even more.

So is this shit even legal? It’s not an easy thing to answer. The spoof sites teeter on the fine line between parody and fraud, and the devil is in the details of the election law. According to Federal Election Commission regulations, political groups can’t use a candidate’s name in a “special project”—like a website—unless it “clearly and unambiguously shows opposition to the named candidate.”

Cementing class divisions with the San Jose Mercury News:

High prices sending Bay Area renters and homebuyers to outlying communities

Squeezed by astronomical home prices and rents that are almost as unaffordable, a growing number of Bay Area residents are pulling up stakes and trading long commutes for cheaper housing.

They’re heading to places like Tracy, Mountain House, Patterson, Hollister and Los Banos. Some are buying bigger homes and others are renting for much less, hoping to put money aside for a down payment of their own one day, in a replay of the eastward migration during the dot-com boom.

“Rentals in the Bay Area are just too high,” said Alma Gomez, an administrative assistant for Union City who’s heading east with her family.

The San Francisco Chronicle covers another kind of costly leak:

Bay Bridge’s new problem: leaks

The just-opened eastern span of the Bay Bridge, already beset by questions about flawed welds and cracked steel rods, has a new problem: It leaks.

Rainwater is dripping into the steel structure beneath the road deck on the suspension stretch of the span, which is supposed to be watertight, Caltrans said. Outside experts say that could pose a risk of corrosion on a bridge that cost $6.4 billion and is supposed to last well into the 22nd century.

“That’s a problem, a big problem,” said Lisa Thomas, a metallurgical engineer who studies material failure at a laboratory in Berkeley and analyzed bridge rods that snapped last year. “They want it to last 150 years, but with water coming in, something is going to corrode until it’s too thin and weak.”

From the Washington Post removing pedal appendage from orifice:

AOL chief reverses changes to 401(k) policy after a week of bad publicity

AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong told employees in an e-mail Saturday evening that he was reversing the company’s 401(k) policy and apologized for his controversial comments last week.

“The leadership team and I listened to your feedback over the last week,” Armstrong wrote in his e-mail to the company. “We heard you on this topic. And as we discussed the matter over several days, with management and employees, we have decided to change the policy back to a per-pay-period matching contribution.”

The policy change would have switched 401(k) matching contributions to an annual lump sum, rather than being distributed throughout the year with every paycheck. The switch would have punished employees who quit or were fired mid-year. It would also have cost employees who stayed, since they would not see the benefits of compounding in their retirement accounts.

The Financial Express covers funny money:

Bitcoin gang inches towards 100-member mark, hits $13-bn value

Enhanced regulatory oversight in India and other countries seems to be having little impact on spread of bitcoins and other virtual currencies, whose number is fast moving towards a century with a total valuation of close to USD 13 billion.

A number of new entrants, such as bitgem, catcoin, unobtanium and sexcoin, have arrived on the scene even as regulators across the world grapple with risks posed by such currencies and transactions conducted through them.

At least 93 virtual currencies are at present being used by people across the world over the internet, as also for some offline transactions, and their total valuation has reached USD 13 billion (over Rs 80,000 crore), out of which bitcoin alone accounts for over USD nine billion, according to market estimates.

At end of December last year, the number of virtual currencies stood at 67.

Of to Europe and a cautionary note from the London Telegraph:

Eurozone banks face £42bn ‘capital black hole’

Government adviser Davide Serra says this year’s stress tests by European authorities are likely to find fresh problems in the eurozone banks.

Eurozone banks are facing a new capital black hole of as much as €50bn (£42bn), according to one of the UK’s most respected financial analysts.

Davide Serra, the chief executive of Algebris, who advises the Government on banking, said that this year’s stress tests by the European Banking Authority and the European Central Bank were likely to find fresh problems in the eurozone banks.

He said that Germany had one of “the worst banking systems in the world” and that three or four regional Landesbanken were likely to be wound up. He also said banks in Portugal and Greece were likely to need more capital.

Britain next and life at the bottom of the pyramid from The Independent:

Working poor trapped in unbreakable cycle of poverty turn to food banks in their lunch breaks

Millions of low-paid workers are trapped in an unbreakable cycle of poverty, and are even turning up at food banks in their lunch breaks asking for help to feed their families, the Archbishop of York warns.

Dr John Sentamu, writing in The Independent, says low pay is a “scourge on our society” and challenges David Cameron to back up his “warm words” with action to boost the incomes of the working poor.

An independent commission chaired by the Archbishop says the economic recovery will make no difference to the lives of the five million lowest-paid workers unless they paid the so-called “living wage”.

They are being suffering a “double squeeze” on their incomes as their wages remain stagnant and their and living costs rise steadily.

Bankster insecurity from The Guardian:

Barclays blasted over ‘catastrophic’ theft of thousands of customer files

  • Files containing names, addresses, medical details and NI numbers have allegedly been sold for use by scammers

Barclays is under scrutiny by regulators and could face a hefty fine after thousands of confidential customer files were stolen in a data breach described as catastrophic by an adviser to the business secretary, Vince Cable.

The files, containing details on 2,000 individuals including their names, addresses, phone numbers, passport numbers, mortgages and levels of savings, were allegedly sold for use in boiler-room scams, in which vulnerable savers are snared into fraudulent investments.

“This is catastrophic, just awful,” the Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt, who is parliamentary private secretary to Cable and has campaigned on mis-selling by banks, told the Guardian. “What protections have Barclays got in place? Are the police going to pursue this, are they going to prosecute, and is someone going to go to jail for this? They should do.”

From The Independent, playing to the base of the base:

David Cameron accused of ‘pandering’ to xenophobia with rhetoric on immigration

Laszlo Andor, the Employment Commissioner, who has previously attacked the Government for its “nasty” curbs on benefits for foreign nationals, will step up his attack during a visit to Britain.

He will accuse politicians of avoiding the “inconvenient truth” that most migrants move for work and are an “asset” to economies like Britain’s with an ageing population.

Mr Andor will warn the Prime Minister he cannot base policy on “perceptions, gut feelings or anecdotes”.

In a speech in Bristol, he will say: “Politicians should be responsible enough to talk about facts, rather than to pander to prejudice, or in the worst cases, xenophobia.”

The Observer crowns hypocrisy:

Royal estates ‘fail to meet targets to build affordable homes’

  • Study finds Crown Estate and Duchy of Cornwall regularly get councils to cut ratios of affordable homes on cost grounds

Two of Britain’s largest landowning bodies, which between them generate millions of pounds a year for the Queen and Prince Charles, are regularly failing to meet affordable housing targets when building new homes on their land.

Amid an escalating housing crisis, planning documents unearthed by the independent Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveal that both the Crown Estate and the Duchy of Cornwall are persuading councils to allow them to cut their affordable housing quotas on the grounds that meeting them would be too expensive.

An investigation by the bureau for the Observer has examined the two landowners’ plans to build 4,299 homes in 31 schemes. Of these, 14 developments, set to produce 2,470 units, fail to meet local targets, resulting in at least 213 fewer affordable homes being built. The bureau also found that 10 of the 19 largest Crown Estate developments have not or will not meet affordable housing targets.

And New Europe bubbles:

London housing market under price bubbles risk

Housing market in London is beginning to show signs of bubble-like conditions, said a research report issued by Ernst and Young Item Club (EY ITEM Club) on Monday, while asking the government to monitor the trend closely and be prepared to intervene.

The EY ITEM Club forecast showed the average house price in London is expected to reach nearly £600,000 by 2018, some 3.5 times the average price in Northern Ireland and more than 3.3 times the average in the North East.

It said the average house prices in Britain growing by 8.4% this year and 7.3% in 2015, before cooling to around 5.5% in 2016.  House prices would show a regional divergence. Outside of London and the South East, the regions with the highest levels of house price growth are expected to be the South West and East of England, both set to grow by 6.2% from 2013-18.

Switzerland next and job-creating electoral results from TheLocal.ch:

Voters back national rail infrastructure plan

A project to boost financing for passenger rail infrastructure won widespread support from Swiss voters in a national referendum on Sunday.

More than 62 percent of the electorate voted for the improvements designed to improve train service through 6.4 billion francs’ worth of projects between now and 2025.

The plan will also add an extra billion francs a year to the four billion francs already allocated annually for rail infrastructure and maintenance.

It will allow for improvements to service on Lausanne-Geneva, Bern-Lucerne, Zurich-Chur, Lucerne-Giswil, Bellinzona-Tenero and Zurich-Fiesch routes, according to the federal government, which backed the proposal.

The expansion gives the green light for the financing of such projects as the expansion of Geneva’s main train station Cornavin (790 million francs) and a billion-franc modernization of the Lausanne station and its links with Renens, the nearby suburb.

While BBC News has another electoral result, and a possible Swiss miss:

Swiss immigration: 50.3% back quotas, final results show

Swiss voters have narrowly backed a referendum proposal to bring back strict quotas for immigration from European Union countries.

Final results showed 50.3% voted in favour. The vote invalidates the Swiss-EU agreement on freedom of movement.

Fiercely independent Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but has adopted large sections of EU policy. Brussels said it regretted the outcome of the vote and would examine its implications.

A Yes vote of more than 50% was needed for the referendum to pass.

On to Spain and life on the sombra side from TheLocal.es:

Spain’s shadow economy flourishes in downturn

Spain’s shadow economy — where cash is king, there are no contracts and the taxman is cut out of the equation — is flourishing amid an economic downturn that has pushed the jobless rate to 26 percent.

Economists estimate Spain’s underground economy equals 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The parallel economy “unfortunately is a longtime problem” in Spain, which “has worsened due to the economic crisis”, said Santos Nogales of the UGT, Spain’s second-largest labour union.

“Undeclared work does not distinguish between nationalities. It touches immigrants and many Spaniards,” he added.

thinkSPAIN delivers a shock:

New electricity bill structure ‘penalises energy saving’ and increases costs for low-use households, say consumer groups

CONSUMER protection groups have criticised the government’s new electricity billing structure as it ‘penalises’ those who use the least power and does not provide any incentive to save on energy consumption.

A year ago, the ‘fixed’ part of a household bill accounted for 35 per cent and the variable part, relating to consumption, was 65 per cent, but this was changed last July with a gradual move towards the standing charge taking up a higher percentage of what is paid by residential homes.

Now that this gradual migration has finished, from this week onwards, the fixed charge will be 60 per cent of the bill and the variable consumption-related part 40 per cent.

While New Europe lays off:

Jobless total spikes

Spanish government figures show that the number of people registered as unemployed has risen by 113,097 as temporary job contracts created over Christmas come to an end, AP reported.

On 4 February, the Labor Ministry said the reduction put the total number of those registered in unemployment offices at 4.81 million in January. Year-on-year, the figure was down 166,343.

Quarterly unemployment surveys – seen as more accurate by economists – show Spain’s unemployment rate was 26% in the fourth quarter of 2013, with six million people out of work. The rate is the second highest in the 28-country European Union after Greece.

Spain is battling to recover from a two-year recession. However, the government insists the economy is improving and will create jobs in 2014.  Almost 100,000 people were laid off from the services sector, while employment also fell in agriculture, by 8,110 people and in industry, by 3,577.

And from TheLocal.es, not a crowning glory:

Spain princess ‘evasive’ in fraud hearing

Spain’s princess Cristina tried to distance herself from unprecedented fraud accusations Saturday, telling a judge she had simply trusted her husband, one of the lawyers in the courtroom said.

Spanish King Juan Carlos’s youngest daughter was “evasive” as she testified as a criminal suspect in the Palma de Majorca court, said Manuel Delgado, a lawyer for a civil party in the case, left-wing association Frente Civico.

The first direct member of the Spanish royal family in history to face such a hearing, the 48-year-old blonde Cristina said she “had great trust in her husband”, the lawyer told reporters during a break in the proceedings.

Long thought untouchable as a royal, Cristina finds herself at the centre of the scandal, accused of being complicit in the allegedly fraudulent business dealings of her husband, former Olympic handball player Inaki Urdangarin, who is also under investigation.

While Al Jazeera America covers the culture wars:

Thousands protest proposed abortion restrictions in Spain

Thousands of women marched in the streets of Madrid Saturday to protest against the Spanish government’s plan to limit access to abortion, which could force many women to travel abroad to obtain the procedure.

Protesters chanted “Freedom of abortion!” and waved signs such as “MPs and rosaries, out of my ovaries”, targeting the Catholic Church as the supposed driver of the new restrictions.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government said in December it would eliminate a 2010 law that allows women to opt for an abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The new legislation would allow abortion only in cases of rape or a threat to the physical or psychological health of the mother.

After the jump, Greek protests and woes, outrage in Bosnia, crisis in the Ukraine, Mexico rising, hard times in South Korean heavy industry, Chinese austerity and an exodus, Japanese corporate games, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliSinoFuku


Opening our compendium of headlines fromn the economic, political, and environmental developments, a Trans-Pacific Panic from Techdirt:

USTR Finally Realizing Its All Encompassing Secrecy May Be A Problem, Calls Frantic Meeting For All ‘Cleared’ Lobbyists

  • from the you’re-doing-it-wrong dept

It’s been funny for years watching the USTR continue to repeat the same laughable line about how they’ve had “unprecedented transparency” concerning the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement — an agreement that is still completely secret, other than a couple chapters leaked to Wikileaks. Here’s a hint: if the text of the agreement is only available thanks to Wikileaks, you’re not being transparent, precedented or not. Even the NY Times slammed the USTR’s lack of transparency, and multiple members of Congress have been arguing that they’re not at all comfortable with the lack of transparency from the USTR. Because of this, it seems that the USTR’s desire for fast track authority, which would let it route around Congressional review, is on life support and close to dead.

Given that, it appears that the USTR is in panic mode, and has frantically called an all day meeting for all “cleared advisors” (i.e., the corporate representatives who actually do get to see the document) concerning the whole transparency issue.

From the New York Times, double trouble:

Payroll Data Shows a Lag in Wages, Not Just Hiring

For the more than 10 million Americans who are out of work, finding a job is hard. For the 145 million or so who are employed, getting a raise is even harder.

The government said on Friday that employers added 113,000 jobs in January, the second straight month of anemic growth, despite some signs of strength in the broader economy. The unemployment rate inched down in January to 6.6 percent, the lowest level since October 2008, from 6.7 percent in December.

But the report also made plain what many Americans feel in their bones: Wages are stuck, and barely rose at all in 2013. They were up 1.9 percent last year, or a mere 0.4 percent after accounting for inflation. Not only was that increase even smaller than the one recorded in 2012, it was half the normal rate of wage gains in the two decades before the last recession.

More from Deutsche Welle:

US employment figures fail to thrill analysts

  • Fresh figures from the US Labor Department have shown employers have hired far fewer workers in January than expected. Analysts viewed this as a loss of momentum in the national economy after an already weak December.

