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Politics this week: 10th – 16th March 2007

April 27, 2007 Leave a comment

Mar 15th 2007
From The Economist print edition

The Pentagon released an edited transcript of a closed-doors military hearing in which Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confirmed that he had masterminded the September 11th 2001 attacks. He also claimed involvement in a string of other terrorist acts and plots, such as the 1993 car bombing at New York’s World Trade Centre, a failed plot to bomb Big Ben in London and attempts to kill Pope John Paul II and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. The hearing took place at Guantánamo Bay to consider whether Mr Mohammed can be detained as an “enemy combatant”. See article

The Democrats called for the resignation of America’s attorney-general, Alberto Gonzales, when he admitted that mistakes had been made in last year’s sacking of eight United States attorneys, who prosecute federal cases. White House officials were involved in the sackings, which the Democrats claim were politically motivated and not based on judicial performance. See article

George Bush asked for an additional 4,700 troops to join the “surge” in Iraq, on top of the 21,500 ordered to go in January. Meanwhile, agreement was finally reached in the Senate about the terms of the Democrats’ resolution on Iraq, allowing debate to proceed.

AP
AP

George Bush completed his tour of five Latin American countries in which he talked of “social justice” and aid for health and education, as well as ethanol and immigration reform. He was greeted with small demonstrations by local left-wingers. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, after a visit to Argentina where he called Mr Bush “a political corpse” at a rally, went on a seemingly improvised counter-tour of four countries. See article

Ecuador’s conflict of powers continued. Police barred 57 opposition legislators from entering Congress after the electoral tribunal declared them expelled. At issue is a plan by Rafael Correa, the leftist president, to hold a referendum for a constituent assembly that would replace Congress. See article

In Colombia, a departmental governor from the opposition Liberal party surrendered to federal prosecutors investigating links between politicians and right-wing paramilitary groups. Eight other politicians, all supporters of President Álvaro Uribe, already face similar charges.

Tony Blair faced the biggest Labour revolt in Parliament since the vote on the Iraq war in 2003. Some 95 backbenchers voted against renewing Britain’s Trident nuclear-deterrent system. The prime minister, who is due to leave office this summer, won approval for his bill only with the support of the Conservative opposition. See article

Two British soldiers were acquitted of charges relating to the abuse of nine Iraqi detainees (one of whom died from his injuries) in Basra in 2003. Four other soldiers were acquitted last month. A seventh is due to be sentenced next month after pleading guilty.

Jacques Chirac announced that he would not stand again for the French presidency. The battle to succeed him is wide open, with the centrist François Bayrou now nipping at the heels of the two front-runners, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal. These three are some way ahead of the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, who confirmed that he too is in the contest. See article

AP
AP

A huge demonstration against ETA, the Basque terrorist group, was staged in Madrid. The city also marked the third anniversary of the train bombings on March 11th 2004. Both events spelt trouble for Spain’s prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose popularity has fallen sharply as voters see him as accommodating to terrorists.
See article

United Russia, the main pro-Putin party, won 13 out of 14 regional elections in Russia. The 14th went to a new party, Just Russia, which is also loyal to President Vladimir Putin. See article

Mr Putin met the pope in Rome for the first time. Relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches are strained. While he was in Italy, Mr Putin also finalised a bilateral gas deal with the Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi.

Japan signed a security pact with Australia (its first such deal with a country other than the United States) to bolster co-operation on issues such as intelligence and border protection. The pact was interpreted by some as a response to China’s growing power in the east Pacific. See article

Mohamed ElBaradei, who heads the IAEA, the UN‘s nuclear watchdog, described as “quite useful” talks held in North Korea on its recent promise to shut down its main nuclear reactor and close other facilities in return for fuel aid.

Nepal’s prime minister, an erstwhile supporter of the country’s monarchy, changed tack and suggested it would be better if the king were to abdicate. Last November’s peace deal between the government and Maoist rebels agreed that the future of the monarchy should be decided after assembly elections this year.

In India, Naxalite rebels killed some 50 police officers when they stormed a security post in Chhattisgarh state, the most daring incident in a spate of recent attacks.

Muslim separatists were blamed for a gun attack on a minibus in southern Thailand that left nine people, all Buddhists, dead. The region has seen an increase in violence; some 2,000 people have been killed in the past two years.

AP
AP

Riot police in Zimbabwe broke up an opposition rally, shooting dead one activist and arresting 50 others. One of those was Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the main opposition party, who was badly beaten in prison before being allowed to go to hospital. The episode was part of a pattern of increasing repression by President Robert Mugabe‘s embattled government in a week in which Zimbabwe’s inflation rate reached 1,730%. See article

The first fully democratic presidential election since independence in 1960 took place in Mauritania. The run-off is due on March 25th.

The leaders of the Palestinians’ rival Hamas and Fatah parties finalised the make-up of a new unity government. The key posts of finance, interior and foreign minister will go to men who are not members of either party.

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Business this week: 10th – 16th March 2007

April 27, 2007 Leave a comment

articles from this week’s edition of The Economist
The European Union at 50 | Microfinance | Tobacco and its impact | Curbing the American-Jewish lobby | Family capitalism | Chirac retires on a sour note | Viacom and YouTube | Global warming and the political agenda | Connecting brains to games | After Russia’s regional elections | Zimbabwe’s political crackdown | Japan’s military flirtation with Australia | Teaching history | Jean Baudrillard, philosopher of consumerism

Business this week

Mar 15th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Viacom sued Google and its YouTube website, claiming they had a “brazen disregard” for the copyright of video and song clips that are uploaded by YouTube’s users. The two sides failed to reach a distribution agreement earlier this year and Viacom is now claiming $1 billion in damages. It is the biggest challenge yet to the ability of “new” online media to use content produced by “traditional” media companies. See article

General Motors’restructuring plan seemed to bear fruit after it reported a net loss of $2 billion for 2006, improving on the $10.4 billion it lost in 2005. The carmaker even made a $950m profit in the fourth quarter as the performance of its North American operations picked up following cuts in production. Rick Wagoner, GM‘s boss, said that nobody was yet declaring victory.

