Senegal’s corner shops go digital to track trade

Corner shops, markets and street traders are still the traditional way most Senegalese do their shopping, but micro-businesses are turning to digital means of tracking clients in the west African nation’s informal economy.Amadou Bawol Bah, like many ow…

Corner shops, markets and street traders are still the traditional way most Senegalese do their shopping, but micro-businesses are turning to digital means of tracking clients in the west African nation's informal economy.

Amadou Bawol Bah, like many owners of the corner "boutiques" in Senegal, used to have a large ledger he filled in each day with purchases and credit offered to his customers.

"One day I was filling in some details and some cooking oil tipped onto the ledger," he recalled of the moment in 2015 that wiped out years of careful bookkeeping.

Bawol Bah's disaster became the inspiration for a locally-designed app called "Weebi", meaning "easy" in the local Pulaar language, and the trader hasn't looked back since downloading it.

"Weebi simplifies sales and my invoices. The tablet and smartphone replaces the notebook and pen," explained Weebi's co-founder Cheikh Sene, who began his start-up with two other Senegalese and a Frenchman.

A micro-printer for receipts completes the mix, Sene added.

- App ambitions -

Around half of Senegal's registered businesses are one-man traders like Bawol Bah, according to government statistics, and operate at thin margins with clients often reliant on credit paid back at the end of the month.

In the case of accidents like Bawol Bah's, the app comes with confidential backup for each user, according to Weebi, so data remains safe in case of loss or damage to a device.

After winning a prize for digital innovation at the Africa-France summit held in Bamako in January, Weebi's ambitions are growing in the capital.

Although just 40 users so far have the app, which is a standalone download or can be bought for 118,000 FCFA ($200) preloaded onto a tablet, 300 clients have shown an interest in the product in the Dakar area.

Marieme Assietou Diagne, who manages a health food delivery business, says she has gained "more free time and better sales" since using the software.

"It helps us to follow clients -- who are the regulars, the number of orders, and how many meals we are selling per day," she told AFP. "We can reward loyal customers at the end of the month."

- Overcoming illiteracy -

Other small business owners have begun using "Somtou", a console launched in May with an interface specifically designed for Senegal's majority illiterate population that works with icons and voice commands.

The upstart costs of buying a laptop and the electricity required to run it all day are prohibitive for most, and training in accountancy programmes or software such as Microsoft Excel hard to come by without paying for classes.

With sturdy casing and bright graphics, Somtou is aimed squarely at market traders and small businesses, said its Cameroonian creator Ted Boulou.

"It allows those in the informal sector to manage their work more effectively, and gives them more precise estimates of income, revenue and clients," Boulou said.

That can empower them to better bargain wholesale costs and promotions, making businesses more effective, he added, while filing of tax returns and other government documents became simpler and more accurate.

Pricing is also flexible for clients without much upfront cash.

"Some will pay 13,000 FCFA ($22) per month for two years, or 500 FCFA (85 US cents) a day for two years," Boulou explained, as the single payment of 275,000 FCFA was prohibitive for many -- and he has taken 100 orders.

Who killed Banco Popular? Spain puzzles over rescue

Is there something fishy behind the rescue of Spain’s Banco Popular? Questions are swirling over the last-minute buyout of the country’s sixth largest bank by its bigger rival Santander.On June 7, the European Central Bank (ECB) announced Banco Popular…

Is there something fishy behind the rescue of Spain's Banco Popular? Questions are swirling over the last-minute buyout of the country's sixth largest bank by its bigger rival Santander.

On June 7, the European Central Bank (ECB) announced Banco Popular was "failing or likely to fail" and would be sold to Santander, the eurozone's largest bank, for a symbolic euro.

This was the first time that such a decision had been taken by the ECB since it took over as Europe's banking supervisory authority in 2014.

Keen to explain the operation, Spain's Economy Minister Luis de Guindos told parliament this week that, by June 6, Popular no longer had any liquidity and would not have been able to open its agencies the next day if it hadn't been bought.

People's 60-billion-euro ($67-billion) savings were preserved and "not one euro of public funds" was spent in the rescue, he pointed out.

- 'Zombie' bank? -

But this did not pacify critics.

The Expansion financial daily revealed that local authorities who had money in the bank had taken out their cash before the buyout, as had investment funds, adding to the liquidity crisis.

These withdrawals "coincided with the moment when national financial authorities were saying that 'Popular fulfilled regulation requirements'... and were trying to reassure savers," the daily said.

More generally, "how did a 'zombie' bank keep afloat for five years? What was the role of the government and supervision authorities?", asked Socialist lawmaker Pedro Saura in parliament.

He was referring to the period since the 2012 EU rescue of Spanish banks, which Popular refused, believing it could struggle through and survive by raising more capital.

Then on Tuesday, the central bank's inspectors expressed surprise at estimates provided by the Deloitte consultancy that were used as a base by European authorities to fix the sale at one euro.

These estimated the value of Popular "between minus two billion and plus eight billion" -- a huge discrepancy that left experts scratching their heads.

"Either the scenarios were extremely diverse, or the 'expert' was not such an expert, or he was not independent," the inspectors wrote.

They also pointed out that Popular passed stress tests aimed at measuring its financial mettle last year, saying this showed the "futility" of such evaluations.

- Short selling -

On another note, would it have been possible to prevent the flight of liquidity by banning rampant short selling on Popular -- the practice of selling a security in the belief its value will decline and buying it back at a lower price?

By the time Popular was bought out, its shares had fallen so dramatically they were just worth 32 cents.

"If short selling had been banned for three months, Banco Popular would still be alive," says Robert Tornabell, a banking expert at Spain's Esade business school.

But it would still likely have needed saving in the long run, which could have entailed a public bailout.

And Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, at the head of a minority government, could not afford such a scandal as he faced a vote of no confidence over rampant corruption brought by far-left opposition party Podemos, says Tornabell.

This could have given Podemos further ammunition for the vote this week, which eventually failed, as the bailout of banks during the crisis caused controversy.

On Friday, the central bank said the state may only ever retrieve just over a quarter of the multi-billion-euro aid it granted.

- Lawsuits -

In parallel, Banco Santander is considering compensating some small shareholders who lost all their investment in the buyout of Popular.

The bank could face thousands of legal challenges over this. Two official complaints have already been filed in Spain, and others are reportedly in the works in the United States.

If their lawsuits are accepted and they win them, "taxpayers may have to pay" as Popular's bonds -- which were sold to many investors -- were guaranteed by the state, says Tornabell, meaning it promised to take responsibility if the bank could not meet its obligation.

Shots fired in Australia’s war on food waste

Australia’s first recycled supermarket is giving food destined for landfills a second chance, as the government embarks on a major push to cut down on waste costing the economy Aus$20 billion (US$15 billion) a year.The outlet run by food rescue organis…

Australia's first recycled supermarket is giving food destined for landfills a second chance, as the government embarks on a major push to cut down on waste costing the economy Aus$20 billion (US$15 billion) a year.

The outlet run by food rescue organisation OzHarvest in Sydney takes surplus products normally thrown out by major supermarkets, airlines and other suppliers, and gives them away for free.

It is an attempt to tackle the mounting waste problem in Australia, home to 24 million people, where consumers toss out some 20 percent of food they buy with more than four million tonnes ending up as rubbish each year.

"It is simply remarkable that in prosperous, modern-day Australia we produce enough food to feed 60 million people a year but every month more than 600,000 people -- one-third of them children -- seek food relief from relevant charities," Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said in April.

The government is drawing up an ambitious plan to halve food waste by 2030 and is convening a national summit later this year involving the private sector and non-profit organisations.

Globally, one-third of food produced for humans -- about 1.3 billion tonnes costing around US$1 trillion -- is lost or wasted annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Such wastage is particularly conspicuous in retail, where "large quantities" of food are thrown away "due to quality standards that over-emphasise appearance", the UN body added.

That's where supermarkets like OzHarvest come in, said founder Ronni Kahn, a leading voice in Australia's food rescue community, who hopes the pop-up store will raise awareness about sustainable living.

Besides the needy, "there are people (at the supermarket) who want to take part in this sharing economy... taking produce and understanding why this produce was rejected, why is this here, why is this surplus", she told AFP as she pointed to bread donated by a bakery.

Long queues have formed outside the shop since it opened in late April, with the unemployed, single mothers, and students among those who leave with bulging bags of groceries.

- Tip of the waste iceberg -

What we eat or throw away is just the tip of the iceberg in the production process, conservation experts say, with huge amounts of resources such as fertilisers, fuel, land and water used to grow and package food.

"When food's wasted, and all of those resources are wasted as well, what's incumbent upon us is to make the most of the food that we produce in those instances, rather than producing more and more," said Marcus Godinho of charity FareShare.

FareShare tackles waste by cooking large quantities of food that farmers and manufacturers struggle to offload, or which is due to expire, in a 500-square-metre (5,400-square-foot) kitchen in Melbourne before freezing and storing it for distribution to the disadvantaged at a later date.

Also reducing waste at a wholesale level is Yume, an online platform connecting suppliers and buyers for hard-to-sell surplus produce at significantly discounted prices, chief Katy Barfield said.

"It (the unwanted food) can be cancelled orders, it can be mislabelled, it can be brand refresh, it can be export orders that get cancelled, it can be specifications... that are not what the retailers want," Melbourne-based Barfield told AFP.

Barfield, who previously headed up food rescue charity SecondBite, wants to take the platform global as she develops it to handle millions of transactions.

"Because it's a piece of technology, there are no barriers to scaling it," she said.

With Canberra stepping into the fray, waste warriors are optimistic that incentives including tax breaks could reduce excess in supply chains and encourage businesses to keep surplus food still fit for consumption away from landfills.

Even public institutions such as schools, hospitals and prisons could make their procurement of food more sustainable by buying surplus products through platforms like Yume, Barfield added.

"It would save food going to waste, it would be good for the environment, it would be very good for the taxpayers' pockets because we would be paying less for the food, and I think it's a win, win, win," she said.

China ‘backyard’ pig farmers squeezed as sector scales up

Walking through swarms of flies at his piggery on the outskirts of Beijing, Liu Jin shows off 1,500 hormone-free black hogs raised for China’s growing organic meat market.Liu employs a dozen people to look after the swine that are kept in indoor sties …

Walking through swarms of flies at his piggery on the outskirts of Beijing, Liu Jin shows off 1,500 hormone-free black hogs raised for China's growing organic meat market.

Liu employs a dozen people to look after the swine that are kept in indoor sties and outdoor pens -- the type of large-scale operation China hopes will one day replace the millions of "backyard" farms across the country.

"Even ordinary people care a lot about whether their food has hormones," said Liu, describing his pigs as "green".

About 90 percent of China's estimated 40 million pig farmers raise fewer than 50 hogs and account for about one third of supply, according to Dan Wang, an analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Poorly educated and lacking an understanding of market cycles, they often buy and sell their pigs at the wrong time, triggering supply disruptions and price volatility.

To stabilise the industry and encourage cleaner large-scale production, Beijing has been cutting back subsidies for smaller farmers and rolling out stricter environmental regulations to force backyard producers to expand or get out.

"The larger farmers have a very steady production cycle but the smaller ones don't," Wang said.

"The government wants to commercialise the entire pork industry -- they don't want small farmers."

- Farmers disappearing -

China consumes more pork than any other country, with the average person gobbling 20-40 kilogrammes a year, according to analyst estimates, and its farmers are struggling to keep up with demand.

The country's world-beating output fell in the last two years as authorities ordered farmers to install waste disposal systems, properly dispose of carcasses and move foul-smelling piggeries away from drinking water sources and urban areas.

But many backyard farmers cannot afford the additional costs and an estimated 10 million left the sector last year, contributing to a doubling of China's pork imports.

Wang Landong, 52, has been losing money on his 100 hogs for the past two years due to price swings and government subsidy cuts for vaccinations.

"The pig industry is hard and miserable," said Wang, who, despite the difficulties, feels he has invested too much money in his farm in eastern Shandong province to quit.

The decision may eventually be out of his control.

"Many of them will disappear in the next five years," said Chenjun Pan, a senior analyst at Rabobank.

China's move towards industrial-scale pork production is part of a broader plan to develop a more modern and efficient agricultural sector that it hopes will lead to improved productivity and -- importantly -- food safety.

High-profile pork scandals in recent years have exposed some of the unsavoury practices in the industry, including the dumping of thousands of dead pigs in a river near Shanghai and the sale of meat from diseased swine.

Some pig farmers, like Liu, are exploiting the growing demand among Chinese consumers for higher quality produce that is safe and free of chemicals.

The Beijing restaurant owner spotted an opportunity to make money from hormone-free pig farming five years ago.

He chose black hogs instead of the more common white variety because the market was relatively stable and the meat attracted significantly higher prices in the market.

After starting with 10 piglets he now has a herd of 1,500 pigs and makes as much money from them as his restaurant.

- Hedging against risk -

China is also using the financial market to help large-scale producers, launching a pork price index earlier this year that it hopes will pave the way to a futures contract.

The index is a gauge of the current market price for white pork meat. It is updated daily using data collected from 89 slaughterhouses in 16 provinces.

But the index would be of little use to farmers who were more interested in the price of an actual pig than its meat, said Feng Yonghui, chief analyst at Soozhu.com, a website focused on the pork industry.

A futures contract, however, could help them hedge against financial risk.

But the market was still too fragmented for that to work well, said Wang, the analyst.

"I can see that in 30 years China would have large-scale farms producing over 60 percent of hogs. That would be a better time to launch the futures option," Wang said.

Artificial intelligence and the coming health revolution

Your next doctor could very well be a bot. And bots, or automated programs, are likely to play a key role in finding cures for some of the most difficult-to-treat diseases and conditions.Artificial intelligence is rapidly moving into health care, led b…

Your next doctor could very well be a bot. And bots, or automated programs, are likely to play a key role in finding cures for some of the most difficult-to-treat diseases and conditions.

Artificial intelligence is rapidly moving into health care, led by some of the biggest technology companies and emerging startups using it to diagnose and respond to a raft of conditions.

Consider these examples:

-- California researchers detected cardiac arrhythmia with 97 percent accuracy on wearers of an Apple Watch with the AI-based Cariogram application, opening up early treatment options to avert strokes.

-- Scientists from Harvard and the University of Vermont developed a machine learning tool -- a type of AI that enables computers to learn without being explicitly programmed -- to better identify depression by studying Instagram posts, suggesting "new avenues for early screening and detection of mental illness."

-- Researchers from Britain's University of Nottingham created an algorithm that predicted heart attacks better than doctors using conventional guidelines.

While technology has always played a role in medical care, a wave of investment from Silicon Valley and a flood of data from connected devices appear to be spurring innovation.

"I think a tipping point was when Apple released its Research Kit," said Forrester Research analyst Kate McCarthy, referring to a program letting Apple users enable data from their daily activities to be used in medical studies.

McCarthy said advances in artificial intelligence has opened up new possibilities for "personalized medicine" adapted to individual genetics.

"We now have an environment where people can weave through clinical research at a speed you could never do before," she said.

- Predictive analytics -

AI is better known in the tech field for uses such as autonomous driving, or defeating experts in the board game Go.