Meager job gains towards the end of last year were barely improved upon in January, the US Labor Department reported Friday.

The latest monthly figures showed nonfarm payrolls rose only by 113,000, with 185,000 penciled in by analysts.

With strong job increases in construction, cold weather was not a major factor for the slow pick-up, nurturing fears of a general loss of momentum of the national economy.

CNBC diversifies:

Wealthy avoiding stocks, buying art

Art often imitates stocks—at least when it comes to prices.

But so far this year, stock markets are down and art is up.

Sotheby’s two days of Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist sales racked up £215.8 million (more than $345 million), the highest ever for a sale series in London. All its lots sold. The top was Camille Pissarro’s 1897 painting “Boulevard Montmartre, Matinee de Printemps,” which went for £19.7 million, or about $32 million—nearly double its top presale estimate.

Christie’s had a good week, too, selling Juan Gris’ 1915 still life “The Checked Tablecloth” for $56.7 million. The previous record for a Gris was $28 million. The Impressionist and Modern evening sale totaled $288 million.

Collectible cars are also on a tear. A 1957 Ferrari Testarossa sold in Britain this week for $40 million. And a series of auctions in Paris set a spate of new records for certain cars. RM Auctions gaveled down on a 1955 Jaguar D-Type for about $5 million.

The Project On Government Oversight notes the exceptional:

Head of SEC Given Waiver to Oversee Past Client

Mary Jo White, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), will be allowed to oversee her former client, Credit Suisse, according to a new ethics waiver the U.S. Office of Government Ethics posted to its website this week.

Before coming to the SEC, White, a former attorney at Debevoise & Plimpton, represented Wall Street giants such as UBS and JPMorgan. President Obama nominated her to head the SEC in January 2013.

Her waiver underscores the complications that can often arise when a former white-collar defense attorney becomes a top regulator overseeing an industry she used to represent.

According to the waiver, signed by the SEC’s ethics officer on Feb. 6, White had been prohibited from overseeing Credit Suisse since joining the agency because she provided legal services to the bank during her stint at Debevoise. In the two years prior to her SEC nomination, she “billed in total less than one hour (0.5 hours in January 2012 and 0.4 hours in February 2012) for work on Credit Suisse matters,” the waiver says.

Wrist-slappage from the Los Angeles Times:

Gov. Brown, Newsom to get warning letters from ethics agency

Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom are among 40 officials receiving warning letters from the state ethics agency after their campaigns received improper contributions from a lobbying firm, representatives said Friday.

A firm headed by Kevin Sloat has reached a tentative agreement with the state Fair Political Practices Commission to pay more than $100,000 in fines involving violations of California’s campaign finance laws, according to sources familiar with the investigation who are not authorized to speak publicly.

The firm Sloat Higgins Jensen and Associates provided prohibited contributions, including expensive wine and cigars, at fundraisers held for elected officials at his Sacramento mansion.

Top-heaviness from The Wire:

Universities Are Cutting Tenured Faculty While They Load Up on ‘Non-Academic’ Administrators

As the cost of college remains exorbitant, recent trends indicate schools in the United States are trading tenured professors for non-academic administrative staff. It’s pretty clear where American colleges have their priorities, and it’s not in academics. Students are paying more to attend schools that are spending less to teach them, and instead spending that tuition money on administration.

According to a new report from the New England Center for Investigating Reporting, “the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years.” Meanwhile, full-time tenured faculty positions are at the lowest rate in 25 years, while the prevalence of adjunct professors – part-time, non-tenured professors – is at its highest. In fact, according to the American Association of University Professors, “more than three of every four (76 percent) of instructional staff positions are filled on a contingent basis,” meaning without tenure.

The reason that non-tenured professors are so much more popular than tenured faculty is simple: they’re cheaper. Adjunct professors, especially, make very little. Most are paid on a per-course basis, making somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000 for each course taught.

Bloomberg Businessweek bemoans:

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Be Born at AOL

AOL Chief Executive Tim Armstrong ruffled more than a few of his employees’ feathers when he disclosed this week that two AOL workers’ “distressed” babies had whacked the company with $2 million in medical bills.

The costly children were cited—along with more than $7 million in costs from the Affordable Care Act—as the reason AOL (AOL) changed its 401(k) account match to an annual lump sum payment. Workers who aren’t on the payroll at year’s end will forfeit AOL’s 3 percent matching contribution to the accounts. IBM (IBM) made a similar change in 2012. If you plan to quit, management thinking goes, forget about collecting our share of your retirement savings.

Many employees didn’t react well to either bit of news, according to news reports. First, there’s the financial blow to workers, who will lose 401(k) funds if they leave AOL, as well as miss the opportunity to have the company’s match bolster their financial returns over a full year. There’s also the shock that accompanies hearing your boss tag a colleague’s difficult pregnancy and her newborn child as the reason your retirement plan was cut.

Stark realization from the Exchange:

Why Walmart is getting too expensive for the middle class

Walmart is struggling with weak sales and an underperforming stock price. The company recently cut its profit outlook, with analysts polled by S&P Capital IQ expecting just a 2.1% gain in sales when Walmart reports its quarterly earnings on February 20. That’s for a company that has consistently outcompeted nearly every other retailer except, perhaps, Amazon. Walmart’s stock has suffered, rising just 4% during the past year, while the S&P 500 index rose 17% during the same timeframe.

Walmart, though known as a discounter, may be too expensive for millions of shoppers finding themselves more pinched — not less — as the pace of the so-called recovery accelerates. “Their consumer is shifting downward,” says Joe Brusuelas, chief economist for financial-data firm Bloomberg LP. “The competition for Walmart is changing. It’s now dollar stores.”

Where some of their money went, via the Los Angeles Times:

Walton group funds more charter schools in L.A. than elsewhere

Los Angeles charter schools have been the largest recipients of funding from the foundation associated with the family that started Wal-Mart, according to figures released Wednesday.

Since 1997, the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation has distributed $35.9 million in start-up grants to 159 L.A.-area charters. By comparison, Walton has supported the creation of 125 charters in New York City.

Last year alone, the foundation made grants to 23 new L.A. schools, totaling more than $4.69 million, that were set to open in the near future. Both the annual and cumulative totals are higher than for any other region.

Charter schools are independently managed, free from some rules that govern traditional schools and outside the direct control of the local Board of Education. In California, local school boards are required by law to authorize and oversee all financially viable and academically sound charter school petitions. No school system has more charters than the L.A. Unified School District.

More from Slashdot:

25% of Charter Schools Owe Their Soul To the Walmart Store

Among the billionaires who helped Bill Gates pave the way for charter schools in WA was Walmart heiress Alice Walton. The Walton Family Foundation spent a whopping $158+ million in 2012 on what it calls ‘systemic K-12 education reform,’ which included $60,920,186 to ‘shape public policy’ and $652,209 on ‘research and evaluation.’

Confirming the LA Times’ speculation about its influence, the Walton Foundation issued a press release Wednesday boasting it’s the largest private funder of charter school ‘startups,’ adding that it has supported the opening of 1 in 4 charter schools in the U.S. since 1997 through its 1,500 ‘investments.’

In These Times fuels around:

Angering Environmentalists, AFL-CIO Pushes Fossil-Fuel Investment

Labor’s Richard Trumka has gone on record praising the Keystone pipeline and natural gas export terminals.

Trumka’s comments come at a sensitive time, as trade unions and leading environmental groups have sought to build political partnerships with each other in recent years.

The nation’s leading environmental groups are digging their heels in the sand by rejecting President Obama’s “all-of-the above” domestic energy strategy—which calls for pursuing renewable energy sources like wind and solar, but simultaneously expanding oil and gas production.

But it appears the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, won’t be taking environmentalists’ side in this fight, despite moves toward labor-environmentalist cooperation in recent years. On a recent conference call with reporters, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka endorsed two initiatives reviled by green groups: the Keystone XL pipeline and new natural gas export terminals.

“There’s no environmental reason that [the pipeline] can’t be done safely while at the same time creating jobs,” said Trumka.

In response to a question from In These Times, Trumka also spoke in favor of boosting exports of natural gas.

Bad news from the Associated Press:

Moody’s downgrades Puerto Rico credit rating

Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded Puerto Rico’s credit rating to junk status.

The announcement Friday by the credit rating agency comes just days after Standard & Poor’s cut the U.S. territory’s debt to junk as well.

Moody’s says its decision was based in part of not seeing sufficient economic growth to help reverse negative financial trends.

News from north of the border via South China Morning Post:

Exclusive: Vancouver facing an influx of 45,000 more rich Chinese

  • Over 60pc seeking Canadian wealthy investor visa are from China and want to live in British Columbia’s main city, data shows

A South China Morning Post investigation into Canada’s immigration programme for millionaire investors has revealed the extraordinary extent to which it has become devoted to a single outcome: Helping rich mainland Chinese settle in Vancouver.

Immigration Department data obtained by the Post suggests there was a backlog of more than 45,000 rich Chinese waiting for approval of their applications to move to British Columbia as of January last year. They are estimated to have a minimum combined wealth of C$12.9 billion (HK$90 billion).

And a complication, also from South China Morning Post:

Canada floats new citizenship rules that could affect thousands of Chinese

  • Longer abode requirement and demand for tax returns may affect thousands of Hongkongers and mainlanders granted permanent residency

Canada has unveiled sweeping reforms that would require immigrants spend more time as permanent residents, file tax returns and sign an undertaking to continue living in the country if they want to become citizens.

The proposed redrawing of the Citizenship Act, unveiled on Thursday, would lengthen the period of residency required from three years to four years.

Language proficiency requirements would be extended to children as young as 14 and adults as old as 64, and penalties for fraudulent applications toughened.

China is the biggest single source of applications for Canadian permanent residency and among those who may be affected by the changes are the 110,813 mainland Chinese and 3,305 Hongkongers granted permanent residency between 2010 and the middle of last year.

And a global alarm from Spiegel:

Troubled Times: Developing Economies Hit a BRICS Wall

  • Until recently, investors viewed China, Brazil and India as a sure thing. Lately, though, their economies have shown signs of weakness and money has begun flowing back to the West. Worries are mounting the BRICS dream is fading.

It was 12 years ago that Jim O’Neill had his innovative idea. An investment banker with Goldman Sachs, he had become convinced following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that the United States and Europe were facing economic decline. He believed that developing countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia could profit immensely from globalization and become the new locomotives of the global economy. O’Neill wanted to advise his clients to invest their money in the promising new players. But he needed a catchy name.

It proved to be a simple task. He simply took the first letter of each country in the quartet and came up with BRIC, an acronym which sounded like the foundation for a solid investment.

O’Neill, celebrated by Businessweek as a “rock star” in the industry, looked for years like a vastly successful prophet. From 2001 to 2013, the economic output of the four BRIC countries rose from some $3 billion a year to $15 billion. The quartet’s growth, later made a quintet with the inclusion of South Africa (BRICS), was instrumental in protecting Western prosperity as well. Investors made a mint and O’Neill’s club even emerged as a real political power. Now, the countries’ leaders meet regularly and, despite their many differences, have often managed to function as a counterweight to the West.

On to Europe and uber-bankster empowerment from Reuters:

ECB to gain far-reaching powers as euro zone banks’ supervisor

The European Central Bank will attain significant powers over the euro zone’s commercial banks once it becomes their supervisor later this year, including withdrawing bank licences and assessing acquisitions, it said on Friday.

From November, the ECB will supervise directly around 130 of the bloc’s largest lenders as part of a broader push towards closer integration of Europe’s banks that aims to create a more level regional playing field for the sector.

The region’s other 5,900 or so banks will remain under the brief of national supervisors, though the ECB will have powers to intervene if it deems necessary.

“(The ECB) will be exclusively competent to grant and withdraw authorizations for credit institutions and to assess acquisitions of qualifying holdings in all credit institutions,” it said in a draft document that laid out how the ECB and national supervisors will cooperate under the new Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM).

Channel NewsAsia Singapore tosses in a monkey wrench:

Germany sends ECB’s crisis-killing action to EU court

Germany’s highest court expressed doubts on Friday about the European Central Bank’s bond-buying programme, credited with stopping the eurozone crisis, and sent the case to the European Court of Justice.

Some analysts suggested that the decision might turn out to be helpful to the central bank.

Back in September 2012, the Constitutional Court had rejected legal challenges by a group of eurosceptics to the two key eurozone crisis tools — the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and the European fiscal pact.

As a result, German President Joachim Gauck was able to sign those two crisis tools into law.

But the eurosceptics also filed a last-minute challenge to the ECB’s OMT bond purchase programme, arguing that it amounted to monetisation of sovereign debt and overstepped the central bank’s mandate.

The London Telegraph-ic take:

German court parks tank on ECB lawn, kills OMT bond rescue

  • Doubtful whether ECB’s back-stop scheme for bonds can be implemented if Europe’s debt crisis blows up again

Germany’s top court has issued a blistering attack on the European Central Bank, arguing that its rescue plan for the euro violates EU treaty law and exceeds the bank’s policy mandate.

The tough language leaves it doubtful whether the ECB’s back-stop scheme for Spanish and Italian bonds can be implemented if Europe’s debt crisis blows up again, and greatly complicates any future recourse to quantitative easing if needed to head off Japanese-style deflation.

And an affirmation from EUbusiness:

ECB insists bond buying programme ‘within mandate’

The European Central Bank insisted on Friday that its contested OMT bond buying programme did not breach its rules, after Germany’s constitutional court expressed some scepticism.

“The ECB takes note of the announcement made today by the German constitutional court. The ECB reiterates that the OMT programme falls within its mandate,” the central bank said in a short statement.

On to Britain and a disappointment from Bloomberg:

U.K. Manufacturing Rises Less Than Forecast as Growth Eases

U.K. factories increased production by less than forecast in December, suggesting manufacturing is set for steady rather than runaway growth this year.

Output rose 0.3 percent from November, the Office for National Statistics said today in London. That compares with the 0.6 percent median of 26 estimates in a Bloomberg survey. Industrial production, which also includes utilities and mines, climbed 0.4 percent, also less than predicted.

While the U.K. economy expanded at the fastest rate since 2007 last year, industry surveys on services and manufacturing this week suggested the pace may have eased at the start of 2014. The Bank of England kept its key policy rate at a record-low 0.5 percent yesterday, while a report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research today says consumer spending and a buoyant housing market will drive growth.

The Guardian has guilty knowledge:

Bank of England ‘knew about’ forex markets price fixing

  • Notes from 2012 meeting reportedly show key Bank officials were told of rival currency dealers’ sharing of customer orders

The Bank of England has been dragged into the mounting controversy over allegations of price fixing in the £3tn-a-day foreign exchange markets after it emerged that a group of traders had told the Bank they were exchanging information about their clients’ position.