Ford found a buyer for Aston Martin, ending its 20-year control of the famous luxury-car brand. A consortium led by David Richards, an entrepreneur, and which includes two Kuwaiti investment firms, will pay £439m ($848m) for the British-based carmaker. With Ford trying to claw its way back from massive losses, analysts pondered whether it would need to sell other luxury brands, including Jaguar.

EADS, Airbus’s parent company, confirmed that 2006 had been a dismal year when it reported net income had plunged by 94%, to euro99m ($124m). The turmoil in aircraft production at Airbus and a weak dollar were blamed for Airbus’s first-ever operating loss. Louis Gallois, chief executive, gave warning of more poor results this year.

All charges were dropped against Patricia Dunn over the boardroom-spying scandal at Hewlett-Packard. Ms Dunn stepped down as the company’s chairman last autumn after it was revealed that external investigators employed by HP had used false pretences to gain access to the private records of board members in order to flush out a leak.

A spanner was thrown in the works of the merger between the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) when the Intercontinental Exchange, an electronic futures and energy market, launched an unsolicited bid for CBOT.

Kohlberg Kravis Roberts supported a £9.7 billion ($18.8 billion) buy-out bid for Alliance Boots, a British drugs retailer and distributor. Boots rejected the approach, led by its deputy executive chairman, but a higher offer is expected. KKR had more immediate success with Dollar General, a retailer that caters to low-income consumers. It agreed to be bought out by the pri
vate-equity firm for $7.3 billion.
See article

Akzo Nobel, a Dutch conglomerate, surprised investors by agreeing to sell its pharmaceuticals business to Schering-Plough for $14.4 billion. Plans had been made for Organon BioSciences to float on the stockmarket.

Swisscom made a euro3.7 billion ($4.9 billion) offer for Fastweb, an Italian broadband provider. The Swiss telephone company’s previous attempts at expansion have been frustrated by politicians at home. This time, it said, it has the backing of the state.

Cadbury Schweppes said it was separating its British-based confectionery and American-based beverages businesses and would provide more details in June. The announcement came after it was revealed that Nelson Peltz, a shareholder activist, had taken a 3% stake in the company, which led to speculation about a buy-out.

Halliburton announced it was opening new corporate headquarters in Dubai. The move is meant to put the oil-services group closer to fast-growing oil-exploration and production areas, but some in Congress promised hearings.

Citigroup sweetened its bid for Nikko Cordial, a Japanese brokerage firm, increasing the value of its offer by a quarter, to $13.4 billion. Its decision came after the Tokyo Stock Exchange bucked expectations by deciding not to delist Nikko for inflating its earnings.

More bad news about America’s subprime-mortgage market dented investor confidence again. The Mortgage Bankers Association reported a rise in mortgage defaults and activity in home foreclosures in the subprime market, which lends to borrowers with weak credit. Meanwhile, trading was suspended in New Century Financial after it indicated it faced bankruptcy; other subprime lenders showed increasing signs of being in financial trouble. See article

Anxiety about the banks’ exposure to the subprime market and the knock-on effects on the economy fed volatility in stockmarkets around the world, which had only slightly recovered from a clobbering two weeks ago.

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Politics this week: 17th – 23rd March 2007

April 27, 2007 Leave a comment

The mayhem continued in Iraq. Among the atrocities were three car-bombs (two near Fallujah, the third near Ramadi) that used chlorine gas. These attacks killed eight people and injured more than 350. Meanwhile, anti-war protests in America and elsewhere marked the fourth anniversary of the invasion.

A new Hamas-Fatah unity government took control of the Palestinian Authority. But Hamas’s refusal to renounce violence against Israel means an international boycott remains in place. See article

Russia was reported to have withdrawn assistance from the nuclear reactor it is building in Iran at Bushehr. It was not clear whether this was because of a commercial spat or part of the international campaign to stop Iran from enriching uranium.

There was heavy fighting in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, after government and Ethiopian troops tried to enter an Islamist insurgent stronghold. The corpses of two soldiers were dragged through the streets. There has been a rise in attacks by the remnants of the Islamist militias, which were defeated by Ethiopian-backed forces in December. See article

As a government crackdown on opposition leaders continued in Zimbabwe, some of its neighbours were, for the first time, openly critical of President Robert Mugabe. With thousands fleeing the country Levy Mwanawasa, Zambia’s president, compared Zimbabwe to the “sinking Titanic”. See article

The row over last year’s sacking of eight federal prosecutors gathered steam. A committee in Congress authorised subpoenas in order to get White House aides to testify on Capitol Hill. George Bush said he would not allow them to do so on the ground that it would be a “witch hunt”.

Kathleen Blanco decided not to seek re-election as Louisiana’s governor later this year. Ms Blanco, a Democrat, had seen her political stock tumble in the state with the failure of her “Road Home” rebuilding programme in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Presidential candidates started to rethink their campaign strategies after California moved forward the date of its primary to February 5th 2008. Legislators in New York also approved a measure to move its primary to that date. New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, has not ruled out bringing its election forward to as early as December.

EPA
EPA

Six-party talks in Beijing aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme ended in disarray. The North Korean delegation went home early angry that $25m, frozen in a bank in Macau, had not yet reached its account. On the eve of the talks, America had agreed to the transfer of the money. See article

The confrontation between Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, and the country’s judiciary worsened. Eight judges have resigned in protest at General Musharraf’s attempt to dismiss Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice, on charges of misconduct and misuse of authority. Opposition parties have rallied to Mr Chaudhry’s defence.

