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Asian markets drop on recession fears, output report drags oil down

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JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon has warned of an economic 'hurricane', telling investors to brace themselves
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Equities fell in Asia on Thursday as traders grow increasingly worried that central bank moves to rein in inflation could tip economies into recession.

However, price pressures were eased by a drop in crude following a report saying Saudi Arabia had indicated it was willing to pump more if Russia was unable to fulfil pledges to boost production.

Having enjoyed a healthy start to the week, markets are again on the back foot owing to bank policymakers’ plans to tighten their belts to prevent inflation running out of control.

The Bank of Canada ramped up its key lending rate by half a percentage point Wednesday and warned of further tough measures down the line as energy and food costs spike.

The move came as several top Federal Reserve officials said they were in favour of similar increases in the United States. Wednesday also saw the central bank begin to offload its vast bond holdings that were bought as part of its quantitative easing programme to bring rates down to near zero.

Now observers fear that the increasingly hawkish moves by finance heads — combined with China’s lockdown-induced weakness and the Ukraine war — will cause economies to contract.

“We do see the rise in probability of a recession in the second half of this year, potentially persisting into 2023 as the Fed continues to battle inflation,” Tracie McMillion, of Wells Fargo Investment Institute, told Bloomberg Television.

She added that traders may not have completely taken into account the Fed’s balance sheet reduction.

“The impact of quantitative tightening starting to roll off the Fed’s balance sheet this month is really untested and unprecedented. Our guess is that it’s probably not fully priced into markets,” she said.

– ‘Brace yourself’ –

After a weak lead from Wall Street, Asia was in negative territory. Hong Kong shed more than one percent, while Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney, Seoul, Singapore, Wellington, Manila and Taipei were also well down.

Concern over the outlook was shared by Wall Street titan Jamie Dimon, who warned that the wave of unprecedented crises were combining to cause an economic superstorm. 

“That hurricane is right out there down the road coming our way,” the JPMorgan Chase & Co boss said. “We don’t know if it’s a minor one or Superstorm Sandy. You better brace yourself.”

However, in sign of the huge uncertainty coursing through markets, a top strategist at the bank, Marko Kolanovic, painted a more positive picture, forecasting a market recovery through 2022.

“We remain positive on risky assets due to near record-low positioning, bearish sentiment, and our view that there will be no recession given support from US consumers, global post-Covid reopening, and China stimulus and recovery,” he wrote in a note.

There was some relief for those concerned about inflation as oil sank more than two percent on a Financial Times report that Saudi Arabia was considering a plan to boost output as Russia struggles to meet targets owing to Ukraine war-linked sanctions.

The bans imposed on Moscow have sent crude soaring this year, just as demand picks up owing to the reopening of economies but Riyadh has ignored previous calls to pump more. But with supplies increasingly strained, the OPEC linchpin could be coming round.

“This will be well received by Western leaders given inflation — and inflation expectations — remain eye-wateringly high, and central banks try to raise rates at the risk of tipping their economies into a recession,” said Matt Simpson of StoneX Financial.

“More supply essentially soothes some of those inflationary fears, even if there is a lot more work to do when it comes to fighting inflation.”

The FT report follows a Wall Street Journal article saying OPEC was considering removing Russia from an agreement that has locked producers into limited output increases, which analysts said could lead to an early end of the pact and allow nations to open the taps more.

OPEC is due to hold its monthly meeting Thursday to discuss output, though it is considered unlikely the group will make any changes yet.

– Key figures at around 0230 GMT –

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.2 percent at 21,411.58

Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: DOWN 1.4 percent at 20,994.42

Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 0.1 percent at 3,178.92

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0654 from $1.0658 on Wednesday

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2481 from $1.2492

Euro/pound: UP at 85.37 pence from 85.25 pence

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 130.09 yen from 130.15 yen

Brent North Sea crude: DOWN 2.2 percent at $113.70 per barrel

West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 2.4 percent at $112.55 per barrel

New York – Dow: DOWN 0.5 percent at 32,813.23 (close)

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 1.0 percent at 7,532.95 (close)

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DR Congo drug manufacturing plan sparks safety concerns

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The cost of medicine in Africa is a major issue -- everyday drugs are widely imported
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Sitting at his desk overlooking a pharmaceutical factory floor on the outskirts of the Congolese capital Kinshasa, Joss Ilunga Dijimba, 52, cracked a jovial smile.

“It’s not easy doing business in Congo,” he said.

His family was forced to relocate the factory in the 1990s to survive bouts of mass looting. And nowadays, there are onerous taxes, customs duties, and problems retaining talented staff. 

His company, which employs about 40 people and produces generics such as paracetamol, is one of a tiny number of drug manufacturers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an impoverished nation roughly the size of Western Europe. 

But a government plan to require hospitals and NGOs to buy more locally produced drugs could soon boost the fledgling pharmaceutical industry — despite fears in some quarters that safety standards are far below international norms.