The latest twist in the unfolding saga – already the subject of investigations by regulators around the world – puts the focus on a meeting between key officials at the central bank and leading foreign exchange dealers in April 2012, when they discussed the way they handled trades ahead of the crucial setting of a benchmark in the prices of major currencies. This benchmark is used to price a wide variety of financial products and is the subject of regulators’ attention amid allegations that traders at rival banks were sharing information about their orders from clients to manipulate the price.

New Europe complicates frack-tiosly:

Shale Gas Fear Leaves UK Vulnerable

Cuadrilla Resources, one of the energy firms hoping to exploit the UK’s shale gas resources, has announced two new exploration sites in Lancashire. But drilling for shale gas in Britain is going to be extremely controversial.

“There is potential but the level of public reaction to it is extremely negative at the moment and anybody trying to carry even testing at the moment is finding a lot of demonstrations,” Justin Urquhart Stewart, Director of Seven Investment Management in London, told New Europe on 7 February, adding that the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron is going to find it very difficult to actually get it through. “The potential is there but realistically I think they’re going to run into a lot of public concern unless it can be proven not to be dangerous to local communities,” Urquhart Stewart said. Unlike America, Britain is a crowded island and has a much bigger impact on a smaller area, he said.

From The Guardian, a land rush:

Fresh wave of super-rich looking to buy up London properties, says estate agent

  • Political and economic instability driving rise in inquiries from Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine and elsewhere, reckons Frank Knight

Political and financial upheaval in some of the world’s largest emerging economies is driving a wave of rich migrants to London to park their wealth in the city’s property market, according to data from a leading estate agency.

Knight Frank, a specialist in upmarket properties, said on Friday that online inquiries from Argentina, Ukraine and Turkey have soared during the past year.

“There is potentially a further wave of investment headed for the prime central London property market,” said Tom Bill of the firm’s residential research team.

The Observer covers austerian reality:

Changes to state pensions will hit the poorest, warns think tank

  • Inequalities set to grow as people in the most deprived parts of the country live healthy lives 20 years shorter than the average

Changes to the state pension age will only expand the already yawning gap between rich and poor in Britain, according to an academic study.

Inequalities are set to grow because of the failure to take into account differences in health and life expectancy across the country, says the report from independent think tank the International Longevity Centre – UK and backed by the charity Age UK.

While most people will live to state pension age and beyond, a large proportion are unlikely to get there in good health, especially in more disadvantaged parts of the UK – places like inner city Glasgow, where the healthy life expectancy is just 46.7 years – close to 20 years lower than the national average of 65.

BBC News embarrasses:

Immigration minister Mark Harper quits over cleaner’s visa

Immigration minister Mark Harper has resigned from the government after it emerged his cleaner did not have permission to work in the UK.

Mr Harper notified Prime Minister David Cameron, who accepted his resignation “with regret”, Number 10 said.

It added there was “no suggestion” the 43-year-old Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean had “knowingly employed an illegal immigrant”.

Fellow Tory James Brokenshire has been appointed the new immigration minister.

The Observer has frustrations:

Nick Clegg: Britain must join debate on new approach to war on drugs

  • Deputy PM angry at Tory refusal to debate alternatives and says: ‘If you are anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform’

Nick Clegg has dragged the case for reforming the drugs laws to the centre ground of British politics, saying that blanket prohibition has seen cocaine use triple in less than 20 years, a trend that has helped perpetuate conflict and violence in South America.

Writing in today’s Observer, after a week in which he visited Colombia to learn first-hand the devastating effects that Europe’s enthusiasm for cocaine has had on the country, Clegg said the UK needed to be at the heart of the debate about potential alternatives to blanket prohibition and that he wanted to see an end to “the tradition where politicians only talk about drugs reform when they have left office because they fear the political consequences”.

The deputy prime minister said such an approach “has stifled debate and inhibited a proper examination of our approach. Put simply, if you are anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform”.

On to the Emerald Isle and a neoliberal endorsement from the Irish Times:

Taoiseach defends corporate tax policy at OECD

  • Kenny shrugs off French anger at loss of internet companies and backs efforts to close tax loopholes

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and the four Cabinet Ministers who flew on the government jet to Paris yesterday did not see a single member of the French socialist government.

Instead, they spent the day at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, that hotbed of liberal economics, at a sensitive time in Franco-Irish relations. The US internet giant Yahoo had just announced it is transferring financial operations from France to Ireland.

Asked about Yahoo’s defection, President François Hollande said “we must act” against “big companies who move to countries with low corporate tax”. He promised to raise the subject with President Barack Obama in Washington next week.

On to Germany and a case of bad heilth from Deutsche Welle:

German newspaper report highlights right-wing crime in Germany

  • More than 11,000 right-wing criminal offenses were committed last year, according to a report by a German newspaper. Of those cases, more than 500 were violent.

German police registered 11,761 criminal offenses motivated by right-wing extremism between January and December of 2013, Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper reported on Friday. Of the reported cases, 574 were violent offenses that resulted in injuries to 561 people, according to Tagesspiegel.

Of the 5,631 suspects in the offenses, 126 people were arrested. In 11 cases, warrants were issued. Some 788 cases were reported as being of an anti-Semitic nature, including 32 cases of assault and other violent crimes.

According to the newspaper, the figures come from monthly inquiries by the Bundestag’s Vice President Petra Pau and her Left Party parliamentary faction. With the release of the December figures, a complete look at the last year is now available.

Tagesspiegel said, however, the actual number of right-wing criminal offenses for 2013 is expected to climb, as many incidents are registered after the fact. In 2012, the total number was initially listed as 11,660, but late registrations ended up driving the total up to 17,134.

TheLocal.de boosts the books:

German trade surplus hits record level

Germany’s trade surplus soared to a new record high in 2013, although export momentum tailed off at the end of the year, official data showed on Friday.

Europe’s biggest economy notched up a trade surplus of €198.9 billion in 2013, the highest since foreign trade data have been compiled.

In 2012, the surplus had stood at 1€89.8 billion.

Germany has come under fire for its booming trade surplus, with critics arguing that its economic prowess comes at the expense of the eurozone’s weaker members.

On to France and the rural right from France 24:

France’s National Front courts the rural vote

As municipal and European elections approach, France’s far-right party the National Front is poised for another strong showing. Rural areas are key to the party’s strategy: economic decline and feelings of neglect in the countryside have been fuelling the National Front’s renaissance.

Our assignment was to understand why the far-right is making strides in rural areas. So we headed out for the “Meuse”, a department in the east of France where the party traditionally does well.

To our initial surprise, villagers readily expressed their support for the National Front, even on camera. “We’re 100 percent for Marine Le Pen around here”, smiled one supporter as we approached. “I’m not afraid to say so, and I always will!”

Reuters turns the coat:

Special Report: Francois Hollande puts on a new political face

As Hollande heads without a First Lady to the United States on Monday, he is projecting a more business-friendly persona than the “regular guy” left-winger France chose in May 2012 to replace conservative ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Several people who know Hollande say that, deep down, he has always been more of a centrist, who had calculated that he should present himself as a man of the left to win election.

“This is not so much a U-turn as a self-revelation. He has finally outed himself,” said Serge Raffy, author of the 2011 Hollande biography “Itineraire secret” (Secret Route).

Switzerland next and a defining vote from Deutsche Welle:

Referendum to keep foreigners out of Switzerland?

  • On Sunday, the Swiss vote on whether to restrict immigration to their country. The ramifications of a yes vote, experts say, could be huge. To their shock, the referendum has a decent shot at passing.

When Germans hear Switzerland, they first think of the children’s book “Heidi”, snow-covered mountains and secure bank accounts. Their neighbor to the south is a popular vacation destination, but more and more Germans also come to Switzerland to work. They can do so because the small, neutral state entered a freedom of movement agreement with the European Union in 1999. Even though Switzerland isn’t a member of the union, EU citizens have been allowed to immigrate to Switzerland with hardly any restrictions since then.

That might change soon. In a nationwide referendum, the Swiss are voting on an “initiative against mass-immigration” this Sunday (09.02.2014). The initiative was put forward by the nationalist-populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP). The party wants to restrict the number of immigrants and allocate a limited number of slots to certain national or occupational groups.

Roughly 80,000 immigrants enter Switzerland every year – and this in a country of 8.1 Million. According to the German weekly “Die Zeit”, this is the largest population growth the country has experienced since the 1960s.

On to Iberia and austerian woes from thinkSPAIN:

More firms and individuals in Spain declared insolvent last year than ever before in history

A RECORD number of companies and sole traders went into receivership or were declared bankrupt last year – a total of 9,660, which is the highest ever seen since bankruptcy became legally-recognised 10 years ago.

This represents a rise of 6.5 per cent on the figure for 2012, and never before have this many insolvencies been declared in the space of a year in Spain, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE).

In the first three years after the Insolvency Law was passed in 2004, up to and including 2007 there were between 968 and 1,147 firms going bankrupt or into receivership each year, but this shot up to 3,298 with the start of the financial crisis.

This again nearly doubled in 2009 when the recession and mass unemployment began to truly bite in Spain, reaching 6,197 that year, dropping slightly to 5,962 in 2010 but then soaring again in 2011 to 6,863. However, the last two calendar years have seen a sharp increase, with insolvencies shooting up by over 50 per cent.

The Associated Press takes a turnabout:

Spain to restore nationality to Sephardic Jews

Spain has announced new measures to speed up the naturalization of Jews of Sephardic descent whose ancestors fled the Iberian peninsula five centuries ago when they were told to convert to Catholicism or go into exile.

The Cabinet approved a bill amending previous legislation that granted nationality by naturalization to Sephardic Jews who chose to apply for it. The reform will allow dual nationality, enabling people who can prove Sephardic ancestry to also retain their previous citizenships.

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon said Friday the measure smooths the bureaucracy involved in obtaining Spanish nationality.

Italy next, and corruption with a flair from TheLocal.it:

Space boss quits over tango dancer scandal

The head of Italy’s space agency submitted his resignation on Friday after a scandal over dubious expenses including hiring as a consultant a former tango dancer with no apparent aerospace credentials.

Enrico Saggese in a statement denied the accusations and said that he wanted to step down “so as to better defend my integrity, honour and prestige”.

Prosecutors opened an investigation on Thursday into corruption, including Saggese’s use of a credit card provided by an agency subcontractor.

They are also looking into consultancy fees paid to the wife of an employee to provide “psychological assistance” and expense-paid trips to the United States for several managers of the space agency.

After the jump, the latest Greek disasters, Ukrainian turmoil, class war in Brazil, Argentine anger, a Latin American plague, Pakistani stalemate, the latest Thai violence, Vietnamese letdown, Chinese uncertainty, an Abenomics fail, environmental woes, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroSinoFukuFuel


We begin our collection of headlines form the economic, political, and environmental realms with a new reality from CNBC:

More men in their prime working years lack jobs, says WSJ

A large number of men who are still in their prime working years find themselves without jobs for extended periods, despite an improving economy, according to a piece in The Wall Street Journal.

The trend has been building for decades. The percentage of unemployed men 25 to 54 more than doubled between the early 1970s and 2007, from 6 percent to 13 percent, before jumping to 20 percent in the depths of the recession in 2009, according to the article.

As of December 2013, 17 percent of men are not working. Of that group, about two-thirds are not looking for work, which excludes them from the government’s official unemployment numbers.

Economists were alarmed to learn that 40 percent of those looking have been out of work for six months or more, according to the Journal. Some had expected employment figures to rebound to pre-recession levels, but the trend is actually getting worse.

One response, via The Hill:

Senate rejects jobless benefits

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked Democrats’ third attempt to pass an extension of federal unemployment benefits.

The Senate voted 58-40 Thursday on a proposal that would have continued unemployment insurance for three months, just short of the 60 votes needed to end debate.

“I’m beginning to believe there is nothing that will get Republicans to yes,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “It’s a ‘no’ vote because they don’t want to extend unemployment insurance.”

Any excuse to gut environmental laws, via Salon:

House GOP overrides Endangered Species Act protections to pass California water bill

  • The bill would undermine years of conservation efforts in Northern California

Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that would override federal rules and protections in California to allocate more water to farmers.

It would allow state and federal officials to pump more water out the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta in Northern California, a source of drinking water to 22 million Californians and home to endangered salmon, in what Gov. Jerry Brown called “an unwelcome and divisive intrusion into California’s efforts to manage this severe crisis” and Rep. John Garamendi (D) referred to as “a theft of water from someone to give to somebody else, plain and simple.”

CNBC shivers in anticipation:

Hedge funds bet on US gas shortage as cold boosts demand

An unexpected fear haunts the land of the shale bonanza story: running low on natural gas.

Furnaces, utilities and power plants have guzzled trillions of cubic feet of the fuel as the U.S. slogs through what may be recorded as the coldest winter since the invention of gas futures in 1990.

Hedge funds are now betting the country will face a critical shortage before spring. The wager comes with long odds but a huge possible payout.

“It’s been a relentless cold,” says Eric Bass, managing partner at Velite Benchmark Capital Management, a Houston gas hedge fund. “This market has slowly started to realize there could potentially be an inventory problem.”

From Al Jazeera America, Banksters Behaving Badly™:

Banks under investigation for alleged currency exchange rate-fixing

  • Barclays, Goldman Sachs among institutions being investigated for allegedly manipulating foreign exchange markets

New York state’s financial regulator has opened an investigation into alleged manipulation of foreign exchange markets and is demanding documents from more than a dozen banks, a source familiar with the investigation told Al Jazeera.

Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, Goldman Sachs and a number of other large banks that the Department of Financial Services regulates will be investigated in the probe, the source said.

Authorities in the U.S., Britain, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore have opened probes into whether the large banks manipulated foreign exchange rates used to set the value of trillions of dollars of investments.

Investigators suspect that traders from different banks may have used chat rooms to share information about trades in ways that benefited their positions.

Profligacy from The Guardian:

National lab in California scolded over Lusitania project

  • $80,000 in taxpayer money spent to help National Geographic with documentary about sinking of the ship during WWI

A federal watchdog agency reprimanded a national lab in Northern California for spending more than $80,000 in taxpayer money to help National Geographic with a documentary film about the sinking of the ship Lusitania during World War I.

The Energy Department’s inspector general said in a report issued last week that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory improperly used its licensing and royalty fees to perform tests for the documentary and should not have done the work.

“Federal officials at Livermore knew about it and didn’t take any action,” said Rickey Hass, a deputy inspector general at the Energy Department. “The work itself was not really the issue, but it was inappropriate in that it may have competed with private sector organizations and was funded with money that should have not been used for that purpose. It also wasn’t necessarily reported with complete transparency.”

NBC News greens the green:

Pot buyers add more than $1M to Colorado tax coffers

In the first month of legal recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, retailers who shared their proprietary data with NBC News say they have collected $1.24 million in tax revenue.