More than 100 people were reported killed in Pakistan’s tribal area of South Waziristan in days of fighting between local ethnic-Pushtun tribesmen and foreign militants. The Afghan government says the area provides sanctuary for Taliban fighters waging an insurgency against it and its NATO allies.

An Italian journalist was freed from captivity in Afghanistan in exchange for five Taliban fighters. America made a formal diplomatic complaint to Italy about the deal.

Heavy fighting erupted in eastern Sri Lanka between government troops and rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tigers attacked four army bases from land and sea. Neither side has repudiated the 2002 ceasefire agreement, but the country is sliding ever closer to all-out civil war.

In Thailand, the police recommended that Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister ousted in a coup last September, be charged on three counts of insulting the country’s much-revered king.

Twelve candidates got on the ballot for the first round of France’s presidential election on April 22nd. The centre-right front-runner, Nicolas Sarkozy, widened his opinion-poll lead a little and won an endorsement from President Jacques Chirac. The centrist François Bayrou is still snapping at the heels of the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal. See article

Finland’s election confirmed a shift to the right in the Nordic region. The ruling Centre Party of Matti Vanhanen won the most seats, but he may have to link with the conservative National Coalition Party instead of his current partner, the Social Democrats, who slumped to their worst result since 1962.

Gordon Brown, who is likely to take over from Tony Blair as prime minister, unveiled his final budget as Britain’s chancellor. It included a flamboyant 2p cut in the main rates of income and corporation tax. See article

Two submariners from HMS Tireless, a British navy nuclear-powered submarine, died when an air filter exploded on board. The boat, which was patrolling off Alaska, has run into trouble before. In 2000 she had to make a lengthy stop in Gibraltar, causing a diplomatic row with Spain.

Colombia’s government said it would consider seeking the extradition of senior managers of Chiquita Brands, a banana company, after it pleaded guilty in an American court to charges that its former subsidiary in the country paid $1.7m to right-wing paramilitaries in order to protect its workers. The company said it also paid left-wing guerrillas.

AFP
AFP

In a bad week for the illegal drug industry, Panamanian police, working with agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, seized almost 20 tonnes of cocaine from a ship off the Pacific coast, while Mexican police found $206m in cash in a Mexico City house used by a methamphetamine syndicate.

Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s new left-wing president, appeared to win his battle with the formerly opposition-dominated Congress. The electoral tribunal, having expelled 57 legislators, swore in 21 of their alternates who support Mr Correa. Provided with a pro-government quorum, Congress met under police guard.

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Business this week: 17th – 23rd March 2007

April 27, 2007 Leave a comment

articles from this week’s edition of The Economist
Human rights, dangerously blurred | America’s housing market | America’s debacle in Iraq | The politics of pay | Using mosquitoes to fight malaria | The future of books | Britain’s 2007 budget | The paradoxical effect of Palestinian sanctions | Evaluating Angela Merkel | Colombia’s embattled president | North Korea’s sulk impedes nuclear diplomacy | Barclays bids for ABN AMRO | Preah Maha Ghosananda, “The Gandhi of Cambodia”

Business this week

Mar 22nd 2007
From The Economist print edition

Barclays confirmed it was talking to ABN Amro about a merger. A combination of the British and Dutch banks would create one of the world’s biggest financial institutions with interests in retail and investment banking. As negotiations continued, other European banks were rumoured to be interested in buying all (or part) of ABN AMRO, which is resisting a call for its break-up from an activist hedge fund. See article

Wal-Mart withdrew its application to enter the banking business, saying it had been surrounded by “manufactured controversy”. The retailer had been opposed by consumer groups and community banks, though Wal-Mart had insisted its intention had been to cut its own transaction costs, not to start a retail bank.

Morgan Stanley won its appeal against the $1.6 billion in damages awarded to Ronald Perelman in 2005. The billionaire investor alleged he had received fraudulent advice from the bank about the finances of Sunbeam, a maker of household appliances that eventually went bankrupt. A state appeals court in Florida ruled he did not prove the level of damage at the original trial.

BP was berated for having a weak safety culture in the final report from America’s Chemical Safety Board into the blast at a Texas refinery in March 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured scores of others. The inquiry concluded that the oil company paid more attention to cutting costs at the facility than to the threat of an explosion. BP is being investigated by the Justice Department and faces the possibility of criminal charges. See article

Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, disclosed it had secured $22 billion in loans from a consortium of Western banks so that it could bid at auction for refineries once owned by Yukos, a private oil firm that was forced to sell its main assets by the Russian government and was thereby bankrupted. It is one of the largest loans given to a Russian company.

In a deal worth $4 billion—one of the biggest in BrazilPetrobras, the state-run oil company, and two partners announced a plan to buy Ipiranga, a fuel distributor and refiner. The decision follows the government’s recent stated intention to expand its strategic role in the energy sector.

John Antioco quit Blockbuster as chief executive after months of criticism from shareholders (led by Carl Icahn) about the size of his pay given the company’s languid performance. Mr Antioco has now agreed to take much smal
ler sums in both bonus and severance pay when he leaves at the end of this year.

Investors were excited at reports that Blackstone, which has funded some of the biggest buy-outs over the past two years, might offer some shares to the public. As well as pondering what such a decision might mean for future buy-outs, analysts were eager to learn what the private-equity firm’s prospectus could reveal about its operations. See article

The founder of Affiliated Computer Services unveiled an $8.2 billion buy-out offer for the computer-outsourcing company backed by Cerberus Capital Management, a private-equity firm. The chief executive and chief financial officer of ACS resigned last year amid an internal inquiry into its stock-option practices.

