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Asian markets fall on China growth concerns

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China's economy has taken a hit from Beijing's zero-Covid appoach to the pandemic, which has resulted in lengthy lockdowns of major cities and mass testing of millions of people
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Asian stocks retreated Tuesday on concerns over the impact of China’s Covid restrictions on the world’s second-largest economy as investment banks slashed their forecasts.

A strong rally on Wall Street, where the Dow closed 2.0 percent higher, did not carry over to Asia, and Beijing’s announcement of a fresh raft of measures to stimulate the economy did little to calm nerves.

The package announced on Monday includes more than 140 billion yuan ($21 billion) in additional tax rebates, bringing the total amount of tax relief this year to 2.64 trillion yuan, Xinhua news agency reported following a meeting of the State Council chaired by Premier Li Keqiang.

China’s economy has taken a hit from Beijing’s zero-Covid approach to the pandemic, which has resulted in lengthy lockdowns of major cities and mass testing of millions of people.

Prolonged virus lockdowns have constricted supply chains, dampened demand and stalled manufacturing.

Investment banks UBS Group and JPMorgan Chase cut their China economic growth forecasts due to the impact of the coronavirus strategy.

UBS on Tuesday cut its 2022 GDP growth forecast to 3.0 percent from 4.2 percent while JPMorgan on Monday trimmed its forecast to 3.7 percent from 4.3 percent, Bloomberg News reported.

“The lingering restrictions and lack of clarity on an exit strategy from the current Covid policy will likely dampen corporate and consumer confidence and hinder the release of pent-up demand,” UBS economists including Tao Wang wrote in a research note, according to Bloomberg.

China has targeted full-year growth of around 5.5 percent, but data published in April showed that first-quarter growth slowed to 4.8 percent after its economy lost steam in the latter half of last year.

Concerns over the economic fallout from China’s dogged pursuit of a zero-Covid approach and its knock-on impact on supply chains and the wider global economy spooked investors, with Asian markets well into the red on Tuesday.

Tokyo was off 0.5 percent while Hong Kong was down 1.5 percent after the city’s leader Carrie Lam said there would likely be no relaxation of quarantine travel restrictions for the remainder of her term, which ends on June 30.

Shanghai and Seoul were both down 0.8 percent, while Taiwan, Bangkok, Sydney and Manila also retreated. Singapore was one of the few markets to post gains.

Later in the week, investors will be eyeing the minutes from the latest Federal Reserve rate-setting meeting for clues about further rate hikes aimed at reining in inflation. A raft of economic figures will also provide insights into the state of the US economy.

“If inflation remains sticky and the Fed needs to be more aggressive, assets are not cheap enough yet -– in that world, more recession risk will need to be priced through lower earnings,” said Stephen Innes of SPI Asset Management. 

“However, if inflation does cool down, there are many compelling opportunities, significantly if ‘storm clouds’ over the economy dissolve.”

Oil was lower, with both contracts down 0.4 percent.

“Energy traders see choppy waters ahead for oil prices as uncertainty persists with the global economic outlook and over the EU’s progress with a ban on Russian oil,”  said Edward Moya of OANDA

– Key figures at around 0330 GMT –

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.5 percent at 26,863.33 (break)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: DOWN 1.5 percent at 20,172.28

Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 1.1 percent at 3,112.37

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 127.73 yen from 127.90 yen at 2030 GMT Monday

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.0670 from $1.0692

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2564 from $1.2587

Euro/pound: UP at 84.93 pence from 84.92 pence

Brent North Sea crude: DOWN 0.4 percent at $112.94 per barrel

West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 0.4 at $109.81 per barrel

New York – Dow: UP 2.0 percent at 31,880.24 (close)

London – FTSE 100: UP 1.7 percent at 7,513.44 (close) 

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Major US banks can weather severe economic downturn: Fed

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The largest banks operating in the US market have sufficient resources to withstand a severe economic downturn, the Federal Reserve says
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The largest banks operating in the US market have sufficient resources to withstand a severe economic downturn and continue providing financing to American families and firms, the Federal Reserve said Thursday.

The Fed subjected 33 banks to its annual “stress test” exercise, to gauge whether they would be able to weather a steep global recession.

In the hypothetical crisis, financial markets plummet, commercial real estate and corporate debt markets face substantial strain, US unemployment reaches 10 percent and the economy contracts by 3.5 percent.

The results “showed that banks continue to have strong capital levels, allowing them to continue lending to households and businesses during a severe recession,” the Fed said. 

The scenario for this year’s test was even bleaker than the one used last year, but the outcome was the same, showing all the banks would maintain a sufficient “cushion” despite total projected losses of $612 billion, according to the report.

“Despite the larger post-stress decline this year… capital ratios remain well above the required minimum levels throughout the projection horizon” of nine quarters, the report said.

The stress tests, implemented in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, apply to banks with at least $100 billion in total assets, including the top tier designated as “global systemically important banks.”

Smaller banks are only subjected to the stress tests every two years, so the results are not directly comparable to 2021, which tested 23 institutions.

Among the banks examined in both years, there were an additional $50 billion in losses under the tougher scenario, a Fed official told reporters.

However, the official stressed that the dire case applied is only hypothetical and not a forecast.

With the results in hand, banks can announce any plans for dividend payments and share buybacks starting Monday at 2030 GMT, the official said.

The Fed ordered limits to such distributions in June 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic caused a sharp economic downturn, but relaxed the restrictions in December 2020 before removing them following last year’s tests.