Half of the state’s 35 licensed recreational retailers participated in the NBC News survey. The 18 retailers shared the first 27 days of their tax data because they say they believe it will help their image.

In the first month of operation, sellers of recreational marijuana are doing brisk business in Colorado. One seller said she averages about $20,000 a day in sales.

Blowback from Channel NewsAsia Singapore:

India warns US of consequences on visa reform

India has warned the United States of consequences for its companies if lawmakers tighten visa rules on high-tech firms as part of an immigration overhaul.

Ambassador Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that India would see a decision to restrict certain temporary visas for skilled workers as a sign that the US economy is becoming less open for business.

“We think this is actually going to be harmful to us. It would be harmful to the American economy and, frankly, it would be harmful to the relationship” between the two countries, Jaishankar told AFP in an interview.

Sensible advice from Salon:

Elizabeth Warren calls on Obama to nominate fewer corporate judges

  • Massachusetts’ senior senator promotes more professional diversity in U.S. courts

Speaking at an event hosted by the left-leaning Alliance for Justice, an association of more than 100 groups who work on improving the justice system, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized President Obama for putting forward so many judicial nominees whose prior experience was mainly with big firms representing corporations.

“We face a federal bench that has a striking lack of diversity,” said Warren. “President Obama has supported some notable exceptions but … the president’s nominees have thus far been largely in line with the prior statistics.”

Repeating points made in the AFJ’s recent report on the federal judiciary’s excess of former corporate lawyers, Warren noted that 71 percent of Obama nominees’ prior experience was chiefly defending corporations. Just 3.6 percent of Obama’s nominees, according to the report, have previously worked mainly for public interest organizations.

Warren warned that, in America, “Power is becoming more and more concentrated on one side.” She recommended “professional diversity” in the judiciary, saying it would be “one way to insulate the courts from corporate capture.”

Heading north of the border with capital flight woes of another kind from South China Morning Post:

Exclusive: How mainland millionaires overwhelmed Canada visa scheme

Mainland millionaires swamped HK consulate with applications and led to freezing of world’s most popular investor immigration scheme

Canadian immigration department spreadsheets obtained by the Post show how the huge number of applications forced the government in Ottawa to freeze the world’s most popular wealth-based migration scheme. One document, dated January 8 last year, showed there was a backlog of 53,580 Hong Kong-based applications for Canadian federal investor visas.

That represented more than 70 per cent of the global backlog. And attempts by Ottawa in 2010 to tighten access to the coveted visas by doubling the wealth criteria had the effect of increasing Chinese domination. In 2011, applications sent to the Hong Kong consulate made up 86 per cent of the global total.

Analysis of arrival data suggests that about 99 per cent of applications in Hong Kong were lodged by mainlanders. Under the scheme’s current limits, applicants worth at least C$1.6 million (HK$11.2 million) receive residency if they “invest” C$800,000 in the form of a five-year interest-free loan to Canada.

On to Europe, first with BBC News:

ECB rejects deflation fears as it holds rates at 0.25%

The head of the European Central Bank (ECB) has said deflation is not a threat to the eurozone economy.

The ECB kept its benchmark interest rate at 0.25% after its latest meeting. The rate was cut to its current record low in November.

ECB president Mario Draghi said: “We have to dispense with this idea of deflation. The question is – is there deflation? The answer is no.”

Eurozone inflation slowed to 0.7% in January from 0.8% in December. The figure fuelled worries about whether the euro bloc could suffer deflation, potentially de-railing economic growth.

Another take from the London Telegraph:

Split ECB paralysed as deflation draws closer, tightening job vice in southern Europe

  • Mario Draghi said the ECB’s council had discussed a wide range of measures but needed more information

The European Central Bank has brushed aside calls for radical action to head off deflation and relieve pressure on emerging markets, denying that the eurozone is at risk of a Japanese-style trap.

Yields on German two-year notes almost doubled to 0.12pc as markets slashed expectations for future rate cuts, while the euro spiked 1.5 cents to more than $1.36 against the dollar, implying a further tightening of monetary conditions for Europe.

Mario Draghi, ECB president, said the bank is “alert to the risks, and stands willing and ready to act” if inflation falls even further below target or if the fragile recovery falters, but offered no clear guidance on future policy.

The Guardian hasn’t recovered:

Real wages likely to take six years to return to pre-crisis level

  • Average wages are at 2004 levels and it will take until six years before they return to 2009 peak according to leading thinktank
  • The Governor of Britain’s Bank of England, Mark Carney, speaks

Britons will have to wait six more years before their inflation-adjusted wages are back at pre-crisis levels and it “feels” like recovery, a leading thinktank has warned.

Average real wages are still at 2004 levels and it will take until 2020 before they return to their 2009 peak, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).

“It’s a long way off,” said Simon Kirby, principal research fellow at the thinktank. “It will take a number of years before people actually start to feel the recovery.”

The gradual rise in wages could take even longer if Britain’s productivity performance, which has been “abysmal” in recent years, did not improve, he said.

BBC News splits:

Divorce rate up ‘because of recession’, report says

  • A wedding ring on the bible The recession of 2008/9 could be to blame for more marriages failing

The divorce rate in England and Wales has gone up, possibly because of the last recession, according to a report.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said there were 118,140 divorces in 2012, up 0.5% on 2011.

Between 2003 and 2009 there was a general downward trend in the number of divorces, but in 2010 they rose 4.9%.

“One theory suggests recession could contribute to a rise in partnership break-ups because of increased financial strain,” the report says.

Off to Iceland and an immigration crisis denied via the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Minister Dismisses Ministry Employee Requests For Independent Investigation

Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir has allegedly denied requests from ministry staff for an independent investigation of the ministry over a leaked memo regarding a Nigerian asylum seeker.

DV reports that several ministry employees approached the minister with the suggestion that an independent investigator be brought in to examine the ministry with regards to the case of Tony Omos, a Nigerian asylum seeker who, along with the expecting mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph, had his reputation impugned by a memo which leaked to certain members of the press last November. The memo made allegations about Tony and Evelyn which later proved to be untrue.

The minister allegedly told the employees who requested the independent investigation that this was not going to happen. Ministry employees are reportedly unhappy with the minister and her assistants over the matter.

The uncuttest kind of all from TheLocal.no:

Norway politician wants jail for circumcisers

A leading politician for Norway’s Centre Party has stepped up calls for a ban on ritual male circumcision, or failing that up to 10 years in prison, for those who botch the operation, as the government debates a proposed new law on the practice.

Jenny Klinge, the party’s justice spo complained about the stark difference in penalties under law for those who injure children through female genital mutilation and those who injure them through circumcision.

“It can not be such that when a boy dies, then it’s not punished at all, while if a girl dies it’s punishable by up to 10 years,”  Klinge said in parliament, according to NRK.

She called again for a ban, but said that failing that significant penalties should be put in place for those who injure children during the operation.

Danish austerity strikes again,, via the Copenhagen Post:

Parliament expected to end EU insurance coverage

  • As of August, CPR card will no longer cover Danish residents in other EU countries

You may want to be more careful on future trips to other EU countries. Today, parliament is expect to abolish the public travel insurance provided by the yellow health insurance card. According to DR Nyheder, a large majority will vote in favour of the bill, which then will come into effect by August.

When the proposal is passed, Danish residents will no longer have all their medical expenses paid when visiting another EU country. Instead they will fall under the same regulations as citizens of the respective country. To avoid unexpected medical bills on your next holiday in Europe, it will therefore be necessary to take out your own health insurance.

Nexit news from DutchNews.nl:

Leaving the EU would boost Dutch economy, report for PVV says

Leaving the European Union would boost the Dutch economy, Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right PVV, said on Thursday, quoting a study drawn up by a UK agency.

The Capital Economics report says leaving the EU would allow the Netherlands to increase its prosperity in a way only possible in the distant past. Economic growth figures would be higher than if the Netherlands remains in the EU, the report states.

The Netherlands would no longer be tied to EU rules and requirements, allowing a freer hand to trade with other countries. Gross Domestic Product would be between 10% and 12% higher by 2035 if the Netherlands left the EU, Capital Economics said.

EurActiv rebuts:

Dijsselbloem counters Wilders’ EU exit claim

Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who also heads the Eurogroup, has hit back at far-right politician Geert Wilders’ claim that leaving the European Union would be good for the Dutch economy.

“The Netherlands is an economic powerhouse in Europe. We earn the bulk of our money in trade with EU countries so the Netherlands has a lot of interest in a single market with easy trade,” Dijsselbloem told local media, adding that quitting the EU would be “very unwise”.

On to Germany and a case of the Benz from TheLocal.de:

Daimler enjoys record €9 billion profit

Luxury auto maker Daimler said on Thursday that it achieved record sales and profits in 2013, and it expects to achieve “significant” growth again this year.

“Daimler concluded the year 2013 with record levels of unit sales, revenue, EBIT [earnings before interest and tax] and net profit,” the car maker said in a statement.

“The company anticipates renewed growth in 2014,” it added.

Net profit climbed by 28 percent to €8.72 billion and underlying profit, as measured by earnings before interest and tax, was up 23 percent at €10.82 billion.

Europe Online declines:

German factory orders post surprise slump in December

German industrial orders posted a surprise 0.5-per-cent fall in December despite a rebound in demand from the eurozone, the Ministry of Economics said Thursday.

The decline in the monthly data failed to offset the surge in orders in November, which jumped by an upwardly revised 2.4 per cent as a result of strong demand for bulk orders from Europe’s biggest economy.

“The trend toward increasing demand for industrial products continues despite the slight decline in December,” the ministry said.

TheLocal.de lights a fuse:

Court grants EU migrants German jobless benefits

A German job centre will have to pay a jobless Spanish family unemployment benefits, a court ruled on Thursday, in an apparent contradiction of German law.

The Court of Social Affairs in Dortmund ruled unemployed immigrants from the European Union could claim Hartz IV unemployment benefits, in a judgment which decided in favour of European Union law over German.

European law states citizens from other EU countries must be treated equally, which includes access to benefits.

But German law grants exemptions by classifying Hartz IV as a “social benefit” which can be denied to EU citizens rather than a “special benefit” which cannot be. It means EU migrants who are in Germany but are not seeking work are excluded from claiming unemployment benefits.

On to France and a walkout ahead from TheLocal.fr:

French teachers to strike over August return

Summer holidays are sacred in France and even more so it seems for French teachers. One union has called for a strike after the government did the unthinkable and timetabled the start of the autumn term before the end of August.

Even though back to school for autumn 2014 is a full six months away—and school isn’t even out yet—the first strike of the next school year has already been called.

The members of the national union of secondary and high school teachers (Sydicat National des Lycées et Collèges) sent out warning on Wednesday of the strike pencilled in for the end of August. This time its not about pay cuts or a lack of funding, but a decision to make them to return to school after the summer holidays, in the sacred holiday month of August.

The government has rewritten the school calendar so that teachers have to be back on August 29. Bearing in mind August is traditionally the month when the whole country pretty much shuts down and everyone goes to the beach, the move has not gone down well with in staff rooms.

Switzerland next and more hard times immigration politics from TheLocal.ch:

Immigration: ‘total chaos’ seen if curbs backed

Switzerland’s ties with the European Union face a crunch test on Sunday as voters decide whether to revive immigration quotas on EU citizens, in a referendum piloted by rightwing populists.

The result could be close, with the latest poll indicating 43 percent back the “Stop Mass Immigration” proposal and 50 percent oppose it.

Switzerland is not in the EU but is ringed by members of the 28-nation bloc, which is its main export market. If passed, the proposal would bind the government to renegotiate within three years a deal which gives the EU’s 500 million residents equal footing on the job market in this nation of 8.1 million people.

Opponents of the plan — the government, most political parties and the business sector — warn that ripping up free labour market rules for EU nationals in force since 2007 would unravel related economic deals.

Another consequence of the battle for women’s bodies from El País:

Doctors shun life-saving abortion

  • As 32-year-old Daniela found out, access to the procedure at a public hospital can be impossible
  • The government is planning to make the law covering terminations even tougher

La Paz Hospital, one of the largest public health centers in Madrid, refused to perform an abortion on Daniela, a 32-year-old woman who had lost all her amniotic fluid when she was 20 weeks pregnant. In these conditions, a fetus no longer has a chance to live, according to all the specialists consulted by this newspaper, and the mother is at risk of serious infection.

Even though she met all the requirements set out in the current abortion law – which the Popular Party government plans to toughen up on – the Madrid hospital refused to terminate her pregnancy. Eventually, Daniela, who was on intravenous antibiotics to prevent infections, was discharged from La Paz so she could go to a private center for her abortion, after the regional government confirmed her right to one.

A spokeswoman at La Paz said that all the doctors there are conscientious objectors – whose rights are enshrined in the current Spanish law on abortion – and that in 2010 the gynecology department in full decided not to carry out any abortions, ever.

thinkSPAIN charts the loss:

Salaries have fallen by 10 per cent since labour reform came into effect, say recruitment centres

  • Mass redundancies falling, but on-the-job training is a must, according to Adecco

WAGES have gone down by an average of 10 per cent, and the typical redundancy pay-off to 26 days’ salary per year of service, according to research by three recruitment agencies.

Adecco, the Sagardoy Foundation and the Excellence in Sustainability Club – which all form the official Observatory for monitoring the government’s labour reform – studied 200 companies, most of which have a minimum of 50 employees.

They say redundancy pay has gone down, but remains on the whole higher than the requisite 20 days’ salary per year of service which is the legal minimum for a ‘fair dismissal’.

TheLocal.es has poor possibilities:

Half of Spain’s job ads pay less than €1K/month

The so-called ‘mileurismo’ phenomenon continues to grow as data from employment portal jobandtalent.com reveals that 49 per cent of jobs offered in Spain in January had net salaries equivalent to less than €1,000 ($1,350) per month.

Information published in the company’s blog showed that jobs in the ‘mileurismo’ category – those that pay less than €1,000 a month – had risen from 30 per cent  to 49 per cent of those on offer.

Of those, positions offering gross annual salaries of under €15,000 rose from 20 per cent to 31 per cent of the total, and jobs offering €16,000 to €20,000  from 6 per cent to 18 per cent.

The blog presented the figures as a complement to data released this week by the Juan Alfaro Club of Excellence’s Labour Reform Monitor which showed that average wages across Spain had fallen by 10% since the introduction of new legislation designed to introduce flexibility into the job market.

But one number is heading up. From TheLocal.es:

Spanish bankruptcies hit the roof in 2013

The number of household and business bankruptcy filings leapt by 6.5 percent to 9,660, the National Statistics Institute said, as the economy emerged from a long recession.

Spain’s economy grew slowly in the second half of 2013, shaking off a double-dip recession but still weighed down by a 26-percent unemployment rate.

The eurozone’s fourth-largest economy is still overshadowed by the aftermath of a decade-long property bubble, which collapsed in 2008 destroying millions of jobs and flooding the nation in debt.