But it can also be used to glean new insights from existing data such as electronic health records and lab tests, says Narges Razavian, a professor at New York University's Langone School of Medicine who led a research project on predictive analytics for more than 100 medical conditions.

"Our work is looking at trends and trying to predict (disease) six months into the future, to be able to act before things get worse," Razavian said.

-- NYU researchers analyzed medical and lab records to accurately predict the onset of dozens of diseases and conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart or kidney failure and stroke. The project developed software now used at NYU which may be deployed at other medical facilities.

-- Google's DeepMind division is using artificial intelligence to help doctors analyze tissue samples to determine the likelihood that breast and other cancers will spread, and develop the best radiotherapy treatments.

-- Microsoft, Intel and other tech giants are also working with researchers to sort through data with AI to better understand and treat lung, breast and other types of cancer.

-- Google parent Alphabet's life sciences unit Verily has joined Apple in releasing a smartwatch for studies including one to identify patterns in the progression of Parkinson's disease. Amazon meanwhile offers medical advice through applications on its voice-activated artificial assistant Alexa.

IBM has been focusing on these issues with its Watson Health unit, which uses "cognitive computing" to help understand cancer and other diseases.

When IBM's Watson computing system won the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011, "there were a lot of folks in health care who said that is the same process doctors use when they try to understand health care," said Anil Jain, chief medical officer of Watson Health.

Systems like Watson, he said, "are able to connect all the disparate pieces of information" from medical journals and other sources "in a much more accelerated way."

"Cognitive computing may not find a cure on day one, but it can help understand people's behavior and habits" and their impact on disease, Jain said.

It's not just major tech companies moving into health.

Research firm CB Insights this year identified 106 digital health startups applying machine learning and predictive analytics "to reduce drug discovery times, provide virtual assistance to patients, and diagnose ailments by processing medical images."

Maryland-based startup Insilico Medicine uses so-called "deep learning" to shorten drug testing and approval times, down from the current 10 to 15 years.

"We can take 10,000 compounds and narrow that down to 10 to find the most promising ones," said Insilico's Qingsong Zhu.

Insilico is working on drugs for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), cancer and age-related diseases, aiming to develop personalized treatments.

- Finding depression -

Artificial intelligence is also increasingly seen as a means for detecting depression and other mental illnesses, by spotting patterns that may not be obvious, even to professionals.

A research paper by Florida State University's Jessica Ribeiro found it can predict with 80 to 90 percent accuracy whether someone will attempt suicide as far off as two years into the future.

Facebook uses AI as part of a test project to prevent suicides by analyzing social network posts.

And San Francisco's Woebot Labs this month debuted on Facebook Messenger what it dubs the first chatbot offering "cognitive behavioral therapy" online -- partly as a way to reach people wary of the social stigma of seeking mental health care.

New technologies are also offering hope for rare diseases.

Boston-based startup FDNA uses facial recognition technology matched against a database associated with over 8,000 rare diseases and genetic disorders, sharing data and insights with medical centers in 129 countries via its Face2Gene application.

- Cautious optimism -

Lynda Chin, vice chancellor and chief innovation officer at the University of Texas System, said she sees "a lot of excitement around these tools" but that technology alone is unlikely to translate into wide-scale health benefits.

One problem, Chin said, is that data from sources as disparate as medical records and Fitbits is difficult to access due to privacy and other regulations.

More important, she said, is integrating data in health care delivery where doctors may be unaware of what's available or how to use new tools.

"Just having the analytics and data get you to step one," said Chin. "It's not just about putting an app on the app store."

Kansas, where Trump’s favored tax doctrine already failed

Cut taxes to boost growth: Long before Donald Trump became president, Kansas conducted a real-world experiment with this formula in the hopes of reviving its economy. But today the Midwestern state is beating a hasty retreat after the demonstrable fail…

Cut taxes to boost growth: Long before Donald Trump became president, Kansas conducted a real-world experiment with this formula in the hopes of reviving its economy.

But today the Midwestern state is beating a hasty retreat after the demonstrable failure of the ideas that have been embraced by the White House.

In 2012, staunchly conservative Governor Sam Brownback rolled out what he promised would be "a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy," which depends heavily on agriculture and aerospace.

Similar in many ways to the Trump administration's fiscal plans, the shock therapy cut local income taxes for the very wealthy and eliminated certain taxes on small business revenue, particularly for the self-employed.

Brownback promised the strategy would create thousands of jobs, encourage Americans to move to the state and help make it "the best place in America to start and grow a small business."

Five years later, the party is over. Growth has plummeted to below one percent, from three percent in 2012, falling well below the national average, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.

As a result, tax revenues dried up, blowing a $900-million hole in the state's budget in two years, creating a crisis in which the government is struggling to provide basic services.

"The revenue loss was much larger than anticipated because people took advantage of the cuts by turning themselves into small businesses or independents to avoid paying any taxes," said Alan Cole of the Tax Foundation in Washington.

In March, the state Supreme Court ruled the education system in Kansas failed to meet minimum standards guaranteed under the state constitution.

- Rejecting the governor -

"This plan was an absolute disaster. It caused economic destruction," said Jim Ward, leader of the opposition Democrats in the Kansas House of Representatives.

"There was just nowhere you could point to where it was successful in terms of providing core services."

But even Republicans now repudiate the Brownback tax plan.

After losing 12 seats in the 2016 elections, the large Republican majority has approved a $1.2 billion tax hike over two years -- overriding a veto this week to do so, in a show of determined opposition to the governor.

Brownback deplored the vote, saying "it's wrong for the long-term view of the state of Kansas, it's wrong for growth."

But even supporters of low taxes are finding it hard to defend him.

"It was a good idea that was poorly implemented," said Dave Trabert of the Kansas Policy Institute, a think tank that promotes free market economics and "personal freedom for all Kansans."

"There was success but the governor made the classic mistake of over-promising and displayed political exuberance," he added.

Such warnings could reverberate well beyond the state's borders, all the way to Washington, where Trump has vowed to double economic growth to three percent while slashing corporate taxes by 20 percentage points, and providing tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

Economists say there is little evidence such tax cuts can pay for themselves by spurring growth, as the Trump administration claims, and even Republican lawmakers in Washington who are fearful of deficits doubt the wisdom of the plan.

"It's an illusion to think that you can get more revenue by cutting taxes, it's a fantasy," said Charles Wheelan, senior lecturer at Dartmouth College.

"You cannot eat more ice cream and expect to lose weight."

Amazon deal seen as disruptor of grocery business

Amazon’s deal to buy Whole Foods Market injects even greater pressure into the food and grocery sectors at a time when e-commerce is already roiling retailers.The tech giant’s $13.7 billion acquisition of the upscale, niche grocery chain was described …

Amazon's deal to buy Whole Foods Market injects even greater pressure into the food and grocery sectors at a time when e-commerce is already roiling retailers.

The tech giant's $13.7 billion acquisition of the upscale, niche grocery chain was described as a seismic event by industry analysts, despite Whole Foods' relatively small size.

The deal prompted jokes and semi-serious posts on Twitter about a space-age shopping era with Amazon's artificial intelligence program Alexa replacing cashiers and ordering drone deliveries of kale.

Joking aside, the purchase will mean a serious disruption: rather than a brick-and-mortar store getting into e-commerce, in this deal an online behemoth will be moving onto Main Street, and in one fell swoop acquiring more than 450 stores in the US, Canada and Britain.

It also is expected to hasten existing efforts by grocers to make shopping more smartphone-ready, sell more private label and specialty foods and overcome the hurdles of home-delivery of groceries.

Amazon's strong record of keeping prices low adds pressure on supermarket chains that may be forced to consolidate to cut costs in a bid to keep up.

That could in turn spur mergers among large food manufacturers that feel compelled to negotiate with heftier clients.

- Antitrust concerns -

"It's a big deal because of Amazon and what Amazon can bring to the game," said Joe Agnese, analyst at CFRA Research.

"Amazon is thought to bring change and an acceleration of change, and so having the presence of Amazon there may lead to a faster moving push into food delivery and lower prices."

Analysts generally praised the deal as a smart buy for Amazon, but not everybody was applauding.

"Government antitrust enforcers should block this merger," said Barry C. Lynn, director of the Open Markets Program at New America, a Washington think tank.

He warned that Amazon already exerts dangerous influence "over America's markets for books and music, and is fast consolidating control over other key flows of information and ideas."

"This private corporation already dominates every corner of online commerce, and uses its power to set terms and prices for many of the most important products Americans buy or sell to one another," Lynn said. "Now Amazon is exploiting that advantage to take over physical retail."

Whole Foods accounts for just 1.2 percent of the US food and grocery market share, while Amazon has just 0.2 percent, according to research firm GlobalData Retail.

The biggest player in the fragmented market is Wal-Mart with 14.5 percent, with Kroger second with 7.2 percent.

The deal further cements Amazon's remarkable rise from an online bookseller of the 1990s to a seller of broad-based goods with mastery over supply chains and logistics, a dedicated group of subscribers through its Prime program and an increasingly honored creator of original entertainment.

Amazon's revenues have grown from $34 billion in 2010 to $136 billion in 2016.

- Hurdle of home delivery -

Amazon did not elaborate on the strategic rationale for buying a grocery chain, but analysts said the acquisition has the potential to strengthen its ties to consumers through its Prime program.

Amazon already does some grocery deliveries through Prime and some other programs, but has the chance to boost home deliveries of Whole Foods' "365 Everyday Value" products and potentially "transform the physical retail experience" through checkout-free shopping, according to JP Morgan Chase.

That push also will reverberate through the broader industry.

Companies like Wal-Mart Stores and Target have had success with "click and collect" programs, where customers order goods on their cell phone and pick them up curbside.

But home delivery of goods has proven to be a big hurdle due to costs and the difficulty of selling meats and other perishables.

"The thinking is it's a very complex area that everybody's been testing and trying to make something work, but they haven't been able to figure it out and that Amazon, now they're here, they can make it work," Agnese said.

"That's the fear that Amazon is going to beat everybody and do it better than everybody."

Wal-Mart, Kroger and others already have seen profits pinched by stepped-up investment in e-commerce, store remodeling, higher wages and low prices, as they try to win customer allegiance and keep shoppers coming back.

New competition from Amazon will "exert margin pressure on everybody else and force everybody to be innovative and consolidate," Agnese said.

Presidency a boon for some Trump businesses

Becoming president forced Donald Trump to resign from a slew of corporate positions, but it also appears to have netted him much more income from his Mar-a-Lago resort and from book sales.According to a financial disclosure form released late Friday, T…

Becoming president forced Donald Trump to resign from a slew of corporate positions, but it also appears to have netted him much more income from his Mar-a-Lago resort and from book sales.

According to a financial disclosure form released late Friday, Trump earned around $37 million this year from the Florida resort -- a seven million dollar increase from last year.

Since coming becoming president on January 20, Trump has travelled to the Palm Beach property often and upped the membership fees substantially.

He has frequently referred to the property as the "Winter White House" and sought to promote the venue as an official presidential residence.

Trump's trips to Florida bring with them a retinue of Secret Service agents and government staff, who are reported to stay there at US taxpayers' expense.

The disclosure was made in forms released by the Office of Government Ethics. They are less detailed than full tax returns, which Trump has refused to release, breaking with decades of tradition.

The 98-page document shows that being president has also apparently increased Trump's earnings from sales of his book "The Art of the Deal" published in 1987 and that he resigned from positions in 565 companies on or around the day before becoming president.

His assets range from Pfizer stocks to a drinks company in Israel, but the disclosure also showed hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

ArcelorMittal gets green light to buy Italy’s Ilva

A consortium led by global steel giant ArcelorMittal said Friday the Italian authorities had cleared it to buy struggling steel producer Ilva, but thousands of jobs are threatened.The 1.8-billion euro ($1.9-billion) deal will see ArcelorMittal join for…

A consortium led by global steel giant ArcelorMittal said Friday the Italian authorities had cleared it to buy struggling steel producer Ilva, but thousands of jobs are threatened.

The 1.8-billion euro ($1.9-billion) deal will see ArcelorMittal join forces with Italy's Marcegaglia to snap up the heavily indebted company, one of the most polluting industrial sites in Europe.

Ilva currently has 14,000 employees, of whom 11,000 work at its site in Tarente.

ArcelorMittal, in its statement, undertook "to keep at least 10,000 employees for the entire duration of the industrial plan according to the outcome of negotiations with the unions".

After news first leaked of the takeover, hundreds of employees at Ilva's site in the northwestern city of Genoa staged a protest earlier this month.

Ilva's Taranto site in southern Italy is at the centre of a huge legal case in which experts cited by prosecutors have charged that 11,550 people have died from toxic emissions in seven years.

Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo will join the consortium before the deal is closed.

The offer includes plans to invest 2.4 billion euros in Ilva, with funds earmarked for upgrading industrial equipment and improving environmental standards.

"Ilva is an important strategic acquisition for ArcelorMittal," said Aditya Mittal who heads ArcelorMittal's European operations.

"It provides us with a significant production presence in a country in which we have no primary steelmaking capacity, and is complementary to our existing European business."

Whole Foods pioneer chain for organic foods

Whole Foods Market has grown from a tiny health-conscious grocer in Texas far from the US coasts into a giant in upscale foods nationwide, and now is moving into Britain and Canada.The deal announced on Friday with Amazon could mean an even bigger impa…

Whole Foods Market has grown from a tiny health-conscious grocer in Texas far from the US coasts into a giant in upscale foods nationwide, and now is moving into Britain and Canada.

The deal announced on Friday with Amazon could mean an even bigger impact for the pricey grocery chain sometimes known colloquially as "whole paycheck."

- History -

The company was founded in 1978 in Austin, Texas by 25-year-old college dropout John Mackey and 21-year-old Renee Lawson with money borrowed from family and friends.

Two years later Whole Foods Market was incorporated after their tiny SaferWay -- a parody of the once-dominant nationwide Safeway chain -- merged with Clarksville Natural Grocery.

Mackey views the chain as a "mission-driven" company in improving American food, and he and his team have grown Whole Foods through a series of acquisitions of like-minded food companies, including the Fresh Fields chain that started in the Washington, DC area.

- Operations -

The company now has 436 stores in 42 US states and Washington, DC.

Eight states do not have Whole Foods stores: Alaska, Delaware, Nevada, North Dakota, Montana, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.

It also has expanded internationally, with 11 stores in Canada and nine in the United Kingdom.

In the 2016 fiscal year, the company had record sales of $15.7 billion, but comparable stores sales fell by 2.5 percent and profit was $507 million after declining for two years.

The company has just 1.2 percent share of the US food and grocery market, trailing far behind Wal-Mart (14.5 percent), Kroger (7.7 percent) and Costco (2.4 percent), among others, according to research firm GlobalData Retail. Amazon has just 0.2 percent.

- Philosophy -

Whole Foods calls itself "America's Healthiest Grocery Store" -- a title it has trademarked -- and says its mission is to "seek out the finest natural and organic foods available, maintain the strictest quality standards in the industry, and have an unshakeable commitment to sustainable agriculture."

Because of concerns about cruelty to animals, the company will not sell foie gras or live lobsters or crabs.

Considered a "first generation" organic market, the company was able to grow amid the rising interest in the United States in organic food and concerns about the dangers of pesticides and genetically-modified foods.