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Apple, Android phones targeted by Italian spyware: Google

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Google says spyware was slipped onto smartphones in Italy and Kazakhstan with the help of mobile interent service providers who cut off service so users could be tricked with messages offering to fix the problem.
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An Italy-based firm’s hacking tools were used to spy on Apple and Android smartphones in Italy and Kazakhstan, Google said Thursday, casting a light on a “flourishing” spyware industry.

Google’s threat analysis team said spyware made by RCS Lab targeted the phones using a combination of tactics including unusual “drive-by downloads” that happen without victims being aware.

Concerns over spyware were fueled by media outlets reporting last year that Israeli firm NSO’s Pegasus tools were used by governments to surveil opponents, activists and journalists.

“They claim to only sell to customers with legitimate use for surveillanceware, such as intelligence and law enforcement agencies,” mobile cybersecurity specialist Lookout said of companies like NSO and RCS.

“In reality, such tools have often been abused under the guise of national security to spy on business executives, human rights activists, journalists, academics and government officials,” Lookout added.

Google’s report said the RCS spyware it uncovered, and which was dubbed “Hermit”, is the same one that Lookout reported on previously.

Lookout researchers said that in April they found Hermit being used by the government of Kazakhstan inside its borders to spy on smartphones, just months after anti-government protests in that country were suppressed.

“Like many spyware vendors, not much is known about RCS Lab and its clientele,” Lookout said. “But based on the information we do have, it has a considerable international presence.”

– Growing spyware industry –

Evidence suggests Hermit was used in a predominantly Kurdish region of Syria, the mobile security company said.

Analysis of Hermit showed that it can be employed to gain control of smartphones, recording audio, redirecting calls, and collecting data such as contacts, messages, photos and location, Lookout researchers said.

Google and Lookout noted the spyware spreads by getting people to click on links in messages sent to targets.

“In some cases, we believe the actors worked with the target’s ISP (internet service provider) to disable the target’s mobile data connectivity,” Google said.

“Once disabled, the attacker would send a malicious link via SMS asking the target to install an application to recover their data connectivity.”

When not masquerading as a mobile internet service provider, the cyber spies would send links pretending to be from phone makers or messaging applications to trick people into clicking, researchers said.

“Hermit tricks users by serving up the legitimate webpages of the brands it impersonates as it kickstarts malicious activities in the background,” Lookout researchers said.

Google said it has warned Android users targeted by the spyware and ramped up software defenses. Apple told AFP it has taken steps to protect iPhone users.

Google’s threat team is tracking more than 30 companies that sell surveillance capabilities to governments, according to the Alphabet-owned tech titan.

“The commercial spyware industry is thriving and growing at a significant rate,” Google said.

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US orders all Juul vaping products off the market

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 17, 2019 a sign advertises Juul vaping products in Los Angeles, California
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The US Food and Drug Administration on Thursday said it was ordering all products produced by Juul Labs off the market after finding the vaping giant had failed to address certain safety concerns.

The decision, which Juul said it would appeal, clears the way for rival brands to increase their share of the market it once dominated.

It is also a blow for tobacco giant Altria, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, which acquired a 35 stake in Juul in 2018 to diversify its business strategy in the face of falling smoking rates.

“Today’s action is further progress on the FDA’s commitment to ensuring that all e-cigarette and electronic nicotine delivery system products currently being marketed to consumers meet our public health standards,” said FDA Commissioner Robert Califf in a statement. 

Products affected include the Juul device and its pods, which currently come in the flavors Virginia tobacco and in menthol, at nicotine concentrations of five and three percent.

After completing a two-year review of the company’s marketing application, the FDA found the data presented “lacked sufficient evidence regarding the toxicological profile of the products,” it said.

“In particular, some of the company’s study findings raised concerns due to insufficient and conflicting data – including regarding genotoxicity and potentially harmful chemicals leaching from the company’s proprietary e-liquid pods,” it added.

Juul said in a statement that it “respectfully” disagrees with the FDA’s findings and that its products met the statutory standard of being “appropriate for the protection of the public health.”

“We intend to seek a stay and are exploring all of our options under the FDA’s regulations and the law, including appealing the decision and engaging with our regulator,” Juul’s chief regulatory officer Joe Murillo said.

Juul was blamed for a surge in youth vaping over its marketing of fruit and candy flavored e-cigarettes, which it stopped selling in 2019.

In January 2020, the FDA said sale of e-cigarettes in flavors other than tobacco or menthol would be illegal unless specifically authorized by the government.

– Ban is ‘uncertain’ –

The agency has approved some e-cigarette products from other makers such as Reynolds American, the current market leader, NJOY and Logic Technology Development.

Juul has argued that vaping products can provide a solution to the harmful health impacts from conventional cigarettes.

Juul’s products “exist only to transition adult smokers away from combustible cigarettes,” Chief Executive KC Crosthwaite said on the company’s website, adding that the company is “working hard” to rebuild its reputation following an “erosion of trust over the past few years.”

The impact of the FDA’s decision is “far from certain” given the likelihood of an appeal, Goldman Sachs said in an analysis issued before the announcement. “There are already several precedents for reversal” of such orders, it noted.

Juul currently holds around 36 percent share of the US vaping market, a substantial reduction on the roughly 70 percent it held before the FDA’s actions on flavored e-cigarettes, the Goldman Sachs note said.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden’s administration announced it would develop a new policy requiring cigarette producers to reduce nicotine to non-addictive levels, a move that, if successful could upend the tobacco industry.

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