In a sign that the business sector’s decline may be steadying, however, bankruptcy filings rose at a slower pace last year when compared to a 15.1 percent increase in 2011 and a 32.2 percent surge in 2012. But the number of bankruptcy filings remains at historically high levels.

And battle over women’s bodies ends the same way, via thinkSPAIN:

Surrogate births not recognised under Spanish law, rules Supreme Court

CHILDREN born to surrogate mothers cannot be registered as the legal offspring of the parents who commissioned the woman who gave birth, Spain’s Supreme Court has ruled.

Whilst in the USA, couples who cannot have children or all-male couples can ‘rent a womb’ to enable them to start a family and register the baby as their own, Spanish law does not recognise the procedure, as two men discovered when they attempted to do so with their two children born in California.

The couple, who are married, had all the legal certificates issued by the county of San Diego, California to prove they were the legal fathers of the twin boys born in 2008 via a surrogate mother, in accordance with US law.

Italy next and another number of the way up from TheLocal.it:

Rents in Italy soar as wages stagnate

Italians are spending the bulk of their monthly salary on rent as prices climb and landlords refuse to negotiate even in times of job loss, a survey has revealed.

Over 40 percent of those surveyed by mioaffito.it, the Italian property website, said between 35 and 50 percent of their salary goes on rent, while 30 percent said they spend even more.

Rents in Italy have risen by 105 percent over the last twenty years, while average household salaries have gone up by just 18 percent, Gaia Merguicci, a community manager at mioaffito.it told The Local.

The average monthly rent in Italy is around €780, up from €738 since last August, according to data from the website. Florence saw the steepest climb over the past six months, with rents increasing by 14.2 percent.

However, the most expensive place to rent is the business hub of Milan, where the monthly average is €1,823 followed by Rome at €1,629 and Florence at €1,228. The cheapest place is Ragusa, in Sicily, where rents average €390.

The latest Bunga Bunga blowback from TheLocal.it:

Italian senate to join civil case against Berlusconi

The speaker of Italy’s upper house of parliament on Wednesday announced the Senate would declare itself a civil party in a trial against former premier Silvio Berlusconi for allegedly bribing senators, according to Italian media reports.

Speaker Piero Grasso said said it was his “moral duty” to declare the Senate a civil party despite an earlier recommendation by a parliamentary
committee for the upper house to stay out of the media magnate’s latest legal troubles.

Embattled Berlusconi was ousted from parliament and stripped of legal protection in November after he was found guilty of tax fraud.

TheLocal.it once again, and a heads up for the big winners:

Bonino defends German role in euro crisis

Italy’s Foreign Minister Emma Bonino on Thursday defended Germany against charges its austerity demands were the cause of suffering in the crisis-hit eurozone.

“Those who hold Germany responsible for everything are not only telling an untruth but also behaving unfairly,” Bonino told Munich daily the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

“I find this criticism of Berlin quite petty and only partially appropriate,” said Bonino, a former EU commissioner.

After the jump, the latest in the ongoing Greek disaster, Ukrainian warnings, drought and a protest victory in Latin America, Australian and Japanese tapering, Thai troubles, Chinese anxieties, Sony woes, a free-trade-for-dolphins ploy, U.S. and European GMO word wars, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

David Horsey: A little California dry humor


From the editorial cartoonist of the Los Angeles Times:

BLOG Californicated

Headlines of the day II: EconoGrecoSinoFuku


Our compendium of entries form the political, economic, and environmental realms opens with a spine-chiller from The Independent:

Scientists talk of ‘pandemic potential’ after first confirmed human death from new strain of bird flu

Chinese scientists have said the “pandemic potential” of a new strain of bird flu “should not be underestimated” after the first known human infection resulted in the death of an elderly woman.

The new strain is a variant of a virus known as H10N8, which scientists believe may have originated in wild birds, and later spread to poultry.

The victim, a 73-year-old woman from Nanchang City in south-eastern China, was the first person confirmed to have been infected with the new type, and a second case has since been discovered, raising concerns that the virus has evolved so that it can transfer easily from birds to humans.

Its emergence coincides with a surge in the number of cases of another bird flu strain, H7N9, which is known to have infected 286 people since March last year, causing 60 deaths. The vast majority of cases have occurred in China, but Taiwan has also recorded two infections, and the virus is known to have spread to Hong Kong, which has seen four cases.

Latter-day gladiatorial gaming and another sign of our cultural plight from BuzzFeed:

George Zimmerman Reportedly Set To Fight Rapper DMX

  • The man who was found not guilty of murder in the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin will fight the rapper who promised to “f**k him right up,” according to TMZ. The fight promoter backtracked from announcing the fight on Trayvon’s birthday.

From The Guardian, costly folly:

Fracking is depleting water supplies in America’s driest areas, report shows

  • From Texas to California, drilling for oil and gas is using billions of gallons of water in the country’s most drought-prone areas

America’s oil and gas rush is depleting water supplies in the driest and most drought-prone areas of the country, from Texas to California, new research has found.

Of the nearly 40,000 oil and gas wells drilled since 2011, three-quarters were located in areas where water is scarce, and 55% were in areas experiencing drought, the report by the Ceres investor network found.

Fracking those wells used 97bn gallons of water, raising new concerns about unforeseen costs of America’s energy rush.

“Hydraulic fracturing is increasing competitive pressures for water in some of the country’s most water-stressed and drought-ridden regions,” said Mindy Lubber, president of the Ceres green investors’ network.

Just how bad is California’s drought? Consider the following from Bloomberg News:

BLOG Drought

From the Washington Post, stiffing the Praetorians:

CBO: Military pension payments to fall 5 percent by 2023 with cut

A controversial new pension cut for younger military retirees will help reduce the projected payments for those retirement benefits by about 5 percent by 2023, according to congressional number crunchers.

Estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, released Tuesday, show that federal spending on military retirement benefits will rise from $51.5 billion this year to $64.3 billion in 2023.

The change is at least partly due to a provision in the budget bill Congress and President Obama approved in December that reduces cost-of-living allowances for working-age military retirees by 1 percent starting next year. A higher rate will apply once those individuals reach age 62, and the plan does not affect disabled retirees.

The Register delivers the blow:

First Dell, now IBM: 15,000 jobs face the axe at Big Blue, says union

  • ‘Workforce rebalancing’ will take place in the first quarter

IBM is set to spend another $1bn on job cuts this year to eliminate an estimated 15,000 jobs worldwide, according to trade union Alliance@IBM.

The company has already spent the same amount of money last year on ‘workforce rebalancing’, its euphemism for redundancies.

Big Blue’s chief financial officer for finance and enterprise transformation, Martin Schroeter, has admitted there would be more cuts in 2014, during the announcement of IBM’s fourth quarter earnings last month.

And on a cultural front, this from a Carl Hiaasen headline in the Miami Herald:

Dr. Cheech called — your prescription is ready!

Medical marijuana will be on the Florida ballot in November, which is bad news for Gov. Rick Scott and other Republican leaders who oppose any relaxation of the state’s backward cannabis laws.

They say medical use of weed is the first step toward Colorado-style legalization, and they might be right. They say that although the proposed constitutional amendment names only nine diseases, lots of people who aren’t really sick will find a way to get marijuana from certain doctors.

That’s probably true, too. This, after all, is the state that made pill mills a roadside tourist attraction. Who can doubt that future pot prescriptions will bear the signatures of a Dr. Cheech or a Dr. Chong?

A parallel development from the Washington Post:

D.C. Council weakens bill to decriminalize marijuana, keeps smoking in public a crime

The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of marijuana but left smoking it in public a crime, keeping alive concerns about racial profiling in pot arrests in the District.

With an 11 to 1 vote, several council members reversed their previous support for a more far-reaching measure, weakening an effort to join the quarter of U.S. states that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.

While they stuck with their plans to drop possession to a civil offense — akin to a parking ticket — council members decided not to decriminalize public smoking. They did, however, reduce the maximum jail sentence from six months to 60 days.

North of the border to another bubble expanding from the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Toronto home prices surge, again ‘outpacing family incomes’

Toronto home sales edged down in the bitter chill of January, but prices surged, again throwing up red flags.

Sales fell 2.2 per cent from a year earlier to 4,135 as new listings plunged 16.6 per cent, the Toronto Real Estate Board said Wednesday.

The average selling price, in turn, surged more than 9 per cent to $526,528. The so-called benchmark price climbed 7.1 per cent from a year earlier.

On to a story with a global focus from Al Jazeera America:

UN demands action from Vatican on child sex abuse

  • A scathing report urges the Catholic Church to ‘immediately remove’ clergy suspected of child abuse

The United Nations on Wednesday demanded that the Vatican “immediately remove” all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers and turn them over to civil authorities, in an unprecedented and scathing report that the Holy See’s ambassador to the U.N. promptly denounced.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child also urged the Vatican to hand over its archives on sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children so that culprits, as well as “those who concealed their crimes,” could be held accountable.

The watchdog’s blunt paper — the most far-reaching critique of the church hierarchy by the world body — followed its public grilling of Vatican officials last month. The U.N. report blasted the “code of silence” that has long been used to keep victims quiet, saying the Holy See had “systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims.”

And on to Europe with a warning from the London Telegraph:

Insular ECB is playing dangerous game of chicken with deflationary world forces

  • An aborted recovery at this point might be more than democratic societies can tolerate

The US and China are withdrawing stimulus on purpose. The eurozone is doing so by accident, letting market forces drain liquidity from the financial system for month after month.

The balance sheet of the European Central Bank has fallen by €553bn over the past year as banks repay money that they no longer want, either because ECB funds are too costly in a near-deflationary world or because lenders are being compelled by regulators to shrink their books.

This is “passive tightening” or “endogenous tapering”. The ECB balance sheet has plummeted to 23pc of eurozone GDP from a peak of 32pc in July 2012.

BBC News takes a fall [and the subject of our Chart of the day]:

Eurozone retail sales fall sharply in December

Retail sales in the eurozone fell sharply over the Christmas period, with their biggest monthly fall in two-and-a-half years.

December’s sales fell by 1% compared to the same time a year ago, and by 1.6% compared to November. Both figures were much worse than analysts expected.

The drop in consumer demand followed a surprise fall in eurozone inflation to 0.7% in January.

The figure prompted concerns about deflation in the 17-nation bloc.

On to Britain with qualified optimism from Sky News:

Economic Recovery: ‘End In Sight’ For Austerity

  • The Institute for Fiscal Studies says the pain of cuts will soon start to ease but warns the recovery is “horribly imbalanced”.

Austerity plans put in place by the coalition may already go further than is needed in order to balance the Government’s books, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says.

In its closely watched Green Budget, the Government-spending think tank said that even if the most pessimistic forecasters are proved right on the economy, the coalition’s fiscal plans will repair the damage done to the public finances by the Great Recession.

The verdict is among the most positive yet delivered by the IFS – although it warned that there remains some uncertainty over whether it will be easy to implement the cuts planned for the coming years, since only 40% of them had been carried out.

An alarm from The London Telegraph:

NHS faces ‘unprecedented squeeze’, think tank warns

  • Ageing and growing population means spending per patient will fall by 9 per cent, despite pledge to ring-fence budgets, IFS warns

NHS faces an “unprecedented squeeze” over the next five years under the burden of an ageing population, a leading think tank has warned, while George Osborne’s cuts are not yet half way done.

Spending on each patient is set to fall by over 9 per cent over a decade, despite an “expensive and generous” ring fence around health service budgets, as the British population gets bigger and older.

The protection given to NHS and aid budgets and a series of new pre-election giveaways by David Cameron and Nick Clegg means George Osborne faces an uphill battle to balance the books by 2018, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said in its annual Green Budget.

The Tories have pledged to spare the health service from the cuts of up to 30 per cent that have hit other departments.

Sky News saves face:

Aidan Burley: MP Resigns Over Nazi Stag Party

  • Aidan Burley announces he will quit Parliament at the 2015 general election after he was slammed for organising the party.

The Conservative politician was sacked as a ministerial aide when reports of the episode emerged in 2011, and an internal party inquiry last month found he was “stupid and offensive” to have organised the party.

Groom Mark Fournier was fined €1,500 (£1,250) by a French court for wearing an SS uniform and insignia supplied by the MP. Mr Burley was his best man.

On to Ireland and Banksters Behaving Badly from the Irish Times:

Anglo directors knew about ‘absolutely illegal’ share-buying scheme, trial told

  • Prosecution says FitzPatrick did nothing to stop bank shares move

Three former Anglo Irish Bank directors were aware of a “choreographed” and “absolutely illegal” scheme to fund the buying of shares in the bank, the jury was told on the opening day of the bankers’ trial yesterday.

Seán FitzPatrick (65), William McAteer (63) and Pat Whelan (51) are accused of providing unlawful financial assistance to members of businessman Seán Quinn’s family and the so-called Maple 10, a trusted group of Anglo borrowers, to buy shares in Anglo in July 2008.

The prosecution says the transaction was designed to create the public perception of stability in the bank’s share price.

TheLocal.no laughs at Uncle Sam:

US committee approves blundering Norway envoy

The US Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee has approved George Tsunis as the next ambassador of Norway, despite his catastrophic appointment hearing last month, and despite a warning from John McCain, its most prominent member, that he had already become “a mockery”.

McCain argued against the nomination during the meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, which went on to approve Tsunis by a majority of 12 to six.

“The question is whether . . . [Tsunis] will embarrass the United States of America while serving as our representative,” McCain said.

He reminded the committee’s members that Tsunis had referred to “the president” of Norway in his January 16 hearing and attacked the anti-immigration Progress Party, which has seven ministers in government, as “fringe elements” that “spew their hatred”.

Switzerland next and an embarrassment from TheLocal.ch:

Minister faces questions over Luxembourg links

Swiss Economy Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann came under renewed scrutiny on Wednesday following revelations in the media that his family company used a subsidiary in Luxembourg to evade taxes in Switzerland.

Schneider-Ammann headed Ammann, a construction equipment company, until he was elected to the federal government in 2010 as a member of the centre-right Liberal party.

Der Bund and Tages Anzeiger reported on Wednesday that Ammann used a Luxembourg-based firm, Manilux SA, as a private bank for the company, providing lines of credit for its international operations.

And TheLocal.ch, this time with nominative culture clash:

Bern tells parents: Jessico not a boy’s name

A young couple in the canton of Bern have been ordered to change the name of their newborn son because it is too feminine, according to media reports.

Alain and Miriam Flaig, from the town of Huttwil, named the child Jessico after he was born last Wednesday at the Lagenthal maternity hospital, Blick newspaper reported.

The child was born in 15 minutes and the couple picked out his name. But the following day, problems arose, Blick reported. In a letter, the authorities from Oberaarggau sent a letter objecting to the selection.