Community Health Systems agreed to buy Triad Hospitals, a rival, pipping a buy-out offer that had been made by two private-equity firms. The $6.8 billion deal creates the biggest publicly traded hospital operator in America (HCA went private in a management-led buy-out last year) with 144 medical facilities, primarily in the south.

Airbus’s A380 made inaugural flights to the United States in order to test the runway upgrades of airports that are trying to accommodate the world’s biggest passenger jet, which has faced a series of embarrassing production delays and losses. The aircraft touched down in New York and Los Angeles ahead of schedule.

The Federal Reserve held its main interest rate steady at 5.25%, but the tone of its accompanying statement was interpreted by the markets to mean the central bank was becoming flexible towards the idea of future rate-cuts.

Infographics
Infographics

The Fed meeting came after the release of new inflation figures. America’s headline consumer prices increased by 0.4% in February compared with January as fuel and medical-care costs rose sharply (the core inflation rate, which excludes energy and food, slowed). There was also a rise in Britain’s consumer-price index, but more attention was paid to its retail-price index, which includes mortgage payments. Thus measured, annual inflation jumped to 4.6%.

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Business this week: 24th – 30th March 2007

April 27, 2007 Leave a comment

Another chapter was added to the 18-month saga of the takeover of Endesa, Spain’s biggest power company. E.ON, a German utility, won the backing of both Endesa‘s board and its third-biggest shareholder after (again) raising its offer, to euro42 billion ($56 billion). However, with threats of legal action flying between E.ON and an Italian-Spanish alliance willing to pay more for Endesa, its success is not assured. Meanwhile, the European Commission referred the Spanish government to the European Union‘s highest court for trying to thwart the German bid.

In yet another sign of Russia’s tightening grip on its energy resources, Rosneft, the state oil company, bought back the 9% stake that was held in it by Yukos, a private oil firm that was forced into bankruptcy by a “revised” government tax demand. Rosneft won the stake in the first auction of Yukos’s former holdings and paid far less than the market value. The only other bidder, TNK-BP, a Russian joint venture involving BP, quit the bidding after less than five minutes. See article

EDP, Portugal’s biggest utility, said it would buy Horizon Wind Energy from Goldman Sachs. Based in Houston, Horizon operates wind farms throughout America, where wind power’s generating capacity rose by 27% last year and is estimated to increase by a similar amount this year.

Xstrata, an Anglo-Swiss miner, boosted its nickel business when it agreed to buy LionOre Mining, which is listed in Toronto, for C$4.6 billion ($4 billion).

Porsche increased its stake in Volkswagen to 31%, instigating a mandatory takeover bid under German regulations. Porsche signalled that a takeover wasn’t its immediate goal when it offered shareholders the minimum price allowed by law, but the manoeuvre solidified its strategic control of VW under the assertive hand of Ferdinand Piëch, VW‘s chairman and a member of the Porsche family. See article

In another blow to the reputation of Siemens, Johannes Feldmayer, a member of its management board, was arrested in connection with alleged payments to a pro-management labour group and potential counterweight to IG Metall, Germany’s largest trade union. Europe’s biggest engineering company is the subject of a separate investigation of alleged bribery.

Delta Air Lines applied for permission to list shares again, starting in May. The carrier entered bankruptcy protection in September 2005 and expects to leave it at the end of April.

Alitalia made a pre-tax loss of euro405m ($508m) in 2006, almost three times as much as the previous year. Several potential buyers are negotiating with the Italian government for the controlling stake it is selling in the beleaguered national airline. The last time Alitalia reported an annual profit was 1998.

Intel unveiled plans to open a $2.5 billion factory in the Chinese city of Dalian by 2010. The decision is a boon to China’s ambitions to be a centre for high-tech industry as well as a maker of low-cost electronics. However, with an eye on potential opposition from American politicians to the export of sensitive technology, Intel said the new plant will make chips other than microprocessors. See article

Lennar’s quarterly net profit plunged by 73% compared with a year ago. America’s third-biggest homebuilder said a soft market had been worsened by problems in subprime mortgages. Beazer Homes denied reports that it was being investigated for fraud stemming from mortgage loans. It confirmed it was co-operating with federal prosecutors, but that there were “no allegations of any wrongdoing”. Its share price slumped.

Ben Bernanke assured Congress that he would continue to watch the subprime-mortgage market carefully. However, the Federal Reserve‘s chairman told the Joint Economic Committee that inflation remained the Fed’s “predominant policy concern”.

Taylor Woodrow and George Wimpey announced a merger, so creating Britain’s biggest housebuilder. See article

The Tokyo Stock Exchange named a new boss. Atsushi Saito, who until recently headed a state corporation charged with reviving some of Japan’s more anaemic companies, will lead the exchange through a period of alliance-building among bourses worldwide.

The price of oil rose sharply to reach its highest level this year, partly in response to increased tensions in the Gulf region. Rumours that Iran had fired at an American warship caused the price to push briefly past $68 a barrel in intra-day trading. See article

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Politics this week: 24th – 30th March 2007

April 27, 2007 Leave a comment

articles from this week’s edition of The Economist
A game of chicken over Iraq | Why China’s neighbours fear its rise | A closer look at Robert Mugabe | A hopeful meeting for Northern Ireland | India’s acquisitive companies | The world from the bottom up | Profiting from distress | Three weeks before France’s election | Quebec’s election and Canadian politics | Vietnam’s Communists: successful but worried | Rowing with Iran over captured Britons | NATO, Europe and missile defence | The evolution of mammals | Ian McEwan | Robert Taylor, possibly abducted by aliens

Politics this week

Mar 29th 2007
From The Economist print edition

AP
AP

Iran captured 15 British sailors and marines at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Britain released navigational evidence indicating that they were taken in Iraqi territorial waters; Iran showed its captives on state television and said it would release the one woman it held. See article

Gunmen killed at least 70 Sunnis in Tal Afar in Iraq. Elsewhere, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Salam al-Zubaie, was hurt in a suicide-bomb attack. Nine people were killed in the assassination attempt, which occurred while Mr Zubaie, a Sunni, attended prayers.