Several NGOs, some of which provide medical care in the DRC’s conflict-torn east, have requested opt-outs.

At the small Pharmagros plant, behind barbed-wire walls near the Congo river, men in hairnets and white coats formulate medicines with imported precursor using lab equipment in airconditioned rooms. 

“Promoting local industry’s a good thing,” said Dijimba, a University of Texas graduate, insisting that several Congolese firms, including his, maintained high standards. 

“It could grow the middle class.”

About 73 percent of the DRC’s population of 90 million lives on under $1.9 a day, according to the World Bank. Most products in the African country are imported.

– ‘At your own peril’ –

The Congolese government has designated 35 drug molecules, including paracetamol, that medical facilities will be required to purchase in locally made form.

The government wants to stimulate business without banning imports, said Donatien Kabamb Kabey, the pharmaceuticals director at the DRC’s health ministry.

He explained that all the molecules can be replaced with imported equivalents, suggesting that ibuprofen could replace paracetamol, for example.

Although not yet implemented, the policy already appears to be working.

Fifteen new pharma businesses are setting up in the DRC ahead of the new rules, Kabey said, which will add to the existing 24.

The policy was partly designed to encourage factories to return after fleeing the country in the 1990s, he added, when unpaid soldiers went on the rampage towards the end of ex-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign. 

But experts warn that Congolese-made medicines face a major challenge: reassuring doctors and patients that they meet regulatory standards.

“When you go to the private sector in Congo, you do it at your own peril,” said Ed Vreeke, who runs the Belgium-based independent pharmaceutical auditing firm Quamed.

“They know darn well that the quality they produce is not good.”

Vreeke said Congolese regulators had improved, but the country lacked the massive resources needed to properly perform audits, check labels, and inspect the chemical composition of drugs for safety.

Kabey, whose department at the health ministry oversees inspections, said standards had improved “enormously” in recent years, but did not provide further details.

He said the government was establishing a national quality-control lab.

– ‘A huge thing’ –

Shoddy or falsified medicines kill hundreds of thousands of people every year, according to the World Health Organization, mostly in poor countries. 

The DRC’s hot and humid climate also poses storage problems.

A 2021 study of both imported and locally produced eye drops sold in Kinshasa, for example, showed that three out of the seven products tested were substandard. The one sample manufactured in the DRC was contaminated.

Outside a pharmacy in Kinshasa’s upmarket Gombe district, clutching a bag of medicines, 29-year-old corporate lawyer Joelle Mamputu said she didn’t pay attention to where drugs were made but said she had “no prejudice”. 

However, a 52-year-old public servant named Olivier said there was “quite a difference” between Congolese and foreign drugs. 

He added he would buy Congolese drugs were the quality the same.

Despite official assurances, major international NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Medecins du Monde (MDM) have requested opt-outs from the purchasing  requirements, several humanitarian workers said.

MSF declined to comment.

MDM confirmed it had asked for an exemption due to concerns over quality and capacity to meet demand.

“It’s a huge thing,” said one humanitarian who asked for anonymity, explaining that the new rules will affect all non-governmental organisations, hospitals and pharmacies. 

Many aid workers understand the need to promote enterprise, he said, but there are internal disagreements about whether to compromise on quality.

“We need to have high quality standards for everyone, but the reality of the country is that sometimes it’s impossible”.

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Mixed fortunes of celebrities who leapt on NFT craze

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Tennis legend Serena Williams is among the many celebrities to have jumped on the NFT bandwagon
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Sports, film and music stars have all flocked to the NFT market to buy pictures of apes, endorse corporate partners or even launch their own art collections.

Even as the crypto sector suffers a rout with sales and values plunging and scams proliferating, celebrities continue to sign up to the craze for so-called Non-Fungible Tokens.

– Gone Ape –

The Bored Ape Yacht Club is the ground zero of NFT “collectables”. 

It features cartoon images replicated thousands of times with algorithm-generated variations.

The initial collection of 10,000 computer generated images has been followed by several other generations and many millions of fakes.

To fans, they are a status symbol, a key to an exclusive club where ordinary folk can mix with the famous and wealthy.

Brazilian footballer Neymar and tennis legend Serena Williams tweeted out their ape images on the same day in January.

US talk show host Jimmy Fallon and socialite Paris Hilton showed off their apes on TV.

Madonna declared on Instagram in March that she had “entered the MetaVerse” with a purchase of an ape, reportedly for more than $500,000.

She was following the likes of musicians Justin Bieber, Eminem and Snoop Dogg, basketball luminaries Shaquille O’Neal and Stephen Curry, and actors including Gwyneth Paltrow. 

To NFT critics, these apes symbolise all that is wrong in the crypto world — fundamentally worthless yet selling for vast sums with valuations based on hype.

And ultimately these celebrities don’t own the ape pictures in any traditional sense — anyone can download and use the images.

What they own is essentially a digital receipt linked to the picture.

But celebrity backing is vital.