“As a first name for your son you have written Jessico on the birth form,” the letter said, according to Blick. “According to the information at our disposal, Jessico is defined as a female first name.”

As a result, the Bern authorities have refused to register the name.

France next, and the politics of history with TheLocal.fr:

SNCF faces ban in US over Holocaust role

France’s state-owned rail company SNCF faces the prospect of being barred from bidding for a €4.4 billion project in the US because of its role in transporting Jews to concentration camps during World War Two.

American lawmakers in the state of Maryland have proposed a bill that could prevent SNCF from bidding for public projects on that side of the Atlantic until it makes restitution payments for its role in taking Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Two democrat lawmakers want compensation to be paid to Holocaust survivors and their families before rail company Keolis, which is majority-owned by SNCF, can bid for a €4.4 billion, 35-year contract, to build and operate a 16 km light rail project.

“The persistent refusal of SNCF to take responsibility for its role in the Holocaust remains an insult for its victims,” sponsoring Sen. Joan Carter Conway told French daily Le Monde.

Spain next, and a pox on both their houses from El País:

PP and PSOE lose ground in latest CIS survey

  • UPyD gathers support while citizens are most concerned by unemployment and corruption

The results from the latest survey conducted by the Center for Sociological Studies (CIS) make grim reading for the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialists (PSOE), to the extent that the main opposition party has accused the state-funded body of cooking the results, despite a drop in voter support for the government.

The last study, in October 2013, reported 34 percent of Spaniards would vote for the PP in a general election, a figure that fell to 32.1 percent in the latest survey. The PSOE also lost ground and would receive the backing of 26.6 percent of the country, a loss of two percentage points. The United Left (IU) remained steady at 11.3 percent while the UPyD’s support rose from 7.7 percent to 9.2 percent.

The study, conducted between January 3 and 15, shows that unemployment remains the principle concern for 78.5 percent of Spanish citizens, up from 53.4 percent in October. In second place was corruption, up from 37.6 percent to 39.5 percent, with a raft of investigations into the PP, the PSOE, labor unions and the royal family dominating the headlines. However, just 0.6 percent of respondents said the monarchy was a source of concern.

TheLocal.es adds a monkey wrench to the mix:

Police reveal extent of bribes to ruling party

Spanish police investigating one of the country’s biggest ever corruption scandals have released a list of ‘gifts’ including plasma TVs, Cuban cigars and Mont Blanc pens allegedly given to top Popular Party officials to curry favour in return for public contracts.

The Economic and Fiscal Crimes Unit (UDEF) presented the details to the courts on Tuesday as part of the ongoing investigation into the complicated Gürtel affair, in which senior members of the government are alleged to have received presents and cash backhanders in return for public contracts.

The Gürtel leader, Francisco Correa, is said to have given politicians ‘presents’ including Habana cigars (€450); a Mont Blanc Pen; €6,000 of plasma TVs; smartphones; €500 crates of wine; trips to DisneyLand; holidays to Cancún, New York, Kenya and Mauritius; and luxury hotel accommodation worth over €1,000 per night.

With total employment at a record low, one sector gains with El País:

Spanish services sector grows at fastest pace in over six years

  • Companies increase staffing levels for first time in 70 months

Spain’s services sector, which accounts for over half of GDP, saw the fastest growth in activity in the first month of the year since July 2007, cementing expectations of a recovery in the economy this year, according to a survey released Wednesday by consultant Markit.

Companies in the sector also increased their staffing levels slightly in January, ending a run of 70 consecutive months of job cutting.

Markit’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) climbed from 54.2 points in December to 54.9 points in the first month of 2014, marking the third successive month in which the index stood above the 50-point mark that denotes expansion. The increase in the month was also the strongest since before the current crisis took hold around the start of 2008.

Across the peninsula for a Lisbon demand from the Portugal News:

Country must pay off debt, not seek to restructure it – PM

Portugal’s prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, said on Wednesday that after the country exits the adjustment programme linked to its current euro-zone bailout, it must start accumulating budget surpluses so as to reduce its debt burden, rather than seeking to restructure it.

“What we want is not to restructure the Portuguese debt, what we want is to pay it, creating conditions for our economy to grow, but also managing our public finances in such as way as to free up surpluses that, essentially, can free up the economy itself, companies, citizen, families from the weight that this debt today imposes on us,” he said. For that reason, he went on, society in general must “project for this post-troika [period] a very great determination and a very great will.”

The prime minister was speaking at an event in Lisbon to launch a ‘Coalition for Green Growth’, an entity created by the Ministry of Environment and which brings together organisations from various sectors.

Passos Coelho dedicated much of his speech to the subject of the ratio of debt to gross domestic product: the higher this is, he said, the greater the upward pressure that financial markets exercise on Portugal’s sovereign bond yields.

Off to Italy and pricing the commons with The Guardian:

Italy threatens to sue Standard & Poor’s for failing to value its history and art

  • Ratings agency would not have issued damaging downgrade if it had taken account of cultural wealth, state auditor claims

Italy is threatening to sue the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor’s for failing to value its historical and cultural treasures.

The country that bequeathed the world Dante, da Vinci and an enviable vision of La Dolce Vita, thinks financial analysts would not have issued a damaging credit downgrade against Italy if they had paid more attention to its cultural wealth than its spiralling budget deficit.

According to the Financial Times, Italy’s auditor general, the corte dei conti, believes that S&P may have acted illegally and could be sued for €234bn (£194bn).

TheLocal.it takes Bunga Bunga on the road:

‘Berlusconi for PM’ campervan tours Italy

Supporters of Silvio Berlusconi’s party Go Italy (Forza Italia) have set out on a campervan tour as part of a campaign calling for the former prime minister’s daughter, Marina Berlusconi, to become a candidate for the Italian premiership.

The campervan, branded with photographs of Silvio and his Marina Berlusconi, a 47-year-old business executive, is the brainchild of Gabriele Elia and fellow fans from the town of Cellino San Marco in south-east Italy.

Twenty years after Silvio Berlusconi first founded his political party, Elia has set out on his tour of Italy under the banner “the liberal dream continues”.

He has already toured the heel of Italy’s boot and driven the length of the country to reach Arcora, the home of Silvio Berlusconi’s mansion made infamous for erotic “bunga bunga” parties hosted by the billionaire.

From TheLocal.it, lost tolerance:

Italian MP laments ‘massive’ refugee influx

The number of refugees landing in Italy rose tenfold in January, the country’s deputy interior minister said on Tuesday, complaining of an “incessant and massive influx of migrants”.

January 2014 saw a total of 2,156 migrants in Italy, compared to 217 the previous year, the official added.

“In 2013, Italy was subjected to an incessant and massive influx of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East,” Filippo Bubbico told parliament.

Throughout the whole of 2013, a total of 2,925 vessels of various shapes and sizes landed on Italian shores, carrying about 43,000 people, including nearly 4,000 children.

After the jump, the Greek meltdown flares up, failing family finances in Cyprus, a Russian warning on the Ukraine, a Brazilian financial alarm, Thai troubles, Chinese warning signs, Japanese aging and income woes, a GMO victory, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliEcoFukuFolly


We begin today’s headlines from the economic, political, and environmental realms with the inevitable outcome of a healthcare system that isn’t public, via the New York Times:

Health Care Law May Result in 2 Million Fewer Full-Time Workers

A new analysis from the Congressional Budget Office says that the Affordable Care Act will result in more than 2 million fewer full-time workers in the next several years, providing Republican opponents of the law a powerful political weapon leading up to this years midterm elections.

The law is also expected to have a significant effect on hours worked, the nonpartisan budget office said in a regular update to its budget projections released Tuesday. With the expansion of insurance coverage, more workers will choose not to work and others will choose to work fewer hours than they might have otherwise, it said. The decline in hours worked will translate into a loss of the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time positions by 2024, the budget office said.

Republicans immediately seized on the report as evidence of the health care law’s adverse effect on the economy.

From USA TODAY, third third state?:

Alaska moves toward August vote on legal pot

Alaska could be the next state to reconsider the prohibition on marijuana, following legalization votes by Colorado and Washington last year.

Alaska elections officials posted data Tuesday showing that a petition for a statewide vote on marijuana legalization has gained enough signatures and met legal thresholds needed to put the issue before voters.

Under Alaska law, the petition when officially certified would appear on the Aug. 19 primary ballot. No formal opposition to the initiative has emerged thus far.

Reuters readies the job ax:

RadioShack to close about 500 stores: WSJ

U.S. electronics chain RadioShack Corp is planning to close about 500 stores within months, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, citing people familiar with the matter.

The struggling retailer, which is due to report results for the fourth quarter later this month, said it could not comment on rumor or speculation.

RadioShack has been working with bankers from Peter J Solomon Co to boost its liquidity and with AlixPartners on its operational turnaround.

Its sales have been in free-fall amid executive departures, strong competition and an image problem. Despite its ubiquitous presence in the United States, analysts say it has not done enough to transform itself into a destination for mobile phone shoppers, nor has it become hip enough to woo younger shoppers.

And another ax-wielder from the New York Post:

500 layoffs expected today at Time Inc.

Tuesday is D-day at Time Inc.

Around mid-morning, staffers are expected to start hearing how deep the cuts will be as Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp unveils what is likely the last big downsizing before Time Warner spins off the publishing group as a separate company later this year.

“It’s very nerve racking,” said one source inside the company that publishes People, Time, Sports Illustrated and In Style.

The recently acquired American Express Publishing and the London-based IPC subsidiary, are expected to be particularly hard hit.

Out first global headline, via The Independent:

Das Capital: Trust in banks wanes as savers find other ways to protect their money

  • The ultra-rich are switching to real assets – gold, commodities, farm land

All systems – social, cultural, spiritual, economic and financial – rely on trust. Policy makers are now systematically undermining trust in institutions, turning to financial repression in attempting to deal with the economic crisis.

Current government policies focus on low interest rates, with returns artificially set below the true inflation rate. Where interest rates are near zero, governments print money, manipulating the amount rather than the price of money.

These measures reduce borrowing costs allowing borrowers to maintain high levels of debt. Rates below that of inflation help reduce the value of the debt, effectively decreasing the amount that must be paid back in economic terms. The policy subsidises borrowers at the expense of savers.

The London Telegraph sounds a warning:

Emerging markets more vulnerable than ever to Fed tightening, warns BIS

  • Bank for International Settlements says there had been a “massive expansion” in borrowing on global bond markets by banks and companies in developing countries

Emerging markets may be even more vulnerable to an interest rate shock today than they were during the East Asia crisis in 1998, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) has warned.

The Swiss-based watchdog said there had been a “massive expansion” in borrowing on global bond markets by banks and companies in developing countries, leaving them exposed to “powerful feedback” risks as borrowing costs rise in the West.

“The deeper integration of emerging market economies into global debt markets has made emerging market bond markets much more sensitive to bond market developments in the advanced economies,” the BIS said in a working paper.

New Europe pontif-icates:

Pope warns that ‘unjust’ unemployment can lead to sin, moral destitution and even suicide

Francis discussed three types of destitution — material, moral and spiritual — in his first message for Lent, the solemn period leading up to Holy Week and Easter, that was released Tuesday.

Moral destitution, he said, “consists of slavery to vice and sin” such as alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography.

He noted that sometimes “unjust social conditions” like unemployment lead to this type of destitution by depriving people of the dignity of work and access to education and health care.

“In such cases, moral destitution can be considered impending suicide.”

How, then, about folks who are doing quite well, Say, such as the consumers of this little joy from the London Daily Mail:

The Mile-Low Club: Travel company launches £175k Valentine’s Day submarine package with interior design of your choice and aphrodisiac menu (flights to the mooring not included)

  • Luxury travel company unveil submarine treat whereby couples can choose to harbour wherever they like
  • Also includes aphrodisiac menu featuring champagne and oysters
  • The bespoke submarine will actually travel 200m under the water
  • Price for a basic vessel starts at £175,000
  • Extras including helicopter transfers, entertaining rooms and champagne breakfast available

And from TheLocal.de, the crabby old man was right:

Too much reality TV ‘harms pupils’ grades’

Have you ever been worried that too much reality TV might be frying your brain or more to the point your kids’ brains? Well you better read on.

Parents everywhere have been muttering it under their breaths for years and now French researchers claim to have dealt conclusive proof.

A study by the Ministry of Education linked body DEPP (Direction of Evaluation, forecasting and performance) shows a dramatic reduction in results for 15-year-old pupils who watch too much reality TV.

The study, which relied on stats from the Ministry of Education, looked at the impact on grades of the typical activities of young kids in France from playing video games to listening to music and sending texts to friends but it was watching shows like The Voice,  Koh Lanta (the French version of Survivor)  or the Infamous Angels of Reality TV, featuring Nabilla (pictured) that appears to have the most detrimental impact on standards.

“It is the frequent watching of reality TV programmes that impacts the most negatively on the cognitive and academic performances,” said the study.

On to Europe and intolerant umbrage from EUobserver:

MEP receives 41,000 emails against gay rights

An MEP who drafted a resolution on securing the basic rights of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex) people in the EU has so far received almost 41,000 emails against the proposal.

“My website was hacked as well, I don’t know who it was from. It might be coincidence, it might not be a coincidence,” Green Austrian MEP Ulrike Lunacek told the Strasbourg assembly on Monday (3 February).

A large banner which says “Warning – visiting this website may harm your computer!” has replaced her personal site since last week.

Her office said they are working to get it back to normal. They suspect it was hacked by ultra-conservative groups.

Casting a cynical eye with EUbusiness:

Ombudsman wants EU probed for corruption

The European Union’s own institutions should be probed for corruption, the EU’s watchdog said Tuesday, a day after Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem described the bloc’s graft problem as “breathtaking.”

“The EU administration has to live up to the very highest standards,” European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said in a statement, adding that it largely does so and compares favourably with many member states.

However, it should not be complacent, and accordingly, O’Reilly encouraged the European Commission to “include the EU institutions in the next Anti-Corruption Report.”

On to Germany and action in Berlin from MintPress News:

Fed Up With Agribusiness, Protesters Take To The Streets In Berlin

The protesters said agribusiness threatens the livelihoods of small family farmers, leads to standardization of tastes, and damages the environment and biodiversity.

United under the declaration, “we are fed up,” around 30,000 people from several associations representing farmers, beekeepers and consumers, as well as environmental, development and food organizations, gathered in Berlin to demonstrate against large-scale agribusiness.

The protesters said that agribusiness threatens the livelihoods of small family farmers, leads to standardization of tastes and damages the environment and biodiversity. They demanded environmentally friendly farming, protection for bees, access to land and healthy, affordable food for all. They’re also seeking fair prices for farmers, an end to hunger, food scandals, monocultures, GMOs and land grabs by governments and investors.