Condoleezza Rice, America’s secretary of state, persuaded Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, to promise to hold regular fortnightly meetings. Meanwhile, members of the Arab League, meeting in Riyadh, offered Israel peace if it withdrew to its pre-1967 boundaries and accepted the right of all Palestinian refugees to return. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah opened the conference and called America’s occupation of Iraq “illegal”. See article

The government of Egypt won a referendum endorsing changes to the constitution which, it claimed, would strengthen democracy. Critics said the changes would in fact make the country less free. Amid accusations of ballot-rigging, turnout was just 27%. See article

Morgan Tsvangirai, the main leader of the opposition in Zimbabwe, was briefly arrested in a raid on his party’s headquarters, two weeks after being beaten up by the police. President Robert Mugabe, who is under increasing pressure to step down, attended a meeting of regional leaders in Tanzania. See article

After weeks of manoeuvring, America’s Democrats scored a legislative coup by passing a war-spending bill in the House of Representatives and looked set to do the same in the Senate. These link funding for the war in Iraq to a timetable for withdrawing American troops. George Bush said the plan would hamstring operations and promised a veto. See article

In the first trial under a new system of military courts to be held at Guantánamo Bay, David Hicks, an Australian, pleaded guilty to a charge of helping al-Qaeda fight American troops in Afghanistan. Mr Hicks’s case has become a hot political issue in Australia, where the government has been criticised for not intervening on his behalf.

AFP
AFP

In a big defeat for Quebec separatism, the Parti Québécois was beaten into third place in a provincial election by Action Démocratique du Québec, which favours an “autonomous” Quebec within Canada, and the Liberals, who clung on for a second term but with a legislative minority. See article

Colombia’s government rejected a leaked report from the CIA which claimed that General Mario Montoya, now the army commander, had collaborated with right-wing paramilitaries during an operation against left-wing guerrillas in Medellín in 2002.

Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, reshuffled her cabinet, sacking four ministers. She has faced criticism over a botched public-transport scheme in the capital, Santiago, and a lack of decisive leadership. See article

Police in Jamaica said that Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan cricket coach found dead in his hotel room, was murdered by “manual strangulation”. Pakistan, along with India, was surprisingly eliminated from the cricket World Cup being staged in the Caribbean. See article

The war in Sri Lanka intensified. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam launched their first-ever air strike, on an air-force base next to Colombo’s international airport. In the east of the country, government forces took an important Tiger base. Some 155,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in the east in the past six weeks. See article

The United Nations‘ food programme reported that North Korea had admitted it needed assistance to cope with food shortages.

Thailand’s prime minister rejected military calls for an emergency decree to quell public protests. An election is planned for December.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, repeated in parliament Japan’s 1993 apology for the military brothels set up in the second world war. He did not, however, retract controversial statements casting doubt on whether the prostitutes had been coerced.

To no one’s surprise, Donald Tsang was re-elected as Hong Kong’s chief executive by a committee designed to ensure China’s man always wins.

China’s president, Hu Jintao, visited Moscow for a state visit, marking the beginning of the “China in Russia” year. The two countries announced a joint effort to explore Mars and one of its moons in 2009.

EPA
EPA

The European Union marked 50 years since its founding Treaty of Rome with a string of birthday bashes. European heads of government issued a “Berlin declaration” that avoided any specific mention of reviving the stalled EU constitution but instead used coded words about putting the club on a “renewed common basis” before mid-2009.

Nicolas Sarkozy stepped down as France’s interior minister to concentrate on running for the French presidency. The latest polls have narrowed his lead over the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal
, with the centrist François Bayrou dropping back.
See article

The United Nations envoy for Kosovo sent his plan for conditional independence for the Serb province to the UN Security Council. The Russians are threatening to veto any resolution not acceptable to Serbia.

Latvia and Russia signed a treaty demarcating their border, after a 16-year dispute since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The Northern Ireland peace process culminated in a power-sharing deal between Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists and Gerry Adams’s Sinn Fein. In May Mr Paisley will become first minister, with Mr Adams’s second-in-command, Martin McGuinness, as his deputy. See article

A plan was unveiled to split Britain’s Home Office. It will boost its focus on domestic security issues, such as terrorist threats, while prisons and probation will go to a new justice ministry. See article

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Politics this week: 31st March – 6th April 2007

April 27, 2007 Leave a comment

Tortuous diplomacy continued in an effort to free 15 British sailors and marines captured recently by Iran, which said they had trespassed into Iranian waters at the top of the Persian Gulf. Britain, which denied the charge, said it has proposed direct talks with Iran. See articleE+

Following a threat from Kurdish members of Iraq’s parliament to leave the unity government, a plan was agreed upon to offer compensation and land in Iraq’s Arab south for Arabs willing to leave the disputed city of Kirkuk, which Kurds want to include in their region. See article

Iraq’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has been notably quieter in the past year or so, seemed to reject the unity government’s plan to allow members of Saddam Hussein‘s Baath Party back into public service. Sunni Arabs say this may hamper Shia-Sunni reconciliation.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of America’s House of Representatives, defied President George Bush by making a controversial visit to Syria, a country the Bush administration has sought to ostracise. See article

Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, suggested holding talks with Saudi Arabia on the Arab League’s plan, relaunched last week, for normalising relations with Israel. The Arab League’s secretary-general, Amr Moussa, dismissed the comments as a call for a “free-of-charge normalisation”, while a Saudi official said that Israel would have to accept the plan’s principles before talks could be held.