The apes, along with cartoon collections like CryptoPunks, appear to be weathering the crash better than other parts of the crypto sector.

– Solo missions –

Celebrity NFT enthusiasts have gone a lot deeper into the industry than just buying ape images — plenty have created their own NFT collections, with mixed results.

US musician Grimes got in early, managing to bag almost $6 million for some fantasy-inspired art last year.

However, many of these NFTs are now all but worthless, selling for fractions of their original prices — when they sell at all.

Other collections have failed even to get off the ground. Wrestler John Cena sold just a handful of NFTs from a collection he put together last year with the WWE.

He admitted it was a “catastrophic failure”.

Skateboarder Tony Hawk has been more successful with sales, but at the cost of the admiration of some of his fans.

He announced on Twitter last year he would sell versions of his famous tricks as NFTs, prompting responses ranging from “Stop this Tony” to “Tony, no, not you too”.

Hawk has not mentioned the project on Twitter since, though he has continued to deal in NFTs.

– Just business –

One of the mainstays of the celebrity-NFT relationship is the old-fashioned brand endorsement. 

This week, French megastar footballer Kylian Mbappe became the latest star to sign on as an “ambassador” and invest in French start-up Sorare.

The firm runs a fantasy football game where players can buy sports-card style NFTs.

Serena Williams, along with footballers Gerard Pique and Rio Ferdinand, have already invested in the game.

And not to be outdone, the world’s most famous footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, last week announced a partnership with Binance, the world’s biggest crypto firm.

The offerings will apparently include designs created in collaboration with Ronaldo, who said in a statement he looked forward to “bringing unprecedented experiences and access through this NFT platform”.

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In mine-infested sea, Romania aims to cut Russia gas reliance

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With fears growing that Moscow will cut gas shipments to the EU in retaliation for its support to Ukraine, countries are scrambling to find alternative supplies
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Gas now flows to Romania from a new Black Sea platform operating in waters where mines and warships have been spotted.

The dangerous reminders of the war raging nearby in Ukraine underscore Romania’s determination to cut its reliance on Russian natural gas imports.

With fears growing across the European Union that Moscow will cut gas shipments in retaliation for EU support to Ukraine, countries are scrambling to find alternative supplies.

“Romania is taking a decisive step to ensure its energy security… at a time when international gas supplies are threatened by the war in Ukraine,” Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca said on Tuesday as he inaugurated a processing plant belonging to Black Sea Oil & Gas (BSOG) in the southeastern village of Vadu.

While Romania has significant reserves on land and at sea, it still has to turn to Russia in winter to cover around 20 percent of its consumption.

Backed by American private equity firm Carlyle Group LP and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, BSOG began two weeks ago to tap into underwater deposits, becoming the first new offshore Black Sea development in the past 30 years.

The $400-million platform extracts three million cubic metres of gas per day. It is due to recover one billion cubic metres per year for 10 years, or around 10 percent of Romania’s needs.

“Today we are facing an emergency in terms of energy supply. We must put our old devils in the closet… and start producing locally,” said Thierry Bros, an expert on energy and the climate at Sciences Po university.

“We must relaunch the projects in the Black Sea, relaunch the growth of production in Norway, in the United Kingdom we must think of launching the production of shale gas and in France the production of mine gas” he told AFP.

– Mines and warships –

In Vadu, BSOG CEO Mark Beacom said he hopes that the “state-of-the-art” infrastructure put in place by his company will be used for future gas or renewable energy projects in the Black Sea.

But the invasion of neighbouring Ukraine by Russia has complicated the situation. 

“We are not in a war zone, but we are close enough and it clearly has an impact,” he said.

“We’ve had mines detected close to the platform, we’ve had warships that go close to our platform and we’ve had airplanes circling our platform,” he added.

BSOG holds two concessions about 120 kilometres (65 nautical miles) from the Romanian coast, part of which, ironically, was recovered in 2009 by Bucharest from Ukraine, following a decision by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. 

While Romania is counting on offshore gas reserves estimated at 200 billion cubic metres of gas, investors nevertheless remain cautious. 

The Austrian group OMV and its Romanian partner Romgaz have yet to decide whether they will go ahead with the Neptun Deep project to tap between 42 billion and 84 billion cubic metres of gas. 

– End of guaranteed energy? –

Bucharest hopes the two groups will launch extraction as soon as 2026, which would allow Romania to “become completely independent in terms of gas” and export the excess to its neighbours, said Energy Minister Virgil Popescu.

According to a 2018 study by auditing firm Deloitte, offshore gas could bring in $26 billion in tax revenue to Romania’s government over a planned 23-year period of operation. 

After much delay, parliament finally amended in May a law unfavourable to offshore investments, which had notably prompted ExxonMobil to withdraw from the Neptun Deep project at the end of 2021, after having invested around $2 billion there jointly with OMV.

“If we want to win against the Russians, we need energy,” said Bros, warning that the time when “energy was guaranteed” within the EU may be over.

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