Escorted by some 70 tractors, they marched through the streets of the German capital, from Potsdamer Platz to the government buildings of the Ministry of Agriculture and the offices of the federal chancellor. The demonstrators expressed their demands to Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.

On to France and a taxing threat from EUbusiness:

French to make 1 bn euro tax claim against Google: report

French authorities have decided to make a tax claim of 1 billion euros against Google following a probe into the tax strategies by the US Internet giant, Le Point magazine reported Tuesday.

A Google spokesman in France declined to comment on the report, saying the company does not comment on rumours.

The French finance ministry also declined to comment, citing tax confidentiality.

France is one of a growing number of cash-strapped nations to pursue more aggressively what they see as abuse of tax and accounting rules that allows some multinational companies to pay less tax.

What Ailes France from France 24:

Is a new Tea Party brewing in France?

Interior Minister Manuel Valls has warned that France was seeing the birth of its own version of the grassroots, anti-tax Tea Party movement amid a surge of anti-government demonstrations by right-wing groups and religious conservatives across the country.

“We are witnessing the creation of the French version of the Tea Party. By exploiting the political and leadership crisis on the right, and the National Front party’s move away from the far-right, a conservative and reactionary right has been set free,” Valls, a Socialist, told the Journal du Dimanche in an interview published on Sunday.

The eye-opening comparison came hours ahead of massive rallies in defence of traditional families in Paris and the eastern city of Lyon. They were organised by the so-called “Manif Pour Tous” (Protest for all) group that staged massive protests against gay marriage last year.

Sunday’s march, which police said drew 80,000 people in Paris, was just the latest public display of anger against President François Hollande’s government in recent days.

EUbusiness goes medical:

France announces EUR 1.5 bn anti-cancer plan

French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday announced a 1.5 billion euro ($2 billion) anti-cancer plan aimed at reducing inequalities in treatment of the disease.

The 2014-2019 plan aims to give “the same chances to everyone everywhere in France” in preventing and fighting cancer, Hollande said in a speech to medical professionals.

His announcement comes a day after the United Nations warned that new cases of cancer will rise by half by 2030, reaching 21.6 million per year compared to 14 million in 2012.

On to Spain and a new low from El País:

Number of people in work in January declines to lowest level in 12 years

  • Jobless claims in Spain climb by 113,097 in first month of year

The number of people signed up with the Social Security system in Spain declined by 184,031, or 1.13 percent, in January from the end of last year to 16.173 million, the lowest figure since April 2002, according to figures released Tuesday by the Labor Ministry.

In what is traditionally a bad month for the labor market, jobless claims rose by 113,097, or 2.4 percent, from December to 4.814 million.

The ministry said that on a month-on-month basis, this January was the “least negative” since 2007, given that since the current comparable statistical series began there has never been an increase in the number of people signed up with the Social Security system. On a year-on-year basis, the number of affiliates declined by 5,829, or 0.04 percent.

TheLocal.es looks for resolution:

UN urges Spain to drop Civil War taboos

A UN expert on Monday urged Spain to break a decades-long taboo by investigating atrocities allegedly committed in its 1936-39 civil war and the Franco dictatorship that followed.

UN justice rapporteur Pablo de Greiff said Spain should scrap a 1977 amnesty law that stops victims from prosecuting the alleged perpetrators of such atrocities, which divide Spaniards to this day.

In a report, he urged Spain to scrap the amnesty and called on “the state institutions to show a decisive and determined commitment” to investigating and making sure that victims are compensated.

The amnesty was seen as a necessity by the leaders tasked with unifying Spain after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975.

Portugal next and a temporary halt to a sale of the commons from Deutsche Welle:

London auction house cancels sale of Miro paintings

Citing legal uncertainties stemming from the lawsuit in Portugal, auction house Christie’s said on Tuesday that it had decided to cancel the sale of the Miro paintings pending the resolution of the dispute.

“While the recent injunction to stop the sale was not granted, the legal uncertainties created by this ongoing dispute mean that we are not able to safely offer the works for sale,” Christie’s said in a press release.

Hours before the auction’s scheduled start time, a judge denied the opposition Socialist Party’s request for an injunction to stop the sale. Portugal’s government pleaded that harsh austerity measures have left the country short of cash, and it could not make retaining the collection of the Catalan surrealist Miro one of its priorities.

Portugal’s public prosecutor backed the appeal to stop the sale, which accused the administration of ignoring “the immeasurable immaterial value” of the collection to the country, forced into austerity measures following a 78-billion-euro ($105 billion) rescue by international creditors in 2011.

The Portugal News charts reduced losses:

BCP stems losses by around half a billion

BCP, Portugal’s largest private sector bank, announced a €740 million loss for 2013, down from €1.219 billion in 2012, following the closure of the stock market on Monday.

“This loss is significant but also substantially below that of the previous year. This reflects the macroeconomic situation and is in accordance with the restructuring plan agreed with the General Directorate of Competition of the European Commission,” BCP President Nuno Amado told a press conference.

The loss also includes €126 million in provisions for early retirement and redundancy payoffs as the bank advances with its plan expected to see several hundred employees leave the firm over the first half of this year.

On to Italy and an austerian declaration from AGI:

President Napolitano says Italy must stay course on debt

Italy cannot afford to let up its efforts to keep its public debt in check, President Giorgio Napolitano said in a speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday.

Despite the government’s concerted response to financial market pressure and significant achievements in 2013, Italy cannot afford to relax in its efforts to further curtail its public debt, he said.

After the jump, the latest from tghe Greek meltdown, a Turkish retraction, the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, a Latin American trade deal push and Brazilian woes, Australian immigration profits and environmental havoc, Indian protests, Thai warnings, troubling Chinese numbers, Japanese neoliberalism, toxic spills and criminal probes, ecocidal costs, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Chart of the day II: California groundwater losses


From a new UCCHM Water Advistory [PDF] from the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling at the University of California, Irvine, estimating cumulative 51-year cumulative groundwater losses in the irrigated agricultural heartland of California’s Sacramento and San Joaquin River Basins:

Microsoft Word - UCCHM_Water_Advisory_1.docx

Headlines of the day II: EconoGrecoSinoFuku


Our compendium of headlines from the world of human economic and political actions and their impacts on our environment opens with a health alert from The Guardian:

Worldwide cancer cases expected to soar by 70% over next 20 years

  • New cancer cases expected to grow from 14m a year in 2012 to 25m, with biggest burden in low- and middle-income countries

Cancer cases worldwide are predicted to increase by 70% over the next two decades, from 14m in 2012 to 25m new cases a year, according to the World Health Organisation.

The latest World Cancer Report says it is implausible to think we can treat our way out of the disease and that the focus must now be on preventing new cases. Even the richest countries will struggle to cope with the spiralling costs of treatment and care for patients, and the lower income countries, where numbers are expected to be highest, are ill-equipped for the burden to come.

The incidence of cancer globally has increased in just four years from 12.7m in 2008 to 14.1m new cases in 2012, when there were 8.2m deaths. Over the next 20 years, it is expected to hit 25m a year – a 70% increase.

Closer to Casa esnl, the latest coverage of class war in Babylon by the Bay from USA TODAY:

SF residents caught in middle of tech hostilities

For the past month, protesters have confronted buses that transport employees from Google, Apple and Facebook to Silicon Valley. The flare-ups highlight the yawning gap between those benefiting from the enormous wealth generated by the tech boom and those left behind. Multimillion-dollar tax breaks for SF-based companies like Twitter have stoked rebellious tensions.

“We have a group which is mostly young and has not learned social norms or responsibility gaining wealth and power,” says Vivek Wadhwa, a Fellow at Stanford Law School. “This group has its own value system and lives in its own bubble. It is displacing the larger population of San Francisco.”

The city has had its neighborhood battles – hippies in the Haight in the 1960s, gays in the Castro in the ‘70s. But the latest gentrification clash is moving faster, making the current situation dicey.

The Verge Googles eyesore:

California orders Google to move floating barge from current construction site

The state of California has ordered Google to move its massive floating barge away from its current construction site in the San Francisco Bay. San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission executive director Larry Goldzband said the four-story structure has drawn numerous complaints. “It needs to move,” Goldzband said. He also claims that Google never had the proper permits to start work on the project at Treasure Island. But today’s development may not spell any real trouble for Google — the company simply needs to relocate the barge to another Bay facility where construction is fully permitted. The news was first reported by the Associated Press.

Sightings of the barge led to rampant speculation about its purpose last year. Google eventually admitted ownership of the San Francisco barge, teasing that it hopes to explore using it as a space where “people can learn about new technology.” We reached out to the company for more details on how it plans to respond to this latest challenge. In a statement, a Google spokesperson told The Verge, “We just received the letter from the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission and we are reviewing it.”

From Bloomberg, the usual suspects operating in the usual way:

IBM Uses Dutch Tax Haven to Boost Profits as Sales Slide

International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) has reduced its tax rate to a two-decade low with help from a tax strategy that sends profits through a Dutch subsidiary.

The approach, which involves routing almost all sales in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and some of the Americas through the Netherlands unit, helped IBM as it gradually reduced its tax rate over 20 years at the same time pretax income quadrupled. Then last year, the rate slid to the lowest level since at least 1994, lifting earnings above analysts’ estimates.

IBM is aiming for $20 a share in adjusted earnings by 2015, up from $11.67 in 2010 — a goal made more difficult as the company posted seven straight quarters of declining revenue. To stay on target, IBM has bought back shares, sold assets, and fired and furloughed workers. A less prominent though vital role is played by its subsidiary in the Netherlands, one of the most important havens for multinational companies looking for ways to legally reduce their tax rates.

MarketWatch tanks anxiously:

U.S. stocks see worst selloff in several months

  • Manufacturers expand in January at slowest rate in eight months

The U.S. stock market closed with sharp losses on Monday, after a much weaker-than-expected reading on manufacturing data as well as concerns over a slowdown in China, triggered the worst selloff in several months.

The S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended the day with the steepest decline since June 20.

U.S. manufacturers expanded in January at the slowest rate in eight months as the pace of new orders sharply decelerated, according to the closely followed ISM index. The Institute for Supply Management index sank to 51.3% from 56.5% in December. That’s the lowest level since last May. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had expected the index to drop to 56%

From the New York Times, a belated recognition:

The Middle Class Is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World.

As politicians and pundits in Washington continue to spar over whether economic inequality is in fact deepening, in corporate America there really is no debate at all. The post-recession reality is that the customer base for businesses that appeal to the middle class is shrinking as the top tier pulls even further away.

If there is any doubt, the speed at which companies are adapting to the new consumer landscape serves as very convincing evidence. Within top consulting firms and among Wall Street analysts, the shift is being described with a frankness more often associated with left-wing academics than business experts.

The Washington Post notes a sea change:

Report: Majority of U.S. kids under age 2 are now children of color

For the first time, a majority of American children under age 2 are now children of color  — and 1 in 3 of them is poor, according to a disturbing new report. “The State of America’s Children 2014.” that cites the neglect of  children as the top national security threat.

The report, published by the Children’s Defense Fund, calls on President Obama and America’s political leaders “in every party at every level to mount a long overdue, unwavering, and persistent war to prevent and eliminate child poverty.”

From the Project On Government Oversight, why the hell not?:

Could Post Offices Become Public Banks?

The U.S. Postal Service is floundering—2013 was the seventh year in a row to report a net loss, at a whopping $5 billion—and  nobody is quite sure how to fix it. Go Private? Close branches? Deliver Mail only four days a week? Ideas are being thrown around but little progress has been made in improving the troubled agency.

But last week, the office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service released a report with an out-of-the-box suggestion that would produce $8.9 billion in new annual profits: Turning the Post Office into a bank, with savings accounts, loans and debit cards. Furthermore, it would greatly benefit the poor, who lack banking options and are often gouged by predatory financial services.

The idea has been floated before but with official backing from the Inspector General it has a higher degree of credibility and plausibility. Add in the fact that it wouldn’t require Congressional approval, only an executive order from the President, and maybe the out-there proposal could actually become a reality.

Still think the idea sounds crazy? Consider this: The Post Office already was a bank. From 1911-1967, savings accounts were offered with 2 percent interest, ending because of competition from private banks with higher interest rates. The post office still provides money orders.

From Medical Daily, a notable side effect:

Medical Marijuana Cuts Suicide Rates By 10% In Years Following Legalization

Legalization of medical marijuana has been found to correlate to a significant drop in suicide rates, providing additional evidence that the federally outlawed substance may have a positive effect on U.S. public health.

The new study, which is published in the American Journal of Public Health, shows that the suicide rate among men ages 20 to 29 and 30 to 39 fell by 10.8 percent and 9.8 percent respectively following a given state’s decision to legalize medical marijuana. Although the relationship was weaker and less precise among women, the authors believe that the findings provide strong evidence in favor of medical cannabis. “The negative relationship between legalization and suicides among young men is consistent with the hypothesis that marijuana can be used to cope with stressful life events,” they wrote.

On to Europe with an anxious twist from CNNMoney:

Pressure building for ECB rate cut

Another interest rate cut in Europe could be just around the corner as the risk of deflation rears its ugly head again.

The first official estimate of eurozone inflation in January was a weaker-than-expected 0.7% — the same level that prompted the European Central Bank to cut rates in November. Consumer prices rose by 0.8% in December.

The weaker January number “puts significant pressure on the ECB to take further stimulative action at its February policy meeting next Thursday,” said IHS Insight’s chief European economist Howard Archer.

Cheaper energy was largely to blame, but the stronger euro has also been pulling import prices down, economists said.

Quartz covers mordida:

Lithuanians and Romanians are more than six times as likely to be asked for bribes than the EU average

A fifth of Danes think corruption is prevalent, for example (the lowest level in the EU), but only 3% say they are personally affected by it in their daily lives. Some 12% claim they know someone who has taken a bribe, but only 1% say they have paid, or been expected to pay, a bribe themselves.

In much of western Europe, then, it seems that corruption is a somewhat abstract concept for the common person—confined to criminal cliques or a select few who abuse their positions of power (Danes reckon politicians are the most corrupt group in their country). But as you travel to the south and east, corruption appears to creep into one’s daily life, a depressingly routine feature of doing business or accessing public services. In the past 12 months, around one in three Lithuanians and one in four Romanians say they were asked or expected to pay a bribe; the EU average is less than one in 20.

Al Jazeera America sets the cost:

Report: EU corruption costs $162B annually

  • All 28 member states suffer from some level of corruption, the report found

Corruption affects all member countries of the European Union and costs the bloc’s economies about 120 billion euros ($162.19 billion) a year, an official EU report published Monday said.

European Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, who presided over the first-ever official EU-wide study on corruption, said the estimated amount lost annually due to padded government contracts, covert political financing, bribes to secure health care and other corrupt practices would be enough to fund the European Union’s yearly operating budget.

All 28 EU member states suffer from some level of corruption — defined broadly by the report as the “abuse of power for private gain” — the report found.