Southern African leaders, meeting in Tanzania to discuss conditions in Zimbabwe, asked South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki to mediate between Zimbabwe’s opposition and its president, Robert Mugabe, whom they refused to criticise. In Zimbabwe itself, the ruling party said Mr Mugabe would be its candidate again in next year’s presidential election. See article

The United Nations said that about 47,000 people had fled Mogadishu in the past two weeks after fighting flared in the Somali capital, killing about 400 people, most of them civilians. See article

Former Maoist insurgents in Nepal joined an interim government in coalition with seven mainstream parties, an important landmark in the peace process. The Maoists took five out of 21 cabinet posts, including the departments of information and local development.

The South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation held a summit in Delhi, marked by the usual professions of seriousness about co-operation and the usual lack of concrete measures to realise it.

Six Islamist militants were executed in Bangladesh. The militants were convicted of a series of bombings in 2005 that gave rise to fears the country might become a hub for international terrorism. See article

Local-commune elections in Cambodia resulted in another landslide win for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of Hun Sen, the prime minister. The opposition made accusations of fraud. See article

AP
AP

At least 28 people died when a tsunami hit the Solomon Islands. Hundreds of homes and much infrastructure were destroyed. Many survivors moved to camp on inland hills, in fear of aftershocks, and were reported to be in desperate need of water, food and tents.

Argentina’s government marked the 25th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War with an announcement that it was pulling out of an agreement with Britain regarding oil exploration in the South Atlantic. See article

More chaos afflicted Brazil’s airports. After a five-hour strike by air-traffic controllers, the government agr
eed to their demands for higher pay and for some to be transferred from the air force to a civilian agency. Brazil has been dogged by air-traffic control problems since September.

In his first political intervention since undergoing surgery last year, Cuba’s Communist president, Fidel Castro, published a newspaper article claiming that American plans to boost ethanol use would lead to food shortages. See articleE+

America and South Korea agreed on a plan to form a free-trade area. It must be ratified by Congress and South Korea’s parliament and faces obstacles in both places.

Environmentalists claimed a victory when America’s Supreme Court, in its first “global warming” case, ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency did have the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, and criticised it for not having done so. The decision puts more pressure on the Bush administration to take action on reducing greenhouse gases. See article

Presidential contenders released details of the money they raised during the first three months of this year. Hillary Clinton claimed to have the most, $26m. Republican candidate Mitt Romney claimed $21m. Barack Obama did not disclose a sum, but it was rumoured to be in excess of $20m. See article

A report forecast that this year American farmers would plant their largest amount of corn since 1944, driven by the demand for ethanol as an alternative fuel.

David Hicks was sentenced to seven years in prison by a military tribunal at Guantánamo Bay. But Mr Hicks, who made a plea bargain and admitted helping al-Qaeda, will serve only nine months and in his native Australia.

In an escalating political confrontation, Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, dissolved parliament and called a new election on May 27th. But his rival (and prime minister), Viktor Yanukovich, refused to accept the dissolution. As is now customary, flag-waving protesters from both sides took to the streets. See article

As expected, Romania’s government fell apart and the prime minister, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, formed a new minority administration. He also dropped the well-known justice minister, Monica Macovei, who is a protégée of the president, Traian Basescu.

AFP
AFP

France broke the world rail-speed record when a high-speed train travelling on the new line from Paris to Strasbourg touched a top speed of nearly 575kph (357mph).

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Business this week: 31st March – 6th April 2007

April 27, 2007 Leave a comment

articles from this week’s edition of The Economist
Multinationals | Iran and the West | Russia’s Muslims | American trade policy | IBM and globalisation | A new explanation for depression | “Open skies” shake up Europe’s airlines | Mexico’s new president | BAA’s troubled future | The fighting gets worse in Somalia | Japan and China: a burgeoning friendship | How to make aid work | Insuring against political risk | France’s presidential candidates | Paul Lauterbur, father of MRI

Business this week

Apr 4th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Texas Pacific Group, a private-equity firm, approached Spain’s Iberia airline with a euro3.4 billion ($4.5 billion) bid, the first attempt at a cross-border takeover in the airline industry since the agreement by European ministers to an “open skies” treaty with America. There was speculation that several other carriers were circling with rival bids.

Aeroflot, Russia’s state-owned airline, emerged as a surprise bidder for Alitalia. Italy’s government is selling its controlling stake in the national carrier and has whittled the list of buyers down to three consortia. All include some involvement from Italian firms, but Aeroflot’s has the least. Its partner, UniCredit bank, has a 5% stake in the bid.

Kohlberg Kravis Roberts said it would take over First Data, which processes credit-card and other payments, in a $29 billion buy-out. The deal is unusual in that, given its size, it was made by a single private-equity firm (and not a “club” of firms) with the backing of several banks that are committing equity as well as debt.

In what would be Australia’s biggest takeover, Wesfarmers, a conglomerate based in Perth, revealed it owned more than 11% of Coles, a retailer, and was “pursuing discussions”. Wesfarmers is making its A$19.7 billion ($16 billion) offer in conjunction with several private-equity investors, including Macquarie Bank. A rival private-equity consortium, led by KKR, is also negotiating with Coles, having had its initial bid rejected.