But that also posed a challenge and Whole Foods has suffered from competition as more stores have begun offering organic and natural foods at lower prices, including Wal-Mart, Kroger and Trader Joe's.

In an email to customers Friday titled "exciting news," Whole Foods vowed to keep quality high.

"No artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, sweeteners or hydrogenated fats will ever be in any of the food we sell. Meat will still come from animals raised with no-added growth hormones, ever," the company said.

"Those standards are core to Whole Foods Market and we will remain committed to them."

Amazon: from online bookseller to internet titan

Amazon has grown from a humble beginning as an online bookseller to a colossus of the internet. Now, with its acquisition of Whole Foods Market, it has become a major player in the grocery sector.Here are some key facts about Amazon:– Incorporated in …

Amazon has grown from a humble beginning as an online bookseller to a colossus of the internet. Now, with its acquisition of Whole Foods Market, it has become a major player in the grocery sector.

Here are some key facts about Amazon:

-- Incorporated in 1994 in Seattle, Washington, Amazon sold its first book in July 1995, with founder Jeff Bezos personally mailing packages to customers in the early days.

-- In 1999, Amazon went beyond books to become a diversified online retailer of consumer electronics, toys and games, software, home improvement and video games. A year later, it launched "Marketplace," allowing third parties to sell over the Amazon platform. It has added new categories of merchandise and services over the years.

-- Amazon Web Services, launched in 2002 to be the online hosting platform for Amazon and its partners, has grown into one of the world's biggest cloud computing operators, generating close to 10 percent of company revenues and a large share of its profit.

-- In 2005, the company launched Amazon Prime, a subscription service offering free delivery on many items and other benefits, which has become an important element in the Amazon business model. No official figures are available, but some analysts say Prime has some 80 million subscribers in the US alone.

-- Over the years, Amazon has expanded internationally, and operates as a retailer in Canada, Mexico, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, China and India, with plans to move into Australia.

-- In 2007, Amazon Music was launched as a platform for streaming songs, and later evolved into a cloud-based service.

-- Amazon made its first attempt at full grocery delivery in 2007 with Amazon Fresh but has been slow to roll out that service.

-- Making a major push into video streaming, Amazon rebranded its service in 2011 as Instant Video, competing with Netflix, and making thousands of movies and shows available to Prime Subscribers. The video unit has begun producing original programs and films, and won an Academy Award this year for "Manchester by the Sea."

- Hardware, drones, video -

-- Amazon started making Kindle e-readers in 2007 and expanded its hardware to tablets with the Kindle Fire in 2011. A Fire smartphone launched in 2014 flopped, but Amazon continued in hardware with its voice-activated Echo speakers, sparking a new market of home assistants powered by artificial intelligence. Amazon also produces Fire TV devices which can be used as an interface for its video and other online applications.

-- The first Amazon physical retail store opened in Seattle in 2015, and several more have opened or are in the works. Amazon has also tested a concept for a grocery store without a checkout, where items in a shopping cart are automatically billed to the customer.

-- Amazon has been pushing for drone delivery for several years, but finally launched its first project in Britain in 2016, saying regulatory obstacles were too great in the United States. Amazon also has its own aircraft and local delivery operators that avoid third parties.

-- Globally, Amazon had some 341,000 employees as of February, having boosted its employment in warehouses even as it installed some 45,000 robots. It has research operations for artificial intelligence, robotics, ad technology and related fields.

-- Amazon gained a reputation delivering little or no profits in its early years as it invested for growth. But that has changed recently and it posted a profit of $2.3 billion for 2016 on revenues of $94.7 billion.

Once-mighty Hariri firm in Saudi is finished: sources

A once-mighty Saudi construction firm linked to Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri is finished, having left thousands of workers unpaid, sources said on Friday.The Saudi Oger employees, most of them from abroad, suffered for months without salaries a…

A once-mighty Saudi construction firm linked to Lebanon's prime minister Saad Hariri is finished, having left thousands of workers unpaid, sources said on Friday.

The Saudi Oger employees, most of them from abroad, suffered for months without salaries and many have already gone home.

A collapse in oil revenues that began three years ago left the kingdom unable to pay private firms it had contracted. Most were in the construction sector, chiefly at Saudi Oger and another firm, the Saudi Binladin Group.

But sources say problems at Saudi Oger, whose history in the kingdom dates back almost 40 years, went deeper and now it faces the end.

Essentially, "they are closed," said a source close to the case.

"They have a contract in Jeddah I think for a royal palace but they have nothing else."

An angry ex-employee, who asked to be identified only as Robert, told AFP that he understands Saudi Oger's last day of existence will be June 30.

"In two weeks, we will no longer talk of Saudi Oger," he said. "I have lost my future."

Since resigning from Oger in January Robert no longer has a residency permit to stay legally in Saudi Arabia, and he can't pay his children's school fees.

He says he hasn't received his salary since July last year and is owed 160,000 riyals (almost $43,000/39,000 euros)

"Really it's a big crisis," the source close to the case said.

Following negotiations between France and the kingdom, more than 200 French citizens employed by Saudi Oger received in September the equivalent of nine months' salary, paid not by Saudi Oger but by the Saudi government.

But thousands of Asian employees returned home without being paid, the source said, adding that the firm had about 38,000 workers nearly two years ago.

Under an aid plan announced by the kingdom, Saudi Arabia flew the workers home and helped to file claims in court against Saudi Oger.

"But nothing is coming," the source close to the case said.

Saudi Oger could not be reached for comment.

The company, part of the Hariri family business empire, built some of the most grandiose complexes in Riyadh, including the palatial Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Several shot in San Francisco at UPS facility

Several people were shot on Wednesday at a San Francisco warehouse and customer service facility operated by global parcel delivery service UPS, authorities and the company said.UPS spokeswoman Natalie Godwin told AFP the incident involved four workers…

Several people were shot on Wednesday at a San Francisco warehouse and customer service facility operated by global parcel delivery service UPS, authorities and the company said.

UPS spokeswoman Natalie Godwin told AFP the incident involved four workers at the sprawling facility, which employs 850 people.

"We understand that there are potentially multiple deaths although individuals have been transported to the hospital so we are unsure of their status at this time," Godwin said.

Police ordered residents and employees in the city's Portero Hill neighborhood and surrounding areas to shelter in place as they responded to the early morning incident.

Another UPS spokesman, Steven Gaunt, earlier said that the shooter was an employee who worked as a driver.

Witnesses reported hearing multiple gunshots at the facility, which handles packages for delivery in the San Francisco area.

Some news reports said two people had been killed, including the shooter who was believed to have turned the gun on himself.

In a series of tweets following the incident, police confirmed the shooting but did not provide further details about fatalities.

Talks to settle Tanzania gold fraud dispute

Tanzania has agreed to negotiations with Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold which it accuses of operating illegally and evading taxes, a government statement said Wednesday.Barrick is the majority shareholder in London-listed Acacia Mining which a pres…

Tanzania has agreed to negotiations with Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold which it accuses of operating illegally and evading taxes, a government statement said Wednesday.

Barrick is the majority shareholder in London-listed Acacia Mining which a presidential commission report said this week was not registered to operate in Tanzania and had failed to pay taxes worth billions of dollars. Barrick refuted the allegations.

On Wednesday, its executive chairman John Thornton flew to Tanzania to meet with President John Magufuli after news of the allegations caused the company's share price to fall.

Barrick "is ready to discuss with the Tanzanian government the reimbursement of money lost by Tanzania as a result of the company's operations in the country," the presidency said in a statement, without giving further details.

According to the statement, Thornton is "ready to enter into a dialogue with the Tanzanian government in the interests of both parties and pay what must be repaid to Tanzania."

Magufuli had accused the company of "stealing from us" in a live televised address this week, but welcomed the proposed discussions.

He said a special committee would be appointed, "with a view to an agreement on the reimbursement of the money due to Tanzania and how the company will now conduct its operations in the interests of both parties."

On Monday, a government commission said fraud in the mining sector had cost Tanzania $84 billion (75 billion euros) over 19 years and blamed foreign companies for failing to declare revenues.

Tanzania is rich in minerals and ranks fourth among gold producers on the continent. Gold is the country's leading mineral export and one of its primary sources of revenue.

Tanzania also exports copper, nickel, silver, diamonds and other precious stones such as tanzanite.

In March, Tanzania said it was banning exports of non-processed ore in a bid to promote the development of the mineral processing sector, create new jobs locally and increase revenues generated by the sector.

The statement on Wednesday also said Thornton had agreed that Barrick would "cooperate" in the construction of a smelter in Tanzania.

Last month, Magufuli dismissed the country's mines minister after receiving a report from geologists that said mining companies had underestimated their mineral exports in order to pay lower taxes.

The report had said that poor management of the sector meant officials were not able to tell how much or what kind of ores were being exported.

Greece pushed to take bailout deal without debt relief

Greece faced pressure Wednesday to accept a bailout deal with no new debt relief so that it can meet huge repayments and avert a fresh crisis this summer.After months of bickering, Greece’s eurozone creditors and the International Monetary Fund are on …

Greece faced pressure Wednesday to accept a bailout deal with no new debt relief so that it can meet huge repayments and avert a fresh crisis this summer.

After months of bickering, Greece's eurozone creditors and the International Monetary Fund are on the verge of breaking a deadlock when they meet in Luxembourg on Thursday.

"On Thursday, we will manage to achieve that," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, the eurozone's most influential official, told Bloomberg news agency.

But Athens insisted it would veto the deal, furious that the disbursement of the latest tranche of its 86-billion euro bailout agreed in 2015 could come without long-hoped-for firm debt relief commitments.

"We are far from finding a solution at the Eurogroup on Thursday, given that Germany has not made any step," a Greek government source told AFP.

Bitter disagreement between Germany and the IMF has held up the payout of a fresh tranche for Athens to meet seven billion euros of debt repayments due in July.

Berlin, Greece's harshest critic, has long resisted any fresh commitment to debt relief for Athens, saying it must trim its budget and reform.

The IMF -- whose chief Christine Lagarde will be at the meeting with the 19 eurozone finance ministers -- has long insisted that debt relief be part of a deal.

But in a major breakthrough, the Washington-based IMF this month agreed to join Greece's massive bailout while putting off the debt question until a later date.

The IMF compromise is a setback for Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who has pushed through waves of tough reforms on a promise that Greeks would win debt relief as a reward.

Greece nearly crashed out of the euro in 2015 after a furious fight over the bailout deal, and says its fragile recovery has suffered from the most recent delay.

- 'Difficult, complicated'-

To soften the blow on debt relief, France has asked its eurozone partners to offer Athens a commitment to debt relief linked to Greece's economic growth.

"We are really doing our best to find an agreement," said French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire after talks on Monday with his Greek counterpart Euclid Tsakalotos.

"It's difficult. It's complicated," he said before talks with Tsipras.

Tsipras has urged his eurozone creditors to accept the French compromise.

Thursday's meeting was "essential" for the "future of Europe, democratic Europe and for a Europe of growth", Tsipras said in an emotional editorial published in French daily Le Monde on Wednesday.

Without an accord, Tsipras said he will take up the issue with EU leaders at a summit in Brussels next week, a situation that the eurozone ministers will do everything to avoid.

The IMF's compromise is a controversial one, with critics accusing the Washington-based fund of caving in to Berlin.

The IMF had insisted repeatedly that Greece's debt is not sustainable and the country would require significant debt relief from Europe before the fund could approve a new loan programme.

Embattled Air Berlin says has cash to tide over woes

Struggling German airline Air Berlin insisted Wednesday that it has sufficient cash to stay solvent despite suffering heavy losses and a string of flight cancellations.”Insolvency is not an issue for us. We have sufficient liquidity and a reliable part…

Struggling German airline Air Berlin insisted Wednesday that it has sufficient cash to stay solvent despite suffering heavy losses and a string of flight cancellations.

"Insolvency is not an issue for us. We have sufficient liquidity and a reliable partner, Etihad, which has pledged its support through to October 2018," a spokeswoman from the airline told AFP.

The Berlin-based airline booked losses amounting to 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) for the last two years, and depends on cash infusions from key shareholder Etihad for survival.

It recently applied to the German states of Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia for a public guarantee.

But the Air Berlin spokeswoman said customers can keep booking Air Berlin flights "without worries".

"We are flying reliably again and have a grip on operational problems," she said.

Acknowledging that complaints have soared over recent months, the spokeswoman said "it could take a while before all the cases are dealt with".

"But Air Berlin will meet all the legitimate demands of its clients," she pledged.

Executives from Germany's second-largest airline presented a massive restructuring plan in late September that included renting 38 aircraft with crew to Lufthansa and slashing 1,200 jobs -- or one in seven of its workforce.

Amid its restructuring, it has also been hit by a series of flight cancellations and severe delays, including over the recent Whitsun long weekend.

IMF raises China growth forecast, urges faster reforms

China must quicken the pace of reforms and do more to curb rising debt, the IMF said Wednesday as it raised its growth forecast for the world’s number two economy. The International Monetary Fund expects China to expand by 6.7 percent this year, fast…

China must quicken the pace of reforms and do more to curb rising debt, the IMF said Wednesday as it raised its growth forecast for the world's number two economy.

The International Monetary Fund expects China to expand by 6.7 percent this year, faster than its previous estimate of 6.6 percent due to expanding credit and investment.

That would match last year's growth rate, which was the slowest in a quarter of a century.

The economy is then expected to slow to an average of 6.4 percent expansion between 2018 and 2020.

After years of blistering growth, China's economy has been slowing as it moves from an investment and export-driven model to one more reliant on consumer spending.

However Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure project, for which the government has earmarked hundreds of billions of dollars, has raised concerns it may be retreating from the difficult transition.

David Lipton, the IMF's first deputy managing director, said it was "critical" that China capitalises on its still-strong pace of expansion to speed up reforms.

"While some near-term risks have receded, reform progress needs to accelerate to secure medium-term stability and address the risk that the current trajectory of the economy could eventually lead to a sharp adjustment," Lipton told reporters at the end of a two-week visit to China.

The IMF also called on Beijing to do more to rein in soaring credit, warning that runaway lending could lead to a bad debt problem if borrowers default on their loans.

China's overall debt liabilities, which include corporate and household borrowing, are above 260 percent of gross domestic product compared to about 140 percent before the 2008 financial crisis.

When the debt-to-GDP ratio "rises quickly, when that rise gets beyond certain bounds, there tends to be vulnerabilities and a greater probability of crisis," Lipton said.

The IMF also urged Beijing to phase out support for underperforming state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and so-called zombie companies -- those firms that survive only on rolling credit from the banks.

Lumbering SOEs and debt-choked companies have been a drag on the economy. While the government recognises the need for restructuring, it also fears mass lay-offs and social instability.

EU opens probe into ‘Hello Kitty’, Nike licensing deals

The EU’s top anti-trust regulator on Wednesday launched probes into whether Nike, Universal Studio and Sanrio’s Hello Kitty illegally blocked retailers from selling merchandise across bloc borders.The European Commission “is investigating whether Nike,…

The EU's top anti-trust regulator on Wednesday launched probes into whether Nike, Universal Studio and Sanrio's Hello Kitty illegally blocked retailers from selling merchandise across bloc borders.

The European Commission "is investigating whether Nike, Sanrio and Universal Studios are restricting cross border and online sales of merchandising products," EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.