One more headline [only], from BBC News:

Corruption across EU ‘breathtaking’ – EU Commission

On to Britain and a call for caution from Deutsche Welle:

Steinmeier urges UK to stay in EU, voices doubt on treaty change

  • Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has appealed to the UK to remain in the European Union, regardless of progress on the EU treaty change sought by Britain’s Conservative-led government.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier made his first visit to London since returning to the foreign minister’s post on Monday, asking his British counterpart William Hague not to lose sight of the benefits of EU membership.

“In this 21st century world, we want to protect our political, economic and cultural influences,” Steinmeier said, adding that, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, such European ties “really must not be underestimated.”

The German foreign minister said it would be “an exaggeration” to assert that Germany and the UK were on precisely the same page when it came to treaty reform for the EU.

Xinhua sounds the alarm:

London housing market under price bubbles risk, warns Ernst and Young

Housing market in London is beginning to show signs of bubble-like conditions, said a research report issued by Ernst and Young Item Club (EY ITEM Club) on Monday, while asking the government to monitor the trend closely and be prepared to intervene.

The EY ITEM Club forecast showed the average house price in London is expected to reach nearly 600,000 pounds (980,000 U.S. dollars) by 2018, some 3.5 times the average price in Northern Ireland and more than 3.3 times the average in the North East.

It said the average house prices in Britain growing by 8.4 percent this year and 7.3 percent in 2015, before cooling to around 5.5 percent in 2016.

And simultaneously booms:

British manufacturing off to strong start in 2014

Britain’s manufacturing sector maintained its strong growth into 2014, posing an improved domestic demand and solid output growth supported by rising export orders in January, said a survey report on Monday.

The report, jointly issued by Markit and the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS), showed the Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) for the British manufacturing sector was at 56.7 in January of this year.

The figure is at its lowest level in three months, but still showed a robust improvement in overall operating conditions for the manufacturing sector.

A reading of 50 points or greater indicates expansion, while below 50 indicates contraction.

A qualified UK separatism endorsement from El País:

Spain will not oppose Scottish EU entry: foreign minister

  • But García-Margallo warns that re-entry to the Union will take considerable time

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo has stated that should Scotland elect to break away from the United Kingdom, Spain will not oppose the move because it does not have any bearing on the internal affairs of the country. “If the Constitution of the United Kingdom permits – and it seems that it does – that Scotland call a referendum on their possible independence, we will say nothing on the matter,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

However, the minister adhered to the Popular Party (PP) administration’s line over Catalonia’s own designs on a referendum for independence; one of staunch resistance.

On to Sweden and a call from TheLocal.se:

EU: Sweden should ban secret party donations

While the EU’s executive body acknowledged that Sweden was among the least corrupt countries in the EU, it pointed to several areas of potential improvement.

Specifically, Sweden could improve its transparency if it considered a general ban on anonymous political party donations. Sweden remains one of few EU countries without total party-funding transparency, and the government came under fire last month when it decided to keep the lid on private donations.

The report also hinted that Sweden could do more to combat the risk of corruption at the municipality and county level, which the commission said could be fixed by making authorities obliged to secure transparency in public contracts with private entrepreneurs.

TheLocal.se again, with hard times intolerance:

Afrophobic hate crimes on the rise in Sweden

Hate crimes directed against Sweden’s black population have increased in recent years, according to a report published on Monday, prompting grave concern from Sweden’s integration minister.

Afrophobia, defined as hostility towards people with a background from sub-Saharan Africa, is soaring in Sweden, according to the researchers who compiled the government-commissioned report. They wrote on Monday in the opinion pages of the Dagens Nyheter newspaper (DN) that it was time society took these statistics seriously.

Between 2008 and 2012, the number of reported hate crimes against Afro-Swedes, defined as anyone with African heritage living in Sweden, rose by 24 percent, while hate crimes in general during the same period decreased by six percent. Between 2011 and 2012 alone, the number of Afrophobic hate crimes rose by 17 percent, the researchers explained.

On to Brussels and a critique via DutchNews.nl:

Brussels criticises ‘revolving door’ between Dutch politics and industry

While the Dutch integrated approach to preventing corruption and bribery could serve as a model to other EU countries, the Netherlands should still do more to improve transparency in politics, the European Commission said on Monday.

While welcoming the fact that much has been done in the Netherlands to improve transparency, the Commission went on to recommend improvements in the way the business interests of ministers are examined.

Officials’ private, financial and business interests are considered a private matter and information about their assets and interests is not available to the public, the report points out.

Nor are there any rules forcing MPs to declare potential conflicts of interest or barring them from holding financial interests or engaging in external activities.

Germany next and a peculiar call from TheLocal.de:

Industry boss: ‘Too many students harm economy’

One of Germany’s top commerce experts warned on Monday that there were so many young people at university, and so few in traineeships, that the country’s economy would suffer.

“The consequences to Germany’s economy will be damaging, if the trend to study at any cost is not stopped,” said Eric Schweitzer, president of the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK).

Schweitzer was referring to the amount of young people who undertake lengthy study in Germany, while companies struggled to fill traineeships.

“The truth is that many years of increasing student numbers in Germany have resulted in our classrooms now bursting at the seams, while companies are desperately seeking apprentices,” he said in a statement.

France next and a concession to the “family values” set from TheLocal.fr:

Hollande puts off family law to avoid new fight

A day after massive protests over President François Hollande’s “family phobia”, his government on Monday abruptly postponed plans to pass a controversial new family bill, that would likely have picked another fight with France’s traditional conservatives.

France’s Socialist government on Monday put off plans for a new family law after demonstrations by thousands of angry conservatives.

Hollande’s administration announced on Monday it was postponing its plans to move ahead with legislation that would have legalized medically assisted procreation for same sex couples, and tackled issues like surrogacy.

A source in Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s office said the government would no longer present a bill this year that officials had said was aimed at modernising the law to reflect the new “diversity” of families.

Nature’s newsblog takes the pledge:

Hollande pledges to avoid cuts to France’s science funding

French President François Hollande promised to spare the research and higher education budget from savings of €50 billion (US$67 billion) that his government has pledged to find over the next three years to reign in its massive public deficit.

The government will find other ways to cut the deficit, avoid tax increases and ensure business can increase investment and create jobs, he said during a visit to the University of Strasbourg.

In a speech devoted entirely to research and higher education, Hollande also said he would maintain the controversial research tax credit (CIR) because companies appreciate it and it helps attracts foreign investment.

And from TheLocal.fr, a demand:

EU: France must root out corruption at local level

France remains a country where the worlds of international business and public procurement are blighted by shady dealings and corruption, according to a new EU report. But just how bad is corruption in France and how does it compare to other countries in Europe?

France needs to do more to fight corruption a new report from the European Commission argues, especially in the areas of international business transactions and public procurement, which are still ripe with misdeeds.

“Corruption-related risks in the public procurement sector and in international business transactions have not been addressed,” the report concludes.

On to Switzerland and the first of a schizy set of headlines from TheLocal.ch:

Swiss ban proposed on sex education for kids

Swiss voters will decide whether to ban compulsory sex education for children under nine after conservative groups mustered enough signatures to force a plebiscite, the authorities said on Monday.

The federal administration said campaigners had gathered more than the 100,000 signatures of voters required to put their measure to the public for approval.

The campaign coalition — whose goal is the “protection against sexualisation in kindergartens and primary schools” — handed in its petition in December and the government is now obliged to set a date for a vote.

And out of left field, also from TheLocal.ch:

Swiss want to reopen pot legalization debate

A Swiss parliamentary committee looking into drug issues wants to reopen the debate on the legalization of marijuana in the wake of developments in the US, Uruguay and New Zealand.

“Many models that exist around the world should be studied and analyzed, that is the basis of our reflection,” Toni Berthel, committee president and a member of the Swiss association for addiction, is quoted as saying by the ATS news agency.

Berthel confirmed information reported on Sunday by the Schweiz am Sonntag weekly newspaper about the new look at Swiss cannabis laws.

Spain next and a matter of perception from El País:

95 percent of Spaniards see corruption as institutionalized

  • “Political will is absent” in battle against graft, notes Brussels report

Ninety-five percent of Spaniards believe corruption is generalized, according to the first continent-wide study on the issue by the European Commission. Only respondents in Greece (99 percent) and Italy (97 percent) outdid Spain. The report, which was presented on Monday in Brussels, underscores the magnitude of the issue in Europe: three out of four EU citizens believe corruption is an institutional problem.

In two areas of the survey Spain topped the charts. Asked if the level of corruption has risen in the past three years, 77 percent said yes, more than in the other 27 member states. Two out of every three respondents said that corruption affected their daily lives, more than in any other nation. The survey was conducted in February and March 2013, when a series of corruption scandals involving the government, labor unions, political parties and the monarchy occupied the front pages in Spain.

From TheLocal.es, Coke Zero:

Zero tolerance to Coke plant closures

Thousands of workers from Coca-Cola bottling factories in Spain marched on Sunday in protest at plant closures they say will cost 750 jobs.

In red caps and vests bearing the logo of the giant US drinks company, crowds marched in Madrid and the eastern city of Alicante, where two of the threatened plants are located.

Coca-Cola’s plan to close four of its bottling factories in Spain is expected to lead to 750 workers being laid off and 500 others being offered relocation to other plants.

Another protest from thinkSPAIN:

Nationwide protest over ‘abusive’ electricity costs

THOUSANDS of people across Spain joined in a countrywide protest over rocketing electricity prices on Saturday.

Demonstrations were held in 23 cities, mostly provincial capitals, including Madrid, Valencia, Alicante, Barcelona, Murcia, Málaga, Almería, Granada, Córdoba, Huelva, Sevilla, Cádiz, Jaén, and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

Carrying banners calling for Luz a precio justo (‘electricity at a fair price’), the demonstrators clamoured against the government’s forcing the consumer to bear the cost of its own debt with energy suppliers, leaving already hard-pressed householders suffering prohibitive prices.

And an austerian measure from TheLocal.es:

King freezes wages of Queen and Princess

King Don Juan Carlos has gone against the trend of royal secrecy in Spain and publicized the new fixed salaries of his wife Queen Sofía and daughter-in-law Princess Letizia.

It’s the first time the 76-year-old monarch has willingly made information on royal earnings available to Spain’s general public.

In a press release published by Spain’s Zarzuela Palace, the newly-fixed wages of royal family members have been disclosed in detail.

Queen Sofía of Spain will earn €131,739 in 2014, a sum roughly resembling her wages last year but which is no longer determined by so-called representation costs.

As for Letizia Ortiz, wife of Prince Felipe and future queen of Spain, she will receive a grand total of €102,464.

El País schmoozes:

Rajoy looks to 2015 race with soothing pledges for tax reform and stimulus measures

  • PM bashes Rubalcaba for being negative and blames Socialist leader for current “agony”

The Popular Party (PP) on Sunday officially kicked off the beginning of the second half of its current term in government with pledges from Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to carry out his long-awaited ambitious tax reform and other economic measures to help Spain get back on its feet.

As PP officials begin to look toward the next general elections scheduled for the end of next year, the ruling party has tried to use its three-day political conference in Valladolid to showcase proposed strategies in an effort to win voters’ confidence in its recovery plan. But at the close of national meeting, Rajoy avoided offering any specifics on his plans, but was able to muster rallying cheers from stalwart party members with an unusually aggressive attack on opposition Socialist Party leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba.

The verbal blitzkrieg was seen as an attempt to breathe new life into an increasingly embattled Popular Party, which finds itself bitterly divided on a range of issues, including the government’s proposal for abortion reform; the route that should be taken that would lead to ETA’s eventual demise; and the ongoing public corruption inquiries that have engulfed many of its members.

Italy next, starting with a Bunga Bunga bounceback from New Europe:

Italy: Poll finds Berlusconi-led government would win election

Judges may be convicting him and prosecutors opening yet new probes, but it seems that Italians would yet again elect a Berlusconi-led government it they had to vote now. According to a new poll published in February 3, a center-right alliance led by embattled former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi would be the most likely winner if Italians were to vote now under a reform proposal currently before parliament.

The poll, commissioned by newspaper Corriere della Sera and conducted by the Ipsos agency found that potential center-right coalition would get 37.9 percent of the vote, above the 37 percent threshold needed under the new rules being examined to obtain a large winner’s bonus of parliamentary seats without having repeat elections.

The centre left according to the same poll would get 36 percent while Bepe Grillo’s 5-Star protest movement 20.7 percent.

TheLocal.it hyperbolizes:

Five Star bloggers ‘potential rapists’: MP

Italy’s lower house speaker has accused the anti-establishment Five Star Movement of instigating violence and slammed bloggers on the party website as “potential rapists” following a flurry of sexist abuse online.

Laura Boldrini was commenting on a post on the Facebook page belonging to the Five Star Movement’s leader Beppe Grillo, which asked on Saturday “what would you do if you found Boldrini in your car?”

The question, which accompanied a satirical video and was taken up on the movement’s official website, sparked a series of abusive comments, including calls for Boldrini to be raped.

The post was an “instigation to violence, just look at the comments it prompted, nearly all of which were made in a sexist context,” Boldrini said in an interview late Sunday on Italian television.

And from TheLocal.it, ubiquity:

Almost all Italians think corruption is rife

Almost all Italians believe that corruption is widespread in their country, according to the European Commission’s anti-corruption report released on Monday. While some progress has been made, the EU’s executive body highlighted a number of areas in need of urgent action.

Ninety-seven percent of Italians think that corruption is rife, second only to Greece with 99 percent and well above the European average of 76 percent, the European Commission report found.

Bribery and connections are the easiest ways to get certain public services, 88 percent of Italians believe, compared to 73 percent of Europeans.

People in Italy, however, are more optimistic than those in Greece, where 93 percent of the population believe bribery is the easiest way to get what you want, compared to 92 percent in Cyprus and 89 percent in Slovakia and Croatia.

TheLocal.it again, with oldies and not-so-goodies:

Crisis-hit Italians survive on out of date food

Italians may be well-known for their healthy diet, but more are eating food well past its use-by date as the effects of the financial crisis continue to bite, according to new figures from Coldiretti, the Italian farmers association.

Fifty-nine percent of Italians, or six out of ten, eat out of date food, with fifteen percent eating food that is a month or more old, the association revealed.

Eight percent are eating food that is way beyond a month after its use-by date, while 34 percent are consuming products up to a week old and two percent never check expiry dates.

Coldiretti said the “worrying trend” poses a “significant risk to health”

After the jump, the latest on the Greek crisis, Ukrainian uncertainty, Russia currency freefall, Indian action, Thai troubles continue, Vietnamese expectations, more Chinese warning signs and neoliberal moves, Abenomics fails, pesticide alerts and other environmental woes, and the latest edition of Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . .and more:  Continue reading