Sam Zell, a property mogul based in Chicago, won the auction to buy Tribune, a media conglomerate which includes the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune in its stable. Mr Zell fended off a rival bid from two Californian billionaires with his deal, valued at $8.2 billion. In order to pay down its debt, Tribune will sell some assets, including the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

The 18-month saga to take control of Endesa, Spain’s biggest power company, seemed to reach a conclusion. E.ON, a German utility, agreed to drop its euro42 billion ($56 billion) bid in return for some of Endesa‘s assets. It had faced both competition from an Italian-Spanish alliance that holds a 46% stake in the company and strong opposition from the Spanish government (which is being sued by the European Commission for hindering E.ON). Endesa will now be split among E.ON, Enel, an Ita
lian rival, and Acciona, a Spanish construction firm.
See article

As the battle for Endesa drew to a close, another politically contentious takeover attempt for a European company looked set to begin. Italy’s telecommunications minister said he was “very concerned” at an offer from AT&T and América Móvil, a Mexican mobile operator, for most of the controlling stake in Telecom Italia held by Pirelli, a conglomerate and compatriot. See article

Auctions continued of the former assets of Yukos, a private Russian oil firm that was forced into bankruptcy by government tax claims. Eni and Enel, two Italian energy firms, became the first foreign firms recently to win control of Russian oil and gas fields. However, the pair have given Gazprom, the state gas company, the option to buy a controlling stake in the venture.

Dubai Aerospace agreed to buy two aircraft-maintenance companies in North America, one in Canada, the other in Arizona, from Carlyle Group for $1.8 billion. Charles Schumer, an American senator who opposed the takeover of operations in American ports by a company from Dubai last year, said this acquisition did not raise the same level of security concerns.

Apple announced that EMI had become the first big record label to unlock the digital-rights technology on its music sold through Apple’s iTunes online music store in an effort to boost sales. The news came shortly before the European Commission said it was initiating an antitrust investigation into whether agreements made between record companies and Apple restricted online music-sales through iTunes. See article

Google made its biggest foray into television advertising by announcing a partnership with EchoStar. The deal will allow the internet company, which has been experimenting with “offline” advertising over the past few months, to replicate its online system for buying, selling and measuring the impact of ads on EchoStar’s 125 satellite channels in the United States.

Mercer, a consultancy, released its annual quality of life index of cities around the world. The survey evaluated 215 cities on 39 factors, such as transport, education and political stability, and ranked them accordingly. European cities accounted for half of the top 50 places in the list and North American cities for 13.

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Politics this week: 7th – 13th April 2007

April 27, 2007 Leave a comment

Politics this week

Apr 12th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Sectarian bombings continued to ravage Iraq. A woman suicide-bomber killed at least 17 police recruits north-east of Baghdad. One of the capital’s biggest bridges over the Tigris river was blown up. And a bomb in a restaurant in Iraq’s parliament building killed at least two MPs and wounded dozens of people.

Though Iraq’s firebrand Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, has not been seen for months, he orchestrated a huge demonstration in the holy city of Najaf to call for American troops to leave. His supporters vilified the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, for not spelling out a timetable for them to go. See article

EPA
EPA

Two suicide-bombings, one against the prime minister’s office in Algiers, killed at least 30 people in Algeria’s capital. A group calling itself al-Qaeda‘s arm in the Maghreb claimed responsibility. See article

Raising fears that the same group may hit targets across the region, Morocco was involved in a separate spate of incidents: two suicide-bombers blew themselves up when police raided a house in Casablanca, the country’s biggest city. The police say they have been searching for a dozen would-be suicide-bombers for a month.

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Iran had stepped up uranium enrichment in defiance of a second UN Security Council resolution ordering it to stop.

Chad admitted that its troops had crossed the border with Sudan into the Darfur region and fought with Sudanese soldiers. It is the first time that troops from the two countries have clashed directly; Chad has accused Sudan of supporting rebels who want to topple its government and operate out of Darfur.

China urged Sudan in unusually strong terms to accept UN peacekeepers in Darfur. Sudan’s government, hitherto with China’s support, had been resisting the replacement of a weak African Union force by a 20,000-strong UN one.

An Ethiopian judge quashed charges of genocide and treason against 111 people arrested for protesting against the results of an election in 2005. But more than 80 remain in prison on charges of trying to overthrow the government. See article

Police in Bangladesh filed murder charges against Sheikh Hasina Wajed, leader of the Awami League, one of the two main political parties. There has been speculation that the interim administration running the country under an army-backed state of emergency since January would like both Sheikh Hasina and her rival, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, to quit politics. See article

Reuters
Reuters

In a visit trailed by both sides as a landmark in Sino-Japanese relations, China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, arrived in Tokyo and made a speech in Japan’s parliament, urging the country to face up to its actions in the second world war.

In Nepal, the United Nations began overseeing the storage of weapons used by the army. Under a peace agreement with Maoist rebels reached last year the army is supposed to lock up the same number of weapons as the rebels.

The first presidential elections in Timor-Leste since independence in 2002 passed peacefully but inconclusively. Three candidates each won more than 20% of the vote, including Jos�� Ramos-Horta, the prime minister. Mr Ramos-Horta will now compete in a run-off next month with the candidate of Fretilin, the ruling political party. See article

An estimated 10,000 protesters occupied the main square of Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, and threatened to stay until the president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, resigns. See article

Leaders of seven Central American countries met Mexico’s Felipe Calder��n and Colombia’s ��lvaro Uribe and agreed to co-operate on improving infrastructure and fighting drugs. See article

Teachers in Argentina staged a one-day strike in protest at the death of a colleague in a demonstration and at the failure of many provincial governments to implement a recent 24% wage rise decreed by the government of N��stor Kirchner. The provinces say they lack the money.

France’s presidential election campaign was officially launched. There are 12 candidates, each of whom must have equal airtime until the first round on April 22nd. The centre-right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, remains in the lead in most opinion polls. See article

A Serbian war-crimes court jailed four Serb paramilitaries who were filmed shooting six Bosnian Muslims in July 1995. It was the first trial inside Serbia that had any bearing on the Srebrenica massacres, in which almost 8,000 male Muslims were killed.

