North America and Canada
- Morgan Stanley announced last Thursday (Feb 20) that it would buy E-trade, the online discount brokerage, for about US$13 billion (S$18 billion). This is the largest takeover by a major American lender since the 2008 financial crisis and would give Morgan Stanley a large share of the market for online trading, and signals that it will continue its strategy of asset management rather than high-stakes trading.
- Last Wednesday (Feb 19), Donald Trump named Richard Grenell as acting director of national intelligence. Grenell, who has little experience in the intelligence service or in the bureaucracy, is also serving as Trump’s ambassador to Germany. As ambassador he criticised German domestic policy, antagonising Merkel’s government. Grenell’s appointment to a post traditionally served by neutral bureaucrats possibly signals that Trump intends to put the FBI under his control, after several years of conflict.
- At the Nevada presidential debates, senator Elizabeth Warren sharply criticised former mayor Michael Bloomberg over his past support for stop-and-frisk policing and allegations of his behaviour towards women. Warren compared Bloomberg to President Trump, a figure reviled by democrats, on the basis of their crude behaviour towards women.
- Inflation in Canada increased slightly to 2.4 per cent in January. Statistics Canada attributed the increase to higher gasoline prices, which rose 11 per cent over the past year, partly due to the reintroduction of a carbon tax in Alberta. The inflation rate is not expected to hold, due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus which has reduced oil prices by 12 per cent from January.
- Followers of Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomble say that they are facing prejudice and attacks as evangelical Christianity grows across the country. The situation has prompted the government to create a department to deal with religious hate crimes. Followers, however, remain critical that the government has been slow to respond and deal with such issues, encouraging further attacks.
- Last Wednesday (Feb 19), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated that Argentina’s debt had deteriorated decidedly since last July, and called for major debt restructuring in Argentina where private creditors could take a significant hit. Creditors are now bracing for negotiations with the Argentine government, and fear a default later in the year. The IMF blamed the introduction of exchange controls, and other capital controls for the deterioration, but has stated that it expects IMF loans to Argentina to be repaid in full.
- Mexico is investigating former President Enrique Peña Nieto for corruption, following a lead from Emilio Lozoya, former chief executive of Mexico’s state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos, as part of the larger Odebrecht scandal. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s current president, said that while he does not want to pursue former presidents in court, he suggested a referendum on whether former presidents should face trial.
- Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega extended the term of General Julio Cesar Avilés as head of the Nicaraguan army last Friday (Feb 20), a sign that he intends to continue holding on to power through the military. Following Ortega’s return to power in 2007, he has extended the term of police chief Aminta Granera once and general Avilés twice, amending the military code among other legislative changes to do so.
- The Cuban government is facing a lawsuit in London over unpaid government debt, filed by CRF I Ltd, an investor in defaulted Cuban sovereign debt since 2009. Havana had previously rebuffed a debt relief offer made by several bond holders, including CRF, in 2018. Cuba’s government will now have two weeks to respond. The communist-run island has seen its finances deteriorate in recent years following the deepening of Venezuela’s economic crisis, lower revenue from commodities and restrictions put in place by the US under Trump.
- A religious sect in Daegu, South Korea, has been identified as a coronavirus hotbed, accounting for 30 out of the 52 new cases in South Korea. Officials believe that the infections are linked to a 61-year-old woman who tested positive for the virus earlier last week. The sect, known as the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, has since shut down its Daegu branch, and said that services in other regions would be held online or individually at home.
- Muhadjir Effendy, Indonesia’s Coordinating Human Development and Culture Minister, proposed for the rich to marry the poor as a means to reduce the country’s poverty rate. Effendy suggested to Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi to issue a fatwa ordering the poor to look for the rich for marriage and vice versa. In addition, he proposed a pre-marital certification programme for couples who are not economically stable but wish to get married to sign up for an employment programme to enhance their skills. The Indonesian Ulema Council welcomed the proposal.
- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has reiterated his commitment to step down from the premiership in favour of Member of Parliament Anwar Ibrahim, but that he would only do so after November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Anwar Ibrahim has stated that the issue will be raised at a Pakatan Harapan presidential council meeting, but said he would not mind if Dr Mahathir remained as a cabinet minister with Anwar Ibrahim as the Prime Minister.
- The Thai government has revealed that it is in negotiations with the largest rebel group in Southern Thailand, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional. It marks the first time that the government has recognised a negotiating partner. The new policy comes from General Wanlop Rugasanaoh, Thailand’s new chief negotiator. The policy has drawn criticism from hard-liners in Bangkok, who argue that such recognition would draw foreign intervention. Malaysia, a key negotiating partner since 2013, has also criticised the Thai government for holding negotiations without Malaysian officials.
- Myanmar plans to let foreigners trade local stocks from March, in an attempt to bolster the Myanpix equity index. Expatriates residing in Myanmar will be the first to be allowed to trade, with permission for other foreigners coming in later. The government also plans to establish a second board with looser listing rules than the main market, where foreigners can trade.
- Following comments made by the Cambodian government, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, against women wearing and selling revealing clothing online, several women’s rights groups have criticised the government, arguing that the vendors were doing legal business, and that there is no evidence-based research that affirms women’s clothing choice as the root cause of social morality degradation. Ros Sopheap, head of the charity Gender and Development for Cambodia, has also said that the women have a right to make a living.
- Peaceful demonstrations intended to mark seven months since the attack on passengers and protesters at Yuen Long turned into a celebration as demonstrators celebrated the coronavirus infection of a riot police officer. David Li, a co-organiser, stated that the police were now paying the price for their brutality and that protesters finally had something to be happy about amid the virus outbreak. Lam Chi-wai, chairwoman of the Junior Police Officers’ Association, said the remarks were ‘undignified and inhumane’.
- Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a royal commission to look into the bushfires that the country has been suffering from. The inquiry’s focus is on practical action to improve Australia’s preparedness for natural disasters and further bushfires, rather than the government’s climate policy.
- Last Thursday (Feb 20), a 43-year-old man, Tobias Rathjen, opened fire at civilians at two shisha bars in Hanau, Germany. The government suspects the terrorist attack to be motivated by right-wing anti-immigration ideology. The attacks all occurred at sites popular with Turkish and Kurdish youths and killed at least 11 people. Rathjen was later found dead alongside his mother in their home.
- The United Kingdom government unveiled a new immigration policy for migrants last Tuesday (Feb 18). The policy outlines a new points-based system that will score migrants based on their salaries, skills, educational and language qualifications, and job availability in sectors facing a shortage. The system is meant to give the UK greater control over its borders, a key promise of the conservative government in Brexit.
- French President Emmanual Macron has promised to crack down on what he calls ‘Political Islam’, ahead of mayoral elections in France. Macron has said that he will curb the practice of foreign countries sending imams and teachers to France, to crack down on separatism. Instead, Macron wants to train imams locally in France.
- The Spanish government has approved a digital services tax, placing a 3 per cent tax on earnings from online ads, deals brokered on digital platforms and sales of user data by tech companies with at least €750 million (S$1.13 billion). The tax will not be implemented until December, to allow the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to reach an agreement on a separate global tech tax. The tax is intended to avoid unfair competition with traditional businesses.
- Amid tensions between Serbia and its neighbours Bosnia and Montenegro, Russian defence minister Aleksandar Vulin visited Serbia, declaring that Russian military cooperation with Serbia has reached a new level. Minority Serbs have been demonstrating in Montenegro for months against a law that they argue threatens the Serbian Orthodox Church. In Bosnia, a pro-Russian Serb leader is also threatening to split the country and merge a third of the country with Serbia.
- The Russian Communist Party has proposed a new law that would grant amnesty for prisoners jailed after mass opposition rallies in Moscow last year, as well as other minor offences.
- Iran’s conservative faction, known as the Principalists, are expected to gain a large majority in the country’s parliamentary elections, according to preliminary results. Following the first election since the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, Iran’s reformist faction, including President Hassan Rouhani, has been losing favour with the public. Initial results showed that 14 former cabinet members in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency had been elected, including his former central bank governor.
- Iran has reported eight deaths in the religious centre of Qom from Covid-19, the coronavirus that originated in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, China. The deaths are the first from the Middle East.
- The Palestinian Authority (PA)’s Energy Authority condemned an Israeli master plan for the development of an electricity grid in the West Bank, accusing it of being an Israeli plan to extend and establish Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. Israel will fund and provide the costliest parts of the project, but if the PA does not agree to the plan, the project will only provide electricity for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The PA was not consulted before the plan was proposed.
- Israel’s justice ministry released a report last Thursday (Feb 20), stating that police would investigate the failed cybersecurity firm Fifth Dimension, formerly headed by opposition leader Benny Gantz. Gantz has been presenting himself as an honest and clean alternative to Netanyahu, who has been indicted in three corruption cases. While the report does not mention Gantz in particular, this development comes less than two weeks before national elections and during a campaign by Gantz’s party that has tried to focus attention on Netanyahu’s indictment for corruption charges.
- In response to reports that Israel was contemplating the assassination of two Hamas leaders, Hamas has warned Israel that such actions would prompt a response in the form of rocket launches targeting Tel Aviv, the country’s financial capital.
- Credit Rating Agency Moody’s downgraded Lebanon’s government issuer ratings last Friday (Feb 21), amid the country’s worst economic and financial crisis since the end of its civil war. The Lebanese lira has lost 60 per cent of its value in the past few months, and an International Monetary Fund delegation has begun meetings with the government to provide advice on dealing with the crisis amid concerns that the country might default on its Eurobond debt payment.
- Qatar has accused Saudi Arabia of allowing a protracted dispute to hinder cooperation over the coronavirus outbreak. Qatar’s foreign ministry alleges that Saudi Arabia only granted an entry permit to Public Health Minister Hanan al-Kuwari after the meeting at the Gulf Cooperation Council General Secretariat had already begun.
- The African Development Bank has granted Morocco a loan of US$204 million (S$285 million) to finance an integrated support program for the improvement of social protection in Morocco. Mohamed Benchaaboun, Morocco’s minister of economy, finance, and administrative reform, has said that the aim is to achieve 80 per cent social security coverage in Morocco by 2023, through the construction of hospital centres in cities and upgrading of hospital units in rural areas.
- Kizito Mihigo, a critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, was found dead in a police station in Rwanda. Police have claimed it a suicide, though critics of the regime have cast doubts over this claim, and alleged that it was politically motivated. Mihigo had previously released songs challenging the government’s narrative of the Rwandan genocide, and criticising Kagame’s funding of a separate group in the aftermath of the genocide to seek revenge against ethnic Hutus in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
- South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that South Africa would go ahead with the plan to distribute more lands to the black majority in the country in an orderly fashion. This comes after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s warnings that such moves as part of centralised government planning would most likely fail. Ramaphosa has also expressed his support for constitutional changes to be proposed to allow the government to take land without compensation.
- Following the conclusion of a trade deal, Namibia has become the first African country to export red meat to the United States. The deal is expected to bring export income to Namibia, where farming and cattle raising contributes to nearly two-thirds of the population’s income.
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