"We are going to examine whether the licensing and distribution practices of these three companies may be denying consumers access to wider choice and better deals in the Single Market," she added.

The probe is one of several stemming from the EU's ambitious project to build a digital single market across the union of 28 countries and 500 million people, which as a bloc is the world's biggest economy.

The probe involves a whole range of products, such as clothes, shoes, bags or toys, which are sold featuring some of the world's biggest brands and characters including the Minions, Hello Kitty and the Barcelona football team.

In its latest effort to break down barriers in the European Union, the Commission will probe whether the companies may have broken EU competition rules by restricting a manufacturer's or retailer's ability to sell licensed merchandise cross-border and online.

These deals limit consumers' ability to shop for highly popular merchandised products across EU borders in the hunt for cheaper prices.

There is no deadline for the probes, and the companies may not in the end face actual anti-trust charges.

Energy market seen as vulnerable to prolonged Gulf crisis

While the Gulf’s bitter diplomatic crisis is unlikely to affect energy prices in the short term, a prolonged rift that disrupts Qatar’s gas supplies could send prices soaring, analysts say.With rising US shale oil output driving a global supply glut, t…

While the Gulf's bitter diplomatic crisis is unlikely to affect energy prices in the short term, a prolonged rift that disrupts Qatar's gas supplies could send prices soaring, analysts say.

With rising US shale oil output driving a global supply glut, the decision by Saudi Arabia and its allies earlier this month to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar provided only a fleeting boost to prices.

"Given the severe supply glut in the oil markets globally, it is quite unlikely that the Gulf spat would lead to a spike in oil prices in the short or medium term," M.R. Raghu, executive vice president of Kuwait Financial Center (Markaz), told AFP.

Qatar said on Monday that it would comply with an agreement by the OPEC oil cartel and other producers to extend production cuts for nine months until the end of March to rebalance the market.

Qatar's share in the output cuts of 1.8 million barrels per day is just 30,000.

While its daily oil output of around 600,000 barrels represents less than one percent of world crude production, Qatar is a major player in Liquified Natural Gas (LNG).

The tiny emirate is the world's leading LNG exporter, accounting for a third of international supplies, mainly to Asia and Europe.

Advisory firm Oxford Economics said Qatar's exports of oil and gas are unlikely to be significantly affected, with its main sea routes -- including through Omani and Iranian waters -- still accessible.

But using Iranian waters could involve higher costs, said Jean-Francois Seznec of the US-based Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center.

"It may have a small indirect impact in the case of continued tension. Insurance rates will start increasing rapidly and those rates would have to be paid by Qatar," Seznec told AFP.

Most of Qatar's almost 80 million tonnes of LNG supplies are shipped in tankers, mainly to Japan, South Korea and India, as well as to several European countries.

One-third of Britain's gas imports, for example, come from Qatar. Other European customers include Spain and Poland.

- Politically fraught -

The air, sea and land restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have not so far affected maritime routes for Qatari LNG vessels which can pass through the Strait of Hormuz.

Any disruption to Qatar's LNG exports could anger the European Union.

"If Qatar gas finds it increasingly difficult to reach world markets, especially Europe, then the European Union may feel threatened by the prospect of having to depend on more Russian gas imports, a decision that is highly fraught politically in many EU capitals," Kuwait Financial Center said in a report Monday.

Qatar also pumps more than two billion cubic feet of gas daily through a pipeline to the UAE mainly for power generation. A small part of the pipeline exports goes to Oman.

So any disruption to Qatar's gas supplies would be painful for several countries.

And a serious escalation of Gulf tensions or a military confrontation -- while seen as highly unlikely -- could cause energy prices to soar.

"If the conflict develops into a military confrontation ... I would expect a very large spike in prices to around $150 a barrel of oil," from below $50 per barrel now, Seznec said.

Gas prices would also increase several-fold, he added.

This would be accompanied by a major leap in insurance premiums.

For oil prices to triple as predicted by Seznec, the conflict must disrupt oil and gas supply lines from most of the Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude exporter.

The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE -- account for a fifth of global crude exports or about 13 million bpd.

Income from energy exports makes up over 80 percent of public revenues for the six members.

Raghu said an escalation of the crisis could mean "sea routes getting blocked and cost of transshipment of global gas rising."

Major importers of Qatari LNG like Japan, South Korea and India may face shortages of supplies leading to a scramble for alternative suppliers in the long term, he said.

UK unemployment stays at lowest since 1975

Britain’s unemployment rate remains at 4.6 percent, the lowest level for 42 years, official data showed on Wednesday.A total of 1.53 million people were recorded as unemployed at the end of April, down 145,000 compared with a year earlier, the Office f…

Britain's unemployment rate remains at 4.6 percent, the lowest level for 42 years, official data showed on Wednesday.

A total of 1.53 million people were recorded as unemployed at the end of April, down 145,000 compared with a year earlier, the Office for National Statistics said in a statement.

However average weekly earnings adjusted for inflation fell by 0.6 percent, excluding bonuses, compared with a year earlier, the data showed.

British inflation jumped in May close to a four-year high of 2.9 percent as a weak pound pushes up import costs.

Dairy dispute sours Belarus-Russia relations

A spat between Russia and Belarus seems to have spilt over into the dairy sector, as Moscow has whipped up a conflict that is pushing its neighbour to export its products to China.Ex-Soviet Belarus’s dairy producers accuse Russian food hygiene official…

A spat between Russia and Belarus seems to have spilt over into the dairy sector, as Moscow has whipped up a conflict that is pushing its neighbour to export its products to China.

Ex-Soviet Belarus's dairy producers accuse Russian food hygiene officials of deliberately sabotaging them by issuing multiple bans against various dairy plants and abattoirs.

While Moscow insists these measures are all about hygiene, they resemble the commercial embargoes the Kremlin has applied to other countries whenever political relations break down.

Russia and Belarus are close allies and trading partners but ties have become strained as veteran strongman Alexander Lukashenko, increasingly wary of Moscow since its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, has argued over border controls and energy prices.

The stakes are very high for landlocked Belarus with its closed economy and extreme dependence on Russia: last year 95 percent of its food exports worth $3.7 billion went to Russia.

The dairy sector is particularly important because Belarus has a large number of producers and they have a high reputation for quality in Russia, which does not produce enough milk for its own consumers.

- Chinese market -

Russian agricultural officials accuse Minsk of taking advantage of Russia's embargo of European food imports imposed in revenge for EU sanctions by sending it products of inferior quality.

But for Minsk there is no doubt that "certain structures have an obvious interest in using their influence to keep out Belarusian producers" from the Russian market, said Belarusian agriculture minister Leonid Zayats in an interview with ONT state television.

The restrictions on Belarusian enterprises have fluctuated constantly for months -- being introduced, then softened or toughened up. They take all forms, from outright bans to increased monitoring. At the end of May, they affected almost 100 dairy plants and abattoirs.

Searching for new markets, agriculture professionals met at a conference in mid-May organised to help them sell to Chinese consumers who increasingly hungry for dairy products.

"Russia has closed its market to us, I've come in order to start exporting to China," Alexander Mikhailovsky, the director of the Lepelsky dairy plant, told AFP.

Alexander Subbotin, the country's chief veterinary inspector, said around 30 dairy producers had already been authorised to sell to China. And certification is underway for future exports of beef.

Subbotin said dairy exports to China in the first quarter of 2017 were worth $1.3 million, more than in the whole of 2015.

"We are going to sell our products to consumers who need them," agriculture minister Zayats told state news agency Belta recently.

- Complicated relations -

These commercial spats come at a time of complicated diplomatic relations.

Minsk has criticised Moscow's role in the Ukrainian crisis and edged closer to the West by convincing the European Union to lift sanctions after Lukashenko freed imprisoned opposition politicians.

At a press conference in February, Lukashenko, in power for over two decades and prone to outspoken declarations, spent a long time berating Russia and accusing it of not respecting international agreements.

The Kremlin responded by reminding Minsk which side its bread is buttered: Moscow gives "major economic, political and other support to Belarus", it said, citing loans and agreements worth tens of billions of dollars.

A meeting in early April between Lukashenko and counterpart Vladimir Putin helped smooth over the cracks, as they resolved a raging disagreement on the price of Russian energy supplies. But relations remain volatile.

Vladimir Zharikhin of the CIS Institute argues the crisis between the two is only relative, with Belarus still one of the few members of a Moscow-led economic union.

For Zharikin, Belarus needs the Russian market to sell its products and Moscow has an interest in protecting its alliance with a neighbour bordering the European Union.

He links the current problems to the Belarusian president's personality and his "habit of raising purely business matters onto a political level".

"These are relations between two close countries. They cannot always be absolutely cloud-free."

Oil output set to outpace demand in 2018: IEA

Global oil output will outstrip demand next year, primarily as US producers rack up production, which will hamper exporters’ efforts to prop up prices, the IEA said Wednesday.A day after OPEC complained that increased output in the US was slowing effor…

Global oil output will outstrip demand next year, primarily as US producers rack up production, which will hamper exporters' efforts to prop up prices, the IEA said Wednesday.

A day after OPEC complained that increased output in the US was slowing efforts to rebalance supply and demand in the oil market, the IEA also suggested that the dynamism of US producers could prove a headache for exporters.

"In 2018, we expect non-OPEC production to grow ... slightly more than the expected increase in global demand," the International Energy Agency wrote in its latest monthly report.

"Our first look at 2018 suggests that US crude production will grow year-on-year ... but such is the dynamism of this extraordinary, very diverse industry it is possible that growth will be faster," the report said.

"Our first outlook for 2018 makes sobering reading for those producers looking to restrain supply," the IEA said.

Originally, OPEC members had agreed to cut production for six months beginning from the start of the year in a bid to reduce the glut of oil supplies on the shore up prices.

Non-cartel producers led by Russia partially matched the cuts.

The measures helped stabilise oil prices at the beginning of the year, with the international benchmark Brent crude sticking above $50 per barrel.

And at a meeting at the end of May, both OPEC and non-OPEC countries decided to roll over the output cuts for a further nine months.

Nevertheless, dynamic growth in output in the US, particularly by shale producers, seems to be slowing down the rebalancing process.

And Brent has dropped back below $50 since the OPEC meeting.

American producers have benefitted from the OPEC and non-OPEC efforts to push prices higher.

Shale producers, in particular, can react quickly to market developments, because they are less capital intensive than other ventures. And they have racked up production as prices rise.

The IEA forecast an increase in non-OPEC output of 1.5 million barrels per day to 59.7 million bpd in 2018, with US output to reach more than 14.1 million bpd.

It did not provide a forecast for OPEC output next year, but calculated that it rose to 32.08 million bpd in May, taking the overall global supply to 96.69 million bpd last month.

At the same time, overall global demand is expected to pick up by 1.4 million bpd to 99.3 million bpd next year, the IEA predicted.

Asia markets mostly down as traders eye Fed meeting

Asian traders headed for the exits Wednesday despite a record close on Wall Street as they await the outcome of the Federal Reserve’s policy meeting, hoping for guidance on its monetary policy plans.

The central bank is all but certain to raise interest rates after its meeting ends later in the day but the main focus will be on chair Janet Yellen’s comments afterwards.

Some analysts suggest the rise could be the Fed’s last this year as traders fret over tepid inflation and the future of Donald Trump’s big-spending, tax-cutting agenda.

Hopes for those policies had fuelled expectations of a surge in prices — and a jump in borrowing costs — but the agenda is now in trouble as the tycoon faces political crises.

“With the rate hike now 96 percent priced in, focus will fall on the Fed?s forward guidance and importantly their views surrounding low inflation,” Stephen Innes, senior trader at OANDA, said in a note.

The dollar moved in a tight range against the yen in Asia ahead of the Fed announcement. Equity markets were mostly down despite a strong lead from Wall Street, where the Dow and S&P 500 ended at record highs.

Tokyo ended 0.1 percent lower, while Hong Kong gave up 0.2 percent in the afternoon and Shanghai closed down 0.7 percent. Seoul was off 0.1 percent and Singapore gave up 0.2 percent. Taipei fell 0.6 percent.

However, Sydney climbed more than one percent.

The pound extended its gains after bouncing on news Tuesday that British consumer inflation rose to a near four-year high of 2.9 percent in June.

The data comes as the Bank of England ends its own policy meeting Thursday and will put pressure on the policy board to raise rates within its two percent target.

British inflation had held close to zero throughout 2015 but has surged since then as a weak Brexit-hit pound raises import costs.

The pound on Friday tumbled to a seven-week low at $1.2636 in the wake of Thursday’s election result that saw the ruling Conservatives lose their majority, days before the start of crucial talks on leaving the EU.

Oil prices sank around one percent after the American Petroleum Institute said US inventories rose last week, confounding forecasts of a drop. Attention is now on the release of government stockpiles data later Wednesday.

In early European trade London slipped 0.1 percent but Paris was up 0.4 percent and Frankfurt gained 0.2 percent.

– Key figures around 0720 GMT –

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.1 percent at 19,883.52 (close)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng: DOWN 0.2 percent at 25,812.22

Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 0.7 percent at 3,130.67 (close)

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 0.1 percent at 7,496.16

Pound/dollar: UP at $1.2780 from $1.2752 at 2030 GMT

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.1213 from $1.1206

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 110.05 yen from 110.06 yen

Oil – West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 47 cents at $45.99 per barrel

Oil – Brent North Sea: DOWN 42 cents at $48.30 per barrel

New York – Dow: UP 0.4 percent at 21,328.47 (close)

Asian traders headed for the exits Wednesday despite a record close on Wall Street as they await the outcome of the Federal Reserve's policy meeting, hoping for guidance on its monetary policy plans.

The central bank is all but certain to raise interest rates after its meeting ends later in the day but the main focus will be on chair Janet Yellen's comments afterwards.

Some analysts suggest the rise could be the Fed's last this year as traders fret over tepid inflation and the future of Donald Trump's big-spending, tax-cutting agenda.

Hopes for those policies had fuelled expectations of a surge in prices -- and a jump in borrowing costs -- but the agenda is now in trouble as the tycoon faces political crises.

"With the rate hike now 96 percent priced in, focus will fall on the Fed?s forward guidance and importantly their views surrounding low inflation," Stephen Innes, senior trader at OANDA, said in a note.

The dollar moved in a tight range against the yen in Asia ahead of the Fed announcement. Equity markets were mostly down despite a strong lead from Wall Street, where the Dow and S&P 500 ended at record highs.

Tokyo ended 0.1 percent lower, while Hong Kong gave up 0.2 percent in the afternoon and Shanghai closed down 0.7 percent. Seoul was off 0.1 percent and Singapore gave up 0.2 percent. Taipei fell 0.6 percent.

However, Sydney climbed more than one percent.

The pound extended its gains after bouncing on news Tuesday that British consumer inflation rose to a near four-year high of 2.9 percent in June.

The data comes as the Bank of England ends its own policy meeting Thursday and will put pressure on the policy board to raise rates within its two percent target.

British inflation had held close to zero throughout 2015 but has surged since then as a weak Brexit-hit pound raises import costs.

The pound on Friday tumbled to a seven-week low at $1.2636 in the wake of Thursday's election result that saw the ruling Conservatives lose their majority, days before the start of crucial talks on leaving the EU.

Oil prices sank around one percent after the American Petroleum Institute said US inventories rose last week, confounding forecasts of a drop. Attention is now on the release of government stockpiles data later Wednesday.

In early European trade London slipped 0.1 percent but Paris was up 0.4 percent and Frankfurt gained 0.2 percent.

- Key figures around 0720 GMT -

Tokyo - Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.1 percent at 19,883.52 (close)

Hong Kong - Hang Seng: DOWN 0.2 percent at 25,812.22

Shanghai - Composite: DOWN 0.7 percent at 3,130.67 (close)

London - FTSE 100: DOWN 0.1 percent at 7,496.16

Pound/dollar: UP at $1.2780 from $1.2752 at 2030 GMT

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.1213 from $1.1206

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 110.05 yen from 110.06 yen

Oil - West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 47 cents at $45.99 per barrel

Oil - Brent North Sea: DOWN 42 cents at $48.30 per barrel

New York - Dow: UP 0.4 percent at 21,328.47 (close)

Zara owner Inditex posts strong profit rise

Spanish clothing giant Inditex, owner of fast-fashion brand Zara, Wednesday reported a sharp profit rise for the three months to April, and said it created more than 10,000 new jobs in a year.Inditex made 654 million euros ($734 million) over the perio…

Spanish clothing giant Inditex, owner of fast-fashion brand Zara, Wednesday reported a sharp profit rise for the three months to April, and said it created more than 10,000 new jobs in a year.

Inditex made 654 million euros ($734 million) over the period, the first quarter of its financial year, a rise of 18 percent year-on-year and more than double the first-quarter earnings of its direct competitor, Sweden's H and M.

Earnings were also ahead of analysts' consenus expectations of 540 million euros, compiled by financial data company Factset.

Apart from Zara, Inditex also owns Massimo Dutti, Oysho, Bershka, Stradivarius, Pull and Bear, Zara Home and Uterque, and runs 7,400 outlets in 93 countries.

Sales were up 14 percent in the quarter.

Zara has launched online sales in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam since the start of the year, and is to start operations in India in the autumn, it said.

Founded by Amancio Ortega, now the second-richest man in the world after Bill Gates, Inditex's business model is built on the ability to bring fashion to stores within two weeks after being designed to quickly reflect new trends.

Inditex said it had created 10,668 new jobs over the past 12 months, including more than 2,200 in Spain.

World Bank to give Afghanistan $520 mn credit

The World Bank on Tuesday said it had approved a $520 million plan to help Afghanistan, which has been weakened by the Taliban insurgency and gradual withdrawal of US troops.Almost half of the amount, given in the form of grants, will be dedicated to s…

The World Bank on Tuesday said it had approved a $520 million plan to help Afghanistan, which has been weakened by the Taliban insurgency and gradual withdrawal of US troops.

Almost half of the amount, given in the form of grants, will be dedicated to supporting people displaced by the violence in the country and those returning from exile in neighboring Pakistan, the bank said in a statement.

The rest will be allocated to anti-poverty reforms aimed at "increasing economic opportunities" by developing the private sector and improving power supply to households and businesses in the province of Herat.

More than fifteen years after the start of the US anti-Taliban offensive in Afghanistan -- officially ended in 2014 -- the country remains in deep crisis amid rampant poverty, instability and the ongoing exit of NATO troops.

"The international troop withdrawal, begun in 2011, coupled with political uncertainties, have resulted in a slowdown of economic growth, while government budget pressures are increasing as security threats mount and drive people from their homes," the bank said.

The International Monetary Fund expressed concern over the county's dire economic situation in late January. One of the world's poorest nations, Afghanistan is struggling to absorb some 700,000 returning refugees.

China factory output rises in May but officials guarded

Output by Chinese factories and workshops topped expectations in May, but officials warned on Wednesday of lingering “unstable and uncertain factors” at home and abroad that could pose a threat to the Asian giant.The reading on industrial production, a…

Output by Chinese factories and workshops topped expectations in May, but officials warned on Wednesday of lingering "unstable and uncertain factors" at home and abroad that could pose a threat to the Asian giant.

The reading on industrial production, a key engine of growth, comes as Beijing wrestles with huge debt and excess capacity left over from massive government-backed infrastructure spending at the height of the global financial crisis.

There have been renewed concerns about the strength of the world's number-two economy following a mixed bag of indicators in recent months and US President Donald Trump's protectionist rhetoric.

But forecast-beating trade figures last week and signs of a pick-up in the global outlook have raised hopes that China will be able to sustain its momentum.

The economy maintained "moderate but steady and sound" development in May", National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) spokeswoman Liu Aihua said in a statement.

But she warned "unstable and uncertain factors still exist both domestically and externally".

Output rose 6.5 percent from a year ago, the NBS said, unchanged from the previous month and slightly higher than forecasts of 6.4 percent in a Bloomberg News poll of economists.

Fixed-asset investment excluding rural areas -- which measures spending on real estate, roads and bridges -- slowed to 8.6 percent in the first five months of the year from 8.9 percent in January-April. That missed estimates of 8.8 percent.

Growth in retail sales -- a key gauge of consumer spending on everything from shoes and clothes to furniture -- was steady compared with April at 10.7 percent and matched forecasts.

"Growth momentum remained largely stable in May, but a cooling property market has started to have a negative effect on investment growth," Nomura research analysts Yang Zhao and Wendy Chen said in a note.

China's economy has long been driven by debt-fuelled investment in infrastructure, such as bridges, highways and hydro-electric dams, as well as real estate.

But years of freewheeling credit have left it with huge amounts of debt that some fear could trigger a financial crisis, prompting authorities to rein in risky lending and property acquisitions.

Such concerns led Moody's to last month slash the country's credit rating for the first time in almost three decades.

French luxury leaders create precious work at home

Using globalisation’s potential with the precision of master designers making fashion, France’s luxury companies are generating jobs again, defying nationwide gloom over stubbornly high unemployment.As they feed the world’s growing appetite for the ult…

Using globalisation's potential with the precision of master designers making fashion, France's luxury companies are generating jobs again, defying nationwide gloom over stubbornly high unemployment.

As they feed the world's growing appetite for the ultimate in chic, the likes of Hermes and Chanel are hiring qualified staff in the hundreds and even thousands, most of them in France itself, a growing contribution to reducing the nation's jobless pool of nearly 3.5 million.

Birkin-bag maker Hermes is the latest French luxury firm to announce new jobs, opening two new leather workshops and adding 220 employees to meet rising demand abroad, particularly in Asia.

Other French labels such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent have also become major global brands for ready-to-wear, accessories and perfume.

As sales rise, especially to Chinese consumers slaking their thirst for luxury goods, manufacturers are adding jobs.

That goes against the grain of the overall manufacturing sector in France, which has seen its share of economic output halved over the past half century to account for around 11 percent, according to World Bank data.

At Saint-Junien in central France, where Hermes opened one of the new workshops, dozens of craftsmen cut and stitch leather into gloves, wallets and other small objects.

In this facility, which used to process wool, there is no automation. Work is done by hand and each piece is signed by the craftsman.

"It is unimaginable creating a site like this in another country," said Guillaume de Seynes, executive vice president of manufacturing for Hermes, which was founded in 1837.

"It is out of consideration for quality and a question of image. Made in France means to clients French know-how" that has been handed down for generations.

- 'Historic chance' -

"Very clearly, for the luxury sector, the enrichment of new countries, globalisation, were a historic chance for the creation of jobs, as in aeronautics," said de Seynes, a descendant of the firm's founder Thierry Hermes.

In the past five years, the company which makes 85 percent of its products in France and exports 86 percent of them, has created 2,400 new jobs in the country.

Hermes is not alone.

Kering, the Paris-based world's number two luxury company whose stable includes Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Bottega Veneta, has also bulked up.

Over the past three years the staff at its luxury division has expanded by 13 percent.

In 2013, it acquired the Normandy-based France Croco, a tannery that specialises in working with crocodile skins and supplies top French and Italian fashion houses. Staff levels are expected to rise from 45 to 160 by 2020.

Meanwhile at LVMH, the top luxury company with 70 brands including fashion houses Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Guerlain, Givenchy as well as Moet et Chandon champagne and Hennessy cognac, added about 1,000 positions last year to meet rising sales, which hit 40 billion euros ($41 billion) this year.

And "the trend is comparable, even a bit higher for 2017" said Chantal Gaemperle, the company's head of human resources.

The hiring "is for all professions, all along the hierarchy, from manual skills to managers", she said, adding 93 percent of the contracts are permanent.

- 'Powerful symbol' -

A sign of the luxury sector's growing weight, LVMH this year became the largest company on the Paris stock exchange by market capitalisation, pushing aside energy firm Total and drugs maker Sanofi.

"It is a powerful symbol. Luxury has a significant weight in the French economy," said Olivier Abtan, who leads the global luxury sector team at Boston Consulting Group.

He said French luxury firms had managed to retain a sense of exclusiveness and creativity, while managing to avoid diluting their image.

And he believes many of the new jobs are likely to last.

"What makes these products different is that they are handmade. The strong element of craftmanship means it is something that cannot be done by robots that replace humans," said Abtan.

While France remains a leader in leatherwork and jewellery it has, however, lost know-how in footwear and ready-to-wear to Italy, which poses a real challenge to French firms, Abtan added.

The luxury effect also spills over to the appliance sector.

Vorwerk, the German company behind the top-end Thermomix food processors-cookers, has invested 100 million euros in its factory in central France during the past few years, adding 100 jobs, as it sought to keep up with rising sales.

Australia’s Ten Network goes into administration

Australia’s Ten Network, one of the nation’s three commercial channels which broadcasts shows such as “I’m a Celebrity”, was Wednesday placed in voluntary administration after failing to secure a new finance package.The station, which like many media g…

Australia's Ten Network, one of the nation's three commercial channels which broadcasts shows such as "I'm a Celebrity", was Wednesday placed in voluntary administration after failing to secure a new finance package.

The station, which like many media groups is being hammered by slumping advertising revenues, was forced to take the drastic step after two billionaire backers refused to continue guaranteeing a key loan.

"This decision follows correspondence received from Illyria and Birketu over the weekend which left the directors with no choice but to appoint administrators," the company said in a statement.

News Corporation co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch's investment company Illyria and businessman Bruce Gordon's Birketu said they would not support a new Aus$250 million (US$188 million) loan the broadcaster needs to stay afloat.

The pair, along with Crown Resorts majority owner James Packer, were guarantors on Aus$200 million in debt financing due to expire in December.

Ten, whose shows include "Big Bash League" cricket, "Australian Survivor" and "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here", had been seeking an amended or new borrowing facility of Aus$250 million.

KordaMentha, which was appointed as voluntary administrators, said it would work with management and content partners while undertaking a financial and operational assessment, with a view to either recapitalise or sell the business.

"During this period, the administrators intend to continue operations as much as possible on a business as usual basis," said Ten, Australia's third-ranked commercial free-to-air broadcaster, behind the Nine and Seven networks.

The Australian Financial Review, citing sources, said Ten management believed they had a plan to keep the broadcaster public and viable, but needed to renegotiate content deals with US studios 21st Century Fox and CBS.

Ten, which has been on air since 1964, posted a net loss in September-February of Aus$232 million, but said it had identified cost and revenue initiatives.

Canadian oil hike puts Trudeau climate action in doubt

Oil companies said Tuesday they planned to ramp up their output in Canada, throwing a wrench in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions.Currently the world’s sixth largest oil producer, Canada expects to hike productio…

Oil companies said Tuesday they planned to ramp up their output in Canada, throwing a wrench in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Currently the world's sixth largest oil producer, Canada expects to hike production by 32 percent to 5.1 million barrels per day by 2030, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

The additional output will come entirely from the Alberta oil sands.

Trudeau was criticized by the energy sector this year for suggesting a need to "phase out" oil sands production, which is Canada's top single source of CO2 and its fasting growing.

"We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels," he said in January, two months after approving two new pipelines to the United States and to Pacific tidewater.

Environmental activists have been unrelenting in their dislike of the oil sands and calls to shut down extraction of heavy crude and bitumen, which is harder, more polluting and more expensive to extract than typical light crude.

But Trudeau instead gave a boost to the sector by approving the refurbishment of two existing Canadian pipelines to increase capacity.

US President Donald Trump's approval of the Keystone XL pipeline connecting the oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries was also welcomed by the industry.

- More, bigger, better pipelines -

Still the current pipeline capacity to transport about four million barrels per day is insufficient, said the CAPP, which pointed to an "urgent need for pipelines heading east, west and south."

The CAPP represents about 240 oil, gas and affiliated companies and estimates the industry will need to boost pipeline capacity to more than 5.5 million barrels per day to meet rising demand.

But increased oil output would undermine Trudeau's commitment to slash Canada's CO2 emissions by 30 percent compared with 2005 levels, by 2030.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna on Monday welcomed her G7 counterparts' appreciation of Canada's newfound "leadership and concrete actions to implement the Paris Agreement."

But it remains to be seen if measures such as a national carbon pricing scheme and a patchwork of regional cap and trade and other measures will be enough to meet that commitment.

A Senate report released in March concluded that Canada required a "Herculean shift" to meet its target, for example, the removal of "all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships" from the country, or a complete shutdown of its oil and gas sector.

The Trudeau government's proposed Can$10 carbon price rising to a maximum of Can$50 per tonne in 2022 will not be enough.

If the oil and gas sector ramps up as predicted, the increased pollution would outpace any reductions from his climate policies.

The CAPP has noted that despite the approval of the three pipelines in the last few months, more are "still needed to further connect Canada's growing supplies to diverse markets."

Next year, Canada will take over the rotating presidency of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations.

In a statement Greenpeace Canada said: "New pipelines have no place in a just, green Canada and are an obvious misfit in a G7 presidency agenda focused on climate action and clean growth among its top priorities."

The Guardian to move to tabloid format

Britain’s Guardian newspaper is to move to a tabloid format in early 2018 as part of its “three-year transformation programme,” parent company Guardian Media Group (GMG) announced on Tuesday.

The Guardian’s sister Sunday title The Observer will also be downsized from their shared Berliner format.

The move is part of the GMG’s three-year transformation programme unveiled last year.

Among other goals, the programme includes restructuring the advertising business and “reducing the business’ cost base in order to break even at operating level by 2019”.

In the financial year to the end of June 2016, GMG reported losses of £69 million ($88 million, 78 million euros).

The cost-reduction programme also planned for 250 jobs to be cut, including 100 in editorial.

“This is an important step in our three-year transformation plan. More people are reading and supporting our journalism than ever before, but the print industry continues to evolve, and we must evolve with it,” David Pemsel, GMG’s chief executive said.

The Guardian and The Observer switched from the traditional broadsheet format to its full-colour Berliner style in 2005, which required £80 million in investment.

Editor-in-chief Katherine Viner defended the latest move on the Guardians’ website, arguing that “declining circulations mean that printing the Berliner is becoming increasingly expensive”.

“Moving to a tabloid format will allow us to be far more flexible in responding to changing print demand,” she added.

It would also save millions of pounds every year, helping the group to become financially sustainable so it could invest in the journalism, she added.

Trinity Mirror, the UK’s largest publisher, will take over printing while GMG’s two printing sites in Trafford, near Manchester and in the London borough of Stratford will close.

Britain's Guardian newspaper is to move to a tabloid format in early 2018 as part of its "three-year transformation programme," parent company Guardian Media Group (GMG) announced on Tuesday.

The Guardian's sister Sunday title The Observer will also be downsized from their shared Berliner format.

The move is part of the GMG's three-year transformation programme unveiled last year.

Among other goals, the programme includes restructuring the advertising business and "reducing the business' cost base in order to break even at operating level by 2019".

In the financial year to the end of June 2016, GMG reported losses of £69 million ($88 million, 78 million euros).

The cost-reduction programme also planned for 250 jobs to be cut, including 100 in editorial.

"This is an important step in our three-year transformation plan. More people are reading and supporting our journalism than ever before, but the print industry continues to evolve, and we must evolve with it," David Pemsel, GMG's chief executive said.

The Guardian and The Observer switched from the traditional broadsheet format to its full-colour Berliner style in 2005, which required £80 million in investment.

Editor-in-chief Katherine Viner defended the latest move on the Guardians' website, arguing that "declining circulations mean that printing the Berliner is becoming increasingly expensive".

"Moving to a tabloid format will allow us to be far more flexible in responding to changing print demand," she added.

It would also save millions of pounds every year, helping the group to become financially sustainable so it could invest in the journalism, she added.

Trinity Mirror, the UK's largest publisher, will take over printing while GMG's two printing sites in Trafford, near Manchester and in the London borough of Stratford will close.

Yahoo signs off, completes sale to Verizon

Internet pioneer Yahoo ended its two-decade run as an independent company on Tuesday, completing the sale of its core online assets to telecom giant Verizon.Yahoo’s chief executive Marissa Mayer resigned as expected, as Verizon finalized the $4.48 bill…

Internet pioneer Yahoo ended its two-decade run as an independent company on Tuesday, completing the sale of its core online assets to telecom giant Verizon.

Yahoo's chief executive Marissa Mayer resigned as expected, as Verizon finalized the $4.48 billion deal integrating the Yahoo internet operations into a new unit called Oath, which includes another former sector leader, AOL.

Tim Armstrong, former CEO of AOL, now holds the same title at Oath, a division in Verizon's Media and Telematics organization.

"We're building the future of brands using powerful technology, trusted content and differentiated data," Armstrong said in a statement.

"We have dominating consumer brands in news, sports, finance, tech, and entertainment and lifestyle coupled with our market leading advertising technology platforms. Now that the deal is closed, we are excited to set our focus on being the best company for consumer media, and the best partner to our advertising, content and publisher partners."

Oath includes a number of other digital media operations including HuffPost, formerly known as the Huffington Post.

Verizon has made no indication of how it will use the Yahoo brand -- which is used by over a billion people worldwide -- but indicated it is keeping the names Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Finance, Yahoo Mail and more.

Some reports have said more than 1,000 jobs would be eliminated as a result of the merger, but statements from Yahoo and Verizon on Tuesday made no mention of any cuts.

Yahoo's sale caps a long decline from when it had a peak market value of some $125 billion in 2000.

The original Yahoo group now becomes a holding company with stakes in Chinese internet giant Alibaba and Yahoo Japan.

On Friday, it will change its name to Altaba Inc. and on Monday begin trading under the ticker symbol "AABA."

Mayer, who was unable to stem the decline of the iconic Silicon Valley company, is getting a departure package worth an estimated $186 million, according to regulatory filings.

Deutsche Bank to pay $170 mn private suit settlement in US

Germany’s Deutsche Bank has agreed to pay $170 million to settle a private lawsuit charging it conspired with other major banks to rig a key interest rate, according to a US court filing Monday.The class-action case concerns alleged fixing of the Eurib…

Germany's Deutsche Bank has agreed to pay $170 million to settle a private lawsuit charging it conspired with other major banks to rig a key interest rate, according to a US court filing Monday.

The class-action case concerns alleged fixing of the Euribor benchmark interest rate used for a wide range of financial instruments.

Deutsche Bank, which has set aside 3.2 billion euros for litigation in this case, declined comment on the filing from attorneys representing a group that includes the California State Teachers' Retirement System, which requests court approval of the deal.

The agreement is the third involving a large bank in the Euribor-fixing case after Barclays previously agreed to pay $94 million and HSBC $45 million. The court already approved those settlements.

Plaintiffs have accused large banks from 2005 to 2011 of manipulating Euribor, which is used for numerous financial contracts, including credit cards and student loans.

Other banks named in the litigation include BNP Paribas, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase.

US regulators have imposed billions of dollars in fines on large banks for the interest rate manipulation.

US Fed poised to hike despite weak inflation

The US Federal Reserve was due to begin a two-day review of monetary policy on Tuesday, with the second interest rate increase of 2017 seen as a near certain result.Any increase, however, would come in the face of persistent signs of weakness in the wo…

The US Federal Reserve was due to begin a two-day review of monetary policy on Tuesday, with the second interest rate increase of 2017 seen as a near certain result.

Any increase, however, would come in the face of persistent signs of weakness in the world's largest economy, which in recent months has seen slowing job growth and persistently low inflation.

In the latest data released Tuesday, the Producer Price Index, which measures input costs for sellers, was flat in May, albeit largely due to sharp declines in the costs for food and fuel.

At its most recent meeting last month, the Fed's policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee left the target range for its benchmark interest rate at between 0.75 and one percent.

Members said economic weakness was likely only "transitory," and a rate hike was likely to be needed "soon," although they said they would wait to see evidence the economic recovery had resumed before taking the next step.

Futures markets on Tuesday indicated a near 100 percent probability the Fed would increase the key lending rate at the conclusion of its meeting on Wednesday.

Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told AFP the Fed is likely to increase rates to ensure it will have room to maneuver and lower rates again in the event of a negative shock to the economy.

"That's a somewhat unfortunate way of thinking about it because you risk slowing the economy down in order to avoid an economic slowdown," Bernstein said.

But the weak recent economic data have left the course of interest rate policy for the rest of the year in doubt. The FOMC's forecasts projected a total of three rate increases this year, but that could change in the new quarterly projections released on Wednesday.

Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen will hold her quarterly press conference after the meeting and her comments will be scrutinized for any hints on whether a third rate hike is likely this year, and whether it would happen in September or be pushed back to December.

Joseph Gagnon of the Peterson Institute for International Economics told AFP the economy is strong enough to justify this week's expected rate hike, but the Fed might hold off from making another move.

"The more dovish thing that might hold them back is that core inflation is not really continuing to rise and wage pressures are pretty weak."

Observers also will be watching the FOMC statement and Yellen's briefing for more details about the Fed's plans for drawing down its $4 trillion in securities holdings acquired during the global financial crisis.

The Fed last month announced the outlines of a plan to reduce its balance sheet in a gradual and clearly-telegraphed way to avoid roiling financial markets.

Job market divide threatens social cohesion: OECD

Social cohesion is under threat as medium-skilled jobs disappear in favour of better paid jobs requiring high qualifications and low-paid, unskilled work, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned Tuesday.”Income inequality is u…

Social cohesion is under threat as medium-skilled jobs disappear in favour of better paid jobs requiring high qualifications and low-paid, unskilled work, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned Tuesday.

"Income inequality is unprecedented at the moment and is endangering social cohesion," OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria told journalists at a Berlin press conference.

Some 7.6 percent of medium-skilled jobs disappeared between 1995 and 2015 in the OECD's 35 mostly wealthy member nations.

Meanwhile, highly-skilled jobs grew by 5.3 percent and the number of unskilled jobs expanded by 2.3 percent.

"Low and middle incomes are stagnating, while the demand for mid-level qualifications is shrinking," the report noted.

The OECD points the finger at technological change for most of the ruction in rich countries' labour markets in recent decades.

A smaller share is blamed on off-shoring production to countries with cheaper labour.

A gap between high and low earnings has matched the gulf between high- and low-skilled work.

Those among the richest 10 percent of the population have more than nine times as much disposable income as the poorest 10 percent.

That ratio has grown from around seven times 25 years ago.

The OECD pointed to "rising inequality and concerns that top earners are getting a disproportionate share of the gains from economic growth".

Growing rejection of globalisation, expressed in swelling populist movements in some countries, can largely be traced to "a real failure of existing policies to promote inclusive growth" that would benefit a broader swathe of the population, the organisation said.

Beyond focusing on jobs and unemployment figures, policymakers should have an eye on pay and job security and greater "inclusiveness" in terms of male-female balance and helping the disadvantaged into work, the report found.

Labour markets should also be flexible and designed to support people as they adapt to economic hard times or technological change, it added.

ECB swaps some dollar reserves for renminbi

The European Central Bank said Tuesday it had exchanged part of its US dollar reserves for Chinese renminbi for the first time, in a sign of the growing global importance of Beijing’s currency.The Frankfurt institution “completed an investment equivale…

The European Central Bank said Tuesday it had exchanged part of its US dollar reserves for Chinese renminbi for the first time, in a sign of the growing global importance of Beijing's currency.

The Frankfurt institution "completed an investment equivalent to 500 million euros ($560 million) of the ECB's foreign reserves in Chinese renminbi (CNY) during the first half of 2017," it said in a statement.

Justifying its decision, the ECB said that "the use of CNY as a global international currency has increased in recent years," being declared a freely-usable currency by the IMF in 2015.

"The ECB's investment also reflects the importance of China as one of the euro area's largest trading partners," it added.

Its purchase of the Chinese cash was paid for with "a small portion of its US dollar holdings, which remain the largest portfolio," it added.

The ECB's foreign reserves, held in US dollars, Japanese yen, Chinese renminbi, and International Monetary Fund Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), remained at the same overall size.

Figures released last month showed that the ECB's official reserves stood at over 68 billion euros at the end of April, including 47.7 billion euros in foreign currencies and 18.8 billion euros in gold.

The ECB only publishes figures on its holdings of individual currencies in its annual report at the end of each year.

In December 2016, the central bank held $46.8 billion in US dollars (41.7 billion euros), and 1.1 trillion Japanese yen (8.8 billion euros).

Lufthansa snubs Frankfurt with A380 move to Munich

German airline Lufthansa said Tuesday it would transfer five mammoth Airbus A380 planes from its Frankfurt home base to Munich, as a dispute with airport operator Fraport rumbles on.”Starting in summer 2018, Lufthansa will introduce the Airbus A380 in …

German airline Lufthansa said Tuesday it would transfer five mammoth Airbus A380 planes from its Frankfurt home base to Munich, as a dispute with airport operator Fraport rumbles on.

"Starting in summer 2018, Lufthansa will introduce the Airbus A380 in Munich on long-haul destinations to Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Beijing," the firm said in a statement.

Five of the airline's 14 A380s -- the world's largest airliner -- will move to the Bavaria state capital in southern Germany for the first time.

Lufthansa will also add "up to 500 new positions" to an existing 11,000 employees at its second-largest hub in Munich, although no jobs will be lost in Frankfurt.

The move was "a clear sign for continued growth in Bavaria," the airline added in its statement, with two more long-haul aircraft planned for Munich in the next two years.

Lufthansa's relationship with Frankfurt airport, its home base located in western Hesse state, has entered a turbulent patch this year.

Executives were angered when Fraport agreed to host competitors including no-frills airline Ryanair at a discounted rate at Germany's largest air hub.

Lufthansa, one of Fraport's biggest and longest-lasting customers, has tried to negotiate a similar deal for itself -- so far without success.

In response, it warned that it would divert more investments to other hubs, in Munich, Vienna and Zurich.

"There is no direct connection [to the Ryanair dispute] but of course growth will happen where the best conditions are, and costs are of course a factor," a Lufthansa spokesman told AFP, adding that the airline was enjoying "very strong growth" in Munich.

"We regret Lufthansa's decision and think that it's the wrong one," a Fraport spokesman told German news agency DPA, adding that the airline's decision showed the airport must be open to other carriers.

US wholesale prices flat in May

Falling food and energy prices helped keep US wholesale inflation flat in May, in another sign of slackening price pressures, the Labor Department reported Tuesday.The new figures come as the US central bank begins a two-day monetary policy meeting, wi…

Falling food and energy prices helped keep US wholesale inflation flat in May, in another sign of slackening price pressures, the Labor Department reported Tuesday.

The new figures come as the US central bank begins a two-day monetary policy meeting, with the Federal Reserve widely expected to raise the key interest rate for the second time this year despite signs of a cooling economy.

Policymakers said last month they believed the weakness in the economy likely was "transitory" and a rate hike would be appropriate "soon," although they also promised to wait for confirmation the recovery has resumed before increasing the benchmark lending rate.

The Producer Price Index, which measures input costs from the seller's perspective, was unchanged in May, down sharply from April's 0.5 percent jump.

For the latest 12 months, PPI was up 2.4 percent, down a tenth of a percentage point from last month's reading.

However, the cost of services was persistent sign of rising prices, rising 2.1 percent compared to May 2016, the largest increase in two and a half years.

Excluding the more volatile categories food, fuel and trade, PPI slipped 0.1 percent for the month, and the 12-month rate was up 2.1 percent, unchanged from last month.

Energy prices continued to see sharp declines, with gasoline prices plunging 11.2 percent, the largest drop since February 2016, while jet fuel costs fell 11 percent, the biggest decline since January of last year.

Broker-dealer services fell 4.5 percent, the biggest decline since November 2015.

Guestroom rentals saw the biggest monthly decline since the Labor Department began tracking them in 2009, falling 5.2 percent for the month.

France steps up probe into Lafarge ‘funding of IS’

France has launched a judicial inquiry into claims that Franco-Swiss cement giant LafargeHolcim indirectly funded the Islamic State group (IS) in Syria in order to keep a plant running in a war zone there, prosecutors said Tuesday. Earlier this year, L…

France has launched a judicial inquiry into claims that Franco-Swiss cement giant LafargeHolcim indirectly funded the Islamic State group (IS) in Syria in order to keep a plant running in a war zone there, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Earlier this year, LafargeHolcim admitted that it had resorted to "unacceptable practices" to continue operations at a now-closed cement factory in northern Syria in 2013-14, after most French groups had quit the war-torn country.

Three judges -- one dealing with anti-terrorism matters and two financial judges -- will handle the probe into the "financing of a terrorist enterprise" and "endangering lives", the Paris prosecutor's office said.

LafargeHolcim said Tuesday it "will of course cooperate with the law if it is called upon," adding in a statement that prosecutors had not yet contacted it.

In September, the French government filed a legal complaint against Lafarge for buying oil in sanctions-hit Syria to power its Jalabiya factory.

That complaint triggered an initial probe in which Lafarge executives were questioned, according to a source close to the investigation.

In March, Lafarge admitted that the group's Syrian subsidiary had indirectly paid protection money to "armed groups, including sanctioned parties, in order to maintain operations and ensure safe passage of employees and supplies to and from the plant."

The alleged dealings took place during 2013 when "the deterioration of the political situation in Syria posed very difficult challenges for the security and operations of the plant and its employees," it said.

French cement maker Lafarge bought the factory in 2007 and invested some $680 million (600 million euros) to get it working by 2010, representing the biggest foreign investment in the country outside the petroleum sector.

The plant was finally evacuated in 2014 and closed down before Lafarge merged with its Swiss competitor Holcim in 2015.

Lafarge is suspected of having sourced oil locally to operate the factory in defiance of a 2012 EU ban on purchases of Syrian oil as part of a sanctions package targeting the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The allegations first surfaced in French daily Le Monde, which accused Lafarge's Syrian subsidiary in a June 2016 report of having entered into "murky arrangements" with IS.

- 'Workers in great danger' -

In April, LafargeHolcim chief executive Eric Olsen said he would step down on July 15 over the affair, even though the company had cleared him of any wrongdoing.

In November, 11 former Lafarge employees filed complaints against the company, along with French anti-corruption group Sherpa and a German-based rights group.

They accuse Lafarge's Syrian subsidiary of having "put pressure on employees", claiming they were threatened with redundancy or having their pay docked if they did not turn up for work -- despite heavy fighting in the area.

Lafarge "chose to place its workers in great danger and negotiate with Islamic State in order to remain in a conflict zone," Sherpa's lawyer Marie Dose told AFP.

IS seized control of the plant in September 2014.

Lafarge has also been in hot water over its readiness to supply cement for US President Donald Trump's controversial wall along the US-Mexico border.

In March, the City of Paris announced it was dumping the group as a supplier of sand for the makeshift "Paris Plages" beach over its willingness "to work on the nefarious project".

White House calls for rollback of banking regulations

The White House on Monday issued a roadmap for loosening US banking regulations, including a recommendation to ease “stress tests” for large banks, according to a report published by the Treasury.President Donald Trump requested the report in a Februar…

The White House on Monday issued a roadmap for loosening US banking regulations, including a recommendation to ease "stress tests" for large banks, according to a report published by the Treasury.

President Donald Trump requested the report in a February decree aimed at reducing the financial regulations imposed by the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, adopted after a meltdown of the US mortgage market triggered the global financial crisis of 2008-2009.

"A sensible rebalancing of regulatory principles is warranted in light of the significant improvement in the strength of the financial system and the economy," the Treasury said.

The 150-page report will feed into Senate debates about gutting Dodd-Frank, which toughened bank regulations, prohibited federally insured banks from engaging in risky trading, and established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to oversee credit cards, mortgages and other financial products, among other measures.

While they do not call for scrapping the entire law, the new measures would implement a series of far-reaching changes, especially over the supervision of large banks.

The report calls for the size threshold at which banks are administered stress tests -- which measure how they would weather possible economic shocks -- to be increased from the current $50 billion in assets, even for foreign banks. The recommendations do not provide a level.

Some tests should be conducted every two years instead of annually, the report also says.

The Treasury also set its sights on the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, or CFPB, saying it requires a "significant restructuring."

The agency "was created to pursue an important mission, but its unaccountable structure and unduly broad regulatory powers have led to predictable regulatory abuses and excesses," it said, recommending the president be given the power to fire its director.

The new proposals also target the Volcker rule -- which prohibits banks that make loans and collect consumer deposits from making risky deals with their own funds. The regulation should no longer apply to midsize banks with less than $10 billion in assets, the report says.

It would also require "living wills" -- which lay out how a bank would wind itself down in case of failure without damaging the entire financial system -- to be submitted every two years instead of annually.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed an even more far-reaching act to guy banking regulations by calling for the elimination of many of the provisions of the Dodd-Frank law.

It passed without the backing of Democrats, whose support will be required for any measure adopted by the Senate.

US oil output hampering market rebalancing: OPEC

Increased oil production in the United States is hampering efforts to balance out market supply and demand, OPEC said on Tuesday.While a “rebalancing of the market” was “underway,” it was “at a slower pace than originally anticipated,” the Organization…

Increased oil production in the United States is hampering efforts to balance out market supply and demand, OPEC said on Tuesday.

While a "rebalancing of the market" was "underway," it was "at a slower pace than originally anticipated," the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries wrote in its latest monthly oil market report.

This was "due to changes in fundamentals, especially the shift in US supply from a forecast contraction to positive growth," the report said.

And it was being observed, "despite the very high overall conformity to the production adjustments in the first four months of 2017," OPEC added.

Back in November, OPEC members agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day for six months beginning from the start of the year in a bid to reduce the glut of oil supplies on the shore up prices.

Non-cartel producers led by Russia partially matched the cuts.

The measures helped stabilise oil prices at the beginning of the year, with the international benchmark Brent crude sticking above $50 per barrel.

And at a meeting at the end of May, both OPEC and non-OPEC countries decided to roll over the output cuts for a further nine months.

Nevertheless, increased output in the US was getting in the way of the rebalancing process, OPEC complained.

Brent has dropped back below $50 since the OPEC meeting.

American producers have benefitted from the OPEC and non-OPEC efforts to push prices higher.

Shale producers, in particular, can react quickly to market developments, because they are less capital intensive than other ventures.

And they have racked up production as prices rise.

The bulk of the upward adjustment in non-OPEC oil supply since December "has come from the US," OPEC said.

And that was skewing the market.

"The revisions to non-OPEC supply growth have been much greater than the upward adjustments to world oil demand growth, accentuating the imbalance in the market," it said.

Looking at anticipated growth in global oil demand this year, OPEC reiterated its forecast of 1.27 million barrels per day (bpd).

With regard to the global economic outlook for 2017, stronger-than-anticipated momentum since the beginning of the year led to an upwards revision in the growth forecast to 3.4 percent following growth of 3.1 percent in 2016, OPEC said.

EU seeks post-Brexit powers over London finance hub

The EU will unveil plans Tuesday to give itself new powers over London’s banking business after Brexit in a blow to the city’s supremacy as a global financial hub.The draft law to be unveiled by European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis wil…

The EU will unveil plans Tuesday to give itself new powers over London's banking business after Brexit in a blow to the city's supremacy as a global financial hub.

The draft law to be unveiled by European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis will empower Europe to deny post-Brexit London the right to host financial market "clearing houses" that deal in euros, the EU's single currency, EU sources said.

Clearing houses are a key part of the financial system's plumbing, with trillions of euros being handled every year, mostly out of London.

The draft law, details of which first appeared in the Financial Times, is a watered down version from the forced relocation of euro clearing initially feared by London, in a sign that the EU does not want to overtly offend Britain only days after Prime Minister Theresa May embarrassingly lost her majority in British elections.

The issue of whether euro clearing houses can remain in the British capital was set to be one of the most contentious issues when Britain negotiates its future trade relationship with the EU after its departure.

Britain has jealously guarded dominance of the clearing house sector in Europe and won an EU court decision in 2015 against the European Central Bank in order to keep hosting the euro deals.

Still, under the draft law, vaunted financial firms such as the London Stock Exchange would need to adhere to strict EU oversight in order to avoid a forced move of its euro clearing business to a bloc country.

"The commission wants more time to study the impact of our proposal," a source close to the matter told AFP, who confirmed the accuracy of the version reported by the FT.

With the proposal, "the door remains open to the forced relocation" of clearing houses considered at risk of causing severe damage to the EU economy, the source said.

- 'Complete chaos' -

The proposal is a small victory London Stock Exchange, which has warned of the high costs of relocation and that any forced move out of the UK could be highly damaging to its business.

"It's going to be complete chaos. This has not been properly thought through," LSE chief executive Xavier Rolet told the Sunday Telegraph ahead of the EU decison.

Last week the Futures Industry Association, a US and UK-linked lobby, warned that forced relocation to the EU would require a near doubling of the $83 billion finance companies set aside in case of contract defaults.

This figure however has been dismissed by Frankfurt-based Eurex Clearing, owned by Deutsche Boerse.

According to the draft, the law will also attempt to centralise supervision of the clearing houses dealing in EU currencies, in addition to the euro.

The bloc's Paris-based European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) would take the lead, backed by the ECB and national central banks.

London lobbyists insist that only Wall Street or Asia would benefit in the event of an EU ordered exile from Britain.

Forcing a move out of London, "would ultimately be detrimental" and "is in no one's interest," Miles Celic, chief executive of the TheCityUK, said last month.

But a senior German official said that the clearing sector was already moving out of London for the continental EU, given the hard line taken by London in the run up to Brexit talks.

"There is already movement... The first institutions are turning to ... the continent and especially here in Frankfurt," said Bundesbank board member Joachim Wuermeling to Handelsblatt, the German business daily.

"That's likely to increase massively as the talks go on, if the likelihood of a hard Brexit increases," he said.

Google ‘seals tax deal’ with Indonesia

Indonesia has reached an agreement with Google over payment of taxes, the country’s finance minister said Tuesday, after a long-running dispute with the US tech giant. The two sides have been locked in a row since last year when the government alleged …

Indonesia has reached an agreement with Google over payment of taxes, the country's finance minister said Tuesday, after a long-running dispute with the US tech giant.

The two sides have been locked in a row since last year when the government alleged that the California-based company had refused to cooperate with its tax office.

A senior tax official had claimed the company had not fulfilled its obligations and owed over $400 million in taxes and fines for 2015 alone. Google insisted it had paid all taxes due in Indonesia since opening its Jakarta office in 2011.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati told reporters Tuesday that "we had a discussion with them (Google) and reached an agreement based on the 2016 tax report, but because it is confidential we don't disclose the amount".

She did not give further details, and it was not clear whether an agreement had also been reached regarding tax payments prior to 2016.

No one from the tax office or Google's Jakarta office could be reached for comment.

Jakarta has also put pressure on other foreign tech behemoths such as Facebook and Yahoo over their tax arrangements inside Indonesia.

Global tech businesses have flooded Indonesia in recent years to capitalise on the exploding number of internet users in the Southeast Asian nation, where an increasing number of people are going online for the first time using smartphones.

A third of Indonesia's 255 million have access to the internet but analysts say that number is likely to increase as connectivity improves across the sprawling archipelago.

German investor confidence falls back in June

Confidence among German investors fell back in June, a closely-watched survey showed Tuesday, breaking a run of euphoric mood indicators in recent months.The ZEW institute’s poll measuring economic expectations among financial players shed 2.0 points t…

Confidence among German investors fell back in June, a closely-watched survey showed Tuesday, breaking a run of euphoric mood indicators in recent months.

The ZEW institute's poll measuring economic expectations among financial players shed 2.0 points to 18.6 points in June -- well below its long-term average of 23.9.

Analysts surveyed by data company Factset had forecast a slight increase of 1.1 points in the barometer this month.

That would have matched last month's progress, when the election of President Emmanuel Macron in France was seen to brighten prospects for the eurozone economy.

Despite the June drop, "prospects for the German economy remain favourable, not least thanks to the positive development of economic growth in the European Union in the first quarter of this year," ZEW president Achim Wambach said in a statement.

Many observers see 0.6 percent growth in both the 19-nation eurozone and Germany between January and March as a sign the single currency area is returning to durable good health.

Earlier in June, the Bundesbank, or central bank, upgraded its growth forecast for the full year 2017 to 1.9 percent, up 0.1 percentage points.

A separate ZEW index measuring finance professionals' outlook for the eurozone remained upbeat, adding 2.6 points to reach 37.7.

And the institute's barometers measuring the present economic situation in Germany and the euro area both climbed higher.

June's fall in the headline confidence index "is a slight disappointment, but it still points to a continued economic upturn," commented economist Jennifer McKeown of Capital Economics.

"The majority of investors still see 'economic conditions' improving in the next six months... the message is a broadly encouraging one," she added.

ZEW surveyed 210 investors and analysts between May 29 and June 12 to compile their index.

British inflation jumps to four-year peak

British inflation soared close to a four-year high in May, official data showed Tuesday, boosted by the rising cost of energy, food and recreational goods.Consumer Price Index inflation unexpectedly hit 2.9 percent last month, which was the highest lev…

British inflation soared close to a four-year high in May, official data showed Tuesday, boosted by the rising cost of energy, food and recreational goods.

Consumer Price Index inflation unexpectedly hit 2.9 percent last month, which was the highest level since June 2013 when it last stood at that level.

The reading compared with a rate of 2.7 percent in April 2017 and overshot market expectations for no change.

Inflation had held close to zero throughout 2015 -- but has surged since then as a weak Brexit-hit pound raises import costs.

"Rising prices for recreational and cultural goods and services -- particularly games, toys and hobbies -- was the main contributor to the increase in the rate," the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said in a statement on Tuesday.

"There were smaller upward contributions from increased electricity and food prices.

"These upward contributions were partially offset by falls in motor fuel prices, and air and sea fares, the latter two influenced by the timing of Easter in April this year."

British inflation remains stubbornly above the Bank of England's 2.0-percent target.

That could raise the pressure on the central bank's rate-setting monetary policy committee when it considers a rate hike later this week.

However, the outlook remains clouded by ongoing political uncertainty in the wake of Britain's election last week -- and by looming Brexit negotiations.

"Inflation continues to push higher, but political and economic uncertainty mean the Bank of England is likely to tread carefully," said ING economist James Knightley.

"We do not expect a BoE rate hike until there is much greater clarity on the outlook."

The outlook is heavily dependent on what sort of divorce terms Britain reaches with the European Union and whether it can secure a trade deal.

France will likely miss 2017 deficit target: PM

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Tuesday there is a very strong possibility that France will miss its deficit target for this year because of the previous government’s lax spending.France has been aiming to bring the deficit down to 2.8 p…

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Tuesday there is a very strong possibility that France will miss its deficit target for this year because of the previous government's lax spending.

France has been aiming to bring the deficit down to 2.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year, below the 3.0 percent threshold required by eurozone rules.

But Philippe told franceinfo radio there was "an extremely high risk" that the government would fail to do so.

"Before becoming prime minister, I had my doubts. Now that I am prime minister, I have even greater doubts," he said.

Philippe blamed budget-busting spending by the previous government under Francois Hollande in the run-up to this year's presidential election which swept Emmanuel Macron into the presidency.

He said it "can quite easily happen" in the months before an election that a government "lets a certain amount of tough decisions slide, and then it is up to others to manage this".

Philippe said France's government auditors, the Cour des Comptes, is to submit a report in July which will determine "whether we are on a path to 2.8 percent or whether we are higher".

In the event of an overshoot, Philippe said there "would be a whole series of measures" to get the deficit back on track, but he added that there were no plans for a formal corrective mini-budget later in the year.

The EU Commission already warned Paris last month over its deficit, saying it believed France's 2017 shortfall would come in at above 3.0 percent of GDP.

Lauded to loathed: Who’s afraid of George Soros?

The world has a new puppetmaster. From his New York home, US financier-cum-philanthropist George Soros has manufactured Europe’s migration crisis, backed a coup in Macedonia and sponsored protests in Hungary.At least that’s what his detractors say, and…

The world has a new puppetmaster.

From his New York home, US financier-cum-philanthropist George Soros has manufactured Europe's migration crisis, backed a coup in Macedonia and sponsored protests in Hungary.

At least that's what his detractors say, and there are many.

From the Kremlin via Skopje to the power corridors of Washington, the Hungarian-born Jewish emigre is the favourite bete noire of nationalists around the globe.

Listed by Forbes magazine as the world's 29th richest man, Soros and his Open Society Foundations (OSF) stand accused of political meddling by seeking to push a liberal, multicultural agenda.

Nations like Poland that once bestowed the 86-year-old with their highest civilian honours are now calling him an enemy of the state who wants to destroy their sovereignty.

The attacks have been particularly virulent in his birth country Hungary, which on Tuesday is set to pass a controversial anti-NGO bill seen as directly targeting the OSF.

"To go on what you read and hear these days, Soros seems to be responsible for every political upheaval," said German political analyst Ulf Brunnbauer.

"He makes an excellent scapegoat for increasingly authoritarian regimes as someone who's invested a lot of money into philanthropy and represents capitalism."

Another Hungarian law hastily approved in April threatens to shut down the Soros-founded Central European University (CEU) in Budapest.

Across Hungary, government-backed billboards have popped up showing the magnate as a puppeteer pulling the strings of an opposition politician, a motif associated with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

"His (religious) background is irrelevant to the central issue, which is that an increasing number of governments... see Soros's networks as a threat to democracy," Zoltan Kovacs, the spokesman of populist premier Viktor Orban, wrote in a recent blog post entitled "Myths and facts about Hungary and George Soros".

Orban -- a one-time recipient of a Soros scholarship -- has accused his former benefactor of using "predator" NGOs to flood Europe with Muslim refugees and create a "transnational empire".

- 'Gift to my enemies' -

Born in Budapest in 1930, Soros survived both the Nazi and Soviet occupation before eventually moving to the US where he made his fortune from hedge funds.

His dealings were not without controversy.

In 1992, the Wall Street trader became known as "the man who broke the bank of England" when his aggressive speculation against the sterling sent it crashing out of the European exchange mechanism.

He also has a 2002 conviction of insider trading in France, a verdict he described as a "gift to my enemies".

Marked by his experience of totalitarian regimes -- "I have seen the damage done when societies succumb to the fear of the 'other'," he wrote in the New York Times in March -- Soros created his foundation in 1984 to help countries move from communism toward democracy.

Since then, he has poured billions of euros (dollars) into ex-Soviet satellite states for programmes ranging from finance, health and justice reforms, to promoting the rights of minority groups and keeping tabs on government corruption.

He also backed pro-democracy groups in the colour revolutions in central and eastern Europe, and vowed to spend $1 billion in Ukraine to help save it from "Russian aggression".

Moscow's "concept of government is irreconcilable with that of open society," Soros said recently.

This kind of "interference" has earned him powerful enemies.

Earlier this month, Orban likened Soros's description of Hungary as a "mafia state" to a "declaration of war"

The Kremlin has accused Soros of fermenting violent uprisings and banned the OSF in 2015 as part of a massive NGO clampdown.

Europe's migration crisis, which erupted that same year, has also deepened the rift between the pro-refugee OSF and anti-immigration nationalists.

- Call for 'de-Sorosisation' -

Macedonia in January saw the emergence of a "Stop Operation Soros" movement, spurred on by the authoritarian ex-premier Nikolas Gruevksi calling for the country's "de-Sorosisation".

The head of Poland's governing right-wing party Jaroslaw Kaczynski said Soros wanted to create "societies without an identity", while Romania's ruling party leader alleged the tycoon had "financed evil" by sponsoring recent mass protests.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the far-right news website Breitbart -- whose co-founding member Steve Bannon is an aide to US President Donald Trump -- runs almost daily anti-Soros stories.

A petition signed by nearly 60,000 Americans called for the philanthropist -- who backed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in last year's presidential race -- to be arrested "for standing in the way of making America great again".

While hostility to Soros is not new, its intensity is unprecedented, said OSF's Eurasia director Leonard Benardo.

"The OSF as an institution and George Soros as a person condemning corruption have always faced pressures from governments that have an illiberal cast," he told AFP.

"What is different about now is the ferocity and tenacity of the response."

Incidentally the attacks come at a time when the OSF only spends a faction of what it used to.

"What we're witnessing is that democracy is not only about institutions, that you can have largely free and fair elections and yet still have great anxieties and problems when it comes to forms of open society."

burs-nla/ach

Sony fires at Xbox with arsenal of big PS4 games

Sony on Monday showed off rich, action-packed new PlayStation 4 video games, some for virtual reality, as it defended its crown as the top-selling new-generation console.The company focused on blockbuster games and intriguing new titles for PS4 at a pr…

Sony on Monday showed off rich, action-packed new PlayStation 4 video games, some for virtual reality, as it defended its crown as the top-selling new-generation console.

The company focused on blockbuster games and intriguing new titles for PS4 at a press event on the eve of the opening of the major Electronic Entertainment Expo here.

There was no mention of the Xbox One X console unveiled a day earlier by rival Microsoft in a heightened challenge to PS4.

"PlayStation is home to all the biggest and best game franchises in the world," Sony Interactive Entertainment worldwide studios chairman Shawn Layden said during a rapid-fire presentation of video trailers.

The line-up included the first "Uncharted" game to feature a heroine in place of the "Nathan Drake" hero, a "God of War" sequel with a mighty father-son theme, and a pulse-pounding title starring "Spiderman" of Marvel Comics fame.

The event also unveiled a version of the hit fantasy role-playing game "Skyrim" tailored for play on PlayStation virtual reality gear.

"It's all about gaming," Layden said.

"Every year, we continue to push the envelope of imagination, storytelling, and technology."

PlayStation has had success in keeping the focus on gamers and what they like. PS4 models include a "Pro" console for powering ultra-high definition 4K graphics, and the entire line of consoles syncs with PlayStation VR gear.

Sony has sold more than 60.4 million PS4 consoles since they hit the market in November of 2013, the company revealed on Monday.

- More virtual reality -

A PlayStation 'ecosystem' that includes online game communities, content and services had more than 70 million monthly active users as of the end of March, according to Sony.

"The PS4 platform is in its prime, with the industry's best lineup of exclusive and partner titles slated to release this year, taking full advantage of the power of the PS4 system," Sony Interactive Entertainment global chief executive Andrew House said.

PlayStation plans to expand services, software, and virtual reality offerings, he said.

Microsoft unveiled its Xbox One X on Sunday, billing it as the most powerful video console ever made, and escalating a battle with market king PlayStation.

The $499 product was built with the muscle for seamless play on ultra-high definition 4K televisions and will be available worldwide on November 7, according to Xbox team leader Phil Spencer.

Meanwhile, PS 4 Pro is priced at $399 and other models of the console can be bought for less.

Microsoft also showed off coming games, an array tailored for exclusive play on Xbox One consoles, but it remained to be seen if there is enough unique content to get lots of people to buy the higher-priced hardware.

Independent publishers tend to make blockbuster titles available for play on Xbox, PlayStation and personal computer hardware in an effort to sell creations to as broad an audience as possible.

Game play on 4K screens, whether on televisions or personal computer monitors, is expected to be among themes at E3 this week.

Sony PlayStation 4 has dominated the latest generation of consoles, outselling Xbox One two to one, according to industry trackers.

PlayStation has also become the prime driver of revenue and profit at the Japan-based entertainment giant Sony, executives say.

Nintendo's recently launched Switch has been a winner, with fans snapping up the console and a "Legend of Zelda" game that has become a must-play title for fans.

Demand for Switch consoles has been so intense since its launch early this year that the consoles are tough to find in stores and Nintendo has reportedly doubled production.

Switch launched at the start of March and some 2.74 million were sold by the end of that month, according to Nintendo.

Pound slips further as British election debacle fuels uncertainty

The pound wallowed around two-month lows Tuesday, unable to bounce back from last week’s shock election that saw Britain’s ruling Conservatives lose their majority, throwing the country into uncertainty, days before key Brexit talks.While Prime Ministe…

The pound wallowed around two-month lows Tuesday, unable to bounce back from last week's shock election that saw Britain's ruling Conservatives lose their majority, throwing the country into uncertainty, days before key Brexit talks.

While Prime Minister Theresa May looked to counter anger within her party by apologising and telling MPs "I got us into this mess, and I'm going to get us out", there are doubts about her future in Downing Street.

May had called the vote in a bid to strengthen her majority, and her bargaining power, before going into the EU exit talks set for June 19. Now she must rely on the support of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party.

Greg McKenna, chief market strategist at AxiTrader, said: "The political uncertainty is unhelpful given Brexit talks are about to begin in the next week."

He added that ?sterling came under renewed pressure as a result" of the newly formed government's refusal to soften its approach to the discussions. "Why the government wouldn?t use the election for a reset I just don?t know."

In early Asian trade the pound slipped to $1.2650.

The currency's "near-term direction will continue to be driven by the post-election fallout, but the prospects look increasingly gloomy as the possibility of another Tory leadership vacuum enters the picture at precisely the wrong time for the UK," said Stephen Innes, senior trader at OANDA.

- Fed, Sessions in view -

On equity markets, technology firms struggled to recover from the previous day's sell-off that was sparked by a rout in the sector on Wall Street Friday. Sony and Sharp were well down in Tokyo while Tencent was marginally up in Hong Kong after Monday's tumble. Samsung was also lower in Seoul.

The losses came after the Nasdaq suffered another slump, extending Friday's losses, as Apple and Amazon took a beating, with analysts wondering whether the selling is down to profit-taking or the start of a broad retreat after all US indices hit records last week.

Broader markets fared slightly better after Monday's steep losses. Tokyo ended the morning session at a loss while Shanghai was down 0.1 percent. Wellington and Manila also eased slightly.

But Hong Kong added 0.1 percent, Sydney gained 0.6 percent and Seoul gained 0.5 percent.

Traders are now awaiting the end of the Federal Reserve's latest policy meeting. While another interest rate hike is widely expected, the bank's post-meeting statement will be scanned for some forward guidance and clues about future movements.

Also, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is due to testify Tuesday to the Senate Intelligence Committee as it probes Russian meddling in last year's election and Moscow's links to under-fire President Donald Trump.

Attention has focused on Sessions as reports swirl that he may have had more meetings with Russian officials during the campaign last year than the two he has informed authorities of.

- Key figures around 0230 GMT -

Tokyo - Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.1 percent at 19,885.72 (break)

Hong Kong - Hang Seng: UP 0.1 percent at 25,764.00

Shanghai - Composite: DOWN 0.1 percent at 3,183.22

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.1193 from $1.1203 at 2040 GMT

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2650 from $1.2657

Dollar/yen: UP at 110.06 yen from 109.93 yen

Oil - West Texas Intermediate: UP 13 cents at $46.21 per barrel

Oil - Brent North Sea: UP 14 cents at $48.43

New York - Dow: DOWN 0.2 percent at 21,235.67 (close)

London - FTSE 100: DOWN 0.2 percent at 7,511.87 (close)

‘Assassin’s Creed’ heading for Egypt to reignite gamers

Ubisoft’s blockbuster “Assassin’s Creed” video game is heading for Egypt, taking the serial’s storyline back to an ancient world and overhauling play to reignite its top franchise.The French video game star took last year off after hitting the market w…

Ubisoft's blockbuster "Assassin's Creed" video game is heading for Egypt, taking the serial's storyline back to an ancient world and overhauling play to reignite its top franchise.

The French video game star took last year off after hitting the market with annual releases and boasting overall sales of more than 110 million copies of the game since it first launched in 2007.

A cooling in fan interest appeared to prompt a step back, and an investment by Ubisoft to revitalize it was unveiled at a press event Monday ahead of the opening of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles.

Work on "Assassin's Creed: Origins" began nearly four years ago, and included overhauling the combat system and building artificial intelligence into all of the non-player characters, according to game producer Julien Laferriere.

Every character has a "life" of its own, tending to work, worship, family, meals and other daily routines that players can take into account while on missions, an early glimpse at the game showed.

Players are also free to explore a virtual version of all of Egypt in 49 BC, during the rise of Cleopatra to the throne.

"It is a part of world history we have wanted to do for a long time," Laferriere said. "We wanted to be as authentic as we could."

Players get to climb pyramids, explore beneath the Sphinx, and learn the origins of the brotherhood of assassins, whose deadly fight with the order of Templars is at the core of the franchise that segues from one generation of master assassin to another.

"Fans will have a front row seat to the formation of the brotherhood," Laferriere promised.

Ubisoft hopes Origins will energize long-time fans and win new players at the start of the story in a game that has become fodder for books and films.

Versions of Origins tailored for play on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows-powered personal computers will be released on October 27.

- South Park and Mario -

"Assassin's Creed" was among a diverse line-up Ubisoft is showing off this week at E3.

Ubisoft offerings spanned genres, from action shooters such as "Far Cry 5," to sports, dance, piracy, a space monkey, and virtual reality.

A "Fractured But Whole" based on an irreverent South Park animated television series opens with well-known children characters obsessed with being super heroes sneaking into a strip club to solve the mystery of a missing cat.

Their weapons include flatulence and firecrackers.

"The South Park universe doesn't take itself too seriously, so you can be satirical," game director Jason Schroeder told AFP while providing a peek at the game, which also releases on October 17.

"You can take the notion of something like a strip club and turn it on its head."

Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto joined Ubisoft chief executive Yves Guillemot on stage at a press event to unveil an innovative alliance with Nintendo to unite its zany "Rabbids" with beloved "Mario" in a game.

"I have been excited to see what kind of humor the Rabbids could bring to the Mario world," Miyamoto said through an interpreter.

- Getting into heads -

The game maker continued its tradition of embracing hardware innovations, showing off games crafted for Nintendo's hot-selling and tough to find Switch consoles as well as the budding virtual reality gear market.

"We have been experimenting with virtual reality for several year," said Ubisoft partnerships vice president Chris Early.

"Though it is not taking off as fast as any of us would like, it is providing some great learning about what it means for having fun."

A "Transference" game being readied by Ubisoft's studio in Montreal for release next year used Oculus Rift head gear to put players into the mind of a psychological trauma victim.

The thriller game challenges them to relive memories and solve the puzzle of what happened, a demonstration showed.

"We all have secrets that we don't want anyone to discover," said executive director Caroline Martin of Ubisoft Montreal.

"So, what would happen when a stranger comes into the digital equivalent of another mind? It is a powerful and very personal experience."

Crown staff charged in China gambling crackdown

Up to 18 staff from Australian billionaire James Packer’s Crown Resorts have been charged with promoting gambling in China, eight months after being detained, the company said Tuesday.The marketing employees were seized in raids across China in October…

Up to 18 staff from Australian billionaire James Packer's Crown Resorts have been charged with promoting gambling in China, eight months after being detained, the company said Tuesday.

The marketing employees were seized in raids across China in October, including an executive in charge of luring rich Chinese to Australia, as Beijing cracks down on high-roller gambling promotions.

Crown at the time said 18 staff were being held, but did not mention the number in an update to the Australian stock exchange.

"All detained employees in China as well as those employees released on bail have now been charged with offences related to the promotion of gambling and their cases have been referred to the Baoshan District Court," it said.

"As the matter is now before the court, no further comments will be made," Crown added.

Three Australians were among those formally arrested in China, including Jason O'Connor, the executive vice-president of a Crown division called VIP International.

They are suspected of arranging junkets overseas for wealthy Chinese gamblers.

Gaming is illegal in China and companies are not allowed explicitly to advertise gambling.

Crown operates casinos across Australia and the world, although it has this year undertaken a restructure amid China's gambling crackdown which has driven away many big-spenders and hurt revenues.

Last month Crown sold a remaining stake in its Macau venture to joint-venture partner Melco International, after shelving plans late last year for a Las Vegas casino to concentrate on Australian luxury hotel and casino businesses.