The political stand-off continued in Ukraine, where the prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, has rejected the call by the president, Viktor Yushchenko, for a new parliamentary election in May. Both sides were said to be seeking a compromise. See article

A huge row broke out over the decision by Britain’s Royal Navy to allow two of the 15 sailors and marines held captive in Iran to sell their stories to the media. The defence ministry reversed the decision; the prime minister, Tony Blair, said he was not involved but declared that in hindsight it had been a bad idea to let the servicemen sell their tales. See article

John McCain tried to get his presidential campaign back on track by making a big speech on Iraq and reiterating his belief that America would prevail. Shortly before, the senator from Arizona had been criticised for claiming the security situation in Iraq had improved after he toured a market in Baghdad on April 1st. Mr McCain was protected on his stroll by 100 troops, five military helicopters and American rooftop snipers. See article

AP
AP

Robert Gates, the defence secretary, acknowledged that American forces are stretched when he extended the deployments of army units serving in Iraq and Afghanistan by three months, to 15 months.

The Senate passed a contentious stem-cell research bill (by 63-34) that George Bush vetoed last year and says he will veto again.

New York added its name to the growing list of states that have brought forward their presidential primaries to February 5th 2008; others are contemplating the same.

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Business this week: 7th – 13th April 2007

April 27, 2007 Leave a comment

articles from this week’s edition of The Economist
The battle for the French presidency | Land of promise | Pakistan’s lurch towards extremism | Europe’s risky dependence on Russian gas | The resurgence of Scottish nationalism | Indian tribes and casinos | Italian luxury goods | Trees may warm the Earth | Human rights in Argentina and Chile | Dealing with the nuclear proliferators | Retirement and banks | Iraq’s fiery priest, Muqtada al-Sadr | Softbank’s reinvention | Lazard | Mariá Julia Hernández, fighter for human rights

Business this week

Apr 12th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Citigroup unveiled a much-trailed restructuring plan saying it would shed 17,000 jobs (5% of its workforce) in an effort to cut costs. The world’s biggest financial institution is responding to pressure from shareholders to rein in its operating expenses, which last year grew at twice the rate of its revenues. See article

America filed two separate complaints against China at the World Trade Organisation, one on enforcing copyright laws, the other on opening markets to American media. The decision to ratchet up the pressure on trade came eleven days after America imposed tariffs on certain types of Chinese paper and when American politicians are agitating for action against what they see as Chinese protectionism. China said the most recent action would “seriously undermine…co-operative relations” on trade.

DaimlerChrysler‘s search for a buyer for its North American car division took a twist when Kirk Kerkorian offered $4.5 billion. The billionaire investor fought a protracted battle to win control of Chrysler in the 1990s but was bested by Daimler-Benz. He then attempted to sue the newly merged DaimlerChrysler.

PPR, a luxury-goods group that includes Gucci in its portfolio, agreed to buy Puma, a German sports-equipment and fashion company, for euro5.3 billion ($7.1 billion). Puma’s share price rose amid speculation that Nike might step in with an offer. See article

Guido Rossi resigned as chairman of Telecom Italia following a dispute with Pirelli, a conglomerate that holds a controlling stake in Europe’s fifth-biggest telecoms firm. Meanwhile, AT&T and América Móvil, a Mexican mobile operator, tried to shore up support for their joint bid for most of Pirelli’s stake, which is opposed by some Italian politicians. Analysts pondered whether a counterbid would emerge from Italian investors.

A consortium of three private-equity firms ended its putative bid for J. Sainsbury after failing to win the support of the British supermarket chain’s board for an offer worth some £10 billion ($20 billion). Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, a fourth member of the consortium, had pulled out earlier to focus on its effort to buy Alliance Boots, a British drugs retailer.

Britain’s Imperial Tobacco raised its offer for Altadis to euro12 billion ($16 billion), which the Franco-Spanish cigarette-maker promptly rejected. Imp
erial wants to buy Altadis to save costs and expand in markets where smoking is increasing. Altadis has a strong presence in eastern Europe and Morocco.

Nestlé offered $5.5 billion to Novartis, a Swiss drugs company, for Gerber, its baby-food business. The world’s biggest food company has been steadily expanding its range of nutritional brands and the deal provides it with most of the baby-food market in the United States.

The board of Rinker, an Australian building-materials company, accepted a sweetened $14 billion takeover offer from Cemex, a Mexican cement-maker. Cemex first approached Rinker last October.

Royal Dutch Shell proposed a settlement with non-American investors on the collapse of its share price in early 2004 after the company’s admission that it had overstated its energy reserves by more than 20%. Shell offered to pay $352.6m to settle claims “without admitting any wrongdoing” and said it wanted to make a similar deal with investors in the United States in proportion to their holdings.

ConocoPhillips became the first big American oil company to call on the government to set targets to reduce greenhouse gases when it joined the United States Climate Action Partnership, a business forum pressing for such legislation (BP‘s American arm is also a member). The Democrats have vowed to pass a bill this year that reduces America’s emissions.

It emerged that Ray Irani received a compensation package worth $416m in 2006 as chairman and chief executive of Occidental Petroleum, one of the biggest annual payouts ever netted by an executive. Around two-thirds of the figure is accounted for by Mr Irani cashing in stock options.

Apple said it had chalked up 100m sales of the iPod music player since its launch in November 2001. Apple’s online music store, iTunes, has sold more than 2.5 billion songs.

The IMF released its twice-yearly World Economic Outlook and slashed its forecast of America’s GDP growth rate in 2007 to 2.2% from the 2.9% it predicted last September. However, the fund said it expected the “cooling” of the American economy would have a “limited impact” on the rest of the world